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  • Writer's pictureThe Perceiver

Science behind Animal Training

By Ayushman Kashyap

In today’s day and age, with the coronavirus pandemic, the need for companionship has been felt more than ever. With people being separated due to restrictions to help contain the virus. Humans are social creatures, and I’m sure that most of you reading this would agree with that because how long could one possibly spend in isolation? That’s a question I’m sure you’ve asked yourself over the course of the lockdown. Human nature is said to be driven by companionship, and the need for humans to have companions was made evident when they started making animals their companions. These animals are often referred to as pet animals or simply - companion animals. There’s no limitation to finding companionship in an animal as people have found ways to train them.

Animal training is extensively used in circuses, homes and farmland and isn’t restricted to any animal. It is the act of teaching an animal to act or respond in a certain way when exposed to specific conditions or stimuli. The theory governing this is B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. This method trains animals by employing rewards and punishments for behaviour thus causing the animal to associate the behaviour with a consequence for that behaviour. There’re four ways of doing this:

1. Positive reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement rewards the animal when they perform the desired action. This causes the activity to be associated with the reward, and they do it more often to be rewarded more often. This method is probably why a dog would listen to its owner when being told to sit and why some students work hard towards a good grade. Another example would be on a farm when an animal goes awry, to guide it back to where it belongs, it would be tempted with a treat.

2. Negative reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement is the act of removing something undesirable in response to a stimulus, thus causing the desired action to occur with the unpleasant thing’s expectation to be taken away. This involves using a loose leash or an electric collar for a dog, the latter of which is highly frowned upon as it has risks for the dog’s welfare, and research has shown that using such methods increases aggression by 2.9 times towards family members and 2.2 times towards strangers (Casey et al. 2014).

Positive reinforcement vs Negative reinforcement: A comparison

A study was done to show which method was more effective in dogs. This study involved examining a group of dogs trained using negative reinforcement methods and another group trained using positive reinforcement methods. The negative reinforcement method involved using a loose leash to train dogs not to tug. This was done by pulling on the leash while the dog was far from the owner and stopping tugging when the dog was at the desired distance. These dogs were taught to sit by pulling leash up and pushing the dog down, and the leash was released when the dog sat down. The positive reinforcement method involved rewarding the dog for the desired behaviour, as mentioned earlier. The following observations were made:

· The negative reinforcement group rarely looked at their walkers while walking on a leash as compared to their positive reinforcement counterparts.

· Negative reinforcement dogs showed more mouth licks and yawns when told to sit and displayed a low body posture; those are signs of stress.

The study concluded that dogs with positive reinforcement maintained better health and a better relationship with humans than their negative reinforcement counterparts.

1. Positive punishment:

Positive punishment involves an undesirable outcome at the end of bad or unacceptable behaviour. For example, if your cat eats food which it’s not supposed to eat, you ‘punish’ it by verbally scolding him, which is an aversive outcome. This is prevalent in humans too: you’re given a bad grade when work isn’t up to the mark, or being fired if you’re inefficient at work.

2. Negative Punishment:

Negative punishment involves the deletion of something desirable from the scenario to reduce the occurrence of undesirable behaviour. This is mainly prevalent in children where, for example, if siblings get into an argument and fight over who gets to play with a new toy, their mother takes it away, thus preventing further conflicts. This is most effective when immediately followed by a response or when applied consistently.

These are all examples of conditioned reflexes which form an essential part of the Nervous System in mammalian biology. A conditioned reflex is an acquired response where the human or animal associates a previously unrelated neutral stimulus with a different stimulus that elicits a reaction. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian Scientist, was the first to use this term, and in fact, it was discovered accidentally! Pavlov was researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed. He inserted a small test tube into each dog’s cheek to measure saliva when the dogs were fed. It was evident to Pavlov that the dogs would salivate when the food was placed in front of them, but he noticed that the dogs began to salivate when they heard his assistant’s footsteps who was bringing them the food regularly. In this case, the footsteps are the unrelated neutral stimulus

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