Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Using Science to Train your Pets, Family Members and Friends

If we can train dogs to jump through hoops of
fire,can't we also train our roommates to do the
dishes? Photo by Keith Moseley at Wikimedia.
Living in a social world is difficult. Each individual in the group has his or her own needs, wants and goals and they rarely match what YOU need and want. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just did what YOU wanted them to do? Imagine a world where your pets sit peacefully at your feet (that is, when they’re not fetching you a cold drink), your brother and sister generously share everything with you, and your best friend spontaneously cleans your room. Is it possible to create such a world? We can certainly try!

The field of psychology provides us with some very useful theoretical tools for shaping the behavior of those around us. Two of them, operant conditioning and classical conditioning, have long been used by animal trainers and science has shown them to be very effective.

Operant conditioning is a learning process in which an animal learns to associate a behavior with a consequence. There are four possible consequences to any behavior:
1) Something good can start or appear
2) Something bad can start or appear
3) Something good can stop or disappear
4) Something bad can stop or disappear

If a consequence immediately and (relatively) consistently follows a specific behavior, the animal will learn to associate the behavior with the consequence and change how frequently it produces the behavior. For example, if you give your dog a treat every time you say “sit” and he sits, he will be more likely to sit whenever you say “sit”. Likewise, if you spray your cat with water every time she jumps on the counter, she will be less likely to jump on the counter when you and the spray bottle are around.

B.F. Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s, invented an operant conditioning chamber (also called a Skinner Box), which he used to discover that the predictability with which a consequence is paired with a behavior can influence how quickly an animal learns and how long the training lasts. This is called the schedule of reinforcement. Generally, the more consistently the consequence is paired with the behavior, the faster the animal learns. However, once learned, the consequence can be paired with the behavior very rarely and still maintain the behavior (for example, many slot machine gamblers can play for hours even if they win very rarely).

You can watch a video of Skinner discussing his research here:

For operant conditioning to work, the consequence needs to happen immediately after the behavior. This isn’t always possible. How would a dolphin trainer teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop if she had to give the dolphin a treat right after each jump? In this case, classical conditioning is a helpful tool.

Classical conditioning is a learning process in which an animal learns to associate two stimuli: an unconditioned stimulus that naturally causes the animal to respond and a conditioned stimulus which previously did not elicit a response. Classical conditioning (also called Pavlovian conditioning) is most often associated with Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist and Nobel laureate for his research on digestion. In Pavlov’s famous example of a classical conditioning experiment, he gave a dog a food treat (meat powder) and measured how much the dog salivated. Salivating is a natural response to the food, so in this case, food is an unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov then began to ring a bell immediately before giving the dog the treat. Over time, the dog learns to associate the ringing bell with the treat and will salivate in response to the bell alone. At this point, the ringing bell is the conditioned stimulus.

So how do we put these two theories together to train an animal to show a complex behavior? Generally, simple behaviors are trained by waiting for the behavior to occur and then rewarding it, with something the animal finds naturally rewarding if possible. If that is not possible, a conditioned stimulus can be used by immediately pairing it with the natural reward. This video shows someone training a goldfish to go through a hoop. Notice the timing with which the trainer provides the conditioned reward (the light) and the unconditioned reward (the food).

Once an animal is trained to do a simple behavior, you can build on these behaviors to make them increasingly complex.

Now you can be creative with how you use this knowledge. Train your dog to “read” flash cards. Train your roommate to do the dishes. The possibilities are endless.

Be patient. Training takes time. And remember, the more consistent you are with your rewards, the faster learning and training will happen.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Nargeot, R., & Simmers, J. (2010). Neural mechanisms of operant conditioning and learning-induced behavioral plasticity in Aplysia Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 68 (5), 803-816 DOI: 10.1007/s00018-010-0570-9

2. Balsam, P., Sanchez-Castillo, H., Taylor, K., Van Volkinburg, H., & Ward, R. (2009). Timing and anticipation: conceptual and methodological approaches European Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (9), 1749-1755 DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2009.06967.x


  1. These kind of post are always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content so I'm happy to find many good point here in the post. Writing is simply great! Thank you for the post.

  2. I agree with most of the blog, you make very good points about how making everyone do what you want them to do, especially pets with the principle of classical conditioning, dealing with behaviors that are elicited automatically by some stimulus. I think thats awesome and the most interesting part about this is that it can happen in just a couple of minutes, it doesn’t have to take months, anyways, great article!

  3. I have always wondered what the most effective way to train my dog would be. The idea is simple, since you cant understand eachother with words the best way to communicate what you expect your dog to do is rewarding its behavior when it associates two different stimulus. For the effectiveness of it you must reward them for their action immidately. This will help reinforce the conditioned response. Definately something interesting to think about!

  4. my husbands friend is staying with us and he is a disgusting pig he would use my kitchen and not clean it up at all so i banned him until he could clean up on his own he would go out and eat i think after a while of having to spend money to eat out because he couldnt clean up after himself worked now he keeps my kitchen spotless and i reward him with cookies i was amazed i was able to retrain him.

  5. MY naame is Abdel Alqam, and I am a student at Saint Charles Community College in Saint Peters, MO. Currently, I am pursuing studies in the field of Psychology, and one of my assignments was to read an article such as this one and submit my opinion as it correlates to the subject matter being studied int he course.
    The article above raises an interesting point about classical conditioning, as it correlates to humans - as well as pets. We have all had pets where we needed to train them to use the bathroom outside. In psychology terms, particularly in the field of classical conditioning. The pets have no idealization of why not to use the restroom indoors. Utilization of a stimulus, such as a bell, creates a figment of reality for the dog in the realm of the training process. When the bell first rings, the dog only uses its natural cognition to realize where the noise is coming from. However, through the process of training, you teach the dog to recognize the sound of the bell as a motive for, "it's time to go outside and go potty." This is aprime example of classical conditioning in animals.
    When we think about humans, we think about it in a different sense. One brief example of this would be when a college student is studying. They teach themselves to learn better under different conditions. For example, some poeple claim it is easier for them to learn when they are listening to a certain genre of music. It's all a part of the wonderful discipline of psychology - and its refined aspects of classical conditioning.

  6. This is such a great post! It shows very simply how to train your dog properly to act with good behavior. I came across this amazing product that reduces anxiety in dogs! Im sure these techniques would help any dog owner teach their dog how to enter the ZENCRATE easily. Luckily, its also very tech savvy and nice to look at.

  7. I learned a bit about conditioning while studying psychology. Its amazing how much it can help while training your pets.

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