- Participants will develop a working knowledge of the laws of learning and associated terminology including classical and operant conditioning, reinforcement and punishment, habituation and sensitization, flooding, and desensitization and counterconditioning.
- Participants will recognize how the need for emotional safety drives behavior and impacts learning.
- Participants will learn which mechanical skills are most important for success when teaching animals.
- Learning is a scientific process driven by natural laws as predictable as gravity.
- There are no 'whisperers'. Like in any discipline, effective teachers are developed not born.
- While learned tasks and behaviors are important, the biggest driver of behavior is emotion.
Classical and operant conditioning are separate concepts but interplay tremendously in real life. The art of behavior modification is in the interplay.
Timing, consistency of cues, and understanding learning principles are important handler skills.
Q: Why do so many people use food to teach animals?
A: Pets behave in ways that pay off for themselves. To get a pet to do what we want, we need motivators. Food is a primary biological reinforcer -- meaning it is essential for survival, so an item of core value. Other biological reinforcers include water, shelter, sex, air, and safety. Some of these are inhumane to control, and others are hard to control and deliver with the crisp timing necessary to promote learning. Food is easy to transport, can be given with precise timing, and is highly motivating for most animals.
Q: From the title, I presume using treats is not enough. Why?
A: Other factors impact learning besides the presence of food. The timing in which the food is delivered is important, as well as other factors impacting the animal's emotions at the time.
Q: Laws of learning. That sounds complicated. Do I really need to know them?
A: People have been training animals for years without knowing exactly why what they were doing worked or didn’t work. They could all do a better job, and make it easier on the animals if they could go right to the best approach without trial and error. This requires knowledge. This is especially important when it comes to behavior modification. The drivers for problem behaviors are often powerful and emotionally driven. There is little room for error. Veterinarians learn complex information all the time. Learning laws are no more complicated than. Learning laws are no more complicated than learning the tools and techniques used in surgery or ultrasonography.
Q: What is the difference between training and behavior modification? Isn’t b-mod a fancier word for training?
A: Training teaches tasks. Behavior modification changes emotion. We use previously trained tasks in behavior modification, but in distinct ways set up with knowledge of learning laws. For example, what is the best way to handle a pet’s fear of riding in the car? Correcting a dog for whining and jumping will not make it less anxious. “Flooding” is an approach that would have you just put the pet in the car and drive, hoping that she will eventually get used to it. This approach aims for the pet to eventually habituate, or ‘get used to’ the car ride. This could work in mild cases, though the process would not be comfortable for the pet. If the pet has already experienced ‘sensitization’ (another learning law) to car rides, exposure just makes her reaction worse. In these cases, desensitization and counterconditioning would be more effective and humane. ‘Desensitization and counter conditioning’ are separate learning processes that are often used together to change emotion. These are behavior modification terms that refer to reducing the intensity of the problem stimulus so it is easier for the pet to habituate (get used to) it. Counterconditioning refers to creating a new emotional and behavioral response to the stimulus itself – for example teaching the pet to settle and relax in the car using food. How these processes are implemented is as much a scientific art as perfecting surgical technique.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: Sure! Basic task learning requires a good understanding of the two types of reinforcement (increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again) and the two types of punishment. Behaviors are reinforced when the animal gains something good, OR when it loses something bad. Behaviors are punished when the something bad happens after the behavior OR when it loses something good. Whether or not a behavior was reinforced or punished does not depend on what the trainer thinks, it depends on math. If the behavior increased in frequency, it was reinforced – no matter what you thought you did. If it decreased, the behavior was punished – even if you were using food in the process. Keeping track of the outcomes is a key skill set for trainers. Timing is important. Reinforcement and punishment must take place concurrently or within 1 second of the target behavior. Cue clarity is important. Subtle changes in the way a behavior is cued will cause confusion and frustration for the animal and prevent learning. These are just small examples of the knowledge and skills needed to be effective.
Q: Aren't there are other effective ways to teach pets without using food?
A: Absolutely, but we still need a motivator. Motivators can include the desire for something good, or the desire to avoid something bad. Even if food is not used, it is important to use motivators the pet wants to earn. The chance to tug on a toy, or chase a ball can be great motivators. And everyday favorites like access to outside, affection and praise can also be used effectively IF the laws of learning are followed. There are many techniques that depend on the pet learning to avoid something 'bad'. Anytime an aversive is involved, you risk emotional consequences that interfere with your end goal. This is why the scientific behavior community supports training with rewards only.
Q: What do you mean by emotional consequences?
A: The biggest driver of behavior is not training but emotions. The methods we use cause emotional responses. We can make ourselves a source of safety information and structure when we teach, or we can make a pet worry about what we will do to them. Using aversive devices or approaches has fallen out in terms of how the dog feels about the trainer, and about the other things in the training environment. A dog may know and respond reliably to every cue he has been taught, but if he is tense and watching out for something bad to happen, he is at a disadvantage in bringing his best, most thinking self to any given situation.
Q: Why is that important. Shouldn’t the dog obey no matter what is going on? A: Emotions drive behavior and trump training. Even obedience champions will fail to respond in situations where the cue interferes with their need to gain emotional safety. To train beyond that would require methods that make the dog more afraid of the handler than the situation OR methods that increase the dog’s confidence in the handler as a source of emotional safety. For pet dog owners, there is only one good choice. For humane reasons, there is only one good choice.
Q: What if my pet is doing something wrong. I don’t use treats then, do I? A: All behavior has a function. If your pet is doing something ‘wrong’, it is paying off for them in some way. Counter surfing? The payoff for this one is obvious. It seems counterintuitive but the ideal way to handle this is indeed to use food or something else the dog wants to reinforce an incompatible behavior. It is amazing how many unwanted behaviors cannot be completed if the dog comes and sits! Of course, you will still not want to leave food on the counters! In the counter surfing example, we are talking basic training. If fear or anxiety is driving a behavior, then it is even more important to use reward-based methods based on scientific learning laws that will help reduce anxiety and fear.
Q: What if my pet is not food motivated? A: In the truest sense, there is no such thing. All animals require food to live. We can change the pet’s feeding schedule so that part of the meal is earned in training. Food is a currency that dogs understand. While a piece of kibble may be worth $1, a soft dog treat $15, and a bit of real chicken or a piece of sardine $100.
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