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Pet Training and Behavior

Updated on September 3, 2011

Train the Untrainable

Is your pet driving you crazy? Co-habitation conflicts are a major reason pets are neglected or given away. By having a basic understanding of animal behavior and behavior modification techniques almost all behaviors can be modified. So, do you want your pet eating out of the palm of your hand?

Behavior Modification

To grossly over-simplify things, the only reason anything does anything is because they are receiving/anticipating something good or escaping/avoiding something bad. We can use this concept to change behaviors.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning involves the modification of voluntary behaviors which are contingent on consequences. We can make a behavior more or less likely to happen by reinforcing/ punishing a particular behavior. Most of the time people will use food as a reinforcer. This is because it is one of the basic needs and, therefore, is a strong motivator. Some people reinforce their babies with gummy bears when they go in the potty. Food doesn't always work or the subject habituates to the reinforcer so it is no longer as powerful. This is where bonding and getting to know your animal is beneficial. What motivates them? My German Shepherd will do just about anything to get me to throw a frisbee, just like some children prefer stickers over gummy bears. For some subjects (be it human or other), a simple "Good Job" may be enough to reinforce the behavior. It is best to use a myriad of reinforcers and not just one. After 10 cat treats, your cat may not want anymore, but they would love to have a piece of hot dog.

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning is the modification of reactions to stimuli. When A happens, B follows. It is the the learning of cause and effect relationships. The classic example is Pavlov's dogs. These dogs were kept in a kennel that had a bell above the door. The bell would ring when the scientists entered the kennel to feed the dogs. The dogs learned that when the bell rings, they get food. They recognized a cause and effect relationship between the bell and food as well as the scientists themselves. The result was that the dogs began to increase in salivation at the presence of the bell (or scientists) in anticipation of food.

Lymnea snails have a siphon that allows them breathe air. They can also exchange gases cutaneously. These snails can be conditioned to remain under water when put in a hypoxic environment (low dissolved oxygen). Obviously, breathing is very instinctual, yet these snails will remain in an environment with low oxygen instead of going to the surface to breathe air. *** Scientists removed the snails and put in a oxygenated holding tank when not being worked with.****

Fish in an aquarium may all swim to the top when the lid opens. This is because they have learned that when the lid opens, food appears. The same thing can happen with snakes that are rarely/ never handled and particularly those that get get live prey. An aggressive feeding response develops when the snake learns: when the cage opens, food appears. The result is a snake lunging whenever the cage opens. Snakes that are handled regularly are less likely to develop this because food doesn't always appear when the door opens.

Clicker Training

Timing Is Everything: Clicker Training

A clicker is used as a "bridge" to mark a behavior. The key to training is immediately responding to the behavior. It would be impossible for me to immediately give Fiona a treat, so I use a clicker to say, "That is the correct behavior."  You may have seen dolphin trainers use whistles; same concept.

First you need to use your classical conditioning skills to "charge up" the clicker. To do this, you click and give a treat. You repeat the process until the subject associates the click with the food. Now you can immediately mark the behavior. You can use verbal praise as a bridge or as an immediate reinforcer. Most dogs love to receive verbal praise. You could mark the behaviors with a "Good Dog!" When initially learning new behaviors add a reinforcer such as a treat after the click/ praise as well. Eventually, you can phase out the reinforcer and just use the bridge as a reinforcer. Finally, you can phase out those as well. The key is to reinforce the second you see the behavior. Since dogs have lived with us for so long, they are pretty good at figuring out what we want (especially if they are strongly bonded to their owner), but other animals are not.

Know and Bond With Your Pet

Eye Contact (Social Animals)

We may look at a person's face, but most people do not look others directly in the eye. These people are often seen as intimidating or threatening; particularly in Asian cultures. This rule is pretty consistent throughout the animal kingdom. Of course, you can say a lot with just your eyes and this is why establishing good eye contact with your pet is important. It is also a trust/ bonding thing. If your dog will look in your eyes for a prolonged period of time (in a non-threatening manner), it is probably pretty bonded to you.

This makes training and obedience much easier. If you are able to get and hold your pet's attention for prolonged periods of time, with distractions, you can have more productive training sessions and prevent a myriad of disastrous situations. This can be done relatively easily. If you are sitting on the couch watching T.V. with your pet, look at them. When they look back, give them a treat. Eventually, you can assign commands like "watch me" or "Look."

Know the Behavior and Be Aware of Yours

In the early 1900s, there was a German man that became very popular for his horse, Clever Hans. Clever Hans had been taught to count and answer simple math questions. Obviously, people were skeptical. Other people tried asking Hans the questions instead of his owner; thinking that he was signaling him somehow. Again, he was able to answer the questions. It wasn't until Hans was blocked from seeing anyone that he failed to answer questions correctly. Hans was picking up subtle cues from all of the people when he had the right number.

Be careful, because you may send signals you don't mean to. If you have your dog in a "stay" and your eyes suddenly dart to the side, your dog may take off running to see what's over there. This is why dolphin trainers wear reflective goggles when training/ researching dolphins. They are preventing accidental communication. They want to dolphins to concentrate solely on the hand signals. Be aware of what you are saying to your pet.

Most hamsters act defensively if you reach in their cage and grab them from above. Hamsters are prey items in the wild. Many animals prey on them, including birds. Think about a bird swooping in from above and grabbing a hamster with it's feet. Now imagine a person reaching into a cage with their hand. Do you see the similarities? Most hamsters do much better when "scooped up" in your hand. If you reach for your parrot and it's pupils suddenly get smaller ("pin"), you should probably re-think your approach lest you get bitten. The same can be said for a snake. Can you tell when your snake is uncomfortable and about to strike?

Children and dogs often have misunderstandings that can end in tragedy. The solution is to condition your dog to tolerate hugging, grabbing, tugging, kissing, etc. and teach children NOT to do those things. Small dogs in particular are handled so delicately, a rough pet is sometimes enough to evoke defensive behavior (nipping/ biting). Manhandling puppies/ dogs is a good thing. Obviously, you should not hurt your dog and there should be lots of treats and happy verbal reinforcement accompanying this. If these things are done in a threatening manner, your dog may become hypersensitive and overly defensive.

****Don't use physical force/abuse****This is often done when we are frustrated or angry, which can certainly be taken as threatening. Like people, some dogs can take it, while others will crumble and break. If you hit and threaten your pet, it may not react, but how will it react to a baby its not bonded to "hitting" it? The more positive we can be (this doesn't mean you can't be firm), the more stable our pets will be and the more successful our training will be.

The more we bond with our pets the better they will be at reading us and knowing what we want (and more likely to want to do it). In addition, we will be able to read our pet's behavior much better. They can't use words to communicate, so being able to read your pet's body language and having an understanding of their biology can be crucial.

Watch Me

Notice in the pictures, the dogs are looking at US, not the ball.
Notice in the pictures, the dogs are looking at US, not the ball.

Right on Target

Target Training and Luring

This is a fantastic training tool that is relatively easy to use. Target training is when you train your pet to touch or go to a certain object/place. This method is often used to manipulate exotic animals that cannot be physically interacted with (such as a tiger). Targets can be anything, but it is usually a long stick, pole, etc. with something on the end, such as a ball or toy. A keeper can target train a tiger by touching "the target" to the cage. When the tiger touches its nose to it (e.g. to smell it), it is reinforced. When the tiger gets the idea, keepers are able to "lure" it into certain positions for physical inspections or lure it into another enclosure without ever having to physically interact with the tiger. Luring is done by simply moving the target and having the subject follow.

This can have all sorts of applications for training pets. You can use a special target (one company sells target/clickers) or use your hand. This is my favorite method for training dogs to heal (especially med-large dogs). You can use your hand as a target and "lure" your dog on a walk. If you keep the target next to you, the dog will stay next to you. You can then start to add the command "Heel" and phase out the target. Dogs are commonly "lured" into a sit when training. This method can be used for fearful cats or birds to encourage them to come out of their comfort zone. All sorts of tricks can be taught. This is a common method for teaching dogs to spin in circles. You can use target training to teach your dog (or tiger) to go lay down in a certain spot on command.

Jetta's Painting "Rabbit Chase"

Jetta, my German Shepherd, was trained to target the canvas with her paw. This was easily done by modifying the command "shake" to a pawing at the canvas.
Jetta, my German Shepherd, was trained to target the canvas with her paw. This was easily done by modifying the command "shake" to a pawing at the canvas.
Not the most graceful example of Luring, but I am luring them, with a treat, into a "down." It works best one on one.
Not the most graceful example of Luring, but I am luring them, with a treat, into a "down." It works best one on one.

We All Have Our Vices

Self-Reinforcing Behaviors

Self-reinforcing behaviors are behaviors that biologically reinforce the organism. For instance, chewing is a self-reinforcing behavior for many animals. Chewing releases endorphins in the brain. This is why you do not want to stop a puppy from chewing. Instead, you should redirect and teach the puppy what is okay to chew on. Preening is a self-reinforcing behavior for birds.  These behaviors can often become obsessions. A common obsession is dogs who constantly chase their tail. Birds who over preen/ feather pluck often feather pluck out of stress. Incidentally, the symptoms for feather plucking in birds are bald patches, pulling out feathers and chewing on ends and the symptoms for human trichotillomania are essentially identical. Both are stressed induced (e.g. may get worse when stressed) and both can be treated with behavior modification and anti-depressants (if there is an underlying biological cause). You must find a reinforcer that is stronger than that behavior. Is there environmental issues (e.g. stress)? Sometimes the underlying causes are obvious and other times there are no obvious causes at all.

Eliminating Behaviors

There are several ways to "get rid of" or re-direct unwanted behaviors.

Replacement Behaviors

One way to eliminate a behavior is to replace it with another behavior. For instance, if your dog constantly jumps up at people, train it to "sit to be pet." If your dogs wants attention, he must sit first. If you are consistent, your dog will learn in no time, it needs to sit if it wants attention.

Put it on Cue: Extinction

Another way to eliminate a behavior is to put it on cue. This means temporarily reinforcing the behavior. You reinforce the behavior long enough to assign a command. Once the pet understands the command, slowly stop commanding it. For instance, if I wanted my dog to stop digging, I could put it on cue (handy one to have in your arsenal to modify into other behaviors such as wiping their feet). When he starts digging, I say "dig" and he gets a treat. Once the command is "charged up," I intermittently command him to dig and reinforce him when he complies. If I do not tell him to dig, but he is digging on his own, I do not reinforce. Its kind of like a game of Simon Says. My dog will learn that he gets reinforced only when I say "dig" and he digs. Then, I slowly stop asking him to dig. If I don't ask, he won't dig. Digging is a self-reinforcing behavior. Remember the reinforcer has to be stronger than the behavior reinforcement.

Re-directing Behaviors/ Modifying Behaviors

You may be able to control behaviors by re-directing them into an appropriate behavior. This is a similar concept to putting it on cue, but is a little better at controlling self-reinforcing behaviors and gives them an outlet for instinctual behaviors. For instance, if your cat has a strong hunting instinct, teach it to chase a toy mouse or some other appropriate toy. If your dog jumps on you, teach it to dance or jump over hurdles.If your dog is digging in the yard, build it a sandbox and train it to dig there or have it help you with gardening.

You may be able to re-directing jumping behaviors by teaching "dance" or some other similar behavior.
You may be able to re-directing jumping behaviors by teaching "dance" or some other similar behavior.

Do you have any training questions?

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    • HappyHerper profile image

      HappyHerper 5 years ago

      I took all of these pictures myself.

    • profile image

      Des 5 years ago

      I did not notice any citing on these pictures, are they available to use in the public domain? My organization would like to use them for educational purposes.

    • philipandrews188 profile image

      philipandrews188 6 years ago

      This is very interesting hub. Thanks for this page.

    • AGBarteck profile image

      AGBarteck 7 years ago from \m/

      Nice. Sounds like you have experience. I'll be upping this hub.

    • HappyHerper profile image

      HappyHerper 7 years ago

      Thank you so much. I will be adding more info soon!

    • marshacanada profile image

      marshacanada 7 years ago from Vancouver BC

      This is a very well written and useful hub. Thanks Happyherper.


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