How to Train Your Friends...or Pets!

What is Positive Reinforcement? Duncan, kid and bone
It is a type of animal training in which animals are rewarded with something they like, such as treats, for performing behaviors that are requested by a trainer. In this type of training, an animal is not punished for bad or wrong behavior. The trainer simply ignores the inappropriate behaviors, and focuses on the correct ones. This leads the animal to repeat the good behaviors, and reduce or stop the unwanted behaviors.

Give Them a "Cue"
Trainers often use "cues" to tell the animals what behavior they want them to do at that moment. Cues can be spoken (saying "stop"), visual (hand up like "stop," with no words said) or both ("stop" and hand signal).

Tell Them "You Did It!"
During training, there is an amount of time between when an animal performs the correct behavior and when the trainer is able to provide their reward. During this gap in time, no matter how small, the animal may offer other behaviors and may become confused over what behavior you are rewarding. A "bridge" is a signal to the animal that they are offering the right behavior at that moment and that a treat is on its way. It is called a "bridge" because it bridges the time between when the animal performs the correct behavior and when they get their reward. Trainers use clickers, whistles, or words like "good" as bridges with the animals at the Zoo.

Reward Them!
Then the animal gets a reward for doing the correct behavior. The reward can be anything the animal likes, such as food, attention, toys, access to other animals or a different space, and so on.

An Example - "Be Quiet!"
Let's say that you want your brother or sister to be quiet.

  • You ask them to stop talking by saying "shhhhhh" (the cue)
  • The moment he or she closes her mouth or stops talking, you say "good" (the bridge)
  • You give them their favorite treat, like a cookie or a slice of pizza (reward)
  • You've just used a cue ("shhhhh"), a bridge ("good"), and a reward (the yummy treat)!

    You can try this same thing with family pets to teach them to sit, stay, roll over or other behaviors.

    The Training Game

    Best suited for kids aged 6 to 10

    Explain to everyone that they are going to see how animals are trained. The goal is to get the "animal" to stand on a particular spot in the room.

    This is much easier said than done! Since animals don't communicate with words like humans do, the trainer in the game can't use any words or body movements to communicate with the "animal" in this game.

    Since the "animal" doesn't know any cues, the point of this game is to "capture" a good behavior by giving the animal a bridge, in this case a clap, when they move in the right direction.

    Zoo trainers use this technique to build behaviors step-by-step. If they want an animal to place their foot in a tub of water, for example, the trainer starts by simply rewarding the animal for shifting their body slightly towards the tub. After this, the trainer rewards them any time they move closer to the tub. The trainer continues this process until the animal does the full behavior, in this case, putting their foot into the tub.

    1. Choose one trainer and one person to be trained, the "animal."

    2. Have the "animal" leave the room.

    3. The group decides a location in the room where the "animal" should end up. Be simple to start, like going to one of the corners. It can get more complicated after you've played the game a couple times.

    4. Have the "animal" start out at the door.

    5. Each time the "animal" takes a step in the right direction, the trainer claps (the bridge) to let them know they have done the right thing. If the animal heads in the wrong direction, the trainer doesn't do anything at all, and waits for them to try other directions.

    6. Once the "animal" gets to the right spot, the trainer claps a whole bunch to let them know that they have found it.

    7. The trainer gives the "animal" a treat! It can be a prize, a food treat, pats on the back, or anything else your "animal" enjoys.

    8. Change animals and trainers and play again!

    Duncan is sponsored by the Duncan Family.

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