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Increasing the persistence of a heterogeneous behavior chain: Studies of extinction in a rat model of search behavior of working dogs

Thrailkill, Eric A., Kacelnik, Alex, Porritt, Fay, Bouton, Mark E.
Behavioural processes 2016 v.129 pp. 44-53
animal behavior, animal models, dogs, rats, working animals
Dogs trained to search for contraband perform a chain of behavior in which they first search for a target and then make a separate response that indicates to the trainer that they have found one. The dogs often conduct multiple searches without encountering a target and receiving the reinforcer (i.e., no contraband is present). Understanding extinction (i.e., the decline in work rate when reinforcers are no longer encountered) may assist in training dogs to work in conditions where targets are rare. We therefore trained rats on a search-target behavior chain modeled on the search behavior of working dogs. A discriminative stimulus signaled that a search response (e.g., chain pull) led to a second stimulus that set the occasion for a target response (e.g., lever press) that was reinforced by a food pellet. In Experiment 1 training with longer search durations and intermittent (partial) reinforcement of searching (i.e. some trials had no target present) both led to more persistent search responding in extinction. The loss of search behavior in extinction was primarily dependent on the number of non-reinforced searches rather than time searching without reinforcement. In Experiments 2 and 3, delivery of non-contingent reinforcers during extinction increased search persistence provided they had also been presented during training. Thus, results with rats suggest that the persistence of working dog performance (or chained behavior generally) may be improved by training with partial reinforcement of searching and non-contingent reinforcement during both training and work (extinction).