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JoAnna Lou
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From Timeouts to Clicker Training
What we’ve gained from studying animal behavior.

I’ve learned a lot about human behavior from my experience training dogs and always knew it would somehow influence how I raise my future kids. I often joke that I’ll corral unruly children in crates, which is usually met with nervous laughter, but in all seriousness, many of the techniques we use to modify human behavior stems from what we know about animal behavior.

A recent Slate.com article discusses how when psychologists introduce new treatments to patients, they routinely leave out the part about the method’s origins in animal research. And it’s not limited to the medical field. The ever-popular timeout is actually a concept developed from reinforcement studies on rats.

Now many research institutions, like the Harvard Canine Cognition Lab, are turning the tables and using what we know about human behavior to learn more about animals. With more importance placed on studying animals, there has also been a greater acceptance for a more direct application of animal training to human behavior.

A mainstream example is Amy Sutherland’s bestselling book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, a tongue-in-cheek approach to using positive reinforcement to influence human behavior. Many laughed at its implications, but at its basic principle, who couldn’t use a more positive outlook on life?

Tagteach is a more serious application of a reinforcement-based training method, using the operant conditioning of the clicker for teaching humans. Needless to say, it has been met with a little more resistance. 

When I first learned about Tagteach, which uses a clicker to mark correct behavior, I mentioned it to variety of different people. Everyone thought it was completely crazy and even I thought clicker training a human seemed a little silly at first. 

But after learning about TagTeach’s successes -- teaching pilots to fly planes, helping ballerinas to learn proper posture and encouraging autistic kids to communicate -- I was convinced that they were truly onto something.

According to Slate.com’s article, using the basic principles of operant conditioning may not be so animalistic as one would think. Since the beginning of the 20th century, elaborate studies have recorded different animals’ responses to reinforcement. And the research over the years has shown that the responses to reinforcement are almost identical between pigeons, rats, monkeys and, yes, even humans.

This does not go to say that we all act and learn in the same way. Different animals will learn faster or differently than others, but these studies show that there are basic behavioral principles that we all share -- four legs or two.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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