Training Tidbit for July: Contrafreeloading

I didn’t just make that word up, I swear!  It’s a real term:

Researchers have coined the term contrafreeloading to describe the phenomenon that animals choose to perform a learned response to obtain reinforcers even when the same reinforcers are freely available. For example, given a choice between working for food and obtaining food for free, animals tend to choose to work, often quite hard, with a bowl of free food placed right next to them. This phenomenon has been replicated with rats, mice, chickens, pigeons, crows, cats, gerbils, Siamese fighting fish, and humans (Osborne, 1977); starlings (Inglis & Ferguson, 1986); Abyssinian ground hornbills and bare-faced currasows (Gilbert-Norton, 2003); and captive parrots (Colton, et al., 1997). There are several interesting hypotheses explaining why this phenomenon occurs. For example, contrafreeloading behavior may be motivated by innate foraging behaviors that are otherwise frustrated in captivity; animals may be engaging in information seeking behaviors as they work to predict the location of optimal food sources; or they may be responding to the additional reinforcement provided by stimulus changes when one works for food such as the sound of a hopper. (Friedman, 2005) [definition stolen shamelessly from Good Bird Inc here]

Incidentally, kudos to whoever coined the term for descriptiveness and sheer chutzpah.

Basically, there is a substantial amount of evidence that captive animals (including pets of all species) will literally choose to work for food instead of attain it for “free,” with no effort.

I know you’re thinking … What?

But it’s not so far-fetched.  Anyone with children will attest to the fact that they often prefer to perform the behavior of putting a dollar into a vending machine to receive a soda, even if the same soda is available for no effort at all in the same room.  Why?

Studies suggest that animals display this same behavior phenomenon too, and there are a few theories on why:

1) the studies in which this phenomenon was demonstrated were flawed; the food received for performing a behavior was different than the food offered for “free,” thus corrupting the results.  In my opinion, this may have been the case in some of the studies, but I’ve personally seen this phenomenon over and over in working with animals, so there has to be something more going on here.
2) “working” for food provides additional information to the animal about how to attain that food once the “free” food source runs out; thus it makes ethological sense to instinctively work for food that the animal could earn for free in the immediate future, but may become difficult to attain as time goes on.

3) it’s fun.  If it were possible to take a poll of zoo animals, pets, and other captive animals, I’d wager a bet that most of them suffer from chronic understimulation.  They will find a chance to use that powerful brain wherever they can.

4) It gives animals an outlet for natural behaviors that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform in captivity. It makes sense; any pet owner will tell you that dogs appear to love to scent, chase, and chew; parrots love to forage, chickens love to peck, rats love to explore, cats love to hunt, horses love to graze.  If they were given the choice between eating out of a bowl or performing an instinctive “job” to attain food, perhaps the additional intrinsic reinforcement of performing natural behaviors offers enough additional reinforcement to outweigh the lure of free nourishment.

I’ll let you make your own conclusions about this phenomenon; no one really knows why it happens, so your guess is as good as mine.

The moral of this story is, however: it is OKAY, even BENEFICIAL, to make your pet work for his or her food! Given the choice, they will often choose to do it themselves!  There are a variety of food-dispensing foraging and puzzle type toys made for dogs, cats, and parrots – invest in a couple and watch your pet bloom.  Present them with intellectual challenges that they can conquer with a little effort, and watch their enjoyment of working with you expand.  Take a Super Tricks! class and be amazed how quickly your dog can learn English.  Play some K9 Nose Work and watch your dog tap into that long-forgotten scenting/hunting instinct.  Teach your parrot to say phrases; teach your cat to jump through a hoop.  It’s enrichment, it’s healthy, it’s fun, and it’s bonding time between you and your pet.

If you have an idea for the Training Tidbit, just let me know!  What do you want to know?

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