Pet Behavior Consults as Scientific Experiments

How Thinking of a Behavior Consultation as a Science Experiment Can Improve Success

Your first thought may be that you are trying to help people with their pets’ behavior problems, not trying to discover a new truth through experimentation.  And you are correct in terms of your primary goal being to help your client.  But the scientific process of hypothesis testing can help you achieve that goal. 

We work with both pet owners and pet professionals who aren’t sure why a pet is behaving in a certain way.  In the past week we’ve talked with folks whose cats weren’t using the litterbox (the owner felt the cats were mad at him) and spoke with a trainer working with a dog that refused to get out of the car (she felt the dog was challenging her authority).  We can all think of at least several other motivations for both these behaviors. How do we know which motivation is the real reason for the behavior?

The first step in choosing the right method to change behaviors is to find out the “why” or the motivation for them.  And this lends itself very well to hypothesis testing.  You begin with a complaint – “My dog chews my shoes when I’m at work.”  And you draw upon your experience and the literature on pet behavior problems, to arrive at a few likely possibilities – boredom, puppy chewing or separation anxiety, for example.  These are your possible causes (or alternative hypotheses in science-speak) from which you must choose. 

The next step is to gather data to support or refute each of these possibilities.  So you take a thorough behavioral history, you make some relevant observations and in some cases you may set up one or more ‘test” situations to gather additional data (you and the owner leave the house for a few minutes, while the dog has access to shoes, return and see what has transpired).

Armed with this information and your knowledge of the differences in behavior patterns among the various causes you choose one, sometimes more than one, as your likely cause or causes. Keep in mind that some behavior problems can have multiple causes. You throw out the causes that don’t fit with the data. 

From here you can recommend the plan that is most relevant based on the reason for the behavior.  Suggesting puppy proofing the house if the cause for chewing up the shoes is separation anxiety won’t be very effective. 

A great advantage to thinking about the problem solving process as hypothesis testing is that in science, hypotheses are always tentative explanations. They are only as firm as the data that support them. When new data are collected we may throw out the first hypothesis in favor of another one that better fits both the new as well as the old data.

Data collection is the third of eight steps in a scientific method approach to solving pet behavior problems.  But what kind of data do you collect and how do you do it? 

To learn about the other five steps, start using the scientific method to improve your results, discover how it can be used to increase client compliance, and MORE, you’ll want to purchase our two-session webinar course “How to Use the Scientific Method to Track and Improve Your Behavior and Training Results”.  The course is now available ON Demand at

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