Applied Animal Behavior

Welcome to the Applied Animal Behavior section!

Birds Horses
Cats Other


Whether we see them in the wild, in captive settings such as zoos, or as companion (pet) animals, birds fascinate us. Their ability to fly, along with colorful often-spectacular plumage and extensive diversity with regard to appearance are characteristics that make birds inherently interesting.

From the behavioral perspective, birds are curious, they learn quickly, they have complex social behaviors, they can learn language, and they are extremely responsive to their environments.

In the 1940’s, B.F. Skinner along with animal trainers Keller Breland and Marian Breland (later known as Marian Breland Bailey) trained pigeons to guide bombs that the Navy referred to as “pelicans.” Project Pelican used operant conditioning procedures to teach the pigeons to guide a projectile by pecking when a military target was displayed.

In the 1950’s, Miami’s Parrot Jungle hired the Brelands to develop a parrot act. This pioneering act in animal entertainment had audiences wide-eyed with wonder as parrots rode bicycles, put money in piggy banks, and roller-skated.

In addition to being trained for entertainment and military uses, birds have also been involved in research involving cognition and communication. For more than 25 years, Irene Pepperberg has taught Grey Parrots to use speech meaningfully so she could decode their cognitive capacities. Pepperberg’s most well-known subject, a Grey Parrot named “Alex,” shows cognitive abilities comparable to four to six year old children. With the ability to label more than 50 objects, Alex can respond correctly to questions about size, shape, color, and numbers.

Basic research, enrichment projects, and behavior analysis studies have all been conducted with birds. Researchers have studied problems such as flock social behaviors, foraging in wild birds, and the modification of pet bird behavior problems.

Common behavior problems in birds include aggression toward other birds, aggression toward other animals or people, fears and phobias, feather picking, loud vocalizations and screeching, inappropriate sexual behaviors, self-stimulatory behaviors, refusal to get back in a cage or on a perch, and resistance to handling.

As an increasing number of birds are kept in captivity or as pets, behavior analysts trained in animal behavior have much to offer by designing enrichment programs, conducting functional assessments for problem behaviors, and designing behavior programs that result in saving a bird’s placement in a home or saving its life.


The ancestors of the domestic cats we know as our pets can be traced back to more than 8000 years ago. Attracted to the rats who fed on stored grain, African wild cats began coming closer to humans and domestication began.

Cats have historically played an interesting role in the culture. In Egypt, nearly 3000 years ago, some cats were mourned when they died and others were bred to be sacrificed. By the Middle Ages, Christian leaders believed that cats were connected to witchcraft and cats were slaughtered in large numbers. The Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries) brought a wave of humanism and compassion and cats began to appear in paintings as not only barn cats, but as companion animals for families.

Today, nearly 78 million cats are owned as pets. These remarkable creatures have maintained many of the feline behaviors as their ancestors. Modern cat owners say they love their cats because they engage in such interesting behaviors, they are easier to care for than dogs, they are playful, independent, and they have a mind of their own.

Many people allege that cats cannot be trained. This isn’t true; operant conditioning procedures work very well with all animals, cats included. A good demonstration of a cat responding to consequences in the environments is to watch what happens when the cat hears the can-opener opening a can of cat food. When the cat hears the food being opened (at dinner time each evening), here comes kitty looking for food, a primary reinforcer.

Cats have been trained to compete in entertainment acts and in cat agility competitions. Many cats are certified as animal-assisted therapy cats.

Feline Behavior Problems

As with many other animals, cats may have behavior problems that are best treated with a systematic approach that includes a functional assessment. The results of the functional assessment might indicate that the environment needs to be changed. In many cases, cats will benefit from behavior plans based on the principles of operant conditioning. Common feline behavior problems include:

  • Aggression (scratch, bite, hiss) toward other animals
  • Aggression toward people
  • Destruction of furniture, other objects (usually by scratching)
  • Feeding problems
  • Refusal to be held
  • Scent marking furniture (with urine)
  • Scratching (furniture) with nails
  • Toileting/litter box issues

Feral Cats: A Community Behavior Problem

At the community level, feral cats present problems that can be addressed through several types of behavioral interventions. Feral cats are cats who have never had contact with people (e.g., a stray gives birth to a litter at a garbage dump) or they were abandoned and have become wild. Feral cat colonies might live behind shopping centers or restaurants, near apartment complexes, or anywhere there is a food source.

As a method of eliminating the feral cat problem in a community, owner education programs should encourage owners to spay or neuter their cats and not allow them to run loose. Some communities offer incentives and price reductions to owners who take their cats to designated clinics or mobile clinics for spaying or neutering.

Because cats reproduce so quickly, when a feral cat colony exists, animal control agencies can manage the colony using a shaping procedure to ensure the cats are in a safe location. This might involve gradually moving food dishes away from a road or busy parking lot until they are under some bushes and out of sight. Systems referred to as TNR (trap, neuter, release) or TAR (trap, alter, release) involve catching the cats, taking them to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, then releasing them where they were found.

Human behavior is a significant component of the feral cat issue and behavior analysts can play a very helpful role in helping a community address such a problem.


Dogs have been trained for centuries to work with humans. As early as 125 B.C., a Roman farmer recorded tips on training herding dogs. In 55 B.C., Roman armies marched into the British countryside with their trained drover’s dogs, and in 943 A.D., a Welsh king wrote about dogs who had been trained to herd sheep. Even though instinct and natural selection certainly had a lot to do with the working abilities of these early canine helpers, there is no doubt that they had some training. The proper contingencies were in place that would have shaped early farmers, hunters, and shepherds into dog trainers.

By the 1700’s, in the United States, organized dog training focused on sporting dogs. George Washington had a kennel of Foxhounds and competitions for sporting dogs were popular.

In the 1920’s, there were some boarding kennels where owners could send their dogs to be trained. For the most part, no one cared about training pet dogs until 1933, when Helene Whitehouse Walker convinced kennel clubs to begin obedience competitions. Mrs.Walker and a well-known trainer, Blanche Saunders, went on a road trip promoting their slogan, “Train Your Dog!”

From the 1920’s to the 1950’s, people of all ages watched their black and white television sets with wonder as Rin Tin Tin and Lassie jumped through windows, leapt over river rapids and found the boy who was lost in the well. As families began to value dogs who had training, a number of books on dog training were published.

In the 1980’s, veterinarian Ian Dunbar began conducting seminars in which he taught the principles of operant conditioning. Dunbar is often credited for being the first expert to widely promote a method of dog training that is based largely on positive reinforcement.

In 1994, Dunbar started the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and each year since the group began, APDT conferences featured presentations related to some aspect of operant conditioning. Another person who had a significant influence on current dog training practices was Karen Pryor, a former marine mammal trainer and writer. Pryor’s 1984 book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” (which was not about dog training) introduced operant conditioning to the general public. Pryor also began to conduct seminars that focused largely on teaching people to use conditioned reinforcement in the form of “clickers.”

Dog training is light years ahead of where it was 30 years ago. Trainers are becoming increasingly well-educated. Internet dog groups have discussions about behavior analysis and operant conditioning and a number of new groups have started for canine professionals.

Canine Training Issues

  • Living with a Family
  • House training (formerly called “house-breaking’)
  • Appropriate around other animals
  • Appropriate around people (family and visitors)
  • Leash manners (not lunging, not pulling)

Specialized Activities

  • AKC Canine Good Citizen®
  • Obedience and Rally competition
  • Agility
  • Field Work & Hunting
  • Herding
  • Lure Coursing
  • Tracking
  • Therapy Dog Training
  • Service Dogs
  • Special Work settings (pest control, geese management)
  • Search & Rescue
  • Police and Military Dogs (protection, drugs, bombs, etc.)

Canine Behavior Problems

  • Aggression toward other animals
  • Aggression toward people
  • Barking
  • Car chasing
  • Chewing
  • Destruction
  • Digging
  • Fears & phobias
  • Feeding problems
  • Fence jumping
  • “Hyper” behaviors
  • Jumping on People
  • Housetraining (toileting) problems
  • Pica
  • Resource or food guarding
  • Running away
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Sexual behaviors (mounting)
  • Shy
  • Sniffing people

Community Canine Problems

Each year, millions of dogs are surrendered to animal shelters, many because of behavior problems that could be easily treated. Because so many shelters are over-crowded, a substantial number of the dogs surrendered to shelters will be euthanized.

With 4 out of 10 households in the United States owning at least one dog (68 million dogs), it is clear that the field of behavior analysis has much to offer dogs and their humans.


The early domestication of horses began when nomadic farmers used docile horses as pack and draft animals. Recent archaeological excavations have unearthed horse teeth with bit wear, showing that training horses for riding goes as far back as 4000 B.C. By 670 B.C., horses were trained and ridden in Calvary units. In the Middle Ages (600 A.D.), horses continued to be used as draft and farm animals and their role was expanded to the battlefield, as messengers, for hunting, and in competitive tournaments that represented the first training of horses for sport.

During the 1600’s, people were breeding and training horses for specific gaits (e.g., pacers) and good, well-behaved carriage horses were valued. Stage coach horses, quarter horses, and thoroughbred race horses appeared in the 1700’s, and by the 1800’s, competitions requiring trained horses continued, polo was introduced, cowboys in Texas were using horses for multiple purposes, the rodeo was been invented, the Kentucky Derby was born, and the field of veterinary medicine was beginning to control and treat diseases in animals.

So, for centuries, people have trained horses for work and entertainment purposes. Until the later 1900’s, horses were most often “broken” so they could be ridden. Training procedures relied heavily on aversive control and punishment was the method of choice when a horse exhibited any signs of a behavior problem. Fortunately, there is a growing trend in modern day horse training toward training that is humane and based on having a basic understanding of the horse.

Recognizing that these are extremely intelligent animals who may get bored standing in a paddock or stall all day with nothing to do, some trainers provide enrichment programs in the form of toys specifically designed for horses (e.g., balls that hang from the stall ceiling). As another positive change in the training of horses, many educated, modern day horse trainers are using positive reinforcement procedures and they are learning to implement behavioral interventions based on the sound principles of operant conditioning.

From the behavioral perspective, we can look at basic training for horses and methods for effectively addressing behavior problems.

Basic training issues include:

  • Skills relating to having a rider
  • Tolerating a saddle, bit, etc.
  • Tolerating a rider
  • Responding to rider signals (reins, legs, etc)
  • Skills for specific tasks
  • Specialized jobs like roping
  • Specialized sports like cross country, dressage
  • Behavioral issues for horses:
  • Bucking
  • Cribbing (swallowing air; in cribbing, horses often grasping a stationary object, such as a fence board, wooden food bin, or post, with their upper teeth, arch their necks and pull)
  • Digging holes
  • Fearful or “spooky”
  • Jigging (moves feet in place without moving forward, usually because it wants to go faster and rider is holding it back)
  • Kicking at people
  • Kicking Stalls
  • Loading problems
  • Phobias
  • Rearing up
  • Refusals-to be caught, accept equipment, accept rider, etc
  • Shyness


Everyone knows that dogs and horses can be trained and some people are aware that when the principles of operant conditioning are used, cats can learn to compete in agility and perform fun, entertaining (for both cats and their owners) tricks. But did you know that less common companion animals can learn operant behaviors and benefit from training?

Guinea Pigs, hamsters, iguanas, rabbits and pet fish can all be trained. A sound knowledge of the principles of operant conditioning will help when teaching skills such as tolerating handling, coming to get food, or in some cases, housetraining. Just when you thought you’d heard it all, our Resource list can guide you to a web page that will teach you how to train your goldfish.

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