Susan Friedman, Ph.D:
“The Hierarchy of Behavior-Change Procedures —
Most Positive, Least Intrusive Effective Intervention”

There's an order to how we can be most helpful to a pet rat,
and there are procedures we should stay away from too.

I cannot say enough good things about Dr. Susan Friedman.
Her website, Behavior+ Works, Improving the Quality of Life for All Learners, is a rich source of learning materials.

This graphic draws out both ways animals learn “operant conditioning” and other interventions we can make that affect how well the animal learns, such as improved health.

(In addition to operant conditioning, Respondent Conditioning, another kind of conditioning that influences behavior, is NOT in this graphic. Respondent techniques influence an animal's behavior without the animal actively choosing to do behaviors. One example is desensitization. Respondent conditioning should be reviewed separately.)

View Dr. Friedman's graphic on the hierarchy of behavior-change procedures below this descriptive information.

As you view the graphic, BEST starts at the bottom, and then as the hierarchy climbs, the interventions get more INTRUSIVE. So, my descriptions start at the bottom of Dr. Friedman's graphic, and I have road signs to help along the way.


The best behavior interventions:

  • Health, Nutrition, and Physical Setting: Easy examples: How can we help a new rat feel relaxed in a new home if there is a cat next to his cage, licking his lips? No cat; we need to minimize stress in the environment. Or, if a rat is lethargic and dehydrated, we shouldn't ask her to work on learning tricks. Health comes first.
  • Antecedent Arrangements: “What comes before”. If we're teaching a rat to hop onto a scale, we wouldn't start on the kitchen table with a bowl of corn on the cob present. The rat can't pay any attention. If we want to teach a rat to “Come” when called, we wouldn't start calling him when he's way across the room, hoping that nothing would distract him. Coming a distance of 2 inches is a better start. So setting up “what comes before” is critical to learning taking place.
  • Positive Reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is, handpaws-down, the best method for encouraging more good behaviors in any animal. We reinforce a desired behavior to happen more, by offering something the rat likes immediately following the good behavior. Read how to apply the method to a slightly shy rat in Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trusts.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors. Teach the rat something that can supplant a behavior you don't want. Example: If your rat tends to leap onto you when you arrive at the cage, and you would rather that she stay put until you are ready to hold her, teach her to stay inside the cage when you open the door. Teaching this alternate behavior results in the undesired jumping behavior fading out on its own.

WHOA, before we go on, the CAUTIONS are BIG.
I hear many pet rat owners talk about doing some of these all the time, and I even give what are probably very familiar examples. I would like us to think about this, though, because trainers deeply rooted in the science of behavior modification, devoted to avoiding aversive training methods, and who work hard to minimize stress on their animals, go out of their way to NOT use the following.

  • Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment. These are a big, sciency mouthful, and they probably don't mean what you think they mean. Don't worry, they're very precise and actually pretty easy to understand.

    The big CAUTION sign on the hierarchy road? Extinction can be very difficult to achieve. Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment should be avoided if at all possible. While there are rat examples in the list below, please please please do not use these with pet rats.

    1. Extinction. If the rat does an unwanted behavior, such as chewing on the cage bars, she's doing this because she gets something out of it. Usually thats Y-O-U coming over with attention or treats. If you can figure out what is reinforcing the bar-chewing, and remove it – in other words, if nothing rewards her for her chewing – then, over time (sometimes a long, long time), the unwanted behavior may fade out. Only may. Stopping bar-chewing is one of the toughest behaviors to modify because you do need to go to the cage for lots of reasons, meaning it will be very difficult to remove the reinforcer.
    2. Negative Reinforcement.Super simple, this means to take something away (negative as in subtract), in order to increase (reinforce) a behavior. Even though this is very high up on the WARNING list of interventions to stay away from if at all possible, many people with rats likely use negative reinforcement a lot with rats.

      A common example is applying pressure on a rat to hold him in one's arms, to keep him there. He may struggle a little or try to move, but then when he settles and stops moving, the human releases the pressure. Releasing the pressure, removing it, is the negative, and, having the pressure removed is something the rat wants. So, because he got a release from pressure when he was quiet in the human's arms, he may continue to lay quietly. His “being-still behavior” is reinforced.

    3. Negative Punishment. This one is also not what it sounds like. Negative again means the mathematical sense of taking something away. Punishment is only referring to doing less of a behavior. A rat example that I hear used often: Two rats are playing and one of them has been getting very rough with the other rat, including biting or drawing blood. The human watches and when the problem rats gets too intense, he is removed quickly and placed in a small cage for a brief isolation. In this case the rat's freedom is removed (reduced = lessened = negative). Because the rat experiences this as aversive, he may refrain from biting when he is allowed back into the play space. The aim is to lessen (= punish) his biting behavior.

COME TO A SCREECHING HALT! The Stop Sign on the graphic is extremely important. In part it means, reading the rest is okay, but that's all.

The reason positive punishment is in this list is because it IS one of the four quadrants of learning, but it is also the one to avoid at all costs. Just because I might learn to not do something if you hit me, does not mean you should hit me. There are grave consequences and side-effects on humans and animals who are subjected to positive punishment.


To repeat: reading to understand is very much needed; just don't DO.

  • Positive Punishment. Continuing on the idea of using math to explain these terms, positive means adding in something to the situation right after the behavior, and punishment means the frequency of a behavior is reduced as a result. An example I hear – but would never personally do, and really hope no one ever does this – is for the rat who nips a little too hard. Upon being nipped, the human responds by flicking the rat's nose. The intention is to add (positive) the flick-on-the-nose, to reduce (punish) the biting behavior.

    STOP STOP STOP: Like the red stop sign on the road, there is not one situation in which a pet rat should be subjected to positive punishment in order to solve behavior problems. As Dr. Friedman's hierarchy indicates, if you feel yourself reaching this place, STOP. There are unwanted and painful consequences to using positive punishment with a rat, and there will always be a better and more humane way to problem-solve.

About Dr. Friedman, from Behavior+ Works:

Dr. Susan Friedman is a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to captive and companion animals. ABA, with its roots in human learning, offers a scientifically sound teaching technology and ethical standard that can improve the lives of all learners. Students from 22 different countries have participated in Susan's online courses, Living and Learning with Animals for Professionals and Living and Learning with Parrots for Caregivers. She has written chapters on learning and behavior for three veterinary texts (Behavior of Exotic Pets, Clinical Avian Medicine, and Manual of Parrot Behavior), and is a frequent contributor to popular magazines. Her articles appear around the world in eleven languages. Susan has presented seminars for a wide variety of professional organizations around the world such as the Association of Avian Veterinarians, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management program, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She has been nominated for the Media Award given by the International Association of Behavior Analysis for her efforts to disseminate to pet owners, veterinarians, animal trainers and zookeepers the essential tools they need to empower and enrich the lives of the animals in their care.

And here is Dr. Friedman's graphic:

Visit Susan Friedman's website, <a href=""></a>, for more information, for this image and other graphics on behavior modification.
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