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Science and Animal Training #3: What is Behavior Science?

Here are the basic principles of behavior science:  Stimulation, Reinforcement, Extinction, Punishment, and Generalization.  Stimulation is a cue; it’s whatever causes the animal to do a particular behavior.  You may be thinking about saying “sit” and the dog sits; that’s one, but you’ll learn to observe that there are so many more stimuli that are in the picture!  For instance, your position is part of the cue – maybe your dog only sits if you’re standing in front of him when you say it. Give it a try while sitting in a chair. (If your dog doesn’t sit the first time you try this, it’s not because he’s wrong – it’s because you’ve never taught him that particular cue, in that position. We call this a “stimulus picture.”)

If you and your dog are at home with your family, the familiar environment is part of the stimulus picture in which you say “sit” and your dog sits.  If you’re at the park and there are lots of people, dogs, nature smells, and more, you may say “sit” and your dog may act like he has no idea you’re there.  He may be overwhelmed by the number of stimuli around him and unable to respond to the specific verbal cue you gave him, until you have gone through a teaching process to train him to respond the way you want in that particular situation.  This is similar to changing the stimulus picture, as we talked about in the previous paragraph. But the principle of Generalization is what’s going on here, as it means the dog can learn to generalize his response in a variety of different situations; thus, he can “sit” on different surfaces, when different people say the cue, and with different distracting stimuli going on around him.  He can learn to do the behavior in any situation, but you have to go through a teaching process to help him learn in each of those settings so it’s easy for him to get it right.

When the dog gets the behavior right, we reinforce. Reinforcement is perhaps the most fun, because it’s where you get to give your dog a treat or allow him some privilege he enjoys after he does a behavior you like, planning for that behavior to show up more often and become stronger.  This is the Positive Reinforcement upon which all our training is founded, and that you hear so much about in the dog training world these days.

Extinction is figuring out what reinforcement a dog may be getting for a behavior you don’t like, and taking control to stop that from happening.  Why does he jump up on people?  To get attention?  Removing all instances of the dog getting attention by jumping up on people allows that behavior to extinguish.  (Even yelling and pushing a dog off of you may be reinforcing the behavior of jumping up; even telling the dog to get “down” or “off” may be reinforcing it. Take a look at what’s really going on – analyze it with an open mind and change something.) It works, though it usually requires the help of prevention tactics by the dog’s owner.  Extinction is a challenge to use, because we humans have a lot going on and we find it challenging to be observant of our dogs at all times in order to accomplish extinction.  But we find it useful in training, nonetheless – especially when accompanied by teaching the dog another behavior, like automatically sitting when he greets someone in this case – if he’s sitting, he’s not jumping up, and you have a behavior you can reinforce and build.

Punishment is often given by the environment, in the form of a wasp sting after a dog noses around a nest. Sometimes being sprayed by a skunk after a dog attempts to prey on one is a punishment, though some dogs seem to get sprayed by skunks repeatedly, meaning the punishment isn’t working very well.  That’s one problem with using punishment:  the definition is “something given after a behavior that diminishes (hopefully eliminates) that behavior in the future.”  Often, people apply something they think is a punisher for a behavior and find that behavior still occurs, but now their dog is afraid of them, or afraid of the room where they did whatever they did, and now they have to focus their training on building the dog’s confidence and helping him get over his fear.  The good news is that management of the dog, prevention of behaviors you don’t want, and reinforcement of behaviors you like is better for training than using punishment is, even for high level behaviors like service dog work, operative and working dogs, performance training, and more.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!

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Science and Animal Training #2: Do I have to be a science geek to train my dog?

You can be whomever you want!  There’s an advantage to enjoying reading about the topic of behavior science.  You don’t have to read the cold, dry language of scientific studies, but it’s helpful to choose books and articles that include references you can check.  You have to be objective and you have to ask questions, but you don’t have to be a science geek. 

You need to know the basics of how operant and classical conditioning work – and those are pretty easy:  Pairing something good with something new to a dog makes the new thing “good”, and the animal “happy” when that thing comes along.  That’s classical conditioning, association, Pavlovian conditioning – all names for the same thing.  It’s when you smell your favorite food and suddenly realize you’re hungry and anticipate eating that wonderful food.  Following a behavior with a reinforcer (think “treat” for the sake of simplicity) builds that behavior.  That’s operant conditioning, a.k.a. “Catch them getting it right,” and it’s powerful.  It’s helpful to understand the implications of using punishment, because you don’t need it.  That’s right: though punishment is a behavior principle, Skinner saw the problems with using it to teach animals and humans.  The animal trainers who followed him learned that punishment creates an environment of avoidance, sometimes fear or aggression, resulting in decreased learning of the task we’re trying to teach due to emotional impacts.  Hey, here we are back with association or classical conditioning, which works in creating bad associations too.  All the more reason to practice your reinforcement skills and get good at applying the principle of positive reinforcement to develop the behaviors you want! 

At first, you have to trust your teacher, because you may have limited knowledge of the behavior principles used in training.  But you have to choose a teacher worth trusting, one who can answer your questions.  Go ahead and ask:  “What do you suggest I do if the dog does the wrong thing?”  (Dogs make mistakes, just like people.)* 

Once you’ve delved into becoming as much or as little of a “science geek” as you want to, and you’ve chosen someone you can trust to work with you to train your dog, you start with that and develop your skills so you are conducting great conversations about your training goals with your teacher, who should take on your goals as her/his own and help you accomplish them, using behavior science.  

*Oh, and the answer to that question?  (What should I do if the dog does the wrong thing?)  Well, you try again, using a different way of getting him to do the behavior; do what it takes to get what you want from the dog.  A good teacher can help you with ideas, but you can think of them, too.  Don’t keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Acknowledge that you and your dog are likely to make mistakes.  Stop training, re-group, and make a new plan.  It’s not your fault, nor the dog’s – but you have the power to set things up so you get the behavior you need to achieve your goal.  Your dog is just trying to figure out what works, and you can learn to communicate with him quickly and effectively.  That’s science-based training.    

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!

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Science and Animal Training Series #1: What is Science-based Training?

“Training” most often refers to changing the behavior of an organism.  The organism may be your dog or cat, horse or parrot, fish, lizard, or a human family member.  The behavior may be your dog learning to retrieve a ball, a lizard going to a certain area of his cage, or your nephew learning to put his backpack away after coming home from school every day. Changing behavior is sometimes referred to as behavior modification, which is used extensively to teach developmentally delayed children, people with mental illnesses who need to learn new approaches to the problems they encounter, and people who need to overcome addictions or who want to prepare themselves for a new career.  It’s a proven way of learning, and we can use it in educating children, training animals, and even in teaching typical adult humans new skills. Yes, behavior modification is just another word for training. Other words include conditioning, as in operant conditioning discovered by B.F. Skinner and classical conditioning discovered by Ivan Pavlov.  Academic folks call it Behavior Analysis or an element of Psychology.

All these words to say that training your dog follows the same scientific principles that have been studied extensively over the last century in many species, many different situations.  There is a huge body of knowledge that tells us that the science of behavior, encompassing operant conditioning and classical conditioning, both of which rely on positive reinforcement, are the best way to produce the behavior changes we want without undesirable side effects like fear, anxiety, frustration, and aggression, in the animals we train.

“Science-based” means training techniques that are supported by the research studies mentioned above.  Science-based training does not include special techniques “invented” by an individual trainer; it includes techniques and protocols that have been developed based on the sound scientific principles that have been researched and shown to be effective.  Trainers stand on the shoulders of those who came before, continually developing a technology that began with the discoveries of Skinner and Pavlov.  When I develop a protocol for training a behavior, I check the science and make sure the system holds true to the foundations of behaviors science, and I’m happy to help my students research the topic and check the connections themselves.

What does that mean to you, the pet owner?  Here’s what we know:  Positive reinforcement is tightly defined as our input into behavior in the form of something given to the animal after a desirable behavior is performed that increases the probability of that behavior in the future.  When you use reinforcement well, you don’t need punishment to train your animal or the human you’re teaching.  You can simply count how many times the behavior is performed and measure the strength of the behavior to see whether it’s getting more prominent in the animal’s repertoire. 

Is it easy?  No – but it is simple.  It’s a simple, straightforward process that you can learn, and one that your animal will most definitely respond to.  You can learn to use specific procedures to quickly change an animal’s behavior.  Learning new things can be challenging, but what better way to enhance your life than through learning something that opens up a world of possibilities for you and your pet?

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!