Stats Trek: How to Be a Commander of Data

Written by Jessica Fry

In this article series, Jessica Fry explores the role of data in behavior consulting, starting with how to build the motivation to collect and analyze data in our clients and ourselves.

How do you assess client compliance? How do you detect when a client is raising criteria too fast or not fast enough?  How do you know if a drug treatment for anxiety is working?  How can you discover these things earlier with less frustration for animal, client, and consultant alike?  Data collection!

There are huge advantages to implementing even a rudimentary data collection strategy in your behavior consulting practice.  Beyond tracking behaviors, you can also use data collection methods as a tool to train your clients to be keen observers of their animals.  I find that one of the most powerful uses for data collection is when I am working with fearful animals, where the behavior change is incremental and the student is unable to gauge the progress in their dog due to the everyday challenges of living with an animal that needs to be highly managed.  A simple tally of behaviors that are decreasing or increasing in this animal may be the sign of success that a student needs to feel that training is having a positive impact.

Encouraging your clients to collect quantitative data can often feel like an uphill battle, and you will find that client compliance with any training plan (whether data is collected or not) directly depends on their motivation.

Many studies have been done on motivating students by the Motivation Research Institute at James Madison University, leading to a convenient model of motivation represented by the equation


where E is expectancy, V is value is and C is cost.  Our highest motivation is when expectancy is high, value is high, and cost is minimal.

Picture of a dog lying on the carpet with thought balloonsExpectancy

Expectancy is defined as the ability of your clients to do a task, and is sometimes referred to as extrinsic (originating from outside of self) motivation. To increase expectancy, it is easiest to use the skills that make us great consultants!  Divide data collection tasks into achievable pieces, set small but challenging goals, and set the client up for success.  Expectancy is increased when there are appropriate challenges, specific feedback, and excellent support!


Value is another term for intrinsic motivation, and can be demonstrated by the student’s interest in data collection and relevance the student sees in training.  Obviously, our students see value in fixing their problem, but we’ve all had clients who expect a quick fix for a complex behavior.  Building value for data collection can start small, by communicating the theory behind why it will help us.  Going through the data together with clients also builds the relationship between client and consultant and contributes to a feeling of camaraderie, thereby increasing value.


Cost is the area that we are all most familiar with.  We imagine (as do our clients) keeping copious notebooks of observations, spending half an hour every day recording data, and then having to scribe it into a computer program to make tables and graphs.  When piled on top of the costs to motivation that our clients are already experiencing with their training plan (such as only walking their dog in areas where there are no other dogs, or social costs like wearing a muzzle), adding data collection to the mix might seem like too much.  However, the act of data collection itself can increase the expectancy and value that our clients have for completing a training plan, therefore lowering data collection costs can be a critical tool for ensuring client success.

Lowering costs can be simple: preparing a worksheet with checkboxes for a client to tape outside a stall door or having them keep a tally of a certain behavior every day on the refrigerator.  For more continuous monitoring, a shared document on Google Docs with the cells already marked can encourage certain clients to keep a more detailed journal of behaviors.  Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a brilliant Excel tutorial series that illustrates both the use of Google Docs for data keeping and how a worksheet should look.

Other methods to lower costs involve minimizing the time, but maximizing the quality of the data collected.  For example, having a client use the timer on a smartphone to collect observations for five minutes at a time or to set reminders about training tasks, or asking them to fill out a reflection worksheet at the end of each day about how their animal was behaving during the morning, evening, and night.  Each of these methods will help you reduce the costs of data collection for your clients, increase compliance, and provide valuable data in the process.

M=E+V–C.  We can use this equation to better understand our motivation in all aspects of our lives.  As consultants, what is our motivation to use data collection as a tool?  For our clients, what is their motivation to collect the data we are asking for? Use this equation often to evaluate both yourself and your clients, and strive to maximize your E’s and V’s and minimize your C’s.  The level of client compliance, connection, and understanding that you will build by collecting and analyzing data together is well worth the start-up costs in time and effort.

Jessica L. Fry PhD, KPA-CTP, is an assistant professor of biology at Curry College in Milton, Mass.  She is the current president of the New England Dog Training Club, and is owned by Helix the Calico and Tesla the Pyr.