What we share with animals and why it matters

This is part two of my notes from ORCA’s 2013 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. For links to the rest of my notes,
please visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

This year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Susan Schneider gave a wonderful talk that explored many of the biological and behavioral commonalities between people and animals. Dr. Schneider’s keynote address, which was titled “The science of consequences: What we share with animals and why it matters,” focused on three things humans share with animals, shared consequences, shared biology, and shared higher-order skills.

You might “remember” Dr. Schneider. I posted about her at the end of 2012 when her book, The Science of Consequences, was published. Dr. Schneider, a psychobiologist and learning researcher, has over twenty-five years of research and teaching experience in the science of consequences.

The first part of Dr. Schneider’s talk focused on behavioral consequences that humans and animals share. Although the behavior of a human, pigeon, and elephant might look totally different, seemingly different behaviors are often driven by very similar environmental consequences.

Many of these consequences help satisfy an animal’s basic wants and needs. For example, animals will work to gain access to food, water, or shelter and will work to avoid things that are painful or unpleasant. However, some of these shared consequences are somewhat unusual. Dr. Schneider gave some great examples of this at the beginning of her lecture, including a chimp that liked watching the sunset, dogs that like watching TV, and sparrows that enjoy listening to classical music.

Although we often think of animals as being “different” from people, our similarities are sometimes remarkable. For example, behavior analyst Allen Neuringer works with laboratory pigeons, but his pigeons perform remarkably “human” on certain tasks. In one study, pigeons listened to and categorized different types of classical music. In another study, pigeons learned to differentiate between different kinds of artwork. These pigeons learned to distinguish between paintings by Picasso or Monet, and then were able to correctly identify new examples.

Dr. Schneider also discussed how control is a very powerful reinforcer for many species, including humans. Giving an animal more control over her environment can improve an animal’s quality of life. For instance, many dairy farmers now use automatic milking machines that are actually controlled by the cows. Rather than the farmer milking all of the cows at the same exact time every single day, the cow actually gets to choose when she wants to be milked.

Pet owners and animal trainers can incorporate this idea of control into their interactions with their animals. Many dogs learn how to “ask” to go outside. But, owners could also teach pets signals so that the pet could specify when he wanted to go for a walk, which route he wanted to walk, when he wanted to have a training session, or even what he wanted to work on during a training session. Dr. Schneider suggested that this could be a great area for future research, investigating both how to train these types of signals and in what ways they might enhance an animal’s quality of life.

Moving beyond control, Dr. Schneider spent a bit of time talking about how, with the right training, animals and people can both learn self-control. There’s been quite a bit of behavior research in the area of self-control. Researchers are often curious about what factors influence whether an animal (or person) will choose a smaller reward now (smaller sooner) or will show “self-control” and choose to wait for a bigger reward later on (larger later).

Humans often make commitments that help enhance or improve their self-control. For example, by putting money in a savings account, it’s not available for immediate use and you can save it up for a larger purchase later. Dr. Schneider discussed one study where birds could peck one button and get a small bit of grain or could wait and, after a delay, peck a second button and get a larger amount of grain. In the beginning, most birds were “impulsive” and chose to peck the first key to get the smaller amount of grain sooner.

However, later on, the birds were given another option. They could peck a different button at the beginning of each round that would turn off the button for the smaller amount of grain, thus making it unavailable. This way, the bird was not tempted to choose the smaller amount of grain and could wait until the larger amount was available. The “bird-brained” pigeons learned to peck this new button, thus making a commitment that enhanced self-control.

Pigeons are actually much smarter than most people realize. There are two great YouTube videos, which you can find here, that explain a series of research studies called the Columban Simulations. This research explored pigeon cognition, creativity, problem-solving, and other higher-order skills.

Dr. Schneider also discussed biological characteristics and higher order skills that are shared between people and animals. This includes all sorts of different things from epigenetics, to joint attention (learning to pay attention to something that someone else is looking at), to learning through observing others. Even some things that are considered uniquely human, such as language comprehension, might not be so. One neat example of this is Chaser, a Border collie who can identify over 1000 different toys and objects and who has also learned a handful of verbs.

So, what’s the importance of all of this? Understanding what we share with animals can lead to improved training methods and better ways to enrich our animal’s lives. Also, understanding these similarity can give trainers a deeper appreciation for the interactions between nature and nurture, and more information about the ways that training can potentially influence gene activity and neurophysiology.

Trainers and researchers can and should work together, with new scientific findings leading to better training practices. The information, of course, should flow in both directions, with trainers also sharing information and insights with researchers, to help guide the next wave of discoveries.

If you found this post interesting, I highly recommend that you check out Dr. Schneider’s book, The Science of Consequences.

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