The Bubble Blog » Animal Training: the Science, the Art
Animal Training: the Science, the Art
Posted on February 07, 2009 by freshwater
We use the reward-based, positive reinforcement methods of Operant Conditioning to teach our goldfish actors.

No punishment or coercion is used. The animals participate because their cooperation earns them tasty food rewards. A clicker (in our case, a penlight flash) marks the instant when a trainee performs a correct behavior, and reward quickly follows.

Mango gets the click

Animals trained in this way are happier, better adjusted, and ultimately smarter as a result of their training. Most animals very much enjoy learning, when "school" is a game filled with interesting tasks and yummy treats. Goldfish respond beautifully in operant conditioning projects.

Operant conditioning is a behavioral science pioneered by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. 21st century animal trainers rely heavily on Skinner's theory and techniques. We study concepts (antecedent, behavior, consequence, stimulus, response, reinforcement schedules, behavior extinction). We record and analyze data (reps, error rate, duration, latency). We strive to improve our training skills (timing, criteria, reinforcement rate, luring, shaping). It can get pretty complicated!

Really good trainers are rigorous about adhering to the scientific precepts of positive reinforcement training. But science isn't the whole story. Sensitivity and intuition are just as important. As we work with our animals, a mutual bond of trust forms. Heck, we love our critters, and they love us! Without trust and mutual respect, animal training just couldn't happen. So training, for me, is not a sterile, emotionless endeavor. And knowing my animals as well as I do helps me make correct split-second decisions: is she ready for the next step? Are the treats I'm feeding yummy enough to motivate him? Is she just having an off day? These are matters of the heart, as well as the mind.

And in the world of animal training, heart + mind = magic!