Applied Behavior Analysts in Animal Training and Behavior Modification

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in animal training works identically to the way it works with people: behavior analysts use observation and experimentation to create a series of functionally effective reinforcements to modify behavior for the benefit of both animals and animal owners.

Applied behavior analysis in animal training has a history far older and more consequential than the work of celebrity dog trainer Cesar Milan or even acclaimed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin. Though he may not approve of the methods and the risks, even the “Dog Whisperer” himself would appreciate the ambitious work of those who pioneered the techniques that would move the field from the big top to the big time.

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, an obscure animal training business in Hot Springs, Arkansas received a visit from an anonymous man. Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) primarily trained animals for the entertainment industry, but had recently hired a trainer named Bob Bailey who had formerly been involved in military intelligence. The visitor had a proposition for Bailey: he wondered if ABE could train a cat to infiltrate a building and monitor a conversation between two humans.

Cats are not notoriously trainable animals, but Bailey and ABE rose to the challenge. Through the use of operant training techniques, they were able to teach a cat to make its way to a certain area in a building and to sit near people who were talking to one another.

The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)—which was where the anonymous visitor worked—had veterinary surgeons take care of the rest. Decades before cochlear implants became common as a treatment for deaf people, the Agency implanted one in the cat, together with a low-power transmitter that enabled agents outside the building to overhear what the cat heard.

The project, known now as Project Acoustic Kitty, has entered public lore as a resounding failure that resulted in the death of the cat and collapse of the initiative. But Bailey, and other people familiar with the project, insist that the lore is wrong, and the experiments were successful… although they refuse to confirm whether or not the technology and technique were ever used operationally.

Success would be no surprise to any modern practitioner in the field known as applied animal behavior analysis, which makes use of similar conditioning techniques to train almost any type of animal.

Animal Behavior Research Advanced the State of Applied Behavior Analysis

In some respects, animal behaviorists came to applied behavior analysis before their counterparts in the field of human psychology. Without the distraction of language and presumption of higher reasoning, animal trainers have long been forced to focus exclusively on the behaviors of their charges and to find ways to manipulate them through a careful program of punishment and reward.

But the craft of animal training, established through trial and error and passed down as lore over the centuries, differs from the established science of behavior analysis despite sharing many of the same techniques.

B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist who is one of the fathers of behaviorism, performed much of his groundbreaking work on animal subjects. In fact, Skinner received National Defense Research Committee funding during World War II for the purpose of training pigeons to guide missiles to their intended targets. The research that went into Project Pigeon helped form the basis for theories that later became the foundation of applied behavior analysis.

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A Branch in the Road of Behavior Analysis

Skinner took his theories and went to work on explaining the more complex behaviors of human beings, but his work on behavior analysis continued on its own path in the world of animal training. In fact, two of his students, Keller and Marian Breland, went on to found Animal Behavior Enterprises.

Today, animal behaviorists are found working for professional animal training services that specialize in behavior modification in pets, service animals, livestock and other domesticated animals:

  • Service and companion animal training facilities
  • Military and police working dog trainers
  • Zoos
  • Aquariums
  • Farms and ranches

Because applied behavior analysis often stresses the importance of training taking place in the animals’ normal environment and under the normal conditions in which the animal will be working or living, ABAs working with animals can expect to spend a lot of time outdoors or in their clients’ homes.

Although the underlying theories of behavior analysis apply equally in animal and human behavior modification, animal behavior analysts tend to use training techniques that are more rudimentary and straightforward than applied behavior analysts working with people.

The so-called ABCs of behavior analysis still apply:

  • Antecedent – The prompt, or initial situation—for instance, a trainer might throw a ball for a dog.
  • Behavior – The action or behavior in response to the antecedent—the dog fetching the ball.
  • Consequence – The reinforcement mechanism to be associated with the behavior—a treat, or affectionate attention from the trainer.

Trainers apply these basic processes using techniques that include:

  • Sensitization/Desensitization – Using repetitive exposure and reinforcement to condition an animal to an environmental condition, such as loud noises, which had been causing discomfort—or to create a sensitivity to conditions to be avoided
  • Stimulus control – Creating associations between positive reinforcements and desirable behaviors, such as training drug-sniffing dogs to sit when certain chemical signatures are smelled
  • Chaining – A series of stimulus responses used to help shape more complex behaviors.

The vocabulary and methods used by animal behavior analysts tends to differ from those used by ABAs working with human patients. Chaining, for example, resembles a more formal therapy called Discrete Trial Training used with people. Animal trainers are also more likely to work alone, rather than as part of a team. They often work one-on-one with animals and have little outside supervision. They may coordinate with veterinarians or animal handlers, however.

For example, one study describes the use of positive reinforcement in assisting horse trainers in teaching their horses to enter horse trailers in a manner that was safer for both animals and trainers. While previous methods of loading the horses had focused on aversive techniques to punish improper entry, repeated positive stimulus and chaining techniques taught the horses to enter the trailers safely and calmly every time.

Preparing for a Career in Animal Training With Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied animal behavior analysts come in to the field from a wide variety of backgrounds. Undergraduate degrees in psychology, biology, or animal science are common paths to follow.

A master’s degree in psychology, biology, ethology, or applied behavior analysis is a requirement for most of the available certifications in the field.

The Animal Behavior Society offers the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) certificate, which is specific to animal behavior analysis. But many animal behavior analysts hold a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) certification from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB).

It’s common for animal behaviorists to be drawn to animals in both their personal and professional lives, and so many come to the field having been pet owners or having worked on farms.

Other opportunities to work with applied animal behaviorists already practicing in the field can sometimes be found by looking for jobs or volunteer opportunities at animal shelters, animal training businesses, veterinary practices, pet stores and pet care providers.

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Additional Resources for Applied Behavior Analysis in Animal Training

Association for Behavior Analysis International’s Animal Behavior Special Interest Group – This SIG (special interest group) is a subset of the Association for Behavior Analysis International that welcomes animal behavior specialist members to engage in discussions on important topics in the field and to get together during annual ABAI conferences.

Applied Animal Behavior Science – The official journal of the International Society for Applied Ethology.

Animal Behavior Society – A non-profit dedicated to promoting and encouraging the study of animal behavior.

International Society for Applied Ethology – An association of professionals interested in the behavior and welfare of confined or domesticated animals.

So Much Petential – Blog focused on applied behavior analysis in pet training.

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants – A professional society of animal behavior consultants.

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