Have you ever noticed that if you give a puppy who happens to be sitting under your dinner table a scrap from your plate, he is more likely to come under the table more often in hopes of getting another scrumptious delight? This observation follows a basic law of learning, that behaviour becomes more or less likely to occur depending on the consequences of that behaviour. This is the fundamental principle of “operant conditioning”.
According to the very noteworthy psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) behaviour can have usually 3 types of consequences:
1) A neutral consequence results in neither increasing or decreasing the probability that the behavioural response will occur again (i.e. you have a key on your computer that is harder to press than the others. You will continue pressing that key regardless because you need that letter. You won’t ignore the key or press it more often. You just “deal” with it.);
2) Reinforcement strengthens a behavioural response so that it is more likely to occur (i.e. how I am now giving my chihuahua, Dolly, some of my Chex Mix snack and how she is increasingly begging for more each time I stick my hand in the cereal box to feed myself);
3) Punishment will weaken a response to make it less likely to recur (i.e. you place a bitter ointment on someone who chews their fingernails so that they are repulsed to then bite on those fingernails.)
How do these basic concepts relate to animals? Well, if you want to train your dog, if you see a tiger jump through a hoop of fire (shamefully!), or if you ride a horse, the concept of operant conditioning will be at play. This can have even fundamental effects on the veterinary care of these animals. Such is what occurs at Big Cat Rescue.
The veterinarian of Big Cat Rescue makes great use of operant conditioning in order to teach these animals to respond to her so that she can more easily and safely take care of them, being that despite meaning them well, they can mean her great harm if fearful of her purposes. Although, yes, she could just use a tranquilizing gun to fully relax an animal so that she can check them, this method may take more time to work out, but it has greater benefits (not to mention, there are some difficulties with tranquilizers such as: a) only getting half the dose of the tranquilizer into the animal because of the way the dart hit the animal or because the dart fell out of the animal before all of it could enter the bloodstream; b) hitting a sensitive area of the animal by accident; c) antagonizing the animal; d) chasing the animal around its cage for hours to get the right angle to pull the tranquilizing trigger; and there are several other difficulties with this traditional though completely valid route of getting close to a wild animal.
In order to help in medical condition evaluation, the veterinarian of Big Cat Rescue commands to the animals the simple word “Up!”, and as soon as they hear her, they place their paws above their head and rest them atop the cage (as though they are giving the fencing a hug). She then rewards them with a meaty treat while doing her evaluations as quickly and thoroughly as possible. This process helps her evaluate their undercarriage and the condition of their paws. She then rewards them equally when they respond to her “Down!” command.
Not only does the veterinarian get to have fun helping the cats using operant conditioning, but so, too, do the caretakers on a daily basis in an effort to further sharpen the cats’ operant conditioning skills. Cats housed together, such as some of the bobcats, usually need to be trained to respond to operant conditioning privately by two different trainers/caretakers. The reason for needing such privacy is to remove any aggression between the cats that could arise when treats are being rewarded. In order to do this, the cats are individually taken into different stations by first placing them into a “lockout”. The lockout is a separate portion of their enclosure that they must enter willingly upon hearing the command “Lockout!” Once they enter their lockout, the lockout gate is closed, and they can privately begin their training for veterinary care. Lockout commands are not only important for more personal veterinary care, but they are also useful for caretakers who need to go into the animal enclosure to clean and survey it.
But how do you give a big kitty medicine it doesn’t like? (This is the million dollar question for parents trying to feed their own little “animal” children at home.) One (i.e. the veterinarian or “parental unit”) can use operant conditioning in many circumstances! You can give the critter the meds followed immediately by a positive reward. Some cats (and children) just can’t be fooled, so they are given their meds hidden in meat.
With these tools that combine modern medicine, caretaking, and psychology, Big Cat Rescue is forthcoming with their integration of the fields to provide the best life and health to the cats that they so passionately care for. Check out the Big Cat Rescue website on my links to the right to learn more about their animals, their Operant Conditioning Program, and how to help them continue their success!
Coming next will be the superstar of Big Cat Rescue’s Operant Conditioning Program…