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Tricks for Treats: How Long Does It Take to Train Your Pet?

Difficulty
Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability For this science fair project you will need a pet that you can train on a daily basis.
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety Adult supervision is required while you are working with the pet. Be sure you are very familiar with the pet and that you give the pet breaks when he or she seems bored or frustrated.

Abstract

Have you ever been to an animal show and seen a sea lion balance a ball on his nose, or a tiger jump through a hoop? Or maybe you've met dogs who can sit, fetch, shake, or beg on command. The range of tricks that you can teach animals is amazing, but how does animal training work, and how long does it take? Find out in this trick-and-treat filled science fair project!

Objective

In this science fair project you'll find out how long it takes to teach your pet a new trick using professional animal training techniques.

Credits

Sandra Slutz, PhD, Science Buddies

This science project was inspired by this DragonflyTV Podcast:

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Tricks for Treats: How Long Does It Take to Train Your Pet?" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/MamBio_p025.shtml?from=Blog>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, October 10). Tricks for Treats: How Long Does It Take to Train Your Pet?. Retrieved October 23, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/MamBio_p025.shtml?from=Blog

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Last edit date: 2014-10-10

Introduction

Start naming some animals that can be taught to do tricks. Is your list getting pretty long? The truth is, humans have been training animals for thousands of years to do work. And not just animals like dogs and horses! Falcons, a type of bird, are used in hunting; elephants are used for moving heavy objects like logs; camels are trained to allow people to ride them; and pigs are used to find truffles (a rare type of mushroom). These are just a few examples of working animals, but there are many more.

In addition to training animals to help with work, humans sometimes train animals for entertainment. You might have seen shows where trained animals perform tricks at animal parks, aquariums, zoos, and circuses. Often, zoos and other animal parks also train animals to perform actions, like presenting different parts of their bodies to trainers, or sitting still for several minutes. These actions make it easier and safer for the veterinarians and animal keepers to take care of the animals, make sure they're healthy, and give them medicines when necessary.


Figure 1. This photograph shows a circus leopard standing on a stool at the command of her animal trainer. (Library of Congress, 1906.)

How do animal trainers teach an animal a new trick? The most common method is a concept called operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, the animal is allowed to interact (operate) with its environment and try different behaviors. The trainer rewards actions that are good or useful and over time the animal learns (is conditioned) to do these behaviors. Animal trainers use positive reinforcements, such as food, toys, affection, or praise, to encourage the animals to repeat the behaviors that the trainer wants them to learn. The trainer also sometimes links a signal to the behavior. For example, a dog trainer might say "sit" when his or her dog is sitting and then give the dog a treat as positive reinforcement. Over time the trainer will say "sit" when the dog is doing other activities and if the dog sits, he or she will receive a treat. Eventually, the word sit becomes a command that the dog recognizes as a signal to behave in a specific way and will consistently sit down when told to. Signals don't always have to be words. They can also be sounds, like a whistle or clap, or hand signs or other visual cues.

Watch DragonflyTV crocodiles video

Click here to watch a video of this investigation, produced by DragonflyTV and presented by pbskidsgo.org.

How quickly can an animal be trained to do a behavior on command? PJ and Courtney from DragonflyTV did a little experimenting on their own to find out the answer. Using a piece of meat as a reward, they tested whether three different groups of crocodiles would follow their command to get into a crate. One group of crocodiles had no previous training, the second group had some training, and the third group was fully trained adults. How much success do you think they had with each group of crocodiles? Watch the video and find out!

You don't need an exotic animal like a crocodile or a sea lion to practice your skills as an animal trainer! You can teach your very own pet to perform a trick. First you'll need to decide what kind of trick to teach him or her, and make sure it is a behavior he or she is physically capable of doing. You'll also need to decide what kind of positive reward you are going to give your pet. After you've made these decisions, you're ready to start training. How long do you think it will take your pet to learn the new trick? Ready to find out? Good luck training!

Terms and Concepts

  • Animal training
  • Operant conditioning
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Signal
  • Trial

Questions

  • How do animal trainers use operant conditioning?
  • What kinds of rewards can be used as positive reinforcement during animal training?
  • What are some reasons for teaching animals specific behaviors?

Bibliography

This science fair project was inspired by this DragonflyTV podcast:

You can learn more about animal training from these websites:

This website offers help with creating graphs:

Materials and Equipment

  • Pet that you can work with on a daily basis to teach him or her a new trick.
  • Treats for your pet, such as special food or a fun toy. If you are using food as the treat, you'll need enough to give your pet several pieces for at least 3 weeks.
  • Lab notebook
  • Graph paper

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Experimental Procedure

In this science fair project, you'll be measuring how many days it takes to train your pet to perform a new trick. Before you begin, make sure you've read about how animal training is done by professionals. An adult should be present while you're training your pet in case you need any help, and you should always work with an animal you are familiar with and who knows you.

  1. To start this science fair project, you'll need to decide what trick you would like to teach your pet.
    1. Make sure the trick is something that your pet is physically capable of.
    2. Tricks that are close to something your pet normally does are easier to teach. For example, if your dog likes to chase balls, teach him or her to fetch. If your cat likes to bat at catnip, teach him or her to present a paw on command. Or if your mouse likes to run on his or her wheel, have him or her learn to do so at your signal.
      • You can check animal care books and websites for more ideas about what kinds of tricks different pets can learn.
    3. Decide what signal you are going to link to the trick so that your pet will eventually be able to perform the trick on command. Possible signals include:
      • A word or phrase, like "sit."
      • A sound, such as a whistle or a hand clap.
      • A sign, object, or gesture, like holding up your hand in a stop motion.
  2. After you've decided on the trick, you'll also have to choose what type of reward (treat) you are going to use as positive reinforcement.
    1. Food is one of the strongest positive reinforcements for animals.
      • If you are using food as the reward, make sure that it is a tasty, but healthy treat for your pet.
    2. Other options for rewards include:
      • A special toy. For example, a catnip mouse for cats who enjoy catnip.
      • Petting, brushing, or other physical affection that your pet already likes.
      • Praise if your pet already understands that this means he or she has done something good.
  3. On the first day of training, either wait for your pet to naturally do the behavior you want, or show your pet how to do it. When he or she does the behavior, immediately give the signal that you want your pet to link to that behavior, and then reward him or her.
    1. For example, if you want your dog to learn to "sit," you can take a treat and hold it so that your dog has to put his or her rump on the floor (in a sitting position) to see the treat. While you do this, repeatedly say "sit." As soon as the dog sits, reward him or her by letting your dog have the treat.
  4. Repeat step 3 two or three more times in a row and then take a break.
    1. If you train for too long, your pet might get bored and frustrated, which will make the training hard for both of you.
  5. Later in the day, at least an hour after the training session, test your pet to see if he or she learned the trick.
    1. Give the signal and see if your pet performs the trick. So in the dog example above, you'd say "sit" (this time without holding a treat above the dog's head) and see if the dog sits on command.
    2. In a data table in your lab notebook, record whether or not your pet successfully performed the trick when signaled. Below is a sample of what your data table should look like.
    3. Test your pet three times in a row whenever you test. Make sure to record the results of each trial.
    4. After your third test trial, don't do any more training or testing until the next day.


    Days of Training Results for Test Trial #1 Results for Test Trial #2 Results for Test Trial #3
    1      
    2      
    3      


  6. Repeat steps 3-5 daily until your pet has learned the trick.
    1. You can consider the trick "learned" once your pet will perform the trick, as commanded, for all three trials, three days in a row. This will show that your pet can successfully follow your command both repeatedly (several times in a row) and consistently (in the same way from day to day).
  7. Graph your pet's learning progress by making a line graph, where the x-axis is each day of training and the y-axis is how many (0, 1, 2, or 3) of the trick test trials your pet successfully completed each day.
    1. You can make the graph by hand or use a website like Create a Graph to make the graph on the computer and print it.
    2. How many days did it take before your pet completed all three trick trials successfully in one day? How many days did it take your pet to learn the trick?

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Variations

  • Do more complex tricks take longer to learn? Try teaching your pet two tricks at once. One trick should be fairly easy, while the other should be more complex (takes more actions). For example, an easy trick for a dog would be learning to sit, while a complex trick would be learning to lie down, roll over, and then play dead. Keep track of how long it takes for your pet to learn each trick. Remember to spend equal amounts of time training with each trick per day!
  • Are there variations between pets as to how fast they can learn a trick? Compare how quickly two pets (either the same type of pets, like two dogs, or two different types of pets, like a dog and a cat) take to learn the same trick.
  • Does past training change how fast a pet learns a trick? See how long it takes to teach your pet its first trick. After it has learned the first trick, teach it a second trick. Does it learn the second one in fewer days?

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