The Power of Signals

When I think about animal training for me it is a always looking at the whole picture. Not just that one thing we want to teach that particular animal. Of course, our goal should be clear and manageable for the animal, us and the environment where training will occur. However, for working with pets it is crucial to think about how the behavior will be implemented in everyday life. Most importantly how will that animal feel about the whole thing?

Emotions are “power machines“  that drive us and other animals to feel whole scope of feelings and it will affect how we behave.
There are so many things that will evoke emotions and consequently effect what we do. It will (simply put) depend on what was paired and what was consequence. For example a song that was playing while we were dancing with our first love.  Closeness and romantic environment will evoke all sort of positive and pleasant emotions. So in years to come that song will most probably evoke some pleasant memories and emotions within us even though we are not longer together with that person and we are not dancing.
Our pets learn in the same way – they pair situations, smells, sounds with what is happening in that moment. As a code it gets filed in the database of things we have experienced.
For my clients to better understand what we want to achieve in training I like to give examples.
So I talk about things I like, but most people can relate to. So I tell them:  “if someone says to me Chocolate or Pizza I will instantly feel good and happy while thinking about them, even though at that moment I am not seeing, smelling or eating them. It is the word that has power over me because in my past it was paired so many times with positive consequence – eating chocolate or pizza. So now the word itself has effect on my body state“.
In the same manner we can think about signals that we use. They should elicit pleasant feelings in the animal’s body so that animal happily and willingly does the behavior.
It is a journey, it does not happened over night and it should be planned well to work efficiently.

First we should pair signal with something really pleasant for that animal.  After we see the shine in the animal’s eyes after we say that signal– we know we are on good way. Reward can be variable in type of reinforcement (not only food for example) but always pleasant for animal. Next step is introducing variable schedule of reinforcement (not always rewarding but doing it in enough ratio to keep animal interested and willing to participate). After a while, consequently the signal itself will become very powerful because we have invested lots of value in it. The signal itself will elicit happy (pleasant) feelings, and we will not have to reward the animal any more for that behavior. The signal becomes the reward.
However, for behavior (and the power of signal) to be maintained we should occasionally reward it, especially in hard circumstances.

For fearful dogs such positive power of signal can help them feel better in scary situation. Of course that is not enough! But it can help because “happy hormones” should kick in when animal hears/sees that signal. It might help balance the chemistry and help animal in that scary situation.
Another positive consequence is the fact that it enhances our bond with the animal. We are the source of that signal– so it is cool to hang out around us.
Also, for fearful dogs bond with us is very important for them to feel safer. We should show our dogs that we are here for them, signals are only one part of that of course, one way of communicating with them. So we can also use signals to have a positive communication.

So think about how you use your signals and how much have you invested. It should not be only about getting the behavior, but about thinking of how does animal feel when the signal is given.
Though for the end:  think also about how will animal feel if our signal predict something negative for that animal and remember that we are the source of that.

Other Blogs in English

* Please excuse my English, it is not my primary language. 

Jelena Kallay – Vagabond Positive Animal Communication
Dip. Animal Behavior Technology, Dip. ABT – CASI
Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional Program, KPA – CTP