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The Benefits of Thinking Like an Animal Trainer

Updated on May 8, 2017

What motivates us all?

Humans are motivated by things like getting a paycheck, eating your favorite food, or creating a situation that allows you to be with people you like. Everything a person does is arguably because he/she is doing it to get some kind of reward. Some would even say that giving millions of dollars to a charity is still not a completely altruistic. Just imagine the feeling of good karma that would result in an act like that! While it is certainly generous, the giver is still experiencing a very motivating and positive reward from that behavior that may result in that individual doing it again. This is why understanding motivation can help you have more success in getting the behavior you want from the people and animals around you.

In order to translate this to an animal's perspective, the motivators are no longer things like paychecks. (What would an animal do with a paycheck anyways?) Anything that an animal does not have to be taught to want is called a primary reinforcer. Food is a primary reinforcer and this is why it is used so frequently in positive reinforcement training. Other primary reinforcers include shelter, water, and the opportunity for sex. These reinforcers apply to humans too, but it is not always practical to motivate a person to do something for food, shelter, or sex. Well, maybe it can be done but the ethics of that could be questionable. That's another article for another time...

Let's take a scenario that is probably familiar to most people:

Dog starts barking incessantly at owner to get attention, owner wants the dog to stop, owner turns to the dog and says "No Fluffy, stop, quiet, shhhhhhh" while leaning over towards the dog and making eye contact

I would be willing to bet that this dog probably does not stop barking in this situation. Here's why:

Most dogs find attention from humans very reinforcing. When the behavior of barking occurs, the owner is acknowledging it by turning to the dog and talking. The owner could have said "I didn't turn in my taxes on time" or "the pot roast is burning." It doesn't matter because dogs don't speak English. The behavior is being reinforced because the dog is getting attention while the barking behavior is occurring. From the dog's perspective, this probably seems like a behavior to try again because barking results in something positive. From the owner's perspective, it probably results in frustration.

So how do we reverse this situation? It's pretty simple. When the dog is barking, remove yourself from the situation. Remember, most dogs find human attention very reinforcing! Turn your back, leave the room, don't say anything, do whatever you need to do to create the least reinforcing scenario. The dog will learn that barking results in the positive interaction with a human to go away. Disclaimer: this has the opposite effect on a dog that does not want to be social with you! If he barks and you leave, then the dog will continue to bark if he is wanting you to go away. A case like that would have to be addressed in a different way.

My lovely dog, Sidney
My lovely dog, Sidney

Humans are animals too

In order to bring this full circle, we will need a human example. There are many instances of behavior modification among us and they are happening all the time. It's not usually something we think about, but our behavior is dictated by what motivates us directly and indirectly.

Say you have a friend who calls you all the time. This friend is blowing up your phone every day and is only concerned with talking about his/her problems. What's in it for you? You get an earful and don't even get a chance to get a word in. Your friend gets to vent, and you allow this behavior to continue because you always answer the phone and allow the one way conversation. One day, you see that your friend is calling and you choose to ignore the call. Your friend may continue to call every day, maybe even for a week or two. If you never answer the call, then eventually the behavior will stop. This is an effective because you are ignoring the behavior that you don't want to see. Your friend may move on to calling someone else who will listen (and reinforce her behavior) OR will get the message and change her behavior.

Making the behavior stop is one thing, but what if you want to keep your friendship? You need a way to reinforce the behavior that you want, which is a two way conversation. Say your friend calls again after a few months of no communication because you have ignored her. She will do one of two things. She will start up her old habits and go right into her own drama without giving you a chance to say anything. If she does this, promptly interrupt her and tell her there is an emergency and you have to go. Hang up and leave it at that. You're back to ignoring the bad behavior. Training takes patience and some animals need more reps than others. If she says anything about you in the first few seconds of the conversation, then reward! If she says something like, "Hey we haven't talked in a while and I wanted to see how you were doing." Your response needs to reinforce that behavior. Make her feel good for asking. Say something like, "Aw that is so nice of you to ask how I am! I was looking forward to telling you about (event/person/object/whatever) because I knew you would appreciate hearing about it!" Unless this person is a real piece of crap, you are very likely to get a much more selfless response.

The bottom line is that it doesn't matter what species you are dealing with. It is easier to get the behavior you want if you reward the good stuff and ignore the not so good. Behavior can be extremely complex and this article is not going to solve all of life's problems, but it is a damn good place to start. Thinking like an animal trainer allows for the ability to look at situations from all perspectives. It helps get a clearer picture as to what is motivating each participant in a scenario. With that knowledge, it is much easier to change behavior. It seems like magic, but it's really just good 'ole psychology.


What's in it for us?
What's in it for us? | Source

Did you know...?

- Dogs will typically try to walk ahead of you on a leash not because they are trying to "dominate" you, but because they naturally walk at a faster pace than a human. Something to consider when training!

- Parrots have the intelligence level of a 2-3 year old child and some can live up to 80 years.

- Feral cats are the most successful hunters of all feline species on the planet. A good reason to keep your cats indoors.

What is your favorite way to be positively reinforced?

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