Changing problem behaviour. A systematic & comprehensive approach to behavior change project management

AUTHOR: James O’Heare


SUMMARY: A guide to approaching behaviour change like a behaviour analysis project.

AUDIENCE: O’Heare is a tough one to place, as he writes with perfect scientific vigour, but markets his books at the professional. One thing is for sure: you won’t get much out of this book unless you are well-versed in animal training and behaviour lingo. So, it’s definitely not for the average owner. It’s not even for most trainers, unless they’ve done quite a bit of homework on the behaviour science side of things.

REVIEW: So, now we’ve established that this book ain’t no Da Vinci Code, let’s get down to it.

James O’Heare does it again. He demonstrates a masterly grip on behaviour science (mainly behaviourism, some ethology), and takes it to the next level.

On behaviour analysis: I read the section on the different currents of dog behaviour professionals with delight. It was intelligent, concise, and clear. The author affiliates himself with the ‘behaviour analysis’ current, which emphasizes the ‘contingency statement’ (discriminating stimulus, motivating operation, response, consequence). The approach is very similar to the medical model but for one thing: it focuses a lot less (if at all) on diagnoses. James O’Heare seems to view diagnosing as superstitious at best, and harmful at worst.

Behaviour analysts also set themselves apart from the Alpha Dog Training type, your ‘I’m-good-with-dogs-and-have-25-years’-experience’ trainer. Behaviour analysis is hardcore science.

They are also dedicated to the principle of least invasive method, and only ever tolerate the use of anything but positive training methods in extreme cases.


The style was a little inconsistent. At times, he hit the mark, and at times, he lost himself in technical details.

In ‘the good paragraphs’, he writes so concisely and clearly about abstract and complicated concepts that I got the brain tingles and high-fived myself in the park – yes, I walk and read and yes, I high-five myself when I get the brain tingles. There are worst things in the world. So, he bull’s-eyes on the theoretical concepts like nobody’s business, getting it so delightfully right and sometimes even introducing a new twist to it.

But at other times, his adherence to exact technical terminology read unnecessarily ‘jargony’ in my view. I understand the need for accuracy, but many paragraphs could be written in a more fluid style without affecting correctness.

I found the level of detail in the classic concepts (e.g. shaping, operant conditioning) a little redundant, given the target audience. He spilled a lot ink explaining concepts that his readers clearly know to have survived as far as these chapters, instead of zoning in on the relevant professional aspects.

Project Management?

As a project manager, I had expected some PRINCE2-like framework. I quickly realized that this is not what the book attempts to deliver. I found myself designing the outlines of a project governance model to fit the book, but soon gave up. I think he was wise not to come in at this from an angle of risk/budget/timeline control. Still, the title misled me a little as the book had little to do with project management.

I guess the main intellectual baggage I am walking away from, having read this book, is a strongly renewed conviction of the need to measure baseline behaviour, set objectives, and measure progress, in as quantitative and objective a manner as possible. That, and, of course, the sacro-saint focus on the contingency statement.

In short: I am glad this book was brought to my attention. It has also refreshed, and sometimes even shifted, my understanding of key concepts. But above all, it’s made me discover this unmissable author: James O’Heare. Watch this space for a lot more review on this master of theory.

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Author: O'Heare James
Genre: professional manual
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