Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How, When and Why to Keep Behavior Logs for Your Dog

When I scheduled Maisy’s first appointment with the veterinary behaviorist, they asked me to do a number of things, but the hardest was keeping behavior logs. I had a vague idea of how to go about it, but wasn’t really sure what to include. As it turns out, I’m not alone. An internet search doesn’t turn up much useful information, and I’ve had several emails asking about my experiences with them lately. Today, I thought I’d answer the most common questions.

Who should keep a behavior log?
Behavior logs are amazing. I’ve learned a lot about my dog through them, and I think that more people should be using them. Anyone whose dog is reactive, anxious, fearful, shy, aggressive, resource guarding, or otherwise labeled in some way, should be keeping logs. If you are worried about what you’re seeing, but aren’t sure if it’s an issue, you should be keeping behavior logs. If you’ve decided to see a trainer or a veterinarian to discuss your concerns, you should definitely be keeping logs.

Why are they so important?
Behavior logs can help you see the scope and severity of a problem. I knew Maisy was wound tighter than normal dogs, but the behavior logs were incredibly eye-opening. I had no idea she slept as little as she did, and I certainly didn’t remember the fact that she was regularly waking me up in the middle of the night.

Behavior logs can also demonstrate your concerns to a professional in a clear, objective way. Before we consulted with the vet behaviorist, I tried to discuss Maisy’s issues with her vet. Unfortunately, because dogs are often nervous at the vet’s office, Maisy didn’t seem that bad. If I would have had data to show what she was like at home, it’s possible that her issues may have been taken more seriously.

Finally, behavior logs provide you with a baseline that will allow you to look back and measure progress over time. Done regularly, they can show both improvement and regression. It is much easier and quicker to troubleshoot a treatment plan if you catch the relapse early.

What should I write down?
In the broad sense, you should keep track of anything that you’re concerned about or that seems unusual, but be sure you’re tracking behaviors, not interpretations. For example, I started keeping logs because I thought Maisy was “anxious,” but to prove that I needed to document what Maisy was doing that led me to that assumption.

I also think tracking the flip-side can be helpful: keep track of how often or how long your dog engages in normal or desirable behaviors. Sometimes, the fact that there is so little normal tells you more than the fact that there is so much weird.

With that said, let’s talk about the specifics you should include. I’m firmly in the “the more, the better” camp. If you have too much data, you can discard the extra, but you can never go back and fill in what’s missing. Still, I know not everyone is as detailed as I am, so at the very least, your logs should include the date and time, what triggered the behavior, and how your dog responded.

For the triggering stimulus, you’re recording what caused your dog’s behavior. Of course, sometimes you just won’t know- and that’s okay. You can make your best guess (just be sure that you notate it as such), or you can write “unknown.” When you’re pretty sure of the cause, I’m in favor of lots of information- you never know which detail might be important. For example, Maisy doesn’t care for dogs with prick ears, which seems like a relatively small detail to me, but it’s huge to her. Simply writing “a dog walked by” won’t get at that as well as “a Doberman walked by.”

It can also be helpful to record what was going on before the trigger happened. Include information such as location, your dog’s activities, who was nearby, and what they were doing. For bonus points, go back even further and try to remember if anything stressful or out of the ordinary occurred earlier in the day, or maybe even the day before. Triggers “stack” for many dogs, and including earlier stressors in your logs can help you figure out which combinations- if any- provoke a response in your dog.

When describing a behavior, you want to do just that- describe it- and you want to avoid interpreting the behavior. Record your dog’s body language, vocalizations, movement, etc. Try to be very objective, so that someone who wasn’t there could understand exactly what your dog did. For example, instead of “Dog barked a lot,” describe the pitch or volume. Clarify what “a lot” is, too, either by counting the number of barks or estimating how long the barking continued. Was the behavior sustained, or did the dog interrupt himself before resuming the behavior? Be as clear as possible.

Once the behavior is over, include how long it takes your dog to either return to his previous activity or to calm down. Knowing your dog’s recovery period can be critical information to have, especially when you’re considering medication. In fact, I really wish I’d done a better job tracking this with Maisy. I think her ability to bounce back has improved tremendously, but unfortunately, I can’t prove it.

That’s a lot of work! How can I easily track all that?
At this point, if you’re thinking that this is a lot of work… well, you’re right, it can be. My best advice is to make it easy on yourself. I initially tried making charts and graphs to fill in, because I like that kind of thing, but I found them frustrating to use. Eventually, I settled on just jotting notes down on a piece of notebook paper, although sometimes I email it to myself instead.

However, even with a simple tracking system, it can be pretty time-consuming to keep track of what’s going on, especially if you discover that your dog’s behavior is happening more often than you realized. I learned early on that Maisy “dive bombs” the cats a lot, and quickly gave up tracking those because it was so overwhelming. Instead, what I should have done was just count how often it happened, even if I wasn’t including all the details.

Of course, the details can be important, too, so if you choose to keep tallies, I recommend doing time interval recordings to supplement your data. You can choose the intervals that work for you, but whether you observe and record data for 10 minutes every hour, an hour every day, or even one day out of the week, it will help provide you with a clearer picture. After all, while you’ll get the most out of a more complete log, some data is still better than no data.

Now that I’ve got all this information, what do I do with it?
That’s up to you. I had a lot of fun looking for patterns and creating statistics, and it made it much easier to track Maisy’s progress, too. The basic approach requires you to figure out the average number of incidents per day and the average duration of a behavior. However, you might also look at the time of day, types of triggers, or correlation between certain people and events and the behavior. Look to see what types of things are repeated- those are your training opportunities. When I did this with my own logs, I discovered that Maisy has a lot of trouble with door-related noises, so I’ve included that in my behavior modification plan for her.

Okay, I know that was a lot of information, but I wanted to make sure I gave this topic the attention it deserved. Of course, the chances are good that I missed something, so feel free to comment with any questions you might have! If you’ve kept logs in the past, I’d love to hear about the way you structured them, what you wish you would have included, what was the most helpful, and what you learned. If you decide to keep logs because of this post, I’d be very interested to hear what you learn, and whether or not you thought it was worth your time. Good luck guys, and happy behavior logging!


Kristen said...

As usual, great job!

The hardest part of this for me has always been to NOT over-do things. sometimes I try so hard to put in so much information that I get overwhelmed and give up.

Links to some of your posts are now regularly being sent to students.

Great writing!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Thanks, Kristen. I appreciate all your encouragement, and I feel honored that you're sharing my posts with students (!).

I agree that there comes a point where too much is just too much. While I do think that the more data the better, it can become overwhelming to write it all down and then make sense of it all. Perhaps I should edit that into my post- you don't have to do everything I suggested. It will depend greatly on you, the issue and your dog.

Ninso said...

Great ideas! With 3 dogs with behavior problems, there is no way I would have time for this. I am overwhelmed just trying to do the things I'm supposed to do to fix them. And for Jun, it would be much easier to just track the good. Yesterday's log would read: laid down and was actually relaxed on her own for a total of 3 minutes. Today's: did not relax at all, not even for one second. Ugh. 3 days ago this behavior was normal and acceptable (or so I thought)! Sorry to vent in your comments! Frustrating night!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Ninso- vent away. :)

I think your situation is well suited to using simply tallies for each dog. If you're feeling up to it, doing a time interval for a different dog each day could add to that.

And feel free to vent. I'm sorry to hear that you're so frustrated right now.

Ninso said...

I'm better today! I just feel like I have no idea what I'm doing with this relaxation stuff, and what I have tried so far has only stressed my dog out MORE because she has no idea what I want from her. Poor baby. But I have a new plan for tonight!

Hey, here's an idea, sort of an alternative to behavior logs. What about videotaping the dog's behavior for an interval of time each day? This would assume your dog is in roughly the same area for most of that time, but it would save the trouble of observing and recording. Then you could go back later and look at it when you have time. I need a video camera!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Ninso- that would work, too! Videos are really nice because they're SO objective. I took a lot of video prior to Maisy's first vetbeh appointment, and it was really interesting. I posted about it here: http://reactivechampion.blogspot.com/2010/10/encounters-of-couch-kind-how-video-can.html

What are you going to try with relaxation stuff?

Ninso said...

I just did a (LONG) post about what I've been doing for the past three days--tonight, I'm gonna try just doing the RP as prescribed. I don't really "get" it, but I figure I will never get it until I try it. Shaping relaxation isn't working for us, but I think I may need to shorten my sessions and drastically increase my rate of reinforcement. I don't think I'm effectively communicating to her "I want you to just sit there and do absolutely nothing."

Unknown said...

I had a notebook I was keeping a great log in, and I totally lost it. UGH! However, even without those details, I was able to do something tonight that I've never been able to do with Missy before. The garbage trucks went by, and she went barking and frothing at the windows as usual... and then when I called her, she came back and practiced Sit, Down, and eye contact! Usually, even if I go out there and talk to her or try to get her attention, it doesn't help, and we just have to wait for the garbage truck to get far enough away that she feels okay about it. It sounds like so little, but it's a huge step in the right direction. And she only started the Clomicalm on the 11th. At this rate, we'll be able to go for re-introducing her to Lassie in a few weeks, and hopefully she won't try to kill her anymore.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Yay! And it will only get better from here, you know. I saw glimmers like that right around ten days, too, and since then it's been AMAZING.