Constant stimuli: A rat training report

Three of my pet rats trying to escape from their cage

I think I’ve mentioned it on the blog, but I’ve recently moved to a new apartment. I’m much happier here, but the move (plus my trip to Seattle) created a slight disruption in our training. For the past few days Georgie has been working on a new behavior, going through a curved piece of PVC pipe. I picked this as an easy first behavior to work on in the new apartment because of her previous experience with tunnels. I also want to play some this summer with creating chains of behavior for rat obstacle courses and rat “agility” and the PVC pipe will be a great for this. Here’s where we are now.

Watch on Youtube: Georgie goes through the PVC pipe tunnel

Georgie’s doing pretty well with this trick! However, even though we shaped this behavior quickly, her performance didn’t look this fluid at the beginning. The first few days we worked on this behavior, she was pretty “distracted.” She would earn a couple of treats and then run off to smell the walls or sniff over the side of the desk. Even though the table is the same, the plywood is the same, and I’m sitting in the same spot, A LOT of other things have changed. The walls are different, the furniture around the desk is different, the whole apartment smells and sounds different completely. This means there’s plenty of new things to take in and adjust to!

Israel Goldiamond and Arthur Schwartz have a name for all of these background scenery variables. They call them constant stimuli or stimulus props. They explain:

There is a set of events which are present during both the increase of certain behaviors and the decrease of others. They are present during delivery and nondelivery of consequences. They seem to be givens, the constants which are a backdrop when learning occurs. They are ignored. However, if they are changed suddenly, the behaviors may be disrupted. Such stimuli are called constant or stimulus props. Any change in a client’s behavior, especially a sudden change, should be examined for changes in the stimulus or ecological props.
Social Casework: A Behavioral Approach. Schwartz and Goldiamond, 1975.

Schwartz and Goldiamond were writing for clinicians and therapists working with people. However, the exact same ideas apply to animal training. Sometimes behavior falls apart or an animal stops performing, because the constant, background stimuli change. For example, if you usually do liberty work with your horse in a large arena with jumps and suddenly one day the barn manager removes all the jumps to repaint them, your horse’s behavior might, at first, be completely disrupted. Or, in the case of my rat Georgie, when we first started training in the new apartment, it took her awhile to acclimate to the new environment and get back in the training game.

What does this mean for us as animal trainers? To keep constant stimuli from interfering with your training, keep these following points in mind:

1. Be aware of constant stimuli. If all of a sudden your animal seems to completely forget his training, consider the constant stimuli. Often times, something has changed. You might not even be aware of it, but the animal definitely noticed! Trainers often say that an animal has forgotten or is distracted when the animal doesn’t perform correctly. These types of labels can put the blame on the animal, when instead the trainer needs to be looking for environmental causes for the drop in performance. A change in constant stimuli might not actually be the cause, but it’s a variable that affects performance that trainers sometimes forget to examine.

2. Cut the animal (and yourself) a break. If performance does deteriorate, cut yourself a break. Don’t get frustrated with yourself or the animal. See if you can determine the cause, whether it is a change in constant stimuli or some other variable. Then, back up a step, or if need be, do what Karen Pryor calls going back to kindergarten. Even if you have to reshape the behavior, you should be able to recover the behavior if it was stable before.

3. Be proactive. Vary your training environment. Background variables will have less effect on behavior the more that you vary them during training. If your horse has learned a behavior in the arena, can he also do it in the barn, in the wash stall, and in the pasture? Does your animal still respond to your cues no matter where you are standing in relation to the animal? What if you’re holding a bucket or brief case, or wearing a funny hat? The animal’s behaviors and your cues will become stronger and more resilient to environmental changes the more that you vary the background variables.

One more fun story. I originally taught my parent’s dog, Ginger, to bow in their kitchen. You can see a video of it here. We kept working on this behavior in the kitchen until the behavior was completely accurate and fluid. I could give the cue and she would do the behavior 100% of the time. Then, I tried giving the cue in the living room. Oops! The behavior completely fell apart. She would not respond to the cue at all!

Interestingly, Ginger would do the behavior in kitchen, the entry way to the house, and in the bathroom—all areas of my parent’s house that have tile or linoleum. However, she would not do the behavior on carpet. I had to completely reshape the bow in the living room. After retraining the behavior on the carpet, she will now do the behavior anywhere in the house. This is a good example of how something seemingly insignificant, such as flooring, can make a big difference to an animal.

What do you think? Have you ever had a behavior completely fall apart when you’ve moved to a new location or changed something in the background environment?

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