Animal Learning: Basic Practice and Application in Dogs and Cats
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2009
Daniela Ramos, DVM, MSc
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, University of São Paulo (FMVZ-USP), Av. Prof. Dr. Orlando M. de Paiva, São Paulo, Brazil

1. Dogs and Cats are Able to Learn: Theory and Practice

Studies on animal learning are part of a well developed scientific area which has already uncovered many important theoretical foundations about dogs´ (and to a lesser extent cats´) ability to change their capacity for behaviour due to particular kinds of experience (i.e., learning, as defined by Liberman, 1993). More recently, the science of animal cognition has revealed other rather complex abilities these animals have to process information and to learn through more intelligent ways. Despite all these, the practical implications and applications of those learning mechanisms are not commonly investigated scientifically. Besides, at least in Brazil where veterinary behaviour medicine is just starting and traditional training techniques are still common among animal trainers, important lessons taken from theory regarding the most effective and appropriate ways to promote learning in dogs and cats are not always put into practice.

The knowledge science brings to us about animals learning skills should serve several purposes. Animal trainers and behaviour counselors should use that practically in order to help in promoting healthy human-animal relationships. Dogs and cats live immersed in our day to day lives, thus naturally receiving constant information from us. It is our duty to direct them in to use these inputs to learn what is right and then deliver acceptable outputs (i.e., behave appropriately). Their abilities to learn should be considered when using behaviour modification techniques as core intervention to control inappropriate behaviours they may exhibit. Additionally, their learning potential should be taken into account when providing an environment enriched by appropriated stimuli in order to reach their physical and social needs and thus preventing the development of behavioural problems.

Dogs and cats learn, and this is not always dependent upon their gender, breed, or even age. For instance, in a recent study of spatial learning, older cats were not less efficient than younger cats when learning the position of food rewards; besides they showed no significant decline in their motor function (McCune et al, 2008). In another study it was demonstrated that the ability of pet dogs to learn from a human demonstrator was independent from their breed and age (Pongracz, Miklosi & Csanyi, 2005). Variability in motivation and attentiveness does otherwise influence the extent to which individuals learn. Thus, no matter the dog or cat you own, whenever necessary and/or appropriate, teaching with the aim at improving its behaviour is always a possibility.

In this sense, choosing the way to teach dogs and cats is the key for success. As indeed its significance determines the outcome. It is true that some archaic training methods are still taught and frequently shown on television and it sometimes results in an apparently quick resolution of abnormal behaviours. However, there has been strong evidence of the fact that old techniques which use mainly aversive stimuli are associated with increased incidence of undesirable behaviours reported(e.g., Hiby et al, 2004; Blackwell et al, 2008). Trainers and handlers should review their training methods in order to incorporate more positive interaction, through positive rewards and enhanced quality time with their "pupils". This will prove to be effective especially in terms of decreasing behaviours indicative of impaired animal welfare (Lefebvre et al, 2007).

Associative learning is the main mechanism by which dogs and cats learn. Classical conditioning (i.e., Pavlovian) and Operant conditioning (i.e., Skinnerian) are the two main forms of associative learning commonly described. According to the former, animals learn associations between contiguous events. For instance, a dog that is fearful of the noise of thunder may progressively become fearful of a grey sky too (even in the absence of thunder). This happens throughout classical conditioning, during which the dog learns to respond to a previously neutral stimulus (i.e., the colour of the sky) with a conditioned response (i.e., fearful behaviour), once this neutral stimulus is naturally paired with a stimulus of some significance (i.e., noises from thunder). In operant conditioning (also called instrumental learning), animals learn associations between events and their contiguous response. For example, a cat whose owner provides food every time it meows in the kitchen learns that meowing (i.e., event) is a way to ask for (and get!) food (i.e., response) from its owner. Other more complex forms of learning such as observational and by generalizations have already been demonstrated particularly in dogs (Slabbert & Rasa, 1997; Young, 1991).

2. Using Their Learning Abilities to Prevent Behavioural Problems

The concept of associative learning should be applied by both dog and cat owners in order to bring up well adjusted pets. Appropriate behaviours by their pets such as relaxed quiet behaviour and prompt obedience should be immediately followed by a reward in a form of food, praise, play or petting (i.e., positive reinforcement). Inappropriate behaviour such as jumping up, excessive vocalization and destruction should be ignored (i.e., negative punishment). The use of aversives in the form of positive punishment or negative reinforcement may be applied in a few specific cases and only with certain individuals. In such cases, non harmful depersonalized methods should always be preferred and used cautiously. On many occasions, although the owner's intention is to reprimand as a form of punishment (or alleviate the use of an aversive as a reinforcement), the simple contact with the owner may be seen by the animal as attention, thus making the process ineffective. In the worse case scenario, the misuse of aversives can lead to fear and anxiety thus leading to serious behavioural problems.

3. Using Their Learning Abilities to Treat Behavioural Problems

Conditioning techniques applied within behaviour modification therapies, such as systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, are the key for changing the mental processing of an animal in a given situation and/or towards a specific stimulus thus affecting its behaviour in the future. Used either by itself or in conjunction with other behavioural therapeutic tools (e.g., environmental changes, medication, etc.) it must be always recommended in cases of feline and canine behavioural problems.

Systematic desensitization is commonly put into practice in cases of fear and phobias. The stimulus that triggers the fearful reaction (e.g., fireworks) is broken down and then presented to the animal at a level high enough to arouse interest without causing fear. This can be done using a CD containing recorded fireworks and by controlling the volume it is possible to present the stimulus at various levels. Whilst the process is repeated in a form of frequent short sessions the stimulus is increased (or other components are introduced)until the pet reliably shows no signs of fear or anxiety. Reward can be used as soon as the animal starts to relax.

Counter-conditioning is generally combined with systematic desensitization, and it constitutes a process of teaching a different task or behaviour than the one which was previously exhibited by the pet in a problematic situation. For instance, during the process of re-introducing cats that used to fight in the past, the new task could be eating quietly or playing. Thus, we condition a new response, eating a delicious treat or playing with an exciting new toy, that is "counter" to hissing, growling and attacking.

Modern equipments such as feeding enrichment toys, remote controlled training devices, spray collars, ultrasonic deterrents and chemical repellents are useful conditioning tools currently available in pet shops. Their use alone is generally inefficient but when integrated to behavioural modification therapies they are quite useful. It is important however to seek professional assistance when deciding to use training aids like these since some of them (e.g., electric training collars)have proved to be stressful for dogs (Schilder & van der Borg, 2003) and thus should be avoided.

4. Using Their Learning Abilities to Enrich their Lives

The potential that dogs and cats have to use their intelligence and learn through various ways should be also be used in order to prevent boredom--a common cause of inappropriate behaviours. Interactive "intelligent" toys and games (e.g., obedience or sport training) inserted in a scheduled daily routine should be provided both under supervision with the participation of the owner and when the pets are left alone. At least in the case of dogs, training has proven to be associated with greater self-confidence and nerve stability (Fuchs et al, 2005). Thus, when animals have constant opportunities to play and to learn, not only will their lives be enriched but also their behaviour and the human-animal relationship are improved.


References are available upon request.

Speaker Information
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Daniela Ramos, DVM, MSc
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences
University of São Paulo (FMVZ – USP)
São Paulo, Brazil

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