The Importance of Positive Reinforcement in Animal Training


                                                                      Extended Essay

Psychology HL

May 2009

Erika Pärn

 Candidate code: 1292019

Tikkurilan Lukio

Word Count:  4009 ?  


The research question of this essay is that to what extent is positive reinforcement effective in animal training? Animal training has for a long time been known for its simple concepts on conditioning animal responses through the use of reinforcement and punishment. However with the recent fascination and exploration of animal intelligence we may be able to adapt better means of reaching cooperation with animals. Concentration of this essay is specifically the use of positive reinforcement as an enhancement in the relationship between the trainee and trainer. The idea being explored in this essay is the notion of positive reinforcement and its impact. In attempt to understand positive reinforcement and its effects on the trainee. Positive reinforcement can be seen as the most effective of reinforcements. It can be defined as immediate consequence after a given behavior that increases the likelihood of being repeated when the similar situation is encountered.

The notion of animal intelligence has continued to marvel mans imagination for centuries. The innovation of higher cognitive capabilities in non-human animals has proved to be a very successful field of study in recent times. Novel ideas on behalf of insight and intelligence in association with animals has raised many ethical and moral questions about the utilization of animals within human societies. It has been only recently since man has been able to let go of the anathema concerning animal intelligence within the scientific world.

Table of Contents

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

1.2 The Goals of Animal Training

1.2 Ethics of Animal use in Training

2.0 The Power of Positive Reinforcement in Successful Training

2.0.1 Additional Tools for Successful Training

2.1 Communication and Concrete Rewards in Training

2.2 Learning Through Reinforcement Requires Information Processing

2.2.1Reinforcement and Species Specific Behavior

2.2.2 Animal Intelligence in Relation to Reinforcement  

2.2.3. Relation between training method and animal intelligence

3.0 Conclusion


1.0 Introduction

Psychology has evolved for many centuries certainly due to it’s experimental aspects. Particularly the use of behavioristic methodology has been a long lasting resource of empirical evidence in the development of psychology. Especially in testing animals and their learning abilities.  The behavioristic approach has given rise to understanding integral and most fundamental reasons for human behavior.

Personal interest in animals and the training of them has driven me to the choosing of this topic. Being a horse owner I continuously encounter animal training with my horses. Constantly attempting to modify their behavior. Therefore as I conduct this research I will apply all of the knowledge gained into the training of my horses in order to see the effects of it for myself.

Besides personal interest this topic is also highly relevant these days as well. Whether in relation to performances with pink dolphins, circus elephants, dressage horses or local dog shows the animal industry is in rapid growth and evermore popular. Thus this topic may give new ideas on behalf of animal training.

The research question of this essay is: To what extent is positive reinforcement effective in animal training?

1.1 The difference between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement may be divided into two sections: 1. If a certain behavior is followed by an immediate consequence, then 2. That behavior is then more likely to be repeated when the similar situation is encountered. (Martin and Pear, 1983:200)The consequence involved is also known as positive reinforcement. This could also be in the case of animal training interpreted as a reward.

In the case of animal training food is the principal positive reinforcement at use. Usually the only reinforcement used. Since non-human animals have been seen as rather simplistic mammals demanding only the essentials for survival such as food.

Although there are other forms of reinforcement used in animal training. Positive reinforcement can be classified into five categories: consumable, activity, posessional, manipulative and social. Consumable which is the most used and known in animal training include such items as food. Activity reinforcement is letting the animal execute a desired activity such as being allowed to run freely or play. An example of possessional is when the animal is given some item that it wants to possess e.g. favorite toy. Manipulative reinforcement in animal’s cases can also once again mean a reward with a toy. (Martin and Pear, 1983: 222)

Negative reinforcement which is a term developed by Skinner is another reinforcement with a significant role in learning. Negative reinforcement consists of the removal of something i.e. loud noise, bright light, extreme cold, or electric shock- from the situation. In both cases of using negative and positive reinforcement the effect of reinforcement is the same. Resulting in an increase in the probability of response.  Negative reinforcement is equivalent to increasing the probability of a response by the removal of a particular type of stimulus i.e. punisher, aversive stimulus, or negative reinforcement. When working with animals for greatest effectiveness, reinforcement should be given immediately after the desired response. Delayed reinforcement is generally much less effective than immediate reinforcement.(Martin and Pear, 1983: 222) Negative reinforcement of course comprises of more ethical matters. It becomes highly questionable whether electric shocks or other forms of aversive stimuli are permissible in the use of training. Even if being removed it is controversial as to why they occur during training in the first place.

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1.2 The Goals of Animal Training

Animals have constantly been used in assistance for humans in work, play or for the satisfaction of human curiosity. For thousands of years animals have been allured and utilized by mankind.  Whether in Ancient Egypt or Rome animals have performed jobs necessary for daily life e.g. torture and execution of enemies, guarding households, and source of power. Certainly not passing the acceptable ethical standards these days. (McGreevy and Boakes, 2007 :2)

When conditioning animal’s responses the animal trainer uses reinforcement or punishment. There are various ways of training but most trainers use the ...

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