During one of the discussions in the Intelligent Dog Training Class with Kay Laurence, we talked about what the phrase “setting your animal up for success” means. I went into the discussion with the limited idea that it was about planning my training session so the animal was likely to offer the behavior I wanted. And yes, this is part of it.
But what if I expand the idea to be about more than just getting the behavior in a training session? That would include helping the animal to be successful in different situations, instead of limiting it to formal training sessions? If I include those, then I can see that success can be measured in many different ways and that that a little (or a lot) of preparation and attention to detail can make everything go more smoothly.
After participating in the discussion, I made a checklist of things to do before a training session. I don’t necessarily do everything on the list, but I do use it as a reminder of things that can be useful, and also as a way to help with troubleshooting if things don’t go well.
Setting up for Success – Formal Training Sessions:
How to prepare for a training session where I have set aside a period of time to work with my animal on a few specific behaviors.
- Have a plan! A well thought out plan will be designed to make the desired behavior the one that is most likely to happen. There’s no point in starting a training session hoping that the animal will choose the option I want. So a plan needs to consider how to get the behavior I want, AND how to make it so the animal is less likely to choose other behaviors, AND how I will handle them if that happens.
- Practice without my animal: A lot of potential errors can be avoided by practicing a few times without the animal. This is a chance to check that my own behavior is going to be clear and that any equipment works as intended. When I do this, I try and behave exactly as I would during a training session so I practice any footwork, food delivery, moving of props etc…
- Visualizing: I could have listed this under practicing but I wanted to list them each separately to remind myself that it can be a good idea to do both. Walking through the exercise without the animal is about practicing the physical aspects of what I will be doing. Visualizing is more about mental preparation and also gives me a chance to think about what the session would be like if everything went just as planned.
- Prepare the environment: Before asking the animal to join me, I will make sure that I have everything ready. Are my reinforcers (treats and/or toys) in the right place? Is any equipment ready? Is the location appropriate? If something has changed (weather, surrounding activity), do I need to change locations? Are there other potential reinforcers or distractions that I need to address before I start training? This includes considering how other animals will be affected by the training session. If I have multiple animals, do they have an alternate activity or have they learned to take turns?
- Check in with myself and the animal: Once everything is set up, then I need to do a little mental check on myself. Am I in the right state of mind to train? If I have had a bad day, or just been frustrated by something else, is there something I can do to put myself in the right frame of mind? I also want to observe how my animal is feeling. Is he/she in the right frame of mind?
Setting up for Success – Outside of Formal Training Sessions:
Set up for success is not limited to formal training sessions. I know this is a “gray area” because I am always in some degree of training mode when I am with my animal, and my animal is always learning. So let’s just think of this as being more about those times when I am reinforcing a variety of behaviors as they are needed and there is less structure to the session.
I don’t have a checklist for this section, but more a list of ideas for ways I can help set my animal up for success in different situations.
- What is management? I suspect it is different things to different people. In this context, I am referring to management as using some aspect of the environment (that could include me) to prevent behavior from happening.
- I think management is often overlooked as “not really training,” but management can be a huge part of keeping everyone safe until I have other behaviors in place, or I can make permanent changes that encourage more appropriate behavior. The important thing to remember is that while management can be a permanent solution to a problem, it can also be a step in my training progression as I slowly switch over from a 100% management solution to a solution that is based more on reinforcing the behaviors I do want.
- How does this related to setting up for success? It prevents the animal from practicing behaviors I don’t want, keeps everyone safe, and can help in relationship building because I do not have to deal with unwanted behaviors in ways that might undermine our relationship.
Antecedent Arrangement (thank you Susan Friedman for this phrase):
- There is some overlap between management and antecedent arrangement. I might even say that being aware of and using antecedent arrangement can be the first step toward moving away from a prevention based approach to a more reinforcement based approach.
- Antecedent arrangement means looking at what triggers or elicits certain behaviors and using that information to my advantage. If the antecedent precedes an unwanted behavior, can I set up the environment so that antecedent is not there? If there is an antecedent that precedes a desirable behavior, can I make it happen more often, or be more obvious or change the timing of that antecedent so that I get more of the behavior I want?
- I think sometimes people dismiss antecedent arrangement as not really being “training” because removing antecedents for unwanted behaviors can seem like “avoiding the issue” and adding antecedents for desired behaviors can seem like “bribery” or “paying the animal for doing nothing,” but as a trainer, my goal is to increase the likelihood of desirable behavior happening. If I can set up the environment so that it works in my favor, that is just as much good training as actively shaping behaviors. Being aware of and controlling antecedents is one of the easiest way to make your animal be successful.
Having solid basics:
- I am always amazed at how few behaviors I need to handle my horses on a daily basis and how smoothly things go if they know those behaviors REALLY well. I think there’s a temptation to spend training time teaching new behaviors because that is more fun, but there’s real value in having a set of basic behaviors that are practiced every day and under a variety of conditions. When these behaviors become fluent and have a strong reinforcement history, they are incredibly powerful and I have found that I can use them to get myself out of all kinds of unexpected situations, as well as using them to train more advanced behaviors.
Not using a behavior before it’s ready:
- I should phrase this so it is “what to do,” not “what not to do”, but I can’t think of a way to say it that carries the same meaning. Smart trainers don’t ask animals for behaviors unless they know the animal will be successful. In traditional training, there is often a mindset that says you need to “test” the animal, but that just undermines everyone’s confidence, past training, and creates a situation in which the trainer feels he needs to do something to get compliance.
- It’s much better to honestly evaluate the situation and choose behaviors the animal can do. This goes along with having solid basics. What I have found is that if I take the time to train some behaviors so they are very strong, then I can use them in situations where other behaviors might be more difficult for the horse to do. It’s a bit like having plan B. Yes, I have this new behavior I have trained (plan A), but if I have any doubt that the horse can do it, it’s better to go to plan B and do things differently.
- Ken Ramirez has a few stories about what happens when you use a behavior before it is ready. One of them is about preparing an animal (whale/dolphin?) for a blood draw. He found himself in a situation where he had to do a voluntary blood draw before the animal was ready and by doing it before the animal was completely comfortable, he set his training back by 2 years. That’s a good reminder that being ready means the animal knows how to do it and is comfortable with doing it. The animal has to be ready to do it physically, mentally and emotionally. Kay Laurence says “Sometimes success is simple avoidance until the skills are in place, or the use of an existing protocol.”
I’m sure there are other ways to set yourself and your animal up for success. You might want to think of some of your best training sessions. What made them so special? Were there things you did that changed how you approached the session or how you reacted to what your animal was doing? One underlying theme in the whole discussion was that a successful training session is measured more accurately by how you and the animal felt during and after the session, than by progress that was made. The bonus here is that going into a training session with that mindset is often one of the best ways to ensure that you have a successful session.