Behavior Works

Where animals learn to behave.

Trainers With Jackhammers Need Not Apply

Behavior isn't like cement-trainers with jackhammers need not apply.

I get how it happens. If you live in a no pain, no gain world long enough, you start believing that good training involves breaking things. Just look at the way we talk about behavior change: We break horses, habits, spirits, and each other's backs. We even break houses to teach puppies where to pee. The expectation that training requires force and coercion is so ingrained in our culture that we actually idolize those who break behavior best: Hail Caesar!

It's time to take a deep breath and blow away that cultural fog. You don't need to break anything to change behavior, but you do need to notice how behavior works. That's exactly what behavior scientists have been doing for over 100 years and the resulting behavior-change technology, applied behavior analysis (ABA), is applicable to all species of learners.

Science confirms that behavior doesn't occur in a vacuum. There is an inherent connection between an animal's behavior and the environment in which it behaves. Science confirms that behavior doesn't spray out of animals willy-nilly like water from a leaky showerhead: Animals behave for a reason, to affect the environment in some way.

Dogs bark to get a buddy with opposable thumbs to open the back door; parrots bite to remove hands that pursue them relentlessly; and, children goof off to escape arithmetic worksheets. We behave for an effect. You know this or you wouldn't make it out of bed in the morning.

No animal keeps behaving for bad outcomes. When a behavior is ineffective (from the behaving individual's point of view), animals behave differently next time. But, to know what to do instead, animals need good outcomes, which serve as positive feedback about the adequacy of the behavior. This is learning: evolved flexibility. It is the nature of all animals to change what they do based on the feedback consequences provide.

Cultural fog has us groping inside the animal for what we need to break - its dominance, jealousy, or hormones - when we should be looking in the environment for the purpose behavior serves. Once we understand the purpose, we can train the animal to achieve that purpose by doing an appropriate alternative behavior or teach new skills for new outcomes.

I'm not just talking about dogs, parrots or kids. I'm talking about fleas and flamingos, too. It turns out Noah's Ark isn't just a celebration of diversity. It's also a celebration of likeness - in this case, how animals learn. The bottom line is, behavior isn't like cement, so trainers with jackhammers need not apply.

Trainer's Tip #1: Instead of asking, "What's wrong with this animal?" ask, "What purpose does this behavior serve?

Susan Friedman, Ph.D., is currently a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University.

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