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  • Writer's pictureDr Euan J McLean

Training to Succeed!

Animal handling and training is a topic on which everyone has their own opinions, methods and experiences. Consequently, animal training is something that most people are familiar with, but don’t understand at a fundamental level. For this reason, it is important to recognise the scientific principles behind behavioural phenomenon, and their application.


The important concepts to understand are the command, reinforcer, timing and consistency. These concepts, when applied properly, can result in rapid acquisition of new, and reliable trained behaviours.

Using consistent, predictable training methods helps to keep animals calm, and in a positive learning environment.

The command, otherwise known as the cue or aid, is the action that we make, in order to elicit a desired behaviour.

The command can be voice, touch or visual, or a combination there of. The key to a good command is that it is clear and consistent, that is, it can’t be mistaken for another cue, and is presented in the same way every time. Using different words, and even varying intonation is a common mistake in early training. For instance, whilst “lay down” and “drop” mean the same thing to me, Grace, my golden retriever, responds “drop” reliably, but “lay down” is met with nothing but a blank look and wistful blinking. Similarly, intonation, or clarity of a visual cue, is crucial, especially early in training. It’s important to realise that the ‘cue’ that your pet perceives is not just the word “drop”, but aspects from the whole situation; your gesture at the time, body shape and voice intonation; this is why the family pet of your youth would ‘only listen to dad’.

The reinforcer, synonymous with reward, is used to generate motivation for animals to perform the desired behaviour. It is usually a reward in the form of a treat, or the removal of an aversive stimulus, such as the leg aid on horses. The reinforcer should be of high value, and individually tailored. For instance, high energy agility dogs often use play or toy chasing as a reinforcer, whilst Grace, being a retriever, will go to the moon and back for a piece of chicken.

Sota, a highly trained agility Border Collie uses play, chase and food as reinforcers for correctly executed behaviours. Photo courtesy Caroline Bentley.

Despite this, the nature of the reinforcer, as long as it is of value, is less essential than its timing after the behaviour. Because animals lack the higher cortical function of reasoning, they are unable to associate their behaviours with a reinforcer, if the two are separated by too much time. Intuitively, the ‘intelligence’, and higher cortical ability of animals is intricately linked to the complexity of their natural food source. Carnivores have to chase or ambush their prey, which requires both higher cortical planning and the ability to temporally separate behaviour and reinforcer.

Contrastingly, herbivores have it easy, grass is not exactly hard to catch; and thus they require less advanced cortical function. As a result, the faster the reinforcer is delivered after the desired behaviour is performed, the more successful the association is likely to be, and thus the training more efficacious. Put into parenting terms, if I want little Eddie to do the dishes (desired behaviour), I could give him a chocolate (reinforcer), without explanation, every time he washes the dishes. Soon enough, little Eddie is making dishwashing an Olympic sport, and I’ve got shares in Cadbury. In contrast, if I wait varying amounts of time after Eddie does the dishes to give him his chocolate, without explanation, say, an hour, and the next time 20 minutes, and then two hours, there’s no way little Eddie will associate dishwashing (behaviour) with chocolate (reinforcer).

Consistent, well-timed reinforcement is key in training young animals without conflict or anxiety. Photo courtesy Australian Equine Behaviour Centre.


This directly applies to animals; we can’t explain to them WHY they are getting the reinforcer, so we have to use fast, consistent timing to make the association blaringly obvious. In situations where administration of reward is difficult, such as giving a horse a treat whilst on its back, a marker can be used in order to let the animal know which behaviour is correct. This marker also allows faster reward of behaviour. Clicker training, where a metallic “click” sound is used to mark the behaviour, is the most common form of this technique, and can be used to train complex behaviours through shaping.

Clicker training, and its role in shaping complex behaviours, will be explored in the next article on The Vet Society. Don’t forget to leave a comment of the behaviour or trick you would like me to train Grace for the next article; Unfortunately, despite popular demand, the beer balancing trick has proven elusive, as Grace’s entire body wags whenever we try.

Scientifically grounded training techniques can lead to the successful training of complex and impressive behaviours.

Happy training :)

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