Words Are Powerful

It doesn’t take much exposure to the animal welfare field to see that it can be an emotive, divisive, and complicated environment. The words we use to describe practices, policies, and organizations can be fraught with bias that can shut down conversations and not ultimately diminish progress towards broader animal welfare.

For example, phrases like kill shelter” opposed to open admissions shelter” to describe an organization that practices non-medically, non-behaviorally-indicated euthanasia have very different emotional underpinnings. Organizations may call themselves “sanctuaries” but fail to uphold appropriate animal welfare standards under the pressure of providing lifelong care for the animals they admit and become “hoarding situations” in the news. The same collar can be innocuously referred to as an “electric collar” or more sinisterly, a “shock collar”. 

I’m not arguing that we should collectively ban emotion and passion in animal welfare, but inflammatory language and gross over-simplification does not help any animals get better welfare. As knowledge becomes increasingly available in our highly interconnected world, it behooves individuals interested in advancing animal welfare to be conscientious consumers and producers of animal welfare knowledge. Well, that’s the mindset I’m going to write this blog with anyway!

With that in mind, here are the non-inflammatory, non-simplified definitions of some terms that I’m use frequently on this blog, which will be added to progressively:

Psych 101 Terms

Stimuli: a factor that will impact an animal’s behavior. This could be food, praise, a loud noise, another animal, a smell, etc.

Classical conditioning: Have you heard about Pavlov and his drooling dogs? This is the classical example of classical conditioning: pairing an animal’s natural response (drooling) to a stimuli (food) with a stimuli unrelated to the response (the sound of a bell). Pretty soon, the animal’s natural response (drooling) can be elicited from the classically conditioned stimuli (bell) alone.

Operant conditioning: this type of conditioning teaches an animal that a certain behavior results in a specific outcome. This more sophisticated training method is comprised of four types of strategies to change an animal’s behavior: positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.

Positive: Adding or applying a stimuli

Negative: Taking away an stimuli

Punishment: A stimuli that will decrease the frequency of a behavior

Reinforcement: A stimuli that will increase the frequency of a behavior

Examples in animal training:

Positive reinforcement: giving a cat a treat for raising their paw on command. You gave a the cat a stimuli (the treat) in order to increase the paw raising behavior.

Negative reinforcement: pulling on a pinch collar until a dog sits on command. You took away the stimuli (the tension on the pinch collar) in order to increase the sitting behavior.

Positive punishment: yelling at a cat for scratching the sofa. You gave the cat a stimuli (yelling) in order decrease the cat’s sofa-scratching behavior.

Negative punishment: putting a dog in her crate for chasing the cat. You took away a stimuli (the freedom to chase the cat) the decrease the dog’s cat-chasing behavior.

Other Terms: 

Aversive training methods: any training methods selected for its intended unpleasant effect on the animal. These methods rely on avoidance learning, which means an animal learns a behavior to avoid an aversive stimuli. This includes but is not limited to: alpha-rolling (restraining a dog on its side against the floor, physical reprimands (hitting, kicking), noise deterrents (a can of pennies, training horns, yelling) and electric collars of any type.

Dominance-based training: a training theory that intends to put the owner in a position of dominance and the dog the a position of submission to the owner.

Science-based training: any training method that has been identified by scientific research as effective and humane. Typically, this is referring to positive-reinforcement/negative punishment training regimens.

Positive reinforcement training methods: any training method that intends to put the owner in a position of leadership and the dog in a position of wanting to follow the owner’s direction.





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