This is the first in a series of articles on exotic cat training written for the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF) newsletter. Since the needs of feline owners and the temperaments of the animals vary so widely, I will be placing a lot of emphasis on how animals learn. Rather than setting down instructions on how to teach specific exercises, my initial goal will be to arm you with the knowledge you need to design your own unique training programs.
The first two articles will deal with terminology and ďlearning theory,Ē the basic principles that govern how all animals (and humans) learn. While these may seem overly technical at first, please bear with me because this information will be useful down the road. After that weíll move on to other topics.
I would like to hear from the readers of this website what training topics you would like to see covered. Teaching your cat to enter a travel crate was one suggestion; what would you like to see? How to modify unwanted behaviors, clicker training, training equipment, specific training topics, and training book reviews are all subjects Iíve considered.
AN INTRODUCTION TO OPERANT CONDITIONING
Much of the active training you do is based on operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is what happens when an animal learns that certain behavior influences what happens to him. Through operant conditioning, the cat learns that by obeying your request to go into his travel crate he can make something good happen to him, like dinner. Likewise, he can avoid something unpleasant if he refrains from pouncing on his sleeping humanís face in the dead of night!
We go to work because we have learned that it results in a paycheck. We avoid touching hot burners because we have learned that doing so is a painful experience. The dog learns that by barking at the scary intruder on his property, he can cause that person to run away. The cat learns that if he meows, he may be fed or let outside. These are all the results of operant conditioning.
In operant conditioning, there are four things that affect the animalís behavior: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. These terms are often misunderstood and misused.
Reinforcement is defined as anything that makes a behavior MORE likely to happen again.
Makes a behavior more likely to happen again by providing something good or pleasant when the behavior occurs. This is often referred to as a reward. Some typical examples would be the feline who pounces on its prey and gets dinner, the dog sits on command and gets a treat, or the person who checks the mailbox and finds a card from an old friend.
Makes a behavior more likely to happen again by removing or stopping something unpleasant when the behavior occurs. This is not the same as punishment! The animal learns that by performing a certain behavior, it can make something nasty go away. Typical examples would be a person shutting a window to stop the cold wind from blowing in, a cat scratching you to foil your attempts to give it a pill, or the horse who bucks off an annoying rider. All of these behaviors are likely to be repeated, because they succeeded in getting rid of something bad.
Makes a behavior LESS likely to happen again by providing negative consequences for the behavior.
This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but is simply the scientific term for something bad happening to the animal when a behavior is performed. Examples would be a cat getting sprayed with water when it jumps on the counter, or the driver speeding down the road who hits a telephone pole. These behaviors create bad results and are therefore less likely to be repeated.
Negative punishment involves taking away something good when a behavior is performed, i.e., a piece of food being withdrawn if the cat tries to swipe it from you with his claws, the drunk driver who loses his license, or the tiger who misjudges his leap and fails to catch dinner. The behaviors that result in the loss of good things are less likely to be repeated.
These definitions can be somewhat difficult to remember, but the following pointers may be helpful:
Reinforcement, whether positive or negative, perpetuates a behavior and makes it more likely to happen again.
Punishment, whether positive or negative, decreases a behavior and makes it less likely to happen again.
Positive (+) does not mean good. The word refers to actively doing something or adding something to the situation.
Negative (-) does not mean bad. The word refers to removing something from the situation. Think of these two terms in the light of addition or subtraction, rather than good or bad.
NEXT ISSUE: AN INTRODUCTION TO CLASSICAL CONDITIONING
Jessi Clark-White is a professional dog behaviorist, emergency dispatcher, and first-time exotic cat owner. She specializes in working with dogs who have severe behavior problems such as fear and aggression. Her previous articles have appeared in DogSports Magazine, the AKC Gazette, Off Lead, Forward!, NADOI News, and The Siuslaw News. The lack of detailed information on servals and the success of her training web site www.K911dogtraining.com led her to establish AfricanServal.com.
Article copyright 2003 by Jessi Clark-White. Please e-mail me if your are interested in obtaining reprint permission.
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