Teacher's Pet: How to make your words matter

Teacher's Pet: How to make your words matter

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Last month I introduced three categories of words that are of relevance to our pets when we talk to them. Here I will briefly review the definition of each and provide instructions on how best to teach your pet to respond to words in each of these categories.

Conditioned reinforcers: Words become conditioned reinforcers when they are consistently paired with the delivery of things our pets love (that is, positive reinforcers). We talk to our pets all the time, often using praising words and often while petting, feeding or playing with them. Yet for a word to function best as a conditioned reinforcer, you should choose one word (or sound) that you use intentionally each time you deliver a treat during early training.

The advantage of choosing a short, specific word is that it will make the association between the word and the food treat more precise and salient, and thus empower the word more effectively later. For example, if you are teaching your dog to Sit when you say “Sit," you should begin by saying “Yes!” each time you deliver the food reward to your dog when she sits. With these repetitions of “Yes!” + food treat, the word “Yes!” will become rewarding in itself. Soon, you will be able to use the word “Yes!” to reward behavior you like even when you don’t have a treat on you. (Of course, if you only say “Yes!” thereafter without occasionally pairing “Yes!” with treats, it will lose its rewarding value over time, so be sure to provide reminder sessions here and there, pairing the word with treat deliveries.)

Conditioned punishers: Words become conditioned punishers when they are consistently associated with the delivery of something unpleasant or undesirable. If your dog jumps on you, you might say “No” and turn your back or walk away for a brief timeout from attention. If you repeatedly use “No," in the same tone and always followed immediately by a timeout from attention, then the word “No” should come to serve as a word with corrective value. You should find over time that you need not walk as far away for the timeout, or even turn your back at all, as your dog learns what “No” means and learns to discontinue his jumping in response to your word alone. (Note: It’s not recommended that you use this procedure on its own without a positive reinforcement plan also in place for teaching him what you want him to be doing instead of jumping!)

Discriminative stimuli: Words become discriminative stimuli when your pet learns that listening to your cue or command results in positive reinforcement and thus begins doing what you ask. For example, if you teach your cat that each time she comes to you when you call “Fluffy, Here!” she will receive a play session with her favorite toy, you may find that she learns to come readily when you call her this way. We would then say that your cue (“Fluffy, Here!”) has become a discriminative stimulus. If you call her in the same way only when you want to give her a bath or trim her nails, however, you will likely see that she stops coming when called. In this case, your words no longer promise positive consequences for her if she does what you ask, and thus she is unlikely to respond to the call any longer.

No matter what type of word you are trying to teach your pet, it is important that you use the word in a consistent way. Because we casually converse with our cats and dogs so often throughout the day, many words can get lost in the jumble of conversation. Choose a few key words — those that communicate the basic cues you want your pet to learn and those that convey to your pet that you are pleased or displeased by his or her behavior. Then, by using positive reinforcement carefully and consistently, you can be well on your way to having an attentive, well-behaved and happy animal companion.

Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.

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