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Functional Analysis

By working the Canine Path of Motivation and the following steps of stress analysis, you can create a behavior change program that will work.

Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is a variation on procedures originally developed to ascertain the purpose or reason for behaviors displayed by individuals with severe cognitive or communication disabilities (e.g., individuals with mental retardation or autism). Because these individuals were unable to fully explain why they were displaying certain inappropriate behaviors, methods were developed to determine why they demonstrated such actions. These investigatory procedures, derived primarily from the orientation and methods of applied behavior analysis were known as "functional behavioral analysis". By gathering data and conducting experiments that evaluated the effects of environmental variables on the behavior, concerned staff members could usually decipher the meaning of the behaviors (i.e., which emotion or message was being communicated through the actions), determine why they were occurring, and develop behavior change programs to help the disabled individual display more appropriate behavior in meeting his or her needs.

Because our dogs also have a communication barrier with us humans, this Functional Behavioral Assessment works just as well on them as it does on developmentally disabled human children.

The Basis for Functional Behavior Assessment

Many dogs display behaviors that are deemed by their owners to be "inappropriate". These actions could include, among many others, refusals to listen to the human on “known” behaviors; aggressive or fearful responses due to an inability to communicate with words; or irritating actions displayed in an attempt to gain reinforcement in the form of attention. These actions that irritate humans can also include actions that are quite normal for dogs – digging, chewing, barking, etc.

Anytime that owners or trainers have concerns about the behavior of a dog, it is recommended to undertake the functional behavior assessment process in order to determine why the dog is showing such actions. By determining the purpose of the behaviors, the trainer can then devise interventions to help the dog display more acceptable behaviors that will meet his/her needs or desires (the "why" of the behavior). All behavior has a “why” and some reinforcement that keeps the why and the behavior in place.

By definition a Functional Behavior Assessment is the process of gathering and analyzing information about a dog’s behavior and accompanying circumstances in order to determine the purpose or intent of the actions. This investigation is designed to help:

• determine the appropriateness of the dog’s present home circumstances and environmental factors, and whether changes in the home or the environment (which would include all humans and other pets) would help the dog to display more acceptable behavior

• identify positive interventions that would reduce the undesirable behavior

• identify appropriate behaviors to be substituted in the place of the inappropriate ones. 

A Functional Behavior Assessment is based upon the following assumptions:

• challenging behaviors do not occur in a vacuum; there is a reason for their occurrence

• behaviors occur in response to an identifiable stimuli (event)

• behaviors are governed (weakened or strengthened) by the consequences that follow them

• behavior is a form of communication 

• "misbehavior" might actually be adaptive (justifiable and understandable) given the circumstances. For example, a dog might be reactive on leash but fine in a dog park.

It is believed that all behaviors serve a function and have a purpose. If benefits didn’t result from showing certain behavior, then dogs would stop doing them. Usually, our dog’s behaviors are meant to do one of two things:

• obtain something desirable (e.g., access to a resource, finding or defending a safe spot), or

• avoid or escape something unpleasant or punishing (e.g., intimidation, abandonment, pain, fear)

The technology for determining the purpose of behaviors has been around and has research support*, but an FBA can be complicated and time consuming in nature. 

An FBA must be conducted if behavioral concerns are present.


Down at the basic level of an animal’s functionality are the biggest clues to how much stress a dog is coping with in any situation. The degree to which the base level functions are disrupted indicate also whether that stress is acute (situation specific or sudden onset) or chronic (generalized over time). Read through the Canine Hierarchy of Needs to see where functional can become dysfunctional.

The basic functions to be considered are:





Social Interactions


Learning and Thinking

So when working with dogs, I always want to know how functional is this animal?

• Where is function impaired, and to what degree?

• Is function in any area impaired sufficiently to warrant medical intervention?

• What negatively affects the animal’s ability to function?

• What positively affects the animal’s ability to function?

Steps To Doing a Functional Analysis Based on Functional vs Disfunctional Behavior

Step #1: Complete Demographic Information:

Record the dogs name, the owner/handlers name, who was interviewed, and the date the interview was completed. Record as well the name of the person who administered the interview.

Step #2: Complete Dog Profile

Ask the person you are interviewing to identify strengths or special attributes the dog brings to the current social situation (single dog family, no kids, etc). This can include activities the dog is especially good at or enjoys. This step is important to (a) help focus on strengths as well as challenges and (b) identify activities that may potentially be used as part of the intervention.

Step #3: Identify Problem Behaviors

Obtain a global idea of what the problem behavior is. If there are multiple problem behaviors, of concern, circle the ones of greatest concern.

Step #4: Routines Analysis

List the times that define the dog's daily schedule. Include times of social interaction, play with others, play with self, relaxation, grooming and eating.

Use the 1 to 6 scale to indicate (in general) which times/activities are most and least likely to be associated with problem behaviors. A "1" indicates low likelihood of problems, and a "6" indicates high likelihood of problem behaviors.

Indicate which problem behavior is most likely in any time/activity that is given a rating of 4, 5 or 6.

Step #5: Select Routines for Further Assessment

Examine each time/activity listed as 4, 5 or 6 in the Table from Step #4. If activities are similar (e.g. activities that are unstructured, activities that involve high energy demands, activities that may engender reprimands, activities with peers or humans) and have similar problem behaviors treat them as "routines for future analysis".

Select between 1 and 3 routines for further analysis. Write the name of the routine, and the most common problem behavior(s). Within each routine identify the problem behavior(s) that are most likely or most problematic.

Step #6: Identify the Target Routine

List the targeted routines for the selected problem behavior

Step #7: Provide Specifics about the Problem Behavior(s)

Provide more detail about the features of the problem behavior(s). Focus specifically on the unique and distinguishing features, and the way the behavior(s) is disruptive or dangerous.

Step #8: Identify Events that Predict Occurrence of the Problem Behavior(s)

Within each routine, identify the events that reliably predict the problem behavior. Begin by asking at least the three guiding questions listed in the interview. The first question to be asked is, "in this routine (e.g., when asked to work on math in a group), what happens most often just before the problem behavior?" Ask the two follow-up questions for the event or events identified in this first question. For example, if the teacher says that disruptive behavior usually begins when one of the group members tells the target student he is doing something wrong, ask, "If a student said this to the target student 10 times, how often would disruption result?" Also ask, "Does disruption ever happen during group work when no-one corrects him?" The goal of your questions is to increase your confidence that you have isolated the specific antecedent. If, for example the teacher tells you that disruption does happen fairly often when other students do not correct him, this tells you that the specific antecedent is not being told he is doing something wrong—you need to search further.

Once you have identified the specific antecedent, place a check mark in the relevant box and then move to the table below. Ask the indicated follow-up questions to isolate precisely what the triggering event consists of. For example, what do the other students say, is it one specific student?

Step #9: Are Setting Events Relevant?

Setting events are things that happen before a problem behavior that make it more likely that an antecedent will trigger the behavior. Sometimes they work by making a consequence more or less valuable. For example, getting in a fight in the morning may make it more likely that a student is defiant when asked to engage in academic work because being in the fight made task avoidance more rewarding. To find out if there is a setting event involved, ask at least two questions. First, does the trigger identified above only lead to the behavior sometimes and if so, can you identify an event that occurs earlier in the day that seems to make it so that that trigger"works" to make the behavior happen? Second, if the answer to that question is yes, is this event present sometimes and absent others? If the event is always present or always absent, then it is not a setting event. It has to occur only sometimes AND, when it does occur, lead to the antecedent triggering problem behavior.

Step #10: Identify the Consequences that May Maintain the Problem Behavior

What consequences appear to reward the problem behavior? Consider that the student may get/obtain something they want, or that they may escape/avoid something they find unpleasant.

Begin by asking, when the trigger occurs and the problem behavior happens, what occurs next? Ask specific questions such as, "what do you do?" "what do other students do?""does anything start or start happening?"

Once you have identified some possible consequences ask follow-up questions to increase your confidence. You can think of this as setting up "test conditions." For example, you could describe a scenario in which the consequence couldn't occur and ask if the behavior would still happen. For example, if the teacher says that disruptive behavior is followed by her attention, ask if the problem behavior would still happen if she was not available. If it would, then it is unlikely that her attention is the important consequence.

Once you have identified the relevant consequence, check the appropriate box. If there seems to be more than one relevant consequence, put the number "1" next to the consequence that you believe is most valued by the student and a "2" next to the one that is the next most important. Then, move to the "specific features of the consequence" box.

Use questions in this box to guide you in identifying precisely what features of the consequence are related to problem behavior.

Step #11: Build a Summary Statement

The summary statement indicates the setting events, immediate triggers, problem behaviors, and maintaining consequences. The summary statement is the foundation for building an effective behavior support plan. Build the summary statement from the information in the FACTS. If you are confident that the summary statement is accurate enough to design a plan move into plan development. If you are less confident, then continue the functional assessment by conducting direct observations.