Unit 2 – Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Is a Natural Science.

The fundamental aspects of behaviour analysis follow the same principles as any natural science. Natural sciences include physics, chemistry and behaviour analysis. Psychology does not fall into this realm. The two are distinctly different in their approach. Psychology is a social science.

It is important to lay the appropriate foundations, principles, laws and understandings to provide a platform from which we can apply, test and repeat these techniques. The gathering and analysis of data are the fundamental part of being able to draw conclusions about functional relationships.

Behaviour analysis (or ABA) is not a cook book. Each subject is treated as a single subject case (SSC). In dog training there are many cook books and whilst their importance is extremely valid, when it comes to behaviour analysis (ABA), it is important that we are looking at each case individually. We are comparing the individual to him or herself (the learner, or behaver) who is the subject of our study.

We are not going to tell you how to solve a particular problem (none of our articles are designed for that), but rather, get you thinking about how you can apply these basic principles to your own practice so that you can ask the right questions to enhance your understanding of each individual.

This is a working reference to help your practice grow and walk with us in gaining the fundamentals of ABA which can be applied to your everyday life.

We will be launching a basic course in ABA for animal professionals. The aim will be to give you the skills to be able to work through cases using the guiding principles which are set out in ABA. This is only the beginning of our journey in this fascinating subject. This is by far the most logical approach to examining behaviour in any organism.

In our examples we will be using Tango & Marmalade two very amazing Cocker Spaniels. We will only be using them to make a point of reference and give context to our understanding. See below:

positive reinforcement training in dogs

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

ABA is a science, it is natural and it looks at the functional relationships between behaviour and environment. It is the technological application of our practice. Behaviour is pretty much everything an organism does. According to Skinner (1938) “Behaviour is the movement of an organism or its parts in a frame of reference provided by the organism or by various external objects or fields”. More recently, Johnston & Pennypacker (2009) defined behaviour as “..that portion of an organisms interaction with its environment that involves movement of some part of the organism”.

Behaviour is a biological phenomenon and it is only possible for organisms to engage in it. It has a biological and evolutionary basis. Interactions with the environment always involves a biological process and the nervous system mediates this through receptors.  The movement of muscles, body parts and glands are fundamental to behaviour. Even if we have to use special instruments to observe this, such as synapses firing, vocal chords moving or even specialist recording equipment which gives us information about neuronal systems and networks.

Types Of Receptors:

  • Exteroreceptor detect external stimuli such as hearing, olfaction, taste & touch.
  • Interoreceptors detect visceral, feelings such as a stomach ache
  • Proprioreceptors detect kinaesthetic & vestibular senses of movement & balance.

What Is Behaviour?

Hunger and anxiety are states. They are not behaviour. This is because, in order for it to be behaviour, there has to be an environmental agent with which the (hungry) agent interacts, this is not behaviour. If you find yourself walking in the rain and getting wet, this is not a behaviour. Or, if someone places a token into your hand. Whilst there are changes in the environment there is no change for the receiver, no movement.

Putting a token into your pocket is behaviour and doing maths is behaviour. Odgen & Lindsley (1960) developed the dead man test to make sure we are observing actual behaviours of children in school, rather than the “sit there be quiet” phenomenon which was used previously and does not fall into the category of behaviour.

The type of organisms is often specified and sometimes the terms behaver and learner are used. At a minimum the person who is experiencing the behaving is the only one that can detect its occurrence. If more than one person is able to observe it then it should be agreed as to what has occurred and sometimes specific instruments can be used. Behaviour has to be measurable i.e. counted. Its duration could be timed or other dimensions of it measured. This is selected based on the fundamental properties & dimensional quantities that make sense to the context & are recordable by the observer.

Behaviour affects the environment and vice versa. This occurs in a reciprocal manner.  Failing to do something such as ” not sitting” when asked or “not eating” is not a behaviour. This is because failing to do something involves no movement, so it is not classed as behaviour. A dead man can ignore a sit command.

Attitudes cannot be measured, but verbal statements about things can be measured because that can be counted. Statements of “being” are not behaviour. They must be an action. We are looking for active verbs. What is the dog doing? the dog is tearing up his bed. Being stubborn is not behaviour, it is a state. Failure to respond is not behaviour. A dead dog fails to respond!!

Examples of common dog behaviours:

  • Catching a ball
  • Carrying a toy
  • Eating his supper
  • Making eye contact
  • Running across a field
  • Lying on his back with his tummy on display
  • Thinking about rabbits (how will we measure this)
  • Biting a dogs neck
  • Chewing his own leg
  • Running away from home
  • Vocalising when left alone

Examples of things that are NOT behaviour:

  • Having poor impulse control
  • Being stubborn
  • Being non-compliant
  • Being aggressive
  • Expecting to get a reward
  • Being an entire male/female/bitch
  • Floating down a river
  • Low self-esteem
  • Knowing what you mean
  • Being a German Shepherd
  • Being a Cocker Spaniel
  • Being a puppy
  • Being friendly

We can use labels such as aggression if we define the response class or what behaviour comes into that category. It is important that we can use behaviours that are understandable to all people so this is an important thing to note. This is also quite a skill set to work on. Look up Occam’s razor!

Public Vs Private Behaviour

Behaviour that can be observed by others (even if special instruments are needed) is termed public behaviour and private behaviour is that which cannot be observed (unless by the individual it involves).

Private behaviour includes feelings, imagining, thinking, problem solving. They are behaviour but not explanations of it. Expecting, processing, knowing cannot be counted.

Public behaviour is anything that can be observed, such as salivating, urinating, chewing or swallowing.  Feeling pain is a behaviour or understanding something are classed as private behaviours. Seeing something is a private behaviour, whereas looking at something is a public behaviour (because this can be observed by others). Having a sunny disposition is not classed as behaviour.

What Do We Measure?

Response is the action of an organisms effector. The organ at the end of an efferent nerve fibre is specialised for altering its environment, mechanically, chemically or via other energy changes (Michael 2004). Effectors are the skeletal muscles (e.g. biceps, quadriceps), smooth muscles (stomach, bladder) & glands (e.g. adrenal). This is not to be confused with a reaction. It is more of an action. Each time a dog gives you a high five (puts his paw on your hand) is one response. Each time a rat presses a lever, it is one response. This is the case even though there are many individual responses in many conditions. A response can have a beginning, middle and end (response cycle), start and end and sometimes it is not necessary to specify.

Examples of response cycles

  • Vocalising when left
  • Retrieving a ball
  • Eating his supper

Behaviour is a collective term and refers to more than one instance of a specific behaviour. So, it would be inaccurate to say Tango engaged in many jumping-up  behaviours today. It is more appropriate to say Tango jumped up 13 times today or Tango engaged in jumping up behaviour. In this example, jumping up is the behaviour. You cannot use the word behaviour with numbers attached to it. Response classes are interchangeable with behaviour but response is not.

Fundamental Properties (of behaviour) Are:

The fundamental properties of behaviour are Temporal Locus, Temporal extent and repeatability (Johnston & Pennypacker 2009).  So, just like physical laws of matter a fundamental property of matter is electric charge, whether positive or negative. Or an object moving in space has the property of motion. Behaviour analysis is a branch of science which relies on the same fundamental laws and principles. ABA uses a systematic approach to find out & organise facts about our natural world.

Temporal Locus: The word temporal refers to time and locus (its location). so Temporal Locus is where a single response occurs in time. It occurs at a certain point in time relating to a preceding environmental event. The fundamental property of a single response is the temporal locus.

Temporal Extent: As above, but this makes the assumption that the response occupies time. Whether or not you will want to measure the duration is another matter. Some behaviour simply does not afford a duration measurement and some does. E.g vocalising when left, chewing his leg etc

Repeatability: This refers to a single response but the fact that it can reoccur. The property of this, is that is can be repeated.

These fundamental properties are quantifiable by their aspects. These are quantities or dimensions. So, in order to be able to measure the fundamental properties we can apply the following quantities. This is where we can gather our data. For example, minutes are a quantifiable measure of time.

Dimensional Quantities

Latency is the amount of time between a stimulus and a response. So this is a property of temporal locus or the location in time in which the response to the stimulus occurs.

Duration is the amount of time between beginning and end of a cycle of response and has the property of temporal extent.

Countability (or frequency) is simply the number of responses or cycles of a response class. It has the quantity of repeatability.

IRT (interrresponse time) is the time between two responses or the end of a response cycle and the time between that and the beginning of the next one. This is related to the property of repeatability and temporal locus.

Rate (similar to count) but it gives us the response ratio over some measure of time. This is a fundamental aspect of operant behaviour. Frequency and rate are often used interchangeably. This is related to the property of repeatability and temporal locus.

Celeration is either acceleration or deceleration and it refers to a change in a dimensional quantity over time. This is usually expressed as (cycles/units of time)/unit of time.  This is related to the property of repeatability and temporal locus. Does the behaviour increase or decrease over these units of time in this amount of time (does that make sense?)

Response classes:

When we are describing what the physical nature of responses are, we need to consider the exact form, configuration or shape. So, if we were looking at a dog that engages in aggression that would not be enough to describe the behaviour or set of behaviours that we see. We would need to describe the exact form or shape of the response or responses, the force of the behaviour and the movements. This is often referred to as the topography (what it looks like) of the response class. This is quite distinct (in its description) from the function of the behaviour.  The topography describes what the magnitude and intensity are e.g.. grabs and holds with his teeth, growls, body slams etc.

The effect of the response and how it impacts the environment determines the function of the behaviour. So for example “growling” results in your hand moving away or “body slamming” results in a game or vocalising results in attention.

It might be that several behaviours gives the same function such as:

  • Growling – gets attention
  • Barking- gets attention
  • Stealing your shoes- gets attention

These would be classed as a topographical response class (TRC), because all of the behaviours have different effects depending on environment, context etc.

It might be that the sound of the growl does not get the initial effect of the response and the sound does not define the function. It could be a taught behaviour and the function of the growling could be to get some other form of reinforcement. The function is not always the initial effect of the response.  So when we ask about its looks, we are referring to topography. When we are asking about response we are talking about function.

Functional response classes refer to topographically different responses which all have the same outcome in the environment a specific class of reinforcers. Lets look at an example:

  • Barking results in the dog getting food
  • Sitting results in the dog getting food
  • Playing dead results in the dog getting food
  • Giving you his paw results in him getting food
  • Making eye contact results in him getting food
  • Bringing you a ball results in him getting food

The topographies are all different but the results produce a specific class of reinforcers which are an example of a functional response class (FRC). These can fall into several categories of function such as getting attention, proprioreceptive stimulation, tangible items and even escape and avoidance.

A response is classed as an individual instance of a specific behaviour. Or the response could be a member of a response class. These terms are interchangeable. When using response it is often used with behaviour. So for example getting food behaviour has the response class of getting food.

What is Behaviourism?

Behaviourism is interested in how the environment, its stimuli and conditions affect behaviour. According to Skinner (1963) in his article “Behaviourism at Fifty” the skin is not that important as a boundary. The environment is both outside and within the skin. The term environment is a general term. The environmental events are termed private or public. If they can be observed by other people, they are termed public. If they can only be observed by the person they involve, they are private. Technology is advancing as we gather more and more instruments of measurement. Our conclusions are always tentative and we should always question what is regarded as fact. We should all be skeptics in our practice and pragmatic in our approach. Our goal is to improve the lives of organisms through ABA.

Private and public events can be a little tricky to define. Remember, public events are those that can be observed and measured. This includes a bladder filling up! If they can only be observed by the organism himself then they are private. So, if a person has a headache, this is a private event. this can only be observed by the person having a headache. Telling someone that you have a headache is a public event, because the speaking is the behaviour and can be observed.

The environmental context is the set of circumstances in which a behaviour occurs at any given time. The stimulus represents a change in the environment which affects behaviour. If it does not affect behaviour it is not a stimulus.

Michael 2004 “Stimulus: an energy change that affects and organism through its receptors”. An object can be a stimulus if the animal perceives it.

In summary, a stimulus is an environmental change, involves energy change & affects an organism through its receptors. So if your dog runs up to another dog on a lead and you call him back to you by saying “Fido come” the stimulus of you calling him represents onset. If your dog is playing and during that play he starts humping another dog and you remove him from play, this represents offset.

The types of receptors we are most likely to employ as behaviour analysts are vision & hearing. There are many others including smell, taste, cutaneous, deep sensations, muscle sense & vestibular.

Responses are instances of behaviour, stimuli are specific instances of environmental change and the effect on the organism. The environmental context is static & it is controlled by stimuli. Stimuli can be classified by their physical characteristics (topography), temporal relation to the responses and the effect that this has on behaviour and the effects on other stimuli. We consider the temporal relation of stimuli to responses.

The two types of stimuli we consider are

Antecedent- precedes a response. They are environmental events (stimuli) that come before a response. The environmental events are examples of stimuli and the responses are the instances of behaviour. A response that precedes another response is not an antecedent.


  • The door opens (A), the dog goes into the garden (R)
  • The fridge opens (A), the dog sits at your feet (R)
  • The tin opener sounds (A), the cat appears from nowhere (R)
  • Your dog shows you his paw (A), You investigate to find out what is wrong with it (R)

Consequences- Is a stimulus that follows a response. There is a dependancy between a specific response and consequence.


  • Tango presses a lever (R), food pellet is delivered to her (C)
  • Tango opens the door with her nose (R), Tango goes outside to the toilet (C)
  • I walk around a puddle (R), my feet are no longer going to get wet (C)
  • Tango sits (R), Tango gets a nice piece of chicken (C)

According to Cooper, Heron & Heward 2007  “A group of stimuli that share specified common elements along formal (size, colour), temporal (e.g. antecedent or consequent) and/or functional (e.g. descriminative stimulus) dimensions.”

A stimulus class shares certain formal temporal and/or functional characteristics. Those of the same stimulus class have similar effects on behaviour. This is similar to the topographical response class.


Tango (the behaver) vocalises. When she vocalises

  • Georgie looks at her and makes eye contact and asks what she wants
  • Georgie gives her a treat
  • Georgie gives her a hug
  • Georgie asks for a sit and rewards a sit

This is an example of a stimulus class. The stimulus is the consequence as they all occurred after Tangos responses. The term used for these is a consequent class. These can be labelled “owner attention” because this is the stimulus class. Now if functional analysis (data collection) over time, shows that she gets the attention because of her vocalising. Then it is true that there is a functional relationship & these are a stimulus class or a reinforcer class and it is based on the function of the behaviour.

An example of a stimulus class would be:

Me asking Tango to bring me shoes. Tango goes off and brings me any old shoe from anywhere. However, if Tango only brings me one specific type of shoe when I ask her to bring me a shoe, then all shoes are not in the same stimulus class. If she brings me any old shoe and a different one each time then they shoes would all be in the same stimulus class.

As behaviour analysts we seek to identify the function of the relationship between a stimulus class and response class. If the changes in the stimulus class alter the dimensions of a response in any way, then a functional relationship is said to exist. We manipulate environmental events and behaviour through systematic manipulations. When there is a functional relationship there are orderly relationships between stimulus and response classes. The independent variable (IV) is manipulated (the environmental events) and the behaviour dimensions are measured, the dependant variable (DV). These cannot be determined by just observing, they have to be systematically manipulated through the behaviour dimensions (such as rate, IRT etc).

The graph below shows the functional relationship between the baseline (without conditions) and then what happens when there is introduction of an IV. This is just a hypothetical example to show how a functional relationship could look using withdrawal (ABAB) design.

(Image from Dove medical press Norway University)


An example of a functional relationship would be:

Tango only growls at marmalade when she has food in a bowl in the kitchen and it next to him. The fact that the growling behaviour occurs at a higher rate in this condition compared to others indicates that there is a functional relationship. The growling, is a behaviour she uses which results in the other dog backing off means that this behaviour is a functional response class (the growling).

Please note all errors are entirely the authors. If you spot anything that is incorrect please can you EMAIL. Please see authors biography


Cooper, Heron, & Heward (2007) Applied Behaviour Analysis

Johnston, J. M. & Pennypacker, H.S. (1980)

Michael, J.L. (2004) Concepts & Principles Of Behaviour Analysis

Skinner, B.F. (1938) The study of behaviourism

Published Work:

Courses & Online Products:

Some Of The Posters (from the Essential Training Resource Guide) that can be purchased and displayed in vets, rescues, training halls, shops, used for presentations to help educate & raise awareness. 

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Childrens dog body language colouring book & word finder is free with the poster pack (it can be purchased separately, please email for more information)

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