successive approximationStudies of psychology have given us many insights into animal and human behavior. Due to the experiments and observations of psychologists and scientists we can know better how to best coach teams, train our pets and shape the behavior of our children. One of the theories that is commonly used to shape behaviors and train our pets is successive approximation. In its most basic sense, successive approximation is a series of rewards that provide positive reinforcement for behavior changes that are successive steps towards the final desired behavior.

Have you ever wanted to train your dog to do tricks beyond sit, stay and come? You can teach your dog to do many fun and exciting tricks using just a few great snacks and successive approximation techniques. Have you ever wanted to teach your pre-speaking child to use children’s sign language so they could communicate with you before they could speak? You can do so using successive approximation and your child could be telling you when they are hungry or thirsty even before they can say the words.

Successive approximation is a successful behavioral change theory that has been studied and applied in various settings, from research labs to families and substance abuse counseling.

Getting to Know Successive Approximation

Successive Approximation is occasionally called ‘shaping’. The methods of successive approximation were introduced and tested by B.F. Skinner who used the technique to train pigeons, dogs, dolphins, and people over the course of his career. In successive approximation, each successive step towards the desired behavior is identified and rewarded. The series of rewards for different steps of the behavior increases the likelihood that the steps will be taken again and that they will lead to the desired end result being fulfilled.

For successive approximation to work, the steps towards the final desired behavior must be identified in order of chronological need to complete the entire desired performance.  Once the final behavior is split into desired steps by the trainer, the steps can begin to be rewarded successively. Step one would be rewarded until the animal or person performed it more regularly on their own. Step two would then be rewarded, no longer rewarding step one, in order to teach the subject the next stage of completing the behavior, and on and on until the final behavior was build step by step and fully realized by the subject.

The best way to understand successive approximation is through an example. Take, for instance, the training a puppy that isn’t naturally a retriever to play fetch. The first step would be reinforcing the positive behavior of the normally uninterested puppy of turning towards the ball or stick that was thrown. As the puppy learns to do this each time the ball or stick is thrown, the owner would then move to positively reinforcing any movement towards the ball or stick by the puppy. As the puppy learns to go towards the item the owner would then reinforce touching the ball or stick or interacting with it in some way. As each step is learned, the owner stops reinforcing the previous steps. This trains the puppy to perform the steps towards the final desired behavior one by one. When the puppy is finally placing the ball or stick in its mouth, it would be rewarded. That reward would stop when it was time to reward picking up the item and beginning to carry it back to the owner.

This process would continue until the puppy was successfully fetching the thrown item and receiving positive reinforcement for the entire performance. In this way you can teach the animal to perform tricks and behaviors that are fun and interesting by breaking down the final behavior into a series of steps and then rewarding step one until it was time to reward the second identified step and so on and so on.

Successive Approximation and Complex Behavior Changes

If you are considering using successive approximation to change human behavior there are many examples of how it has worked. Successive approximation has been used to curb childhood obesity by helping families identify and take subsequent steps towards healthy eating habits that improve weight to height rations. It has also been used in addiction counseling to break cocaine habits by providing positive reinforcement to gradual behavioral changes and increasing the likelihood those behaviors will be turned into an overall better habit.

In this way, successive approximation helps what could be a huge change in behavior or behavior desire outside of the norm become a more accessible behavior by building up to it. Few people succeed by going “cold turkey” and animals are highly unlikely to perform complex tasks on their own. Rather than looking at the final outcome as a major hurdle or difficulty, these examples show us that breaking down the final desired behavior into smaller steps can increase the likelihood that the behavior will change.

Successive Approximation and Training Your Dog

Successive Approximation is used frequently in animal training. Pets can be trained to specific behaviors through positive reinforcement of behavioral changes that bring them closer and closer to the final desired behavior of the owner. Scientists have used successive approximation to train behaviors in animals like getting a rat to push a lever or getting a bird to hit a specific spot on a cage. While you might not have a reason to train rats to push levers or get birds to hit small bells, you could find it interesting to train your dog to get you a tissue, or train your dog to fetch your slippers. Successive approximation can be used in these instances to reinforce each step of the desired behaviors and train your dog to do something exciting and interesting.

In order to start training your animal to do tricks, it is helpful to start with the basics of puppy training. With puppy training you can train your dog to understand the basics commands that will make them a great animal to live with. This first step will pave the way for a great connection and communication between you and your pet. Even if your dog is not still a puppy, you can begin with these basic commands and improve the relationship you have with your pet.

After your basic dog training it will be easier to move into training fun dog tricks. Train your dog to dance, bow, crawl, weave and do other tricks easily with positive reinforcement and simple commands that can be adapted for whatever your needs are. You will increase the quality time you spend with your dog and help them use their natural abilities to perform rewarding acts that would be entertaining and fun for both of you.

With your new found knowledge of successive approximation and your connection to your furry companion, you may start asking yourself if there is something more you can do together. From start to finish you can train your dog everything he or she needs to know in order to be a companion animal to you or to someone you know that could benefit from having the dog around. Companion animals are well trained dogs that respond to the needs of the adults and children around them in specific ways.

Thanks to the studies of animal behavior and the discovery of successive approximation we can now come up with a plan that will adapt the behaviors of our pets to better suit our needs and desires through positive reinforcement techniques. Through a dedication to learning the behaviors that will help you and your animal communicate with each other, you can take your wild puppy all the way from messy and misguided, to potty trained, socialized, obedient and helpful to your whole family.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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