Application of ABA in Animal Behavior Training

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) has earned its place as a core component of modern psychological practice when dealing with all kinds of behavior disorders. Unlike conventional counseling and other forms of intervention, ABA programs adhere to strict scientific methods that are based on observation and trial. These techniques have been successfully applied to people of all ages who suffer from mental or physical health conditions that produce behavioral problems. Human patients are typically the focus for students and practitioners of ABA, but the skills and principles are actually just as relevant in the field of animal behavior.

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Use of ABA Techniques in Animal Training

When working with human patients, analysts start the process of behavior modification by breaking down the problem into simple components. They accomplish this by identifying environmental or social triggers for undesirable behavior, as well as the individual mental habits or activities that contribute to the negative reaction. This is exactly what animal behaviorists do when they first start to work with an animal, whether it’s wild and violent or a domesticated pet.

Comparison of Human and Animal Applications

Animals don’t have the same cognitive complexity as humans, which actually makes it easier to apply ABA directly in therapy sessions. Once behaviors are broken down into discrete causes and components, the methods used in applied behavior analysis for humans and animals are essentially the same. Animal trainers also need to educate pet owners and their families about reinforcing positive progress on a daily basis, much like practicing psychologists treating children with autism or a similar condition.

Goals of Behavior Training

ABA practitioners working with animals first need to establish specific goals so they can gauge results and modify their methods as necessary. They accomplish this by observing the animal directly and consulting with owners or caretakers to gather as much information as possible. The ultimate goal of animal behavior therapy is to improve the quality of life of the animal and its owners by training out dangerous or destructive behaviors. The same applications of behavior analysis are also effective for training subjects to perform more advanced activities, including those required for service animals and stage performance.

The Basics of Operant Conditioning

Applied animal behavior analysis follows the basic system of operant conditioning, which is broken down into reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is used to increase the frequency or consistency of desirable behaviors. Positive reinforcement rewards correct behavior, like giving a treat after the animal obeys a verbal command, while negative reinforcement allows the animal to escape a noxious stimulus by exhibiting the desired behavior.

Trainers who want to limit an existing negative behavior may use punishment strategies, which can also manifest as positive or negative. Positive punishment is the act of discipline immediately following bad behavior, which can include spanking or a stern verbal refute. Negative punishment involves the removal of a desirable stimulus rather than direct discipline, like putting a dog in his crate when he misbehaves.

Modern Applications of Animal Behavior Analysis

Perhaps the most common application of ABA for animals is training for domestic animals. Survey data from 2012 shows that over a third of all American households have at least one dog, while almost as many have at least one cat, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Training is critical for most dog breeds, especially larger ones that could pose a legitimate threat to others if negative behaviors are left unchecked.

Some branches of the military, as well as many local police departments, routinely rely on canine units to support them in dangerous activities. These animals go through advanced training programs, which includes conditioning sessions conducted by a qualified applied behavior analyst. Personal service animals are invaluable companions for people with a wide range of disabilities and health concerns, so they also receive advanced training based on ABA methods.

Working as an Animal Behaviorist

There are dozens of different career paths within the field of animal behavior, but ABA professionals are particularly qualified for direct training and therapy. Most spend at least some time dealing directly with animal subjects, but qualified practitioners have quite a few options when choosing an employment environment. Some work as wildlife handlers in zoos, aquariums or sanctuaries, while others work with horses and livestock in a farm or ranch setting. A significant percentage of animal trainers are self-employed consultants who work directly with clients.

Preparing for a Career in the Field

Psychology professionals and students who are interested in a career in animal behavior should seize opportunities to work around animals as much as possible. Those who are committed to this path should add some animal biology and zoology to their academic plan if possible. There are several types of scientific backgrounds that can qualify someone to work in animal behavior, including psychology and conventional behavior analysis. Animal behaviorists can also boost their career profile by qualifying and applying for certification through the Animal Behavior Society.

Further Reading About Animal Behavior Analysis

Animal husbandry was one of the first revolutionary developments in historical human societies, and it’s still a critical factor in many industries across the globe. The modern field of animal behavior isn’t quite that old, but the growing body of research and literature on the subject continues to grow every year. Students, behavior analysts and other individuals can find a recommended reading list sorted by specific area of interest on the official website of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).

There are a lot of differences between animals and humans, but the basics of training and conditioning are surprisingly similar between species. The principles and methods of ABA are uniquely suited to adaptation for use on animals thanks to their simplistic foundation and modular implementation. While the bulk of jobs for behavior analysts will continue to revolve around care for human patients, behavior analysts with a passion for animals have plenty of options for exploring a different career path within their profession.

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