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The role and possible uses of animal learning in canine behaviour rehabilitation

The first step to help rehabilitate canines from certain behaviours (i.e. 'behavioural disorders') is a good and accurate diagnosis. Analysis of the source of the problem behaviour, the dog's driving force to behave as such and specific contextual signals in which the problematic behaviour occurs is the second stage of rehabilitating canines. The comprehension of two specific areas is especially essential in understanding the rehabilitation process. One area is "equine ethology". This refers to the 'innate' behavioural repertoire of a dog, where the dog's driving forces are determined by the evolutionary history of dogs. The second specific area is "learning theory" which refers to all the variety of learning occurrences which each individual dog has experienced that has moulded its behavioural response to the environment from the early stages of its life.

As each dog would invariably differ one from the other in learning opportunity and ability, "problem" behaviours have to usually be approached individually based on historical and observational analysis of a dog on a case-by-case basis. Examples of "problem" behaviours that usually need correcting can range from submissive urination to dangerous aggression, from destructiveness to disobedience, from too active and playful to ignoring the owner completely.

Extinction in Classical conditioning refers to the reduction of a conditioned response when a conditioned stimulus repeatedly occurs without the existence of the unconditioned stimulus it used to be paired with. In Operant conditioning however, extinction refers to the actual decline of an operant response when it is no longer reinforced in the presence of its discriminative stimulus. In order for an extinction programme to effectively work, it must be done religiously. Extinction is considered successful when responding in the presence of an extinction stimulus is zero. When the particular behaviour reappears again after it has gone through extinction, it is considered spontaneous recovery. Extinction programmes are especially useful in getting rid of certain "problem" behaviours from canines.

Prescription of fixed rehabilitation methods for canines with behaviours that are undesirable is not possible. This is because each dog has different individual learning experiences which have to be further linked to the general behavioural responses that are expected to occur in response to a particular environmental change in order to understand what any why a response takes place. An accurate assessment of the factors contributing to each problem is necessary before an effective treatment plan can be developed.

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