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How Animals Learn: Tips for Training

We talk about how animals learn. Knowing this will help you with training.

In a previous posting we talked a bit about the myth of dominance and how we really want to teach our dogs to defer to us in situations instead of acting or reacting. We'll cover the "hows" of that in a future posting but first we need to have an understanding of how animals learn, important to know for any training or behavior modification.

It's about pleasure

Animals are are very efficient in their learning. If the behavior is pleasurable (eating, chasing, playing), or gets something access to something pleasurable, the animal will display the behavior more and more often. If the behavior is not pleasurable, or does not work to obtain something pleasurable, the animal will use the behavior less and less. For example, if a dog jumps up and it gets attention, even if that attention is that you push him down, then he knows jumping works. Another example, if a cat play-bites and you don’t end the game, then he knows play-biting works, the play continues.

Bear in mind that rewards (we refer to it in this context as positive reinforcement) are always from the view of the receiver, not the giver. So while you might not think that being pushed away or yelled at is rewarding, from the animal's viewpoint it just might be the attention they crave.

We can use this fact to “sculpt” their behavior by consistently rewarding the desirable behaviors, and ignoring or interrupting the undesirable ones. Gradually you’ll see the animal behaving more and more in desirable ways and “giving up” the undesirable ones. Repetition and practice are key. So go back to that dog who jumps up all the time. Does it really jump all the time? Isn’t there a moment when its four feet on the floor that we can reward? If your dog wants to go outside, the opening of the door is a reward for whatever the dog was doing at the time. This can include pawing at the door and whining. So if you open the door to these behaviors, you are rewarding them!

What about punishment?

Punishment, while it can be effective to stop unwanted behavior it always carries with it the risk of fallout. Once such fallout is that animals make associations with you and with the situation every time you interact with them. Thus while they may learn to respond, using punishment they also may form negative associations to you, to the situation, to training, to people. Thus while they may learn to respond to cues, using punishment they also may form negative associations to you, to the situation, to training, to people. Also, a punishment has to be severe enough to stop the behavior and we may actually put the animal in a no win situation. Finally, effective punishment reinforces the punisher, who is therefore more likely to punish again in the future, even when other arrangements and positive reinforcement would be equally, or more, effective.

Five Keys

So the keys to training or modifying behavior are:

  • Manage the situation to prevent what you don't want rehearsed/inadvertently rewarded.
  • Train for what you do want
  • Be consistent and reinforce, reinforce, reinforce
  • Gradually relax management bits, testing to see if training is taking over
  • You have to grit your teeth and establish new habits for yourself during this process. And that might mean some inconvenience.

As always, please feel free to ask questions or talk about problems you might be having. Please note, I can't provide behavior help via a blog, but I can point you in a direction to get assistance.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lynda May 10, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Thanks for another excellent--and useful-- column, Scott. I have a question about how age affects behaviour. My elderly dogs, especially the standard poodle, aren't very consistent with desirable behaviours (coming when called!!) any more. Do you think it is because the rewards for them aren't as appealing as when they were younger? If so, can you suggest rewards best suited to older dogs who don't eat as well or play as much as when they were young? Thanks.
Scott Shwarts May 10, 2012 at 05:56 PM
Thanks for the comment. Age can be a factor, however, if a dog has a long history of not being positively reinforced when coming when called, then the behavior will indeed become weaker and weaker. Let's think about what the result of coming when called is for many dogs. For example, at the dog park, playing with all my friends mom calls me and then clips my leash on and marches me out the gate. Why would I want to come when called? Same with the backyard chasing Geckos. We call this poisoning the cue. I've done it myself. Just the other day, I called my dog to clip her nails! That was dumb of me. Should of rewarded the come then and only than move on to the nails bit. The key is to be _more_ rewarding than whatever the dog was doing at the time. The first step is to sit down and make a list of what you think your dogs likes the most and rank them A-B-C. If food is A, ok what food, a piece of steak? If toys are A, then what toy, the ball? You can also use the activity itself. So go back to to the dog park example. Call your dog. Praise like crazy while you clip on the leash, then like magic (from the dogs perspective) unclip the leash and send them back to play. You'll blow their little minds and they will learn that coming to you doesn't cause them to loose something in the deal.
Lynda May 11, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Terrific ideas, Scott. Thanks for the suggestions.

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