Facilitating Client Compliance Using the Strategy of Comparisons of Dog to Child Behavior

Written by Joan M. Engel PhD, CDBC

Enlisting compliance and follow-up contact from veterinary behavior clients for behavior modification, with or without medical treatment, has often been tricky. Researchers (Lindsay, Posage, and Engel, 2002; Posage et. al, 2002) found that good compliance was likely when pets were taking behavioral medications, which necessitated that owners call in for refills.

But there are numerous cases where medication is not indicated. There is interference with compliance and follow-up contacts coming from many directions: not understanding the behavior modification plan, emotional responses to a dog’s problem behaviors, resistance and anger toward the “expert” advice, even though their help was requested, the constraints of real-life—time, money, energy, and additional responsibilities. The list is extensive.

A behavior consultant needs to get past all of that in order to enlist the pet owners’ cooperation, compliance, and follow-up as well as provide encouragement and support for owners’ perseverance, patience, consistency, and accuracy in the application of behavior modification techniques. How might a behavior consultant bond with and, at the same time, teach pet owners what they need to know in order to help them with their pet? No small order.

A strategy I am sure many behavior consultants use is to compare dog behavior modification techniques to child-rearing techniques. Behavior consultants apply the very same principles to dogs that parents do with their children. This overlap can help pet owners relate our advice to their own experiences.

I’ve been working on my interview technique. Since I was an academic, I’ve struggled to avoid sounding too scientific, professorial, objective, or oversimplified. Yet, if I oversimplify, I risk being scientifically incorrect or incomplete. I need to also be approachable, caring, ethical, and not boring! I’ve found Dr. Glenn I. Latham’s (1994) applications of behavior analyses to child rearing worth modeling with clients: positive, uplifting, light, non-judgmental, open, and approachable for questions, objections, and expression of emotions.  Latham fashioned very teachable statements of principles for child rearing I can bring to dog behavior clients. Perhaps child-rearing examples are familiar and might help clients dealing with frustration and anxiety to open up? Here are a few examples of Latham’s learning principles and their relevance to dog behavior.

Latham’s First Principle: A child’s behavior is strengthened or weakened by its consequences

Behavior consultants know consequences can be arranged to strengthen desirable behaviors. Attention is reinforcing for both dogs and children. Latham writes, “Profits are to business what attention is to behavior.”

Parents are often faced with deciding what to do about annoying, seemingly nonsensical “junk” behaviors in their children. Latham calls these “weed” behaviors and points out that the majority of them can be ignored as long as parents focus on more important behaviors and provide plenty of positive reinforcements for those. Behavior consultants know plenty of canine “weed” behaviors, and can instruct clients on which weed behaviors to ignore, enabling them to fade out and to shift focus to sorting out those behaviors that do need to be modified.

If the weed behaviors are inadvertently reinforced, the child (or the dog) can end up with an undesirable habit.  Explaining inadvertent reinforcement, I’ve found it may cause clients to feel guilt, shame, regret, conflict, and stress. It’s one situation that requires a non-judgmental, positive approach, like the profit-to-business analogy. Latham says to parents: Mistakes you may have made are not a cause for guilt or judgement.  If you invest your attention without knowing what exactly it is reinforcing, desired results may not occur. You didn’t know the principle before, so there is no fault. Now change to give good consequences to desirable behaviors. This is something we should make clear when we guide clients through identifying why their dogs behave the way they do.

Emotional aspects of the role of antecedents

Latham writes that we are so schooled in thinking there is some internal cause for a child’s behavior, we forget to look to the environment. This is something I have found that clients do with their dogs, preferring to take something of a psychoanalytic approach to the issues.

I’ve encountered clients who were so sure there was something wrong with their dog, they seemed stuck in seeing the cause in only one way—blaming the dog. Clients could be interpreting their animal’s misbehavior (or their child’s) as rejection, revenge, opposition, manipulation, and fear of losing perceived control (dog’s dominance).  While a behavior consultant sees simply responses to stimuli, reinforcement, and punishment, and is thinking about how to increase the likelihood of one response over another. I use my tone and wording to reflect Latham’s and behavior consultants’ philosophy: Behavior is simply behavior, and a dog will repeat behavior that is reinforced.  

Latham writes, “Unfortunately, we tend to focus attention on what is wrong, not what is right.” If pet owners assume that a dog is acting from revenge or desire to dominate or be oppositional, the solution then seems to lie in finding ways to dominate the dog. As behavior consultants, we need to be sensitive and non-judgmental with our clients, whilst doing our best to dissuade them from using coercive methods that are rooted in misunderstanding of their dog’s motivations.  I explain that showing dominance to a dog will often frighten, punish, and shut down new learning.

Latham’s Second Principle: Children’s behavior ultimately responds better to positive consequences

When the parent uses punitive responses to control their child, such as yelling, scolding, or spanking, the unwanted behavior will generally stop immediately. The parent is rewarded, Latham states, but the unwanted behavior often only stops temporarily and is likely to reoccur. I express empathy for parents needing to control unruly children and dogs. The parents will respond in the same way again because the behavior stopped before. This is a lawful response: The parents are behaving in accord with the reinforcement they received.  I repeat: Behavior is simply behavior, no judgment needed.

Behavior consultants can come up against the same issue, where the reinforcement is happening for the client, but the dog’s undesirable behavior isn’t changing. We can explain this as a universal principle of behavior, without judgment of the client, and explain that the right behavior was not taught to the child or dog, but the right behavior can occur if it is taught and then rewarded. It is useful to wait for the right behavior or an approximation of it and then reinforce that. Latham writes the goal is “to attach a positive consequence to a positive behavior.”

Latham describes how parents can “manage consequences of a child’s behavior in ways that increase desirable behavior and decrease undesirable behavior,” and that those “consequences must be positive, constructive and growth-supportive.”  For pets, I would say to pet owners, consequences must be desirable, teach right behaviors, promote the human-animal bond, promote fear-free compliance and confidence, and teach safe behaviors (example, not chasing cars) in order to protect a dog. In the people, we should promote enjoyment of a well-socialized, obedient pet and confidence in their ability to control the pet and keep them safe, and to promote the development of a pet who is able to live harmoniously in a human household. Could this positive parenting approach change people’s perspective to make their dog less of a stranger? Could the behavior consultant’s mindset be transplanted to pet owners and thereby promote compliance and encourage follow-up contact?

Behavior consultants know a dog needs the same patience, understanding, kindness, and good teaching techniques as the children their clients are familiar with. The pet behavior consultant shows clients what works well to teach dogs, but can frame this in terms of what works with children, using Latham’s words as a resource. Pet owners can be encouraged to think of themselves as teachers as opposed to opponents in a battle for control. Accomplishing behavioral change for a dog is not done in a battle of wills with coercive methods, but rather by showing the dog, in a way that the dog understands, through reinforcement, what behavior is desirable—just like teaching a child will only be successful if we use language they understand and consequences that make sense for the child.

Attention and reinforcement

Punitive attention is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of behaviors we want to eliminate.  Latham writes, “Unfortunately, we tend to focus attention on what is wrong, not what is right.” In trying to stop unwanted behaviors, some parents give constant negative attention to their children. But constant negative attention can have the opposite effect: Attention from parents, either positive or negative, is likely to increase the frequency of the very negative behaviors that parents are trying to stop. This is because parental attention strengthens behavior. An owner’s attention strengthens a dog’s behavior, too—we can give examples of children “acting out” for attention and use them to explain to clients how they may be contributing to their dog’s undesirable behavior. Then we can explain that pet owners, like parents, should “give positive attention to the things our children [and our dogs] do appropriately.” Pet owners may need help in identifying what behaviors they are inadvertently reinforcing, how they are reinforcing those behaviors, what desirable behaviors need reinforcement, and how and when to reinforce them.  A pet owner may not be aware of the reinforcing and instructional power of a loving, kind word or a gentle pat while the dog is relaxing and not engaging in annoying “weed” behaviors.

Latham’s Third Principle: Whether a behavior has been punished or reinforced is known only by the course of that behavior in the future

Behavior consultants know that if a behavior is given a painful or unpleasant consequence and then reoccurs, time after time, the behavior is not really being punished at all, but rather it is being reinforced. Latham writes, “The behavior has been strengthened and therefore more likely to reappear. If it had been weakened or punished, it would get weaker or stop. The way to find out what happened with the behavior is to observe what happens to the behavior subsequently.”

He goes on to say, “Behavior can be predicted only in terms of probabilities. A ‘treatment’ may not have the effect we want immediately.” Latham continues to describe the honeymoon, extinction burst, return to baseline, etc., with examples from child-rearing that our clients may identify with, and can be used to explain how this also applies to dogs. The point is to encourage the pet owners to be consistent, accurate in their implementation of the behavior program, committed, and comfortable with contacting the behavior consultant with questions or for adjustments.

Knowledge of principles of human behavior doesn’t guarantee that behavior problems will all be resolved or that we won’t feel upset, or concerned about undesirable behavior, Latham writes. It’s not possible for us to produce perfect dogs, or perfect children. This statement is bound to comfort both parents and pet owners.

I’ve had some pet owners say they think we are doing scientific experiments on their beloved pet! I tell them we are not experimenting; I repeat what Latham said: we are “not studying science or doing science; we are using what we know from science to improve our lives.” Science has given options for creating a comfortable environment in homes and families.  We can create and predict positive events and outcomes.

I found Latham’s philosophy very uplifting. The goal is not to manage undesirable behavior, that is, to just get the child (or in our case, the dog) out of your hair! I suggest a wider goal would be to make the environment pleasant for both you and your pet—to make it possible to experience the joy of having a dog in your life, living in your home, being close to you and experiencing the warmth of affection you can receive and give to your dog. Behavior consultants have to communicate that if a client is willing to take a gradual, methodological, systematic approach to organizing their environment in such a way as to provide their dog with teaching and reinforcement for behaving well, they may experience this joy. Latham gave me a framework to communicate the principles of applied behavior analysis to clients in a way that avoids blame and allows them to engage with new ideas through experiences they’ve already had.


Latham, G.I. (1994) The Power of Positive Parenting: A wonderful way to raise children. P&T Ink, North Logan, UT. Rev. ed.

Lindsay, M., Posage, M., Engel, J., (2002) Predicting client follow-up after initial pet behavior consultation. Interdisciplinary Forum for Applied Animal Behavior, Sixth annual meeting, Tampa, FL. March 1-3.

Posage, M., Lindsay, M., Marder, A., Engel, J. (2002) Predicting client follow-up after initial pet behavior consultation. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Annual Scientific Meeting, Nashville, TN. July 14.


Joan Engel was a secondary author of published research on shelter dogs and cats at the ASPCA and the ARL-Boston for eight years, where she was privileged to learn dog behavior consulting. She was a dog behavior consultant certified by IAABC for 11 years until she retired.  Joan received a doctorate in life span developmental psychology from Fordham University, and a master’s from the New School for Social Research.  After receiving her degrees, she studied psychotherapy at the Alfred Adler Institute, taught college-level introductory and developmental psychology and was a biostatistician.  Joan has incorporated the positive, non-judgmental approaches of Adler, Latham, and behavior analysis as core values for her own life, personal growth, relationships, and in her work as an educator and dog behavior consultant.