Using Owner Return as a Reinforcer to Operantly Treat Separation-Related Problem Behavior in Dogs
Feuerbacher, Erica N.
Muir, Kristy L.
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Separation-related problem behavior in dogs is a challenging behavioral issue, often manifesting as destructive behavior or excessive vocalization when the dog is left alone. More knowledge is needed on effective treatments. In this study, we explored whether we could train dogs to engage in desirable behavior over increasing durations of owner absence by rewarding the dog with the owner returning. After collecting baseline data, dogs started treatment. When the dogs showed no problem behavior or a specific desirable behavior, the owner returned as a reward for the good behavior. We gradually increased the time the dog was left alone based on their observed performance in earlier trials. We demonstrated that dogs' ability to stay alone without problem behavior increased compared to baseline. Nevertheless, after four sessions, only one dog was able to stay alone for at least 5 min, demonstrating how challenging this behavioral issue is to treat and how much time might be involved in improving behavior. While our research helps fill the many gaps in this field, it also points to the need for more research to further increase treatment efficacy. Separation-related problem behavior (SRPB) is a severe behavioral issue in which dogs engage in a variety of undesirable behaviors when the owner is absent, such as destructive behavior and excessive vocalization. Given the severity and high prevalence of SRPB, finding effective treatments is crucial. To date, most treatments have relied on habituation to increase tolerance to owner absence. Additionally, research has typically not utilized direct observations of the dog's behavior and the treatment implemented with unknown treatment integrity. We evaluated an operant approach to SRPB using owner return as the reinforcer. After collecting baseline, we enrolled five dogs for treatment. Treatment involved differential reinforcement of either absence of problem behavior or occurrence of specific desirable behaviors. Behavioral criteria for delivering reinforcement changed based on the dog's performance assessed through direct observation. We coached owners to ensure treatment integrity on each trial. From baseline, mean time to SRPB was 27.1 s. During treatment, all dogs increased their ability to stay alone without SRPB compared to baseline, indicating that contingent owner return can be a useful treatment. However, despite four training sessions, only one dog was able to stay alone for over 5 min. Our data demonstrate the slow-going progression of this SPRB treatment and the challenges of this behavioral issue.