Human Centered Design as a Framework for Successful Canine Treatment Plan Implementation

Written by Luisa Ruge

As the applied animal behavior profession continues to grow and innovate, how can human-centered design methodologies be applied to increase the implementation of successful canine treatment plans? In the following article, I will show how the tenets of design thinking can be used as a way for behavior consultants to successfully interact with their clients by allowing them to integrate their varying environments, circumstances, and personal needs into the design of actionable treatment plans.

Product design and development is a multidisciplinary endeavor that covers all aspects of product and service development, from the design of airplanes to the design of your hospital experience. In this field, there is an established process:

1.  Discovery phase: understanding the problem by gathering any and all information that could be of value—the “who, what, when, how and why.”

2.  Definition phase: formulation of the problem space, identifying what actually needs to be solved depending on stakeholder needs, capabilities, and context.

3.  Design phase: opportunity space development, based on the problem space components. Iterative concept generation, refinement and testing, moving toward the finished design of a product or service that can be readily manufactured or implemented.

4.  Delivery phase: the product or service is prepared for and introduced into the market.

Depending on the particular issue, user(s), and context, the protocol might expand, shrink, or allow for deep dives during certain phases. During the process, designers use a set of methodologies that are captured by the terms design thinking or human centered design.  The term “design thinking” first appeared within design literature in Peter Rowe´s 1987 book Design Thinking. Lindberg et al state that it is used to “describe a designer’s cognitive strategies of problem solving.” According to Tim Brown, CEO of the design and consulting firm IDEO:

“[Design thinking] uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Behavior consultants as designers

Behavior consultants are already using elements of the design process when they work with clients, they are just not necessarily aware of doing so. Steve Zawistowski of the Animal Behavior Society describes the process of behavior consulting as beginning with a case history and description of the problem behavior in context. This is the discovery phase. Next is the definition phase, where, as Zawistowski explains, “the applied animal behaviorist can develop a theory of why or how the behavior developed, the manner in which it is maintained.” Then the consultant moves to the design phase where they “design an intervention that can reduce or eliminate the problem.” And finally, a delivery phase that requires “the ability to translate that knowledge into practical methods that reduce the conflicts that people may have with animals, or to enhance the enjoyment people can have living near or with animals.”

The similarities between the phases of product design and the process animal behavior consultants go through with their clients suggest that behavior consultants might benefit from more insights from design thinking, which is a tool that thrives in situations that require the ability to rapidly co-generate innovative solutions, strategies, and opportunities, taking into consideration the needs and desires of the user.

This article will concentrate on comparing the way behavior consultants implement their treatment plans, and how design thinking methodologies can be used in the design phase of product and service design and development.

The conditions for successful behavior consulting

When understanding the success factors involved with treatment plans in applied animal behavior, we must take into account the fact that, as Zawistowski puts it, “the applied animal behaviorist works outside the protective walls, and controlled conditions of the laboratory, [so] their interventions need to have an impact that cuts through the noise of the many extraneous events and stimuli that the real world presents.”

In addition, we must understand that because the implementation falls on the owner’s shoulders, we are not dealing with a direct line of constant communication with the dog, as would a human behaviorist with their client. These two main reasons — who owns the dog and the context of where the dog lives — are what in the end will determine the success of the treatment.

The most essential aspect of starting a treatment plan is enabling the relationship between the dog and their owner. The importance of this bond is paramount, because “dogs are social beings, dependent on relationships for emotional sustenance. Expecting a dog to perform…outside a loving relationship would be akin to a marriage unbound by love, friendship or commitment — there would be no point to it” (Bergin, 2012, p.69).

It is then necessary to take into account that “clients are often overwhelmed by what we ask them to do, particularly when those things require large commitments of time or effort or a call for change.” Finding the way to create the most beneficial result for the dog will require gradually changing learned behaviors and habits in the owners, so they can successfully pass them on to their companion.

Making this a positive experience for all involved will significantly raise the chances of successfully treating the dog. This requires: (1) an open understanding of the stakeholders, (2) being empathetic and looking at the situation from various angles, (3) allowing for sound opportunities to be identified, (4) focusing on the solutions and not the issue, (5) giving clients the tools they can use throughout the treatment, and (6) scaffolding the plan with attainable goals and progress milestones. By integrating these best practices, the clients are turned into active participants with higher levels of engagement and satisfaction. In turn, this will organically enable an optimistic and nurturing environment for problem solving.

The conditions for successful product design

During the design phase, a phase characterized by the ongoing ideation of possible solutions, design thinking becomes a dynamic tool that creates a dialogue between the designer and the problem to be solved. To enable this process, there is a need to use certain guidelines that promote an environment where ideas can be quickly tested, mistakes can be instantly corrected, and solutions can be adequately implemented. The most important ones are, in Linderg et al’s words:

“Restriction-free thinking: At first one should avoid (or ignore) personal judgments and only gradually develop shared judgments with other members of the design team. Explorative generation of ideas: Through a playful combination of personal experiences and project-related knowledge, ideas should be generated and refined until they adapt to the section of the world for which they are intended…Conscious selection of solution paths: Teams should use systematic and intuitive techniques to decide which issue will be pursued next…”

In a nutshell, design thinking aims to “transform existing conditions into preferred ones,” an objective shared by applied animal behaviorists. Product designers need to be free of restrictive thinking and be willing to have an open, innovative, even playful approach to their design problem. Behavior consultants should have this mindset when they design an intervention too, because focusing on making the intervention fun and promoting the relationship between the dog and the client will increase the likelihood the intervention will be successful.

The similarities among the disciplines are incredible, from the ability to understand the situation to refraining from judgment and allowing the information to surface organically, to being able to quickly adapt and change while not losing site of the big picture. The difference appears in that the designer usually works within human-object/service-human systems, while applied animal behaviorists focus on human-canine-human systems.

The systemic difference does not create a breaking point, but rather creates a design challenge in itself. In recent years, and due to the evolution of design as a profession, Sanders and Stappers infer that;

“We are moving from the design of categories of ‘products’ to designing for people’s purposes. The traditional design disciplines…are centered around the product or a technology…The emerging design practices…centre around people’s needs or societal needs, and require a different approach in that they need to take longer views and address larger scopes of inquiry.”

This means that during the design phase, the dialogue that used to happen between the designer and the problem has now expanded to include the user. This area is described as participatory design, where design thinking is morphed into the notions of co-design, defined by Sanders and Stappers as “collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process.” Co-design allows for the integration of the systems used by both designers and applied animal behaviorists into a multi-species approach leading to the co-creation of frameworks for the successful implementation of canine treatment plans.

Dogs and clients as co-creators

So how to go about creating these frameworks? We have to start with diving deeper into co-design thinking methodologies that are applicable in the context of behavior consulting. By defining the design problem as the successful implementation of the treatment plan, we can then step into the design phase to actually figure out how to do it.

First, we will take into account the stakeholders, which in essence become the design team composed of: the behavior consultant, the owner (and their family—including other pets if applicable), and the dog. The behavior consultant must then step into the role of a design thinker, displaying a high degree of empathy, highly observant, creative, resourceful, optimistic and experimental, which as we have seen, happens organically because they are already using many of the same principles.

The behavior consultant then becomes the conductor of the session, having as their goal the responsibility to enable the owner, through their relationship with their dog, to solve the behavior problem. It requires acting as the subject matter expert in terms of canine behavior, while integrating co-creation techniques into the actual design of the treatment plan by treating the owner-dog team as an active participant in the formulation and articulation of exercises. The dog-owner team brings the expertise of their relationship; they both know each other intimately and can use their experiences as a basis for knowing what will work and what won´t.

Co-creation tools are based on acting on and co-developing creative solutions to problems. In the world of products and services, Sanders points out that “it has become increasingly evident that everyday people are no longer satisfied with simply being ‘consumers.’ They want to be ‘creators’ as well”. Sanders goes on to identify four levels of creativity used in our daily lives, as shown in the following figure:

A behavior consultant’s clients will show various levels of creativity. Some may be avid dog owners who participate in their dogs’ lives on a daily basis, allowing the owners to be makers and creators, while others will just want the problem to be dealt with, putting them in the doing and adapting domains. However, once the team is in the doing domain, they can easily be scaffolded into the adapting domain, and if the case permits and the behavior consultant can teach them in a way that holds their interest, they can advance into the creating domain. When people co-create they both share the delight of problem solving.

Tools and techniques

The range of tools and techniques available is a study subject in itself. For the purposes of showcasing what some of the most relevant methods are when dealing with canine treatment plan design, design co-creation methods will be described, their goals identified and their possible application within the treatment plan design exemplified.

The methods are divided into three categories: (1) Making tangible things: exercises that have tangible outputs to illustrate individual understanding, (2) Talking, telling and explaining: exercises that use verbal techniques to create common understandings, and (3) Acting, enacting and playing: exercises that use movement to evaluate and test understanding.

However, moving forward, as new domains in collective creativity emerge they will require the creation of new tools and methods that adapt to the needs of the field of animal behavior consulting. Frameworks to map out how canine behavior expresses itself in relationship to human behavior and behavior modification exercises should be tested to understand where the intersections of design thinking and animal behavior consulting methodologies produce the highest benefit for the dog. Including design thinking and co-creation study as part of the applied animal behaviorist curriculum, or establishing active collaborations between people working in animal behavior and designers, could create opportunity spaces that benefit all the stakeholders involved.The tools showcased can be applied to a variety of instances and cases; some might make more sense for certain client types in the effort to discover and tailor the treatment plan to their learning styles, where others may be more appropriate for different behavior issues or different dogs. Regardless, it is the premise of this paper that deeper involvement of the owner-dog team in the design of the treatment plan will ensure a higher level of engagement, understanding, and success.

In the end, the responsibility is shared between all of us. Dogs are a fully domesticated species that relies on humans in its entirety, and it is our duty to find the best ways to ensure, develop, and promote the highest degree of compatibility between them and us. By understanding and proving if the application of design thinking does increase success rates in canine treatment plan implementation the treatment plan paradigm could evolve as it currently exists; from a writing and formatting exercise to a co-creating one. Dog ownership, according to the Humane Society of the United States, is now approximately 78.2 million, and there is an evolving social tendency to include them as active members of our families and society.  This means that the chance to explore how human-centered processes can be adapted to the canine world is an untapped area that could lead to groundbreaking results.

Luisa Ruge is a human-centered designer in the process of developing a methodology called Animal Centered Design or ACD. If you would like further information about the methodology or Luisa, please contact her at