We have all been there…contemplating how to change a behavior you don’t like in yourself or another subject. It can manifest in many ways – How do I get my dog to stop pulling on his leash? My husband to stop leaving coffee cups around the house (true story for me)? My kids to clean up their rooms? It can also be a positive behavior you want them to keep doing, such as colleagues keeping the workplace clean and organized.
Whether you are trying to decrease an unwanted behavior or increase behavior you want to see more frequently, it can all be achieved (or conditioned) the same way.
Here at the National Aquarium, and in most marine mammal facilities across the country, we use a method of training known as “operant conditioning” or positive reinforcement training. Simply defined, this means that behavior is likely to increase or decrease in frequency based on the consequences that follow.
Think about the last time you did something and what followed; if you experienced a positive outcome, you are probably more likely to do that specific something again. However, if the outcome was negative, then most likely it is not something you would want to repeat.
We use the same training technique with our dolphins. When a dolphin does a behavior correctly, we blow a whistle that basically says “good,” and then we follow it up with reinforcement. Reinforcement for the dolphins can be fish, enrichment, toys or tactile rubs. If the behavior is incorrect, then we simply do nothing. We can choose to ask again or simply move on to something else. By not giving a reaction, we communicate to the animal that the particular behavior requested was not correct, but they still have the opportunity to earn reinforcement so the session does not become negative.
A really important lesson for any animal (or human) to learn is that it is OK to fail! Failure is all part of learning; however, it is what you choose to learn from it that provides the opportunity to grow and then succeed.
Say a child is not cleaning his or her room. The first step is to make sure that the child is capable of accomplishing such a task (i.e., is the task age appropriate?). The child receives a signal that asks them to perform the desired behavior (clean a room). Once the task is complete, they receive their reinforcement. Now I am guessing most kids do not find cold, dead, raw fish very reinforcing, so something they would like, such as piece of candy, a game of catch or sometimes something as simple as a nice big hug and lots of verbal praise, could be used as the reinforcement.
Let’s take that same scenario, only the child doesn’t perform the behavior. Depending on the child, you can ask them to try again or even provide some help. If not done correctly, they simply lose the opportunity for that special treat. However, the next time you ask them to clean their room, they may remember that consequence and hopefully change their behavior. One strategy is to start simply and have them just pick up a few things, then gradually increase the amount they have to clean. In training, these steps are called approximations.
Remember the key: Always set your subject up for success!