As trainers we want to acknowledge every good behaviour the animal and reinforce accordingly. Within the course I have been given we talk very much about that the A-antecedent in the ABC structure doesn’t always come from us. It can be many different situations and scenarios. There for we have to be aware about accidental reinforcement.

A signal can come from anything. Animals pair situations together.

Let me explain…

The area I live has a lot of beautiful forest trails, views and lakes. I’m fortunate enough that I’m able to get there within minutes. Hiking and camping became one of my passions I have built up along the way. I love to go fishing at lakes where you can only see forests around you. There is one lake pretty close by where I often go fishing. The reason I go there often is that I get quite some perch and pike and that’s what im looking for. I get reinforced when I get on what makes me come back all the time.

In Karen Pryor’s book “Don’t shoot the dog” she explains a similar story but this time with a hawk. The hawk hunted down a mice under a tree and it has been observed directly after that the hawk would hang around that tree for the next week or so to hope to get another one. It was reinforced for being at the right time at the right moment.

Situations are paired together like how Pavlov calls it Classical Conditioning. Situations that are meaningless become meaningful. This has its pros and its cons.

“When behavior is in fact unrelated to the concequence, but the subject still exhibits the behaviouras if it wer required for earning a reinforcer. Scientist call this superstitious behaviour” – Don’t Shoot The Dog”

I catch myself training animals chewing my whistle or putting my whistle in my mouth for no reason. Training animals is highly reinforcing for me and I might as well have reinforced myself chewing this whistle without knowing it.

Superstitious Behaviour – Behavior that is unintentionally and unknowingly reinforced by a trainer – IMATA Glossary 2004

Buckets give that extra second for the animal to behave differently before reinforcement is given.

The joy I get of training animals is a huge factor in the passion I developed for the psychology of animals. Their responses, reactions and creative thinking they give you reinforces me very much in the work I do today. One of the most challenging parts is why some behaviour breaks down and other behaviour comes in slowly. Its funny to see how it happens. Many trainers I work with are convinced that when a behavior is established that the behavior won’t break down. You know what it can happen at anytime… If we think about superstitious behavior we might have helped the behavior to break down by accidently reinforcing something else on the same given signal without us noticing till the behavior becomes more dominant over the target behavior.

Explaining the ABC structure allows me to help trainers understanding when superstitious behaviour could occur. At the fur seal exhibit in Kolmården Wildlife Park we have buckets hanging on the fencing. Whenever the animal receives a bridge and the trainer decides to use food as reinforcement he has a 2 second pause for the animal to reach to the bucket and get the reinforcement. In this moment the animal starts to rock its head before it receives his reinforcement. The animal does this more often as of today due to the unknowingly reinforcement the trainer gives for the behaviour. We place those behaviours “as anthropomorphistic as it can sound” as excitement from the animal. The behaviour could maybe be excitement from the first time it showed us this although we would never really know. At this stage it became superstitious due to the repetition.

The Alpine Ibex putting his hoof on the foot tray. To receive more reinforcement.

The Ibex

Another example is the Alpine Ibex we started to train recently. We condition them to wear a collar for a research project. The animals didn’t have any training history what made it very hard to reach such a goal in a 2 month period. Every time the animal came to us in his box we would reinforce. We got them to stand with their front legs on a step up for us to reach their necks a little bit easier. The trainers started to go faster and faster in their sessions and all of a sudden the animal discovered that the collar was a bit scary it seemed like. The animals started to back off but still had some curage to come closer. They didn’t seem to like the collar. But whenever they didn’t want to collar there we wouldn’t reinforce. What happened after was that they tried to push the food trays with their hooves. The trainers explained me, they keep on doing this.

At this point we filmed a session and started to review what was happening. We saw that the amount of trials the animal did to be correct was quite a lot compared to correct responses and so the animal got frustrated. This did make total sense. After adjusting the training plan we started to ignore this behavior but is slowly occurred again. We reassest the behavior and discovered due to the matter of being so focused on the goal having a collar on the animals this “before to be frustration” became a behavior they thought they had to do to receive reinforcement. In other words Superstitious behavior had kicked in.

Over the next weeks we decided to take a step back and only provide the reinforcement whenever he didn’t do it. What worked very well.

Superstitious behavior can happen at any moment. Personally I find it very important to teach an animal that calm and attentive behavior is very important. Having control and focus of the animal is needed to move on in further training. If we forget the “do nothing” moments we are unable to be as successful in our training with the animals.

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Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!

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