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Understanding the different learning styles can help understand an animal’s behaviour, and therefore plan any behavioural rehabilitation accordingly.  There are two learning theories that are of particular interest to animal behaviourists and trainers.

1.   Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning is where an association is made between two stimuli.  Pavlov’s experiments with dogs are well known.  Salivary responses (an unconditioned biological response) were measured when dogs were presented with food.  Then a bell was introduced just before presenting the food, and it was found that the dogs started to salivate at the sound of the bell.  This meant an association had been made between the sound of the bell and the arrival of food, producing what is known as a Conditioned Response.

2.    Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning forms an association between a behaviour and a consequence of that behaviour.  Consequences of a behaviour are immediate, and provide instant and clear feedback as to whether the behaviour was a good thing or a bad thing to do.  Depending on whether an animal perceives the consequence as being good or bad will depend on whether that behaviour is emitted again in the future.  The animal can voluntarily make a decision on its behaviour based on learned consequences.  Operant Conditioning falls into 4 categories:-

  • Positive Reinforcement – Something nice/positive can happen, which increases the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring because the animal wants to gain that good thing again.  Positive Reinforcement can be something that the animal naturally desires – a Primary Positive Reinforcer – eg, food, water, sex, engaging in instinctive behaviours, or it can be a Secondary Positive Reinforcer – something the animal has to learn to like, usually through Classical Conditioning.
  • Positive Punishment – Something bad/negative can happen, which provides an unpleasant consequence to a behaviour, making the behaviour less likely to occur in the future.  Positive Punishment suppresses the emission of a behaviour, but does not change it.  Punishment can often make matters worse and cause more behavioural problems, especially where an unwanted behaviour is the coping response adopted by an anxious or fearful animal.
  •  Negative Reinforcement – Something bad/negative (ie, a punishment) ends as soon as a desired behaviour has been emitted.  This is likely to increase the likelihood of the desired behaviour being emitted in the future as the animal associates that behaviour with the cessation of a punishment.
  • Negative Punishment – Something good or rewarding can end or be taken away as a result of a behaviour.  The absence of an expected reward (food, attention, etc) will make a behaviour less likely to occur in the future.  An example would be ignoring the animal for behaviour it has had attention for in the past.

Animal survival depends on reading and responding to signals in every day life, generally through Classical and Operant Conditioning.  Animals learn what signals have positive consequences and what signals have negative ones.  Positive consequences are reinforcing, can give confidence, and provoke feelings of well being, happiness and contentment.  Negative consequences can threaten survival and provoke cautiousness, uncertainty and feelings of unease, anxiety and fear.