Behavior 101 #4: Behavioral Operations

To review previous posts in this series go here:
#1- 4 quadrants
#2- Reinforcement schedules & Extinction
#3- Functions of Behavior

As we learned about in previous Behavior 101 posts- all behavior functions for a reason and is controlled by what consequence follows it- reinforcement or punishment. What is reinforcing or punishing to me is not necessarily the same for you. If I washed your car, and in return you gave me the latest copy of The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, I’d probably be over at your house washing your car every month. If you gave that to my husband, he’d probably roll his eyes and throw a soapy sponge at you. He lives with a behaviorist- the majority of his day is spent trying to get me to shut up about it. He couldn’t care less about the field. But offer him maybe the latest BBC Top Gear show or magazine, or some random performance car part- and he’d be a happy camper. He’ll be washing your car frequently. Our reinforcers are completely different.

But what about the very next day? Maybe I’m reading my new copy of JABA and you come inside and tell me, “I drove through the mud. My car needs another wash.” I’d probably point to the hose and tell you to do it yourself. Why? I was reinforced for doing it yesterday- was it not really reinforcement? Reinforcement is supposed to increase future instances of that behavior, but now, I’m not washing the car. Was it really punishment? To understand what’s happening here you have to understand the concepts of Establishing Operations (EO) and Abolishing Operations (AO).

Establishing operations and abolishing operations are anything that temporarily changes the value of a reinforcer, either for better or for worse. And establishing operation will momentarily increase the effectiveness of a reinforcer, while an abolishing operation will decrease the effectiveness. Establishing operations are sometimes knows as motivating operations (MOs), because at the time, you are motivated to gain access to that reinforcers. You gave me a copy of JABA yesterday, so I’m not motivated to earn another one. I’m currently satiated on it. Plus, I already have it. I don’t need two of the same issue. I probably haven’t even finished reading the one that you gave me yesterday.


What are the odds right now of you getting up from your computer and getting a banana? That would, of course, depend on several things. Are you hungry? Hunger is an establishing operation. It will increase the value of the banana (assuming you like bananas) or anything you like to eat. But what if you just ate a huge feast and you’re so full you have to unbutton your pants to be comfortable. Chances are, you’re not going to want anything edible I have to offer you, even if it’s your favorite thing. You’re full, you’re satiated on food, and this is an abolishing operation. Your favorite food will still be a reinforcer, just not right now. Maybe later, when you’re hungry, you’ll be more willing to do things to get food. I’m certainly not going to make myself a grilled cheese if I’ve just eaten a huge meal. But if I’m hungry- grilled cheese making behavior is pretty likely (as I do like a good grilled cheese).


Back to the banana, though. You’re sitting at your computer, next to me, and there’s a banana in the kitchen. You’re not hungry, or maybe you don’t like bananas, so the likelihood of you getting up to get a banana is pretty much zero. What if I offered you 10€ to get me a banana? You might be a little more likely to get that banana. I’ve put an Establishing Operation on the behavior of getting a banana, because now the reinforcer value has changed- it went from not very reinforcing (eating a banana when you’re not hungry) to much more reinforcing (money!).

For a banana?

For a banana?

Well, maybe you’re in the U.S. and my 10€ is worthless to you. You’d have to take it to the bank, get it exchanged for US dollars, loose money on the exchange rate, pay the bank for a foreign currency exchange fee, and in the end, you may end up with only $5. The amount of work to make that 10€ meaningful to you is not enough to get you to bring me the banana. All that effort is an abolishing operation. You have to get me a banana AND go through this whole bank process to get your reinforcement? Forget it! Unless you want the 10€ for posterity (cool! A euro bill!), or you’re really broke and that $5 end result is worth it to you. Being broke would be an establishing operation.

But what if I offered you 1000€? Suddenly the effort of getting that banana and the whole rigmarole with the bank might be worth it.

Now THAT'S more like it!

Now THAT’S more like it!

When you take your dog to training class, do you feed them breakfast or dinner right before? Probably not. You want your dog to be hungry and willing to work for training treats. If they work for a ball or toy, do you let them play with that toy all they want before training time? No, you want that establishing operation. You want the dog to de deprived of the reinforcer. Maybe you own a dog who would eat themselves to death (my lab, Dierdre!). Feeding them dinner beforehand would not be an abolishing operation. They’ll still work for food even when they’re full (well, Dierdre believes she’s never really full, she has a black hole in place of her stomach). Like reinforcement and punishment, establishing operations and abolishing operations will be different for each person.

Maybe you come in the next day with that dirty car, and you have the latest copy of JABA that just came out that morning. An establishing operation again- I’ll probably get up and wash your dirty car even though I just did it yesterday, because the new edition of the journal is out and now I want that. I’m motivated to get it. The release of a new issue is an establishing operation- the value of the new edition skyrockets for me.

Currently, I go to work to make money. Sure, I enjoy my job; luckily I didn’t spend 10 years in college to do something I hate. But I primarily do it to make money. My job has a high amount of effort required; working with severely mentally handicapped individuals is not easy, so my motivation to continue to go is to keep getting a paycheck. If I won the lottery tomorrow and suddenly had 10 million euro in my bank account, my going to work behavior would decrease. It may even cease, at least for a little while. Winning the lottery would change my motivation to earn a paycheck, as I’m already satiated on money. I have enough (heck, you don’t even have to pay taxes on lottery winning in Germany, so I’d be set!). Winning the lottery would be an abolishing operation. I’d probably take a year or two off and go travel the world. Shoot, I may not come back! (Just kidding, it’s hard to travel with three dogs, so I wouldn’t go far for very long at a time.) But eventually I may get bored and decide to return to work. My motivation at that point would be different- I’d be going to escape being bored, not to gain access to a paycheck (remember our functions?). Plus I enjoy behavior, so going back to being a practicing behavior analyst would, in itself, be motivating for me.

In order to make the most effective training program for your dog, no matter if you’re training for competition, work, or a good family companion, make sure you know how these affect the individual you are working with to keep your reinforcers highly motivating at the time you’re using them!

Wordless Wednesday

DIY Grooming: Getting Started!

The decision to groom your non-shedding dog at home instead of taking her to a professional groomer can be very rewarding.  You will save money, spend more time bonding with your dog, and enjoy a new skill that will improve will time.  The downside is that you have to learn how to clip, shave, scissor, trim and make your pup look beautiful and there can certainly be “growing pains” along the way.


Make a game plan.  Think of how you would like your dog to look.  Google some images and print them out.  It is surprisingly helpful to just have a photo of your end goal to reference.  Watch videos on YouTube.  Find a book on how to groom your specific dog’s breed (or mix of breeds.)  Avoid being overwhelmed by not just knowing how you want your dog to look, but by also knowing how to get there.

Make grooming time rewarding for your dog. Try to remember your dog’s point of view.  Dogs don’t naturally adore standing on a grooming table and being clipped or scissored, especially if you are slow and learning how to do a new skill.  Get your dog used to being on the table by just putting her on there and giving her some delicious treats and scratching that favorite spot behind her ears.  Get your dog used to the equipment that you will be using before simply turning on a noisy clipper and getting to work (scary!).  Turn the clipper on, snip the scissors in the air beside your dog, run the dremel and share some treats with him.  It is good to know how your pup will react to the tools you will need to use before putting them into practice.

Be patient!  Take a moment and imagine a time that you were trying to learn to do something new.  Maybe you were a natural?  Or maybe you struggled and felt a little frustrated, but after some practice and determination, you got the hang of it.  Now: you are not only working to learn a new skill…but you are in partnership with your living and feeling best buddy.  You two are a team, working on a cute haircut together.  If you are trying to clip your dog’s foot and she keeps yanking her foot away, or he will not stand still while you are trying to concentrate and you feel yourself get frustrated…just stop!  Take a break, you and your dog probably both need one, and try again when you both feel a little more relaxed.

Pace Yourself.  You don’t have to groom the entire dog in one sitting.  Not only will it take practice and time for your skills to improve (and therefore, your speed to increase.), but it will take your dog some time to grow used to remaining on the grooming table for a long period of time.  I groom my standard poodle regularly, and when we first started out I would do only one body part at a time.  One paw a day.  The face on a different day.  Over time we have built our stamina up to being able to do everything at once, but it took time.

Respect your equipment. Understand what your clipper blades are designed to do (the length of hair they will leave on the dog.)  Remember that the blades can grow extremely hot with use, feel them often while you work and be sure to give them time to cool, or switch to a different blade.  Grooming shears are extremely sharp, make sure that your dog is holding still when you use them and be cautious when you are trimming near the skin.  A sudden movement from your dog could result in an injury.

It grows back!  Take it easy on yourself, learn to smile.  Your dog probably won’t look perfect on your first few attempts, friends may tease you about that “homegrown haircut” that your pup is sporting.  Just keep practicing, you will be surprised how over time the whole procedure will feel more natural to you.  Just because your dog looked like a walking haystack the first time you gave him a haircut is no reason to be discouraged!  It definitely grows back, your dog forgives you for making him look silly, and the best way to improve is to keep practicing!

Product Review: Vetri-Bladder Chews

Some time last year, Herbie started having accidents in the house. Considering that I can count on one hand the number of times that she had accidents in the house during house training, this was cause for alarm.

I immediately collected a urine sample and brought it in to work with me, assuming that we would find evidence of a UTI. As a white pit bull with a history of allergies, it wouldn’t have surprised me. 99% of the time, when Herbie experiences a problem (itchiness, hot spots, rashes) it can be remedied with Benadryl. With a UTI, antibiotics would have been the appropriate course of action, and I wasn’t about to start her on them without confirming the diagnosis first.

To my dismay, the results came back negative for bacteria. Whatever was going on was not a simple infection.

Herbie was spayed at a very young age before I got her. For a shelter puppy, it made sense, but having the procedure done early came with certain risks. When reducing her water intake before bed and taking her out more frequently didn’t work, I started to fear that she had developed spay incontinence. Herbie was four years old, and it was the most likely culprit.

I started to search for a daily supplement that would help with spay incontinence and that would potentially reduce the risk of UTI’s at the same time. I didn’t want Herbie on heavy duty medication, but I couldn’t have her peeing in the bed, in her crate, and on our carpets!

I wound up settling on the VetriSciene Vetri-Bladder bite sized dog chews, which were conveniently available through my favorite pet-supply website of all time,


The ingredients included Red Clover and Soy Protein, both of which are a good source of isofavones, compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen. Since estrogen is lacking in a spayed dog, I was hoping these ingredients would in fact help our problem.

At $22.50 for a 60 count bag, the chews came to about $0.38 per dose for Herbie. The label instructions call for one chew per day per 50 pounds, which is exactly what Herbie needs.

I was admittedly skeptical of the effects of an over the counter product that seemed to have plant-based ingredients, but the difference was immediate. I just give Herbie one chew with breakfast every day. She wags her tail when she hears the zipper open, and definitely thinks it’s a special treat I give her and not Julio.

The accidents stopped right away, and paying $20 every two months to save our upholstery has definitely been worth it. Of course, it means Herbie is a happier girl too. I felt terrible for her when she would pee in the house. Her eyes would get really big and she’d try to run in a panic away from her urine, which would only make things messier.

I do think Herbie has gained some weight since starting the chews, but she’s also almost five years old and isn’t getting as much exercise as she used to, so I’m not sure the two are related.

Of course, I am not a veterinarian and I cannot give you advice on what supplements or medications to give your dog for any medical condition, but if you are experiencing what may be spay incontinence in your female dog, and you are looking for a place to start, I do highly recommend the Vetri-Bladder chews.

Team Unruly is not being in any way sponsored or encouraged by, VetriScience, or affiliate companies. This is a product I found on my own and paid for. This is an honest review arising from a need I had with my own dog!