How aversives and distractors can muck up your animal training

Is this familiar?

Your cat comes when called in the kitchen, but not in the garden.

Does the kitty ignore your recall in distracting environments?

Or your horse loads beautifully into the old trailer, but refuses to set hoof in the brand new one.

Or your dog sits on cue anywhere but in the vet’s office.

This problem could be about either (or both) of two issues:

  • You haven’t successfully communicated to the animal what you want him to do
  • The animal isn’t motivated to do what you’re asking

In order to successfully get behaviour in all contexts, you need to address both Communication and Motivation.

For instance, it might be that you haven’t communicated to the animal that the already-learned-behaviour pays off in the new environment: you may have to help him generalize from one context to another.

Or, it might be that the new environment is full of aversives and/or distractors that reduce his motivation to comply with your request.

Let’s bring in the Yay-and-Nay balance to address how motivation impacts whether the animal goes along with what you’re asking – or not.

The Yay-and-Nay balance. Factors increasing the probability of the animal doing the behaviour (the Yay-side) are the reinforcers you’re offering, and your relationship to that particular individual. Factors decreasing the probability of the animal performing the behaviour (the Nay-side) are distractors or aversive stimuli present in the current environment.

This is actually a two-part blog post. And you’re reading part 2, which gives some pointers about managing the Nay-side.

Find out what to do about the Yay-side in part 1 of this blog post over at the Zoospensefull blog. Just click the button below.

The Nay-side: distractors and aversives

Let’s assume that it’s not a generalization (communication) problem, but rather a motivation problem that’s causing the animal not to go along with what you want. What’s leading the animal to balk – might there be a distractor, or an aversive stimulus, or five, in the environment?

Distractors are essentially reinforcers in the environment that compete for the animal’s attention with whatever you’re offering , and aversives are scary or uncomfortable things that the animal would rather avoid.

So, there are two different types of factors that might reduce the animal’s motivation to go along with your wishes, and you need to handle them somewhat differently.

Below is an excerpt from my online course Getting Behaviour – the Foundations of Animal Training (specifically, it’s chapter 3 in Module 8). In this video, I discuss the learning and performance distinction, as well as what to do about those distractors and aversives.

(toggle the CC-button to the lower right of the video to get subtitles)

What does “resolve aversive stimuli”mean?

It means that something that used to be an aversive stimulus no longer qualifies as such (aversive as in something the animal wants to avoid). This can be achieved through a few different approaches, such as habituation (which is effective in some situations but not others), and systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.

There are other options too in dealing with distractors and aversives. Alice Tong describes the engage-disengage game.

Or check out the leave-it game. It’s under the subtopic “teaching impulse control”, about half way through the post (whose main topic is the 20 problems with punishment).

Find Barbara Heidenreich’s article on the pitfalls of food deprivation and weight management.

And finally, if you didn’t already check it out, don’t miss part 1 of this blog post – all about the Yay-side and how to ensure that the Yay-and-Nay balance shifts to your advantage.


Interested in learning more? Check out the full Getting Behaviour course, or grab a copy of the free e-book covering some of the things I wish I had known when I first started training animals.



6 Replies to “How aversives and distractors can muck up your animal training”

  1. One of the things I teach to my students that compete in dog sports, is to let their dog explore the new environment where the event is being held, long before entering the competition ring. If they can check out the surrounding areas, they are less likely to become distracted in the ring when competing.

    I also stress the importance of using the lowest value of food reinforcement possible (for me that’s kibble), when the distractions are easy. When the distractions are more challenging, increase the value of the food used! I know someone who had to switch to lobster meat when competing with her dogs be use she was using high valued treats on a regular basis! I’d sooner eat that myself!

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