When I talk about training, two words I am more than likely to use are empowerment and choice.
Empowerment is about giving our animals as much control over their behaviors as possible. That means teaching, not by force but by choice. Instead of pushing a dog into a down, I can either capture him lying down or lure him into that position and then teach him that decision to lay down was an awesome choice by giving him a hugely valuable consequence. Or I can teach a dog who moves away from a collar when I try to put it around his neck to instead put his head through the collar on his own, all with positive reinforcement for each step along the way.
Choice is something that brings out the best in all living beings – human and nonhuman. We learn how to problem solve and how to come up with creative solutions. And we tend to become more resilient and successful.
I thought I’d talk a little about choice. We know that having the power to choose empowers and inspires us, and enriches our life. But how do we make those decisions? On any given day, how do we decide whether or not to clean our room, or choose between getting up early to exercise or sleeping an extra hour? How does your dog decide whether to bump you when you are sitting at the table or lay down with a bone? How does your bird decide whether to chew on a string of leather or scream?
It really all comes down to that age old question, “What’s in it for me?” On any given moment of any day, the choices we make are the result of our learning from past experience where the biggest reinforcement will be for us. Scientifically speaking, the ‘matching law’ suggests that an animal’s choosing one behavior over another is proportionate to the amount/duration of reinforcement.
The Matching Law
R.J. Hernstein formulated the Matching Law (1961) after an experiment working with pigeons in a Skinner box. He determined that the pigeons tended to peck the button that yielded the greater food reinforcement more often that the other button. However, the pigeon’s peck rate was similar to the rate of the reward. If the pigeons were reinforced 80% of the time for pecking the correct button, they would peck that button 80% of the time.
What is the relevance of the Matching Law to training our pets?
Know that every time your pet received reinforcement for unwanted behaviors, it is making it more difficult for you to teach value for the wanted behaviors. That is why it is so important to also do what you can in a behavior modification plan, to manage the environment so as to prevent as much as possible practice of the unwanted behaviors. And also, to pay attention so as to NOT give value to the unwanted behaviors in the event that they occur.
It is important to know that when you are teaching your pet based upon choice, their ‘choice’ will be where they have learned from prior experience the biggest value will be for them. If, for example, you have not spent the time teaching your dog that turning to you when you call will result in awesome things happening, why would he CHOOSE that over running to greet a stranger? To increase your effectiveness as your pet’s teacher, set up your pet’s environment and classroom to make the wanted choice, the BEST choice for your pet. Teach him an alternative behavior to the unwanted behavior and give that huge value.