equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2016: Kay Laurence on “Communicating Through Silence”

sun2I love to hear how particular topics come about. Kay described how she started to think more about what “silence” meant when she was filming her students for a video on practicing.   She was running the video camera and didn’t interrupt or comment to the student when she made an error because it’s so difficult to edit sound out of video.  When asked about the error, the student said that she assumed she was doing things correctly because Kay did not say anything.

Does this happen with our dogs? What does it mean to a dog when he is allowed to continue after an error?  These are important questions because unless we have taught our dogs what silence means, they might perceive it as a lack of information or interpret it incorrectly.  In her talk Kay shared her thoughts on the different types of silence and how to educate both ourselves and our dogs about what silence means.

This talk was of particular relevance to me because it was about something that I have struggled with in my ridden work with Rosie. When riding a “traditionally” trained horse, the horse learns that if the rider is not actively asking for anything, then she (the horse) is doing the right thing.  Or, in other words, being left alone and allowed to continue means everything is ok.

For a clicker trained horse, the same conditions could mean different things, depending upon where you are in the teaching process. It could mean the trainer is shaping and waiting for the horse to meet criteria, or it could mean that the horse should wait for the next cue (if you are doing a chain), or it could mean that the click is coming but not necessarily for that behavior (intermittent reinforcement).  I’ve sorted through some of this myself, but it was very helpful to see Kay explain what silence means to her and her dogs and how she transitions from one phase to the next.  She does start with a lot of additional hints that help the dog be successful in the beginning, but she has a clear plan for how to shift toward the more subtle ways she communicates with her dogs in the advanced work.

To understand how she does this, she explained the importance of three related elements of training.  They are the phases of training, types of feedback, and types of silence.

Phases of Training

Kay divides training up into three phases. They are:

  1. The Teaching Phase: In this phase the dog is learning new behaviors. The behaviors are on what she calls “acquisition cues,” which are working cues that are attached to early versions of the behavior. At this point errors are information for the trainer. The click is useful feedback: click = correct, no click = incorrect.
  2. The Practice Phase:   Once the dog has learned the basic behavior, the focus is on building experience and flexibility. Kay will add in a “performance cue” when the behavior is reliable and consistent. The click is still used for feedback and click = correct, but if the dog is not correct, she will stop the dog, not just withhold the click.
  3. The Performance Phase:   The performance phase is when the behaviors are finished and she is putting them together. She is using her performance cues. At this point, any “errors” are treated as information and indicate whether a behavior might need to go back to the practice phase.

Types of Feedback (Instructional vs. Confirmatory)

Instructional feedback is information for the dog about what to do. She was quite clear that instructional feedback doesn’t mean telling the dog it is wrong.  When she gives the dog some form of instructional feedback, she is looking for a change in behavior, not to suppress behavior. If there is an error and she wants to give instructional feedback, she will change something about the environment (which includes her behavior) to help the dog find the right answer.

Confirmatory feedback is about maintaining connection and conversation with the dog.   It can range from very obvious things such as praise, gestures, reinforcers and the click  to a more subtle conversation where the dog and you are aware of each other and confirming each other’s actions through correct responses and subtle body language.  It is used in the practice and performance phases to tell the dog to “carry on.”

Types of Silence

If we take these two types of feedback and think about how we would convey them without words (through silence), then we have:

  1. Confirmatory Silence:   When you want to give confirmatory silence, you are going to support your dog in what he is doing. This can be done by continuing engagement, subtle mirroring and pausing. There will be a conversation between you and your dog through your visual cues and his responses. You are working as a team in harmony and there will be constant communication between you.
  2. Frozen Silence: Frozen silence happens when there is no conversation. You have ceased to give the dog any feedback or support. You probably have zero animation. This kind of silence shuts an animal down. It usually happens unintentionally when you are not sure what to do or when things are not going well. If you are nervous, it is easy to go into frozen silence.
  3. Inhibiting Silence: This is even worse that frozen silence. It’s a complete breakdown in communication and can lead to disengagement and disinterest. It can start with a hard stare, threat or holding your breath.

How do these all fit together?

At the end she had a nice chart showing the different ways we can support our dogs in different phases (teaching, practice, and performance) and how important it is that we have many ways to tell our dogs that they are correct and maintain their confidence. We start off with instructional and confirmatory feedback in its more obvious forms and slowly start to shift toward the more subtle forms of confirmatory feedback, with the goal of having a confident dog that has solid behaviors and understands and works well in confirmatory silence.

kay silence chart

Teaching Phase: Clicks, targets, prompts, reinforcers, verbal support, carrying food, wearing food, cheerleading are used for support. (my note:  I’m not sure she is recommending all these, just saying that they can be used in the teaching phase).  In this phase, the dog should also be building confidence through focus, success, trust and repetition and these should be continually developed as they will support the learning through all three phases.

Practice Phase: Starting to phase out some of the types of support used in the teaching phase such as targets, prompts, wearing food, etc…  You should be shifting to building confidence through familiarity, gaining strength, connection and a variety of experiences.  Continued emphasis on focus, success, trust and repetition.

Performance Phase: This builds on the foundation laid by focus, success, trust and repetition and is increased through familiarity of behaviors, variety of experiences, strength and coordination and connection.  There is a strong reinforcement history for the behaviors, confidence from working in a positive environment, trust in the environment, anticipation, conversation and response.

The chart shows how you can provide support for the dog as it goes through the phases and how important it is to shift away from types of support that can end up becoming crutches. As the training progresses early forms of suppoert should be replaced by other forms of support that help the dog become confident and enable you and the dog to work together toward your performance goals.

Thank you to Kay Laurence for her permission to share my notes and for the use of her chart.

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