Ever called you dog or cat to come to you or back home indoors?
Weather you know it or not you've been using a training tecnique included in a theory called operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning is a behavioral theory - a way to work not only with animals but many of it's origins are from human psychological science as well. It's history goes back to the beginning of 1900's but the "golden time" in discovering it's fine tunes - is probably in 40's & 50's. B. F. Skinner and his team did revolutionary findings and they trained hundreds if not thousands of animals during their experiences - he is often referred as the father of operant conditioning. However many other behaviourists, like Thorndike and his findings in connectionism, had done significant studies on animal behavior science before the findings of Skinner's team, thus making their work feasible.
In every day life with our pets, we don't necessarily think of some theory when we're calling our animals - and quite rightfully we just call the animals to us, often by their name. It is quite natural and simple that animal do react on it the way we anticipate. - or is it?
Most likely while we have been building up a relationship with the animal(s) under our care there have been multiple reinforcers involved in above described situation. Animal is getting a lot of attention from it's keeper, some good treats (primary reinforcements), tactile reinforcement, possibly some play and social interaction with us etc. (secondary reinforcements) just to name a few. All these factors are extremely important not only for the behavior to be reliable but also in building up a good trustworthy relationship with each other.
Find more info on reinforcements & punishments from here:
What has a cookie jar to do with animal training ? ; https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/641880151475095364/5727146612062096244
The situation described above is what is very commonly considered as a (re)call. To get the animal where we are!
However if we dive a bit deaper in the theory we may notice that a recall is not really a call to get the animal to us but it's meaning is something of a bit wider content. If we look at the definition of the word recall; it's something of the following:
- bring back to one's mind
- order (someone) to return to a place
In this context we are naturally interested in the later description and as we see; the meaning of it is to get someone in a specific location.
This is one of the fundamentals in taking care of animals in a more professional manner. It also should be one of the first things to be taught to animals under our care, as it makes life often times so much easier. Imagine animal having large enclosure in a zoogical setting or livestock in a meadow and you would need to get animals back to a stable or a shed for what ever reason - say because of a colder night etc. How much easier life is if the response of the animals is reliable.
Consistency & variability
Getting an animal from one place to another is not really a problem - however sometimes keeping the behaviour reliable can be a challence. This may happen if we as trainers are keeping the response too much for granted, on other words; we don't maintain a well established behavior with a proper reinforcement schedule.
A recall is a very practical everyday life behavior which is naturally under a cue - given by the keeper of the animal. I've seen in many places where recall has been trained and sustained to animals extraordinary well. There are variable ways to reinforce it in such way that in almost every situation animals will react correctly to the given cue. The key elements are consistency and variability. Those two element will also keep the behavior in a very reliable state.
This is maintained in a way the cue is given - also that the animal is rewarded of a proper response but with a twist of variability. In other words the animal does not always know when the cue is given to it nor how it's response is reinforced. The element of surprise makes life so much more rewarding and motivational. Changes is variation of reinforcement doesn't have to be extreme - small nuances will do the magic. Variation is important also in the sense of magnitude of the reinforcement; a jackpot in surprising the animal is a very strong tool to be used, as it's influence can be so long lasting.
Variability in reinforcements provided in a consistently random manner will establish a very motivated and reliable response in any animal behavior reliability.
When we are considering animal welfare; a possibility for a choice for animal is nowadays always emphasized. Considering the recall we are not really giving a choice to the animal where to we are expecting it to go...but ...
If we are thinking of a scenario where we are training a recall for an animal to go in it's indoor enclosure; Reliability on behavior may have an indirect effect if that animal has access to that indoor area free willingly also during times outside actual training. This way we are giving to the animal more control of it's environment, through choice, which is recommended to be provided to any animal under our care.
If Turles Could Fly ...
What would be a proper cue for turtles?
A cue for a recall can be almost anything; verbal cue or some other sound, light or a body signal etc. It is wise to find a cue which does not normally exist in the animal's environment and of course it should be under our control.
Sometimes you got to be creative; for example if you being with an animal with hearing disability or it's eyesight is not too good. In this case it's al about a kind of fitness program for our red-eared and yellow eared sliders; we started to give them a possibility for a couple of hour "walk time" before opening hours at public aquarium ( Särkänniemi Aquarium, Finland). The turtles get on the public area for a morning walk every morning thus giving them a bit of different exercise than they would get in their exhibit.
Now - turtles are relatively easy to catch when we are putting them back to their premises. However I though of a nice "game" or "play" with them; I started to train them for a cue for recall. It took me a while to think of a proper cue but eventually I think I game up with a nice idea:
As they have no change to enter their paludarium by them selves (...only if they could fly...) so I starter to work with them for a recall which would have a meaning for them to come to me or any animal caretaker on duty. Once they come to us it is then easy to pick them up and put them into their paludarium. The most convenient way to establish this was just to kneel down next to their exhibition. At the beginning it took a while before animals started to react on this cue well but eventually all four got it. So the cue was simply kneeling down.
As for reinforcements; there were two major rewards or reinforcements I think made the difference for them. One was the fact that they got back to nongravity feeling of swimming in the water and of course a primary reinforcement of food that was at the beginning offered to them almost every time. The variability was maintained by variation in different food items provided to them at this state. After a while the food was not any more provided every time they got into the water. This reinforced the variability and surprise in rewarding shedule, thus making the motivation in long run a whole lot better for them.
Now the "game" is well established and it is rewarding and reinforcing to these cute turtles ... and it is really fun to watch.
Enjoy this short clip :-)
Ps. If you have any fun stories or cues you've experienced - Please share them as it would be good to hear your expereinces.