Training Manual

Operant Animal Training: Ethical Training for Puppies in the Greater Toronto Area

We train animals for a variety of reasons but the most important one is to give them the best care possible!

  • Husbandry
  • Mental and Physical Stimulation
  • Education
  • Research
  • Entertainment
  • Fun

Training = Teaching

While scientists have studied even the most minute aspects of behaviour, the applications of operant conditioning are not widely understood or practiced and can offer solutions to more than just the bad behaviour of your pets. As stated by Dr. Susan G. Friedman, “The ultimate test of understanding positive reinforcement principles is not how we practice it with the animals in our care, but how we practice it with one another.”

Training is NOT a luxury

Animals are always learning whether we are involved or not, so our goal is to facilitate learning and help animals navigate living among us.

Know Your Animal

Know the species and individual characteristics, their likes and dislikes, their biology. Build the relationship. They have to trust that what you are asking is going to be beneficial for them. TIME is a key factor.

Start to interpret their postures and vocalizations.

If your animal has an unwanted behaviour, it is very likely related to the mental and physical exercise (or lack of) they are getting. Training is most often the solution after medical concerns have been ruled out.

Control the Environment

If you want your animal to avoid picking up bad habits or having negative experiences, for at least the first year of their training you need to relentlessly control where they can go and what they have access to. Crate training is essential as is frequent, safe, planned exposure to things that can cause fear or stress.

Regular interaction with people is key and for a lot of animals as is regular interaction with other members of their species.

Many animals may not be behaviourally mature until one or two years old.

Social hierarchies are flexible and both dominant and submissive roles need to be experienced. This is best encouraged through play.

Clear and concise communication is fundamental to animal training

We communicate with our animals to tell them what we want or need and vice versa. Behaviour evolves over time.

Behaviour is a function of its consequences. Consequences are what follow a behaviour.

4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

+ Adding- Removing
+ IncreasePositive Reinforcement- Adding something to the animal’s environment, increasing the behaviour it follows. (Ex. Giving a treat for a correct response)Negative Reinforcement- Removing something from the animal’s environment, increasing the behaviour it follows. (Ex. Putting on your seat belt to make the beeping stop)
- DecreasePositive Punishment- Adding something to the animal’s environment, decreasing the behaviour it follows. (Ex. striking your subject after an incorrect behaviour)Negative Punishment- Removing something from the animal’s environment, decreasing the behaviour it follows. (Ex. Ending a session after an incorrect behaviour)

Precise timing of reinforcement is the most important aspect of good training

For reinforcement to have the desired effect, it must be delivered to the animal the moment the desired behaviour occurs. One second too late or too early and you may be reinforcing a different behaviour.

Training with a clicker as a bridge/marker signal and following the sound with a food reward is very effective! It’s easy, animals and owners both like it, and the learning success rate is high.

The animal becomes a full partner in training, constantly working to see what will generate a reward.

The animal is NEVER wrong. You get what you reinforce.

Animals behave the way they do based on past experiences in particular contexts. If you want to change an animal’s behaviour, you need to change what you are doing.

Experiment and see what reinforcement your animal likes best. Good ones will catch and maintain interest even if slight distractions in the environment are taking place. For the vast majority of animals, food is the reinforcement of choice. Your goal should be to provide their everyday vet recommended diet as your main reinforcement.
Decide on what criterion you are going to work on before each session. The best trainers plan their sessions and reinforcements.

Do NOT repeat commands over and over! Send a clear message and ensure a clear response.

Do not ask for more than 5 approximations per session.

Reinforcement must always follow a bridge

Make sure to keep your click “clean” by keeping your body and your voice quiet. The only thing that happens is the sound of the click. Then the motions of the reinforcement can begin and should be done swiftly.

Bridge Rules:

  1. No bridge if the animal does not perform the desired behaviour.
  2. No bridge if the behaviour is performed below criteria.
  3. Always bridge at criteria.
  4. Always bridge above criteria.
  5. No bridge is better than a bad bridge.

Training time can be cut dramatically by reducing the number of ill-timed reinforcements.

If you make a mistake don’t panic or start apologizing to your animal. Train through it.

Use jackpots to tell your animal that they have done something really, really well. Also use them occasionally to reward average performances.

The Modern Principles of Shaping

by Karen Pryor

1. Be prepared before you start

Have a plan ready with all materials set-up ahead of time.

2. Ensure success at each step

Keep it positive by ensuring the animal has a realistic chance of success at each step.

3. Train one criterion at a time

Make sure you are only shaping one aspect of a behaviour at a time. For example, if you are shaping the speed of a recall, don’t worry about anything besides the speed. If you bridge when they slow down as they reach, you are not actually reinforcing the speed.

4. Relax criteria when something changes

When you want to change an existing behaviour, relax the criteria of it.

5. If one door closes, find another

Don’t be afraid to make a new plan.

6. Keep training sessions continuous

Your animal should be engaged with you the entire session

7. Go back to kindergarten, if necessary

If a behaviour deteriorates, go back to the last successful approximation to rebuild

8. Keep your attention on your learner

Don’t become distracted from your plan while in session.

9. Stay ahead of your learner

Be prepared to skip ahead if your animal suddenly does

10. Quit while you’re ahead

End on a high note with strong reinforcement for a strong response

Train to about 80% reliability at each step. If the animal is rewarded too many times at one level of response during shaping they might get stuck at it. If you move along through the steps too fast, the behaviour may deteriorate because you are asking too much too soon. If you go too slowly and don’t give enough reinforcement, the behaviour will deteriorate because without frequent reinforcement there is nothing to keep the animal interested.

Use multiple kinds of cues, bridges and reinforcements. Mix when, how often, how much, and what type of reinforcement is given once the behaviour is established to criteria.

Remember that reinforcements are relative, not absolute. And if you want something to be reinforcing it cannot be consistently available.

Do not introduce new material at the end of a session

Penalize overeagerness/anticipation by making it the cause of delay

Vary the way you end your sessions. Sometimes use the cue “Free” to let the animal know they no longer need to keep 100% engagement with you, but be careful not to let the end of the session become punishing.

The Six Most Overlooked Fundamentals of Successful Training

by Ken Ramirez

1. Maintain an adequate rate of reinforcement

Make sure that you are not being stingy with your reinforcements- food or otherwise. Check this first if you notice your training is breaking down.

2. Make training sessions fun

Do not put too much pressure on yourself or your animal! Keep it short and engaging for all participants.

3. Enrich the environment and fill the mental void in an animal’s day

Ensure that the animal is not bored outside of regular training sessions by enriching their daily life.

4. Train core behaviors as a foundation for success

By having basics like sit/stand/down fluent, you will be able to train more complex behaviours

5. Read the emotional body language of animals

Learn to recognize and respond to the signals your animal exhibits

6. Communicate with the people involved

Include all members who will interact regularly with your animal in their training

The best trainers focus on building behaviours and building the desired habits, not suppressing the behaviours that they don’t want.