Something is always happening

My friend Dr. Joe Layng was in town this past weekend. While he was here, he gave a two-hour lecture for the Department of Behavior Analysis at UNT which was titled “Implications and applications of nonlinear contingency analysis.”

Joe’s talk was packed full of great information. For this post, however, I want to focus on one quote that Joe shared during his talk, as I think it has a lot of implications for animal training.

The following quote comes from a paper by Schoenfeld and Farmer:

“The continuousness of behavior means that the organism can be thought of as always doing something.”

Here’s one way that this quote relates to animal training.

Often, pet owners want to get rid of a problem behavior. For example, a dog owner seeks help from a trainer because she wants her dog to stop barking at people and to stop pulling on the leash. The owner wants these behaviors to stop.

Sometimes to solve these problems, the trainer focuses on providing reinforcement when the dog doesn’t do the problem behavior. For example, the trainer has the owner give a treat every time the dog goes five second without barking.

Good! The dog is now barking less.

But, what is he doing instead? If one behavior stops, other behaviors will happen instead. The dog may not be barking, but he still has to be doing something.

Here’s the problem. If the trainer and owner just focus on reinforcing the absence of the unwanted behavior, they may inadvertently reinforce other problem behaviors.

Rather than providing reinforcement for the absence of a behavior, pick an appropriate behavior that you would like the dog to do instead. Usually, it’s a lot easier to teach a something than a nothing.

Here’s another related issue that can also lead to problems.

The trainer and the client both agree that the dog shouldn’t be barking at people. However, they only talk about this, and they don’t discuss what the dog should be doing instead.

The trainer then implements what she knows will be the perfect solution. However, she ends up teaching alternative behaviors that don’t fit well for this particular dog and human. As a result, the client is less willing to practice or quits the training program all together.

So, remember this: The animal is always doing something. Figure out what you want the animal to be doing, make sure everyone involved agrees, then teach the animal how to do it.

This article is available in German at

Quote - the organism is always doing something

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