Pet Training: Art or Science?

Art or Science? Animal training is a little bit of both. Timing and communication flow together with basic laws of behavior and form actions. Before we get into the specific behaviors we ask our pets, we should first learn how to train them.

Positive reinforcement is associated with : negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. It is not important that you remember that they are called, but if you identify the one you are using, you will become a far better trainer and learner. For the learning method animal trainers, parents, humans and animals use, positive and negative should be thought in math terms. Positive does not mean good. Negative does not means bad. Positive in mathematical terms means to add and negative means to subtract.

Reinforcement’s definition is “to maintain or increase the likelihood of a behavior.” Punishment means the opposite: “to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.” Here, the four types of learning are shown with examples covering a few species. Positive reinforcement (adding something to increase the likelihood of a behavior): A dog sits on cue and then receives praise. A cat is in the cat’s room and receives a treat. A student studies for quiz and receives an A.

In each example, the animal’s behavior led to a consequence that it enjoyed, hopefully increasing that behavior again in the future. The cat likes treats so it will go in the cat’s room more often. The student likes receiving an A, so they will study again in the future.

Negative reinforcement (removal of something to increase the likelihood of a behavior): Placing a hand on a dogs back legs and the dog sits. Showing a bird a towel to choral it in their cage. Child takes out garbage to escape a nagging parent.

In negative reinforcement, the animal is doing a behavior to avoid an undesirable consequence. The bird goes in its cage to avoid the towel. The child doesn’t like the nagging so they take out the garbage.

Positive punishment (adding something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior): A cat meowing constantly gets sprayed with a water bottle. A bird is on top of its cage and gets screamed at until it goes in the cage. A student talks back to teacher and then gets yelled at.

Positive punishment is one that we are familiar with — this usually means getting something that we don’t enjoy.

Negative punishment (removal of something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior): A dog barks and the owner turns their head away and removes attention. A child fights with their sibling and their favorite toy is removed.

In these scenarios, the animal is getting something removed that it enjoys. Time outs are also an example of negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement strengthens the human animal relationship by never leading to avoidance or avoidance-related aggression. It is very effective and never causes damage to your relationship even if you make a mistake with your timing of the reward. It is also the only training method that provides information on future appropriate behaviors.

I have several birds and two cats at my house. My younger cat, Julian, loved to be in the bird room unsupervised. It was appropriate for him to be in the living room with the birds because we were also there to carefully monitor the interaction. The birds were on top of their play gyms and it was safe. In the bird room, we couldn’t see what was going on, and the birds were in their cages — giving them nowhere to escape, if something happened.

2014-09-06 15.43.59

One day I caught Julian watching them from the window in an adjacent room. This was an acceptable behavior, so I gave him a treat. Instead of spraying him with water when he was in the bird room — a task he didn’t like and neither did I because it would hurt our bond — I used positive reinforcement. Now, when the bird room door is open he runs into that bedroom waiting for his treat.
2014-09-06 15.37.11
Positive reinforcement is the only win-win situation. In the other methods you are either taking away something the animal likes or adding something it doesn’t to influence behavior.
2014-08-25 17.30.54
If you were using one of the other training methods you can easily switch. Instead of yelling at a dog for barking (positive punishment), you can reward your dog, with praises or treats, for not barking (positive reinforcement.)

Animals are enthusiastic about training when they get something that they enjoy. With positive reinforcement you and your pets can easily build an impressive repertoire of behaviors and a lasting bond. Happy training.

Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA has a B.S. in animal behavior and has authored a children’s book “A Tenrec Named Trey“. Please search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s