Useful things to know before starting your training journey…

Some trainers use big fancy words or abbreviations of big fancy words, that may not make any sense to those who have never done training, or who haven’t studied the theory of training. When I first started out learning about animal training, I went to several conferences to learn the theory and I came out more confused than I went in. It took me ages to get my head around what they were talking about, I just got lost in a jumble of words and couldn’t keep up. It was frustrating and I felt like I was never going to understand what they were talking about and never become a good trainer. That was until I went to Ken Ramirez’s Core to Complex workshop. Ken Ramirez is a phenomenal trainer and an even better coach, he spoke to us like we had no knowledge of training, explained everything he talked about and for the first time I actually left a training conference feeling like I’d learnt something, and without feeling patronised. That is why, throughout these blogs, I’m going to use the basic lingo, and hopefully explain things in a way that make sense to everyone. Even so, there is some terminology that can’t be avoided and I wanted to clearly explain what I mean by these words/phrases before going in to detail about the behaviours I hope to help you learn.

Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning

The one thing I struggled with the most and that still confuses people a lot, due to the words used, is the four quadrants of operant conditioning. I was always given examples of positive reinforcement, or negative punishment but it was never clearly explained to me that “negative” or “punishment” doesn’t actually mean “bad” and “positive” or “reinforcement” doesn’t mean “good”, it means to add or remove something to increase or decrease a behaviour. It wasn’t until I finally saw this chart at the Ken Ramirez workshop that it all made sense to me:

For the purpose of this blog, all the behaviours I’m going to talk about will be trained using positive reinforcement but I may in future go in to detail about how and when negative reinforcement can be used, it can be a very helpful tool in certain situations.

Classical conditioning (aka associative learning) refers to a learning procedure in which an unconditioned stimulus is paired with a neutral stimulus, over time creating a conditioned stimulus. A great example of this would be Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. Pavlov would present his dogs with food (unconditioned stimulus) immediately after the sound of a bell (neutral stimulus). After a time the dogs associated the sounds of the bell with the presentation of food and would begin to salivate at the sound of the bell, even before the food was given. The bell became a conditioned stimulus.

Behaviour is maintained by reinforcement!

I think one of the most important things to know is animals are always learning, even when we’re not teaching them. A dog barks at someone walking past the house, this is their way of telling them to go away, the person walks past and way from the house, in the dogs head the barking has worked and he/she will continue to bark at passers-by. Animals learn by observation and through behaviours that get a response they want. This may not be something we class as a desirable behaviour like mentioned above with the dog barking a passers-by, but this is a learned behaviour and punishing a dog for barking won’t teach them what they’re doing is wrong, we need to teach animals what we would like them to do instead. Reinforcement is everywhere! Some great ways of showing how reinforcement is everywhere is by giving examples of we as humans do on a regular basis. We turn the key in the car ignition and the engine starts, the engine starting is reinforcing the behaviour of turning the key. We feel thirsty and drink a glass of water, the feeling of thirst goes away, we reinforce the behaviour of drinking. Reinforcement is literally in everything we do and repeat, otherwise we wouldn’t do it again.


Reinforcer – there are two types of reinforcer, primary; which is what an animal finds inherently reinforcing such and food or water, and secondary; this is something that has acquired a reinforcing value through it’s association with a primary reinforcer. For example, an animal may find petting and other human interaction reinforcing once they learn that people are associated with their food and care.

Bridge/marker – A bridge or marker, is the communication we give an animal to say that the behaviour they did was correct and that the reinforcer is on it’s way. You may also hear a bridge/marker being called a conditioned reinforcer by some trainers. A bridge needs to be trained before it can be used but it is very easy to do, simply pair the bridge you’re planning to use (clicker, whistle, “good”, “yes”) with a primary reinforcer such as food, in time the animal will associate the bridge with the delivery of food and then you can start training other behaviours.

Cue – a signal you give the animal to ask for a specific behaviour. This can be auditory, visual or tactile. For example you may use a visual flat hand signal as a cue to wait, or a auditory “sit” cue to ask an animal to sit. This needs to be added in once an animal has learnt the behaviour, you can’t just say “sit” and expect an animal to know what that means. A cue needs to be clear and consistent, and try and avoid making cues for different behaviours too similar, this can cause a lot of confusion which may lead to frustration.

Stimulus – a thing or event that evokes a specific functional reaction or behaviour.

Shaping – small increments or steps that are bridged and reinforced to get to the final behaviour. For example; you want a animal to touch a target, you would start by reinforcing the animal looking at the target, then any slight movement towards the target, then bigger movements, then the final behaviour of touching.

Superstitious behaviour – an accidentally or unintentionally reinforced behaviour; where a behaviour is reinforced but the reinforcement occurred by random chance, instead of in accordance with a specific contingency.

Trust account – the account we have with our animal/s that we deposit trust in to to ensure we have a strong relationship with the animal/s we’re training. Think of the trust account like a bank account, if we keep it topped up things keep going smoothly and if we have to dip in to it by taking our animal to the vet for example, then it doesn’t matter too much, we have a strong trust account and will be forgiven quickly. If our account is empty or low, then things are already tight and a dip in will be noticeable and potentially damaging, making it much harder to have a strong relationship with our animal/s.

A-B-Cs – A = antecedent: stimulus that occurs just before the behaviour, B = behaviour: the behaviour the animal does, C = consequence: what happens directly after the behaviour occurs. For example; trying to get a parrot to step up: A- hand is put in front of parrot, B- parrot bites hand, C- hand is removed. What has happened here is that the parrot has learnt that biting the hand makes it go away so reinforces the behaviour of biting. This example is negative reinforcement, negative – removal of something, reinforcement – behaviour increases.

Incompatible behaviour – a behaviour that can’t be done in conjunction with another behaviour. For example, we may class a parrot screaming as an undesirable behaviour. Yelling at it will only make it scream louder, the best thing we can do is to teach the parrot a behaviour it can’t do at the same time as screaming such as, saying ‘hello’.

Dominance – now dominance isn’t a word I like to use. It is misused all the time and if you hear a trainer saying ‘your dog is being dominant over you’ please run a mile! Animals can’t be dominant over people, we are not the same species, we cannot communicate in the way animals of the same species communicate with each other. Only animals of the same species can be dominant to another of their own species. This is how the Oxford Dictionary of Animal Behaviour describes dominance: a feature of social organisation in which some individuals acquire a high status, usually as a result of aggression, while other individuals retain a low status.

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