APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS: THE SCIENCE BEHIND ALL THAT LEARNING

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1 APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS: THE SCIENCE BEHIND ALL THAT LEARNING Leigh Ann Clayton, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian, Reptile/Amphibian) Animal Health, National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD USA ABSTRACT Behavior analysis is the study of behavior change; how individuals learn behavior (i.e., operant conditioning). Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the utilization of this science in the real world. The laws and rules that govern learning in individuals provide a robust method for examining behavior, productively evaluating and reducing problem behavior, and teaching (training) specific behavior. They are conserved across species and applicable to reptiles. Veterinary curricula generally do not include training in this science and it is under-utilized by clinicians. Increased focus on behavioral aspects of management is warranted with reptiles, as with other species, and an improved understanding of ABA allows veterinarians to greatly expand their understanding of behavior and how to increase desired behavior in their patients. Introduction There are a variety of models utilized to evaluate behavior or categorize why behavior happens, develops, or changes. 7 Veterinarians are trained to consider medical causes for behavior or behavior change; behavior is a symptom of a disease process to diagnose and treat. For example, increased aggression (e.g., biting when approached) may be due to arthritis pain. Veterinarians also routinely consider ethologic explanations for behavior. For example, increased aggression (e.g., biting when approached) may be due to testosterone and territorial defense during breeding season. Understanding ethology is important for evaluating reptile behavior and veterinary reviews are available. 8,15,17,18 In addition to these more familiar methods of behavior evaluation, ABA is critical for fully understanding how behavior develops and is maintained in individuals. 3,4,6,7 Behavior of individual reptiles will be influenced by past experiences (operant conditioning). Using the example above, increased aggression (e.g., biting when approached) may be due to past reinforcement; the animal learned it. The laws and rules that govern learning in individuals provide a robust method for examining behavior, evaluating and reducing problem behavior, and teaching specific behavior. 2-4,6,7,9,14,23 These three models are not mutually exclusive and work optimally when used together. While it may seem obvious that reptiles can learn, this aspect of captive management is generally overlooked when evaluating reptile behavior. Many caretakers default only to the other models. For instance, if an animal lunges at a cage door and caregivers frequently leave food; lunging (or attacking the door) will increase due to the reinforcement history. The explanation for this type of behavior is generally that the animal is aggressive or maybe territorial. The very real possibility that the animal learned to do the behavior is generally not considered. 44

2 Applied Behavior Analysis Principles Detailed reviews of ABA exist. 2-4,6,7,14 Major principles are presented below. Behavior is never evaluated alone but is always considered within the context of the environment immediately surrounding and functionally related to the behavior. Thus, the smallest unit of behavior is behavior (B) with the environmental brackets of the antecedent immediately before it (A) and the consequence (C) immediately after it (A-B-C). 3,6 The observable behavior of interest is defined first, using clear, concise language to describe the relevant behavior. The consequence and antecedent are then identified and described. The ability to understand the functional relationship between a behavior and the environment immediately around it is critical when developing problem behavior response plans. 6,7 This relationship between A-B-C is also the fundamental relationship developed when specific behaviors are purposefully trained. Behavior is a function of its consequence (The Law of Effect). 3,6 A consequence is a stimulus, event, or condition that influences the strength of future behavior. 3,6 Reinforcers are consequences that maintain or increase a behavior; punishers are those that decrease behavior. The consequence is defined by what it does to behavior, not by what it is. 6 Consequences can also be categorized based on input; positive if added to the environment and negative if removed/escaped/avoided. Positive and negative are mathematic concepts, there is no connotation of good/bad. Thus, there are four consequence options (also called quadrants); positive reinforcement ( reward ), negative reinforcement ( escape ), positive punishment ( discipline/correction ), and negative punishment ( penalty/fine ). It is the learner who determines if something is reinforcement or punishment. 6 If you yell stop it when your dog barks and barking increases in frequency, intensity, duration, etc. then yelling is likely a reinforcer, no matter what you want it to be. This process of receiving feedback from the environment and feedback modifying future behavior (i.e., learning) is completely natural and happens constantly in the wild as well as in captivity. 3,6 While it may be used to purposefully train behavior, it is functioning at all times, not just in training sessions. Every interaction caregivers have with their animals creates a teaching/learning opportunity. In addition, the animal s interactions with other animals and the overall environment will also be providing constant feedback as to the effectiveness of behavior. There are predictable negative side effects to living in environments that provide higher amounts of negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and/or negative punishment than positive reinforcement. 6 These include apathy/reduced activity, aggression, escape/avoidance, and overgeneralized aversion to environment. 6 Caregivers can use a better understanding of ABA to help create environments that increase the level of positive reinforcement available to animals in their care. Use in Positive Reinforcement Training Positive reinforcement training (PRT) is grounded in the science of ABA. Behaviors are deliberately trained by adding something to the environment immediately after a behavior. 45

3 Based on understanding an individual animal and/or species, it is possible to predict the likely category of a consequence. Food is a reinforcer for many reptiles as is tactile stimuli (e.g., scratching the head) for some. Tthis can also be the source of inadvertently training undesirable behavior. As noted above, if a lizard lunges at an open door and food is dropped into the cage, it is predictable that lunging will increase in the future. Undesirable behavior is often unintentionally trained this way. When utilizing PRT, the full behavior is typically broken down into deliberate steps (successive approximations) from a current behavior to the final behavior. 3,6 The current behavior may not look like the final behavior. There are technical aspects to providing effective reinforcement (e.g., developing shaping plans, delivering consequences with consistency and contiguity) that should be learned to improve trainer effectiveness. 2,3,23 While few reptile-specific training guides exist, resources on PRT for other species are useful and can be extrapolated to reptiles. 2-4,9,10,14,16,23 The online sites and also have specific reptile examples. The clickertraining.com site has excellent information on PRT in general. The Animal Behavior Management Alliance focuses on training and enrichment of all species and regularly highlights reptiles in the Wellspring publication. Applied behavior analysis and PRT can be utilized to address behavior problems as well. Caregivers can identify an alternative behavior the animal can do and use deliberate PRT to train it. References on this process are available. 6,7,9,14,23 Training husbandry behaviors makes handling easier and safer and can facilitate basic management such as stationing in a specific part of the enclosure, shifting from one enclosure to another, entering transportation crates, presenting feet for nail trim, coming when cued, and holding still for a physical exam. Creating and maintaining deliberate opportunities for PRT increases the behavioral repertoire in individual animals, facilitates animal management, and creates environments with more positive reinforcement. Use in Enrichment Provision of environmental enrichment has increased in captive animal management. 11,23,25 Positive reinforcement training can be considered environmental enrichment (cognitive stimulation). Other major categories of enrichment include habitat enrichment, sensory enrichment, manipulative enrichment, food enrichment (including hunting and foraging), and social groupings (when appropriate). Enrichment activities should be goal oriented to elicit a species-specific behavior and reviewed for safety. In addition, the actual impact on the individual animal is evaluated. If undesirable effects are seen (e.g., increased fighting, fear response) then the enrichment needs to be modified. Enrichment items or events should be varied over time to reduce habituation, which limits effectiveness. If animals are unaccustomed to exploring enrichment items, positive reinforcement training can be used to train interaction. 46

4 In most cases, providing a minimally appropriate environment for reptiles is consistent with some level of environmental enrichment such as provision of thermal gradients (vertical and horizontal) and basking sites, appropriate spectrum/intensity of light, hide boxes/visual barriers, and soaking areas. Specific application of enrichment may lead to further health benefits, such as decreased obesity and allow animals to more closely mimic natural behavioral repertoires and time budgets (e.g., foraging, climbing, hunting). Health effects of enrichment are typically studied using behavioral, physiologic, or neurologic models. Overall, positive behavioral impacts include reduced aggression, reduced abnormal behavior, and increased normal behavior. 1,12,19,20,22,24 Positive physiologic and neurologic effects include decreased cortisol levels, improved immune function, and improved cognitive function. 5,12,13,19,21,22 Understanding species natural history and sensory capabilities as well as the individual animal s learning history are important for developing appropriate enrichment goals. The Shape of Enrichment, Inc ( is a leading animal enrichment organization with extensive on-line and printed resources. Ideas for reptile enrichment can also be found at Summary Understanding applied behavior analysis, as well as specific applications such as positive reinforcement training and enrichment, will allow clinicians to more effectively support the creation of environments in which captive reptiles can thrive. LITERATURE CITED 1. Almli LM, Burghardt GM Environmental enrichment alters the behavioral profile of ratsnakes (Elaphe). J Appl Anim Welf Sci 9: Barlow-Irick P How 2 train a:. Blanco (NM): self published. 136 p. 3. Chance P First course in applied behavior analysis. Long Grove (IL): Waveland Press. 485 p. 4. Daniels AC Other people s habits. New York (NY): McGraw-Hill. 195 p. 5. Fox C, Merali Z, Harrison C Therapeutic and protective effect of environmental enrichment against psychogenic and neurogenic stress. Behav Brain Res 175: Friedman SG, Edling TM, Cheney CD Concepts in behavior: Section I. In Harrison GJ, Lightfoot TL (eds): Clinical avian medicine volume I. Palm Beach (FL): Spix Publishing: Friedman SG, Haug LI From parrots to pigs to pythons: universal principles and procedures of learning. In Tynes VV (ed): Behavior of exotic pets. Ames (IA): Wiley- Blackwell: Gibbons PM, Mohan-Gibbons H Lizards. In Tynes VV(ed): Behavior of exotic pets. Ames (IA): Wiley-Blackwell: Heidenreich B The parrot problem solver: finding solutions to aggressive behavior. Neptune City (NJ): T.F.H. Publications. 192 p. 47

5 10. Hellmuth H, Augustine L, Watkins B, Hope K Using operant condition and desensitization to facilitate veterinary care with captive reptiles. Vet Clin Exot Anim 15: Hosey G, Melfi V, Pankhurst S Environmental enrichment. In Zoo animals: behavior, management, and welfare. Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press: Kotrschal A, Taborsky B. Environmental change enhances cognitive abilities in fish. PLoS Biol [internet] [cited 2013 May 9]; 8(4):e Available from: doi: /journal.pbio Lambeth SP, Hau J, Perlman JE, Martino M, Schapiro SJ Positive reinforcement training affects hematologic and serum chemistry values in captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Am J Primatol 68: Latham GI The Power of Positive Parenting. North Logan (UT): P&T Ink. 396 p. 15. Mayer J, Bays TB Reptile behavior. In Bays TB, Lightfoot T, Mayer J, (eds): Exotic pet behavior: birds, reptiles, and small mammals. Saunders Elsevier. St. Louise, Missouri: Miller P The Power of Positive Dog Training, 2 nd edition. Hoboken (NJ): Wiley Publishing, Inc. 272 p. 17. Mohan-Gibbons H, Norton T Turtles, tortoises, and terrapin. In: Tynes VV (ed): Behavior of exotic pets. Ames (IA): Wiley-Blackwell: Mohan-Gibbons H, Raiti P Snakes. In Tynes VV (ed): Behavior of exotic pets. Ames (IA): Wiley-Blackwell, Ames, Iowa: Morley-Fletcher S, Rea M, Maccari S, Laviola G Environmental enrichment during adolescence reverses the effects of prenatal stress on play behavior and HPA axis reactivity in rats. Eur J Neurosci 18: Novak ME, Kenney C, Suomi SJ, Ruppenthal GC Use of animal operative folding perches by rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). J Am Assoc Lab Anim Sci 46(6): Peña Y, Prunell M, Rotllant D, Armario A, Escorihuela RM Enduring effects of environmental enrichment from weaning to adulthood on pituitary-adrenal function, prepulse inhibition and learning in male and female rats. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34: Pomerantz O, Terkel J Effects of positive reinforcement training techniques on the psychological welfare of zoo-housed chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Am J Primatolo 71: Ramirez K Animal Training: Successful animal management through positive reinforcement. Chicago (IL): Shedd Aquarium. 578 p. 24. Schapiro SJ, Bloomsmith MA, Laule GE Positive reinforcement training as a technique to alter nonhuman primate behavior: quantitative assessments of effectiveness. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 6: Young RJ Environmental enrichment for captive animals. Herts (UK): Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. 228 p. 48

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