Understanding behavioral momentum and its applications

Recently, I was reading over some of the posts from my conference and clinics notes page. And I realized that I had never finished posting my notes from the 2014 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference! So, I’ll be sharing notes from the last three talks this week and next week. You can find all of my conference notes on this page.

ORCA conference at UNT 2014Phung Luu is an accomplished bird trainer who has trained many different species of birds for free flight bird shows in the United States and all over the world. As you can imagine, training birds for free flight demonstrations requires quite a bit of skill and precision. If the bird’s training is not completely reliable, the trainer could end up losing the bird. At the 2014 conference, Phung talked specifically about behavioral momentum and how he uses this concept to teach new behaviors more efficiently and effectively.

What is behavioral momentum?

Phung Luu began his lecture by talking a bit about physics and the laws of momentum. If you think back to your high school physics class, you might remember that Newton’s second law of motion states that the more force applied to an object, the more the object will accelerate (and the faster it will go).

Tony Nevin and others working in the field of experimental behavior analysis have suggested that Newton’s laws can be a good analogy for behavior. Reinforcement is a big “force” that will make behavior go in a certain direction and keeps it going in that direction. These researchers have postulated that high rates of reinforcement and longer histories of reinforcement build “momentum” and lead to behavior that is resistant to change in the presence of disruptions and distractions.

I think this makes sense intuitively. If you’re feeling successful and if you feel like you’ve been doing things right, you are going to be much more willing to keep trying, than if you’ve had a lot of failures recently. Your behavior is building up “momentum” (reinforcement) that will keep it going. The idea of behavior momentum is important because it asserts that behavior that has a lot of momentum will be much more likely to persist following a disruption or a change in environmental conditions.

How can behavioral momentum be used during training?

Behavioral momentum is a useful concept to consider when designing a training program if the animal will need to be able to do the behavior in new or challenging conditions. A trainer can begin to build momentum for a behavior in two ways, by training with a high rate of reinforcement and by providing lots of reinforcement for the behavior.

Phung advised to make sure that a behavior has a long history of reinforcement and that the animal is working at high rates of reinforcement before adding large distractions. However, once the behavior has a lot of “momentum” the trainer can add in larger distractions and more challenging situations.

Phung showed a great video of a detection dog searching a room for a particular scent. When the dog found the scent, he got to play with a tennis ball as a reward. During one part of the video, someone in the room dumps out a whole box of tennis balls that then go bouncing around the room. However, the dog ignores the balls and keeps on working to find the scent. That’s how strong the searching behavior had been taught!

Using easy behaviors to teach hard behaviors

Phung Luu described one practical application of behavioral momentum that relates to research that has been done by Dr. Charles Mace. Some of Dr. Mace’s research has looked at building behavioral momentum by using a high probability behavior right before a low probability behavior. Or, in other words, asking the person or animal to do an easy, well-known behavior (a behavior that has a high probability of occurring), before asking the animal to do a new or more difficult behavior (a behavior that has a lower probability of occurring).

As an example, imagine training a bird to go into a crate. This is a difficult task and something the bird isn’t too sure about. However, the bird is savvy about clicker training and has learned a handful of other behaviors, including touching a target. The trainer could ask the bird to do several target touches, and then ask for an approximation in crate training. The trainer could then have the bird do several more target touches, followed by having the bird approach the crate again.

Mixing easy and hard behaviors to build momentum helps increase the overall rate of reinforcement. The known, easy behavior helps get the animal going and can potentially make it easier for the animal to do the harder behavior. Mixing hard and easy behaviors can also increase the animal’s focus and encourage the animal to keep trying.

Behavioral momentum: Cautions and pitfalls

Behavioral momentum can create superstitious behavior on the part of both the animal and the trainer. For example, if the trainer always asks the animal to do the same easy behavior before asking for a particular harder behavior, the trainer could accidentally create a chain. The animal now thinks that the two behaviors are tied together and that it has to do the first behavior before the second.

As well, it is important to remember that a behavior that has a great deal of momentum will be more likely to persist. In other words, if a behavior has a huge reinforcement history, it can be hard to change the behavior. This can be good, because it can lead to really strong behaviors. However, it also means that trainers need to be cautious about what they teach. If you teach a behavior one way (either accidentally or on purpose), it can be hard to go back and change it.


Behavioral momentum provides one perspective for thinking about how to build strong behavior, as well as practical suggestions for how to go about this. Some ways to create strong behavior include high rates of reinforcement, building a large history of reinforcement, and mixing easy and hard behaviors. Behavior momentum can help keep a behavior going, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

Do you have any strategies or techniques you use that make it easier to teach difficult behaviors or that help establish a high rate of reinforcement when teaching a hard behavior?

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