Training involves the development of desirable responses and the effective deletion of unwanted responses. It reflects the principles of learning theory which describe the way associations develop between events and the way to influence relationships between stimuli and responses.
The ways animals learn to behave to remain comfortable and supplied with resources that meet their behavioural needs have been systematically evaluated in experimental studies. Admittedly, the rat is the only species that has been studied comprehensively but it provides a very useful model for learning in other species. Whether or not they appreciate it, the best trainers apply critical elements of learning theory and are also full-time students of animal behaviour. By studying their animals’ responses they can predict responses before they occur. This allows them to improve the timing of cues and rewards.
Top trainers know when to reward their subjects. This may sound simple but it is a critical skill since giving rewards too frequently stops animals from developing improved responses whereas being too stingy causes them to lose interest and motivation. Similarly, removing rewards is pivotal in any extinction programme designed to eliminate unwanted responses. We can all see how to stop giving titbits that are linked to unwelcome behaviour (such as begging) but the best trainers can work out how to remove rewards that are being delivered unintentionally for responses that were never specifically trained (such as attention-seeking behaviours).
Trainers must also know how to reward their subjects. To do so they need to be aware of the current priorities of their animals and possibly how to increase their drive for a given resource. For example, sniffer dogs trained to find explosive for food rewards are fed their rewards close to the spot where they smelt the explosives. This maintains a strong link between the learned stimulus (odour of explosive) and reinforcement (food). Additionally they are given no food unless they find explosive. So, hunger maintains the motivation to find the odour of explosive.
The label used to describe all the resources for which an animal has evolved to work is primary reinforcers. So, a tasty fish given to a dolphin that has offered a desirable response is an example of a primary reinforcer. Training or circumstance can link such innately rewarding resources with novel stimuli that become what we call secondary reinforcers. An example of a secondary reinforcer is the clicker used in dolphin training to tell the animal to expect a fish for the desirable response it just made. So, the presentation of the secondary reinforcer is a way of rewarding the animal before a true reward can be delivered to it. This system allows animals to be trained at a distance and in the absence of apparent primary reinforcers which sometimes have a distracting effect on their eventual recipients.
Even if you are only training a dog to shake hands, we recommend that you become familiar with basic learning theory. In the meantime, here is a list of some of the characteristics that distinguish top trainers:
- Train one response at a time.
- Train one response for one stimulus.
- Consistency means using uniform cues for responses and not blurring one’s signals.
- Timing is the critical factor when developing associations between responses and rewards and responses and their intended cues. So, poor timing can make reward-based training ineffective. In contrast, poor timing in traditional negative reinforcement training can amount to abuse.
- Shaping relies on the reserving of reinforcement until an improved response appears.
- Secondary reinforcers are most effectively established when presented before or up until the presentation of a primary reinforcer.
- Classical and instrumental conditioning sometimes conflict but good trainers often combine them with excellent results.
- Punishment can be effective when the punishing agent is only mildly aversive. Having said that, aversive stimuli should be used in training only with great care since they can rapidly cause a decrease in motivation and creativity while effectively undermining the human-animal bond.
- Once an animal has learned to fear a particular stimulus, it will also show fear of other similar stimuli.
- Fear often disrupts conditioned responses.
For a detailed discussion of the techniques used in animal training we recommend that you look out for a book called Carrots and Sticks. The overall goal of this book is to take the mystery out of training by unpicking the various processes by which animals acquire novel behaviours. It explains the science underlying the principles of learning theory in a straightforward manner in and, in doing so, exposes the most effective, gentle, cunning, insightful and cruel ways to make an animal perform. It also contain a range of case histories to illustrate how the basic principles have been put into practice by trainers of companion animals, exotic animals (used mainly for human entertainment) and working animals. At the very end of the book we have provided a glossary of terms that helps to explain technical terms from the worlds of psychology and animal training.