As trainers we are focused a lot on which behaviour or approximation we like our animals to preform. We ask, they do, we apply a reinforcer. I believe there is more to it than reinforcing a behaviour. Since we are working a lot with applying successful recalls we are continuously looking at what motivates the animal to behave the way they do. How can we counter these decisions through placing a motivation elsewhere. With recalls this works very well but if we look further into the details this specific system we use with our recalls functions the same way with any other behaviour we are training. 

European badger coming out of his den.

Animals like us make decisions continuously. Which is fascinating to see. Understanding their decisions will actually make you become a better trainer. All we have to focus on is that decisions are made with a specific reason or motivation. Changes in the environment helps in their decision making. Essentially the animal is continuously contemplating what it prefers to do on a high pace. Us as trainers try to put the animal in a position where they make a decision most likely to happen we want to see. Which is known as antecedent arrangement. 

Is simply reinforcing enough?

I come from a world where when I ask the animal to preform a behaviour and the individual reaches criteria I reinforce. When the animal doesn’t reach criteria we consider the animal preforming an incorrect behaviour and reinforcement will not be present. It is a pretty simple system. Where it becomes tricky we have to think about why the animal made the decision not to preform the behaviour or why the animal did preform the behaviour. Is it really just the reinforcer that is in place? 

There are plenty of situations where the animal is actually showing us that they would like to preform the asked behaviour but there is something in the environment which holds them back. It is up to the trainer to find out what makes the animal holding back in them wanting to preforming the behaviour. But what we know is there is probably a reason the animal doesn’t preform the asked behaviour. I always try to explain this as that one decision is higher in motivation than the other. If you want the animal to make the decision you like to them to make then shift the motivation towards that decision. 

Counter conditioning is a great example where animals have associated an environment with negative outcomes due to previous associations. Their decision not to interact is a decision made on past experiences. But what if we only look at the animal and see what it does in a place where they feel safe? Is just a look at the unsafe place enough? Do they have to look at the specific scary environment and walk towards it? What is most likely to happen? 

Arctic Fox making the decision to participate.

What we try to apply is the small approximations where small decisions are made. Small successes we might say. They look at that scary area, toy, or other object. This means that they made the decision that that specific object is somewhere somewhat interesting but they are to scared to come close. Only this we should reinforce. Because what will happen in the future is that the animal starts to understand if I interact in some way with this scary environment reinforcement is applied. Which now means that the animal starts to overcome their fear with curiosity and you shift their past negative experiences to neutral or positive.

This works the same way when we try to train for cooperative care. Many times we say alright, whenever the animal moves towards the needle we take it away which gives the animal more control over the environment. Sure, great idea as long as the behaviour you are looking for increases. Otherwise this technique will not work. But we can do it differently, we can actually have a device ready and when the animal moves towards the device they just made the decision to see what it exactly is. We would like them to ignore this so we can progress. If we leave the device in place and the animal eventually makes the decision to touch the target once again you have to be ready for the party you are going to give the animal because what the animal actually did was better than anything else. The animal made the decision to ignore the “needle” and touch the target instead. The animal could also walk away but it didn’t.

You can see in this video at 0:15 that the fishing cat wants to look at the needle but decides otherwise. The trainer responds to this right away.

The device is interesting to them otherwise they wouldn’t break from the target to look at the device. This decision is often responded to as taken the device away. But when we leave it there and the animal makes the decision to touch the target again we progress a lot faster. The decision they make to ignore the device and touch the target again while the device is still there is a massive step forward. 

When working with animals decisions are made all the time. Each behaviour we see is preformed due to a motivator which we sometimes won’t understand. But if we start to look at these behaviours as decisions from one over the other we make way more progress as we actually do when we think about the goal behaviour only. We become better in understanding their environment!

Try it out and see what happens! 

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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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