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Positive Reinforcement: It’s Not Just Fish

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Thursday, February 27, 2014


Positive Reinforcement: It’s Not Just Fish
Parker the Sea Lion will do just about anything for a yummy capelin or two.  | Hugh Ryono

What does it mean when we say that we use positive reinforcement to train our animals?

Positive Reinforcement is more than just throwing a fish to a sea lion after it has performs a behavior. It requires getting to know the animal and what is reinforcing to it. Positive Reinforcement is not a bribe. It is a consequence for executing a behavior properly.

Points to ponder about positive reinforcement:

In the case of a sea lion, it has to like the fish being tossed to it. Offer the chance of being given a yummy capelin to Parker the sea lion, and he’ll do high pillar for his trainer. Offer him a sardine, and he may swim off and find something else to do. You have to know what the animal likes.

Sometimes food might not be the only motivator to an animal. Harpo the sea lion may find a quick pat on the chest after a behavior reinforcing, while his buddy Milo the sea lion may not. Milo may instead enjoy being asked to perform a series of high-energy behaviors after a low-energy husbandry behavior. To him the fun behaviors are reinforcing in themselves and are the rewards for doing the “boring” husbandry behaviors.

The reinforcement, whatever it is, also has to be given in a manner that the animal knows it is getting it because of its behavior. When the animal is close, you can give it the reinforcement immediately after the behavior. When training a shark to enter a stretcher held by aquarists, it is easy to give the reward exactly when the behavior meets the acceptable training criteria. But what if the animal is on the other side of the exhibit when it performs the desired behavior? In this case the animal is taught that a cue given by the trainer tells it that it has performed the behavior correctly and will receive a reward. The cue can be many things like a whistle, a verbal feedback, or even a visual cue like a hand gesture. To first train the cue, it has to be given right when a reward is accepted by the animal. Like Pavlov’s dog, it begins to associate the cue with the reward. After a while whenever the cue is given the animal knows that something positive is coming. This cue bridges the gap between the behavior and the reward and lets the animal know at what moment in time it earned the reward. This is called the bridge in animal training.

These points can be used to train just about any animal. I once trained a rabbit to walk on a leash. The rabbit could care less about a food reward, as it always had a yard full of grass to munch on. However, it did enjoy having its head rubbed. I used the head rub as a reward for behaving properly on a leash. My bridge was a verbal “Good!”

Think of what your pets like. You can use their favorite treat, toy, or activity as a positive reinforcement for training them. Have some fun training your pets like we train our critters.

Positive Reinforcement: It’s Not Just Fish
Positive reinforcement can be used to train just about any animal. Including Fern the shark who is about to receive a fillet as a reward for correctly entering a stretcher being held by the Aquarium's aquarists.  | Hugh Ryono
Positive Reinforcement: It’s Not Just Fish
Food isn't the only source for positive reinforcement. Some animals may enjoy a tactile reward for their effort.  | Pam Ryono
Positive Reinforcement: It’s Not Just Fish
Even "Fun" behaviors can be used as positive reinforcement for animals.  | Hugh Ryono

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