This year (2017) the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference had a theme for each day. On Saturday, the lectures focused on the Premack Principle and how reinforcement works. On Sunday, the focus was on how to effectively maintain behaviors.
As you might expect, there were some interesting connections between different presentations, both across topics and between topics.Because of this, rather than write about each presentation separately, I am going to write a series of articles on some of the “themes,” using information that was presented at the conference, as well as information from other sources if needed for clarification.
This article is going to look at the topic of duration. Duration was discussed in several presentations on Sunday, as part of the larger theme of how to effectively maintain behaviors. Most of the information in this article comes from the following talks:
Steve White: “Training in 3-D: Embracing duration, distance and distraction” – Practical tips on building duration, distance and teaching dogs to work in the presence of distractions. (60 min)
Ken Ramirez: “Teaching Duration Behaviors: Creating lengthy behavior chains” – A look at how to create a lengthy show with minimal food reinforcement. (20 min)
Emily Larlham: “The Show Must Go On: An Investigation into maintenance of behaviors for competitive sports and dogs with jobs“ – How understanding the components of training for duration can help you prepare your dog so you can have success in the show ring, or in a job where a dog might need to perform for an extended period of time. (20 min)
Alexandra Kurland: “Putting Behavior to Work” – Alexandra Kurland shared her thoughts on building duration, both from a practical and philosophical point of view. (60 min)
What is Duration?
In training, duration commonly refers to the amount of time that an animal does one or more behaviors before being released for reinforcement. If I am building duration for a single behavior, it means I am extending the amount of time the animal can maintain the behavior. It can be a static behavior (a down) or a moving behavior (walking).
Duration can also refer to extending the total time spent doing behaviors, with the animal doing several behaviors before being released for reinforcement. Duration over multiple behaviors is usually achieved through some form of chaining, or by teaching the animal to expect to do a sequence of behaviors. In a sequence of behaviors, the animal learns that each behavior will be followed by the cue for the next behavior and learns to go from one behavior to the next with no interruption. The final reinforcement is delivered at the end of the chain or sequence. There may be other reinforcers built into the chain or sequence, but the animal is working toward the final reinforcer.
Duration is an interesting topic because it touches on so many other aspects of training. As Steve points out, duration is closely related to distance and distraction and in order to build duration, you have to pay attention to all three components of your final behavior. Ken pointed out that successful chaining or sequencing of behaviors is based on clear cueing and adequate reinforcement. Emily pointed out that attitude and mental and physical fitness matter. And Alex showed that how we approach and think about training is often a result of the unconscious “frame” under which we are operating.
Steve White’s talk provided a nice framework for a discussion of duration because he provided some history on how duration is traditionally trained and a lot of practical information on how to do it.
This information is taken directly from my notes from his talk:
Steve White – Training in 3-D: Embracing Duration, Distance, and Distraction
Animal trainers need duration for many behaviors and in the older style training, it was taught with compulsion. For example, a dog might be held (physically restrained) in a long down so it would learn to stay there for longer. While this may have worked to teach the dog to stay down for longer, it had some unfortunate side effects in that the dogs were reluctant to do the behavior since it was associated with force.
Alexandra Kurland pointed out that duration is also traditionally taught this way with horses, where the horse is forced to continue the behavior (with a whip if moving), or punished for movement (if the desired behavior is stationary.) While it can be taught with other methods that build the behavior slowly and systematically, what she called the “tortoise” approach, many people are in a hurry and try to build it too quickly, the “hare” approach.
The first step away from that method was using food to encourage the animal to stay in the long down. Ian Dunbar would feed the dog in position and the dogs learned to maintain the behavior. Since then, trainers have learned better ways to shape and maintain the behavior, but the basic progression is still the same, teaching duration, then distance and distraction.
Traditionally training the 3Ds:
- Duration trained first – build stability and baseline
- Often can get additional duration as a by-product of distance
- Original duration work for down was to hold the dog down – lead to poor latency
- Ian Dunbar – feed dog in down to get duration, he would add the cue too “good down”
- Then add distance and distraction: distance for tightly constrained kinetic behaviors like a send-away, distraction for loosely constrained kinetic behaviors like detection work
We’ve learned a lot about training duration from research in the laboratory, but understanding behavior in the laboratory does not always translate to being able to train behavior in real life. Even in real life, it’s hard to prepare for every possible scenario, so trainers have to work carefully and plan ahead, while understanding that part of their job (and the dog’s job) is being able to handle unexpected events. Learning how to regroup after them is also an important aspect of training and ideally the dogs become more robust from each new experience, even if it’s stressful.
Why 3-D? (why do we teach duration, distance and distraction?)
- Life is not a lab: Most of us are training animals that have to work under a lot of different conditions, so we need animals that can handle lots of variability and remain fluent in their jobs.
- Compromised timeline: He has dogs for 16 weeks so he has to get a lot done. Has to ask questions to find out why he has the dog. Why don’t they want this dog? Does it just need to learn new skills or are there issues? Are there poisoned cues? In Europe, they teach the dogs to bite, bite, bite and then to “not bite,” which creates stress. He prefers to re-shape the behavior, which is quick if the dog already knows the topography, then add a new cue.
- Limited control: You can’t control everything that happens in a working situation.
- Multivariate: You always have to be considering multiple variables. In training, you can set up scenarios to work on one aspect at a time, but eventually you need the dog to be able to handle changes in duration, distance, and distraction all at once.
- Unpredictable (beautifully so): For some things you can develop a training plan and prepare, but you can’t be 100% prepared for everything. Also, have to deal with the fallout (get the dog back to being comfortable). He likes the variability and said it keeps him on his toes.
From a practitioner’s point of view, it’s important to know the science so you can make educated choices in your training strategies, but he feels that training should be about exploring new options and learning to observe, understand and inform.
Trainers who are open to new ideas, and curious about how things work, are the ones who are out there breaking new ground. Steve said he feels it’s more useful to look at the science to explain what we do, not wait for the science to tell us what to do.
In any training, the first question you need to ask is “What does the dog need to learn?”
Once you can answer that, then you can start teaching the behavior. He had a nice photo of some dogs being lowered in harnesses from a helicopter and you could see all the things the dogs had to learn to be comfortable and successful doing that behavior. They had to learn how to orient themselves (hind feet down so they touch first), eyes looking down (to see when they are going to land) and know what to do when they landed (get out of the way). Once they had learned the basic behavior, then they had to learn to deal with increasing distance and distractions.
Training the 3D’s: Evaluate your animal’s response to different stimuli
Before starting to train for duration, distance and distraction, it’s helpful to know how your animal is going to respond to different kinds of stimuli. There may be some general tendencies for different species, but you also need to evaluate each individual so that you can make a training plan that has a realistic starting point and then systematically introduces new stimuli at appropriate times. Some things you may want to consider when evaluating stimuli are:
- Volume (loudness, size, different meanings)
- Salience (stands out from environment)
- Proximity (at what distance does the animal react?)
- Vector (where it’s coming from)- same object can be perceived differently by the dog depending upon where it’s coming from.
- Speed (slow vs. fast, how does it affect the dog?
- Permanence – how long does the stimulus stay present?
You will also want to evaluate each animal to see how it responds to stimuli that are perceived by different senses. While there is some variation from dog to dog, he has found that the following is a pretty typical for most dogs:
- Visual distractions are the most common -the dog reacts to what it sees
- Sound is next -the dog orients toward or is startled by sounds
- Smell is the most engrossing -the biggest problem he has is with dogs that are distracted by smells because they can be unable to move on. This can be a deal breaker for some dogs.
- Touch is the one with the most propitious response – the dog looks quickly when you tap
- Taste is captivating
- Nature vs. nurture – in his view, nurture is going to trump nature so you can train a dog to ignore certain types of stimuli, but some dogs will take longer with different types of stimuli than others.
(note: I think it would be interesting to make this list for horses. I would certainly put visual first and sound second, although that might be reversed if riding in an indoor arena. My horses are very reactive to sounds when they can’t see the source. Are horses distracted by smells? I’m not sure. I’d have to think about the rest as they don’t seem to come into play in training very much.)
With this information (or as much as you can gather) in mind, you can start to work on the 3Ds. As he mentioned earlier, it is usually easiest to start with duration. Once you have some duration, you can introduce distance or distractions, which will build duration as well.
He had a graph to illustrate how to build duration. It showed the change in duration over time, starting from the current level of duration and ending at the desired level of duration. The line is the general guideline for how to proceed and the angle will vary depending upon who much time you take and how much duration you need. It can be used as a general guideline for how to proceed.
But you are not going to proceed in a linear manner where each repetition is harder than the last. Instead you are going to “ping-pong” along the vector so that some repetitions are easier than others, but the general trend is toward longer durations. This variability keeps the dog guessing and makes it less likely that the dog will bail out because the work was getting consistently harder or the degree of difficulty was increased too quickly.
I think you need to build a certain amount of duration before you can add distractions, but once you are at that point, you can work on both distractions and you will be building additional duration at the same time. Steve had a nice video that showed a dog learning to hold on a nose target and then hold on the nose target while the handler manipulated or touched the dog.
In the video, the progression was:
- Teach dog to touch a nose target
- Teach dog to hold briefly on a nose target
- Teach dog to hold on a nose target and maintain head positon while she checks his mouth
- Teach dog to do the same nose touch, but on the wall
- Teach dog to nose touch on the wall while patted all over by the handler
- Teach dog to nose touch on wall while she picks up and wiggles the hind end
- can increase complexity by adding by sending to the dog to the wall (adding distance)
It’s important to remember that what we call a “distraction” is just an inappropriate response to a stimulus. He did mention that he sometimes uses a Keep Going Signal to help the dog learn to maintain a behavior when adding distractions. Whether or not to use a KGS is a subject of much debate, but he does find they can be useful at certain stages in training, especially if you have a limited amount of time to get the training done.
Here are some things to keep in mind when working on distance:
- Fear/anxiety vs. calm/assured are inversely proportional
- Reinforce appropriately – in place for stability on the target, at or beyond for more active behaviors or when changing behaviors.
- You are often combining distance and distraction. For example, he showed how they teach a police dog to wait until released to “catch” a person. They start by placing the person (distraction) at a distance and then have him move slowly toward the dog on slightly irregular line. When dog relaxes while observing the person, that’s the time to release the dog. His reinforcement is getting the person.
- Once the dog learns to remain calm under those circumstances, they can have the person head toward the dog in a more erratic way, taking a longer route, varying the speed and other movements so that the dog is learning to maintain duration with more and more distractions.
- Steve said it was important to “Wobble, shift and shuffle” or “bounce around the 3Ds” by varying different aspects of the 3Ds so the dog learns to handle changes in them in random order. He recommends starting this early.
What can go wrong? Potential Snags:
- Anticipation: Check your ABCs (antecedent -> behavior -> consequence), Don’t make assumptions.
- Repetitive failure: Manipulate single variables (go back to focusing on one at a time if the dog is struggling.)
- Plateaus: Who is training who? Trainers hit training plateaus when they stay at each step for too long.It’s important to move forward in balance. He used the image of jacking up a house where it’s important to keep jacking up each corner a little bit at a time to keep the house level. With training the 3Ds, you want to keep increasing the difficulty of each one a little bit at a time so the dog learns to handle lots of variations and combinations along the way.
- Life is not a lab
- Assess distractibility in all 5 senses
- Reconcile Perception vs. Reality: Perception drives behavior, not reality – there’s something to think about!
In Steve’s talk, he was speaking about building duration as a process and he had examples of building duration for single behaviors and for chains, as most of the information he provided would apply to both. But putting together longer chains or sequences, and maintaining them, requires some additional skills on the part of the trainer. This was the subject of Ken’s Sunday presentation.
Ken Ramirez – Teaching Duration Behaviors: Creating lengthy behavior chains
Ken Ramirez does a lot of consulting work with animal trainers from facilities around the world, and his presentation was based on some work he did for a group in Cuba. The trainers at the facility wanted to create a dinner show that featured dolphins and swimmers doing underwater synchronized swimming.
Their goal was to have a 20 minute show with no food reinforcement. They felt that feeding the dolphins during the show would interrupt the flow and they had spent time putting together a show by teaching long chains and using tactile reinforcers. But they were having trouble maintaining the behaviors under those conditions and they asked Ken for help.
Ken said it was a particularly challenging project for several reasons. Some of them were due to logistics (no visitation, slow internet) and some of them had more to do with the training itself. It was an ambitious project and the trainers were missing some important information or had misconceptions about how to build strong chains and the amount of reinforcement needed to maintain them.
Some of the training issues that Ken identified were:
- Not enough positive reinforcement
- Tactile used as a “reinforcer,” but not effective
- The strength of the dolphin/swimmer relationships was questionable
- There were too many different behaviors and cues (added confusion)
- They were not back chaining effectively
- The chains were too long. I think the original plan was to do the entire show (140-200 behaviors) as one long chain.
- Communication among swimmers was not good during the show
Rather than jumping in the middle and trying to “fix” something that was not working well, Ken had them go back to the basics by returning to more frequent reinforcement to build behavior strength again.
This is something Emily Larlham emphasized as well. You need very strong behaviors if you are going to use them in longer duration exercises, and often we don’t put enough time into this. She spoke about making sure you build fitness and overtrain so that the difficulty level in longer duration behaviors is within the dog’s ability.
They also learned how to build shorter and stronger chains and simplified the number of behaviors and cues. In their original training, they had 93 different cued behaviors. He was able to simplify this down to 11 cued behaviors as many of the behaviors were variations on hand and foot targeting with the dolphins either following or pushing the target. Having fewer cued behaviors and one word names for any chains improved the trainer’s ability to communicate with the dolphins and each other during the shows.
One a personal note, with my own horses, I have found that cueing problems often show up when building chains because the horse no longer has the click to confirm the correct response to the cue. This leads to guessing and deterioration in existing behaviors, so cleaning up your cues is very important.
In addition, he found that their understanding of how to use intermittent reinforcement was based on the industry standard norm (common in marine mammal training), but was not actually working for them. He had to teach them about using reinforcement variety and how to evaluate how much reinforcement they really needed and how to provide it. This was where the secondary reinforcers came in, and also why they switched from to using multiple dolphins instead of having the same dolphins do the whole show.
His summary of the work they needed to do included:
- Return to more frequent reinforcement to build behavior strength again
- Develop better conditioned reinforcers
- Establish shorter chains and develop clean backchain protocol
- Focus on sequences with reinforcement built in, as opposed to fixed chains (animals tend to take short cuts in fixed chains)
- Use multiple dolphins so they can rotate in and out of the show
- Clean up behaviors: 93 different cued behaviors (too many!) simplified down to 11
He had a few specific points about how they improved the use of chains and sequences:
- 3-6 behavior chains (fixed)
- 12 sequences that could be changed
- Short name for each chain (so swimmer could call it out)
- Staggered for reinforcement (I think this meant it was set up so that dolphins got reinforced at different times so the reinforcement was less obvious. It also made it easier to rotate dolphins in and out of the show.
The show went on to be very successful and they won at award at the 2008 IMATA conference. Ken said it was a unique consulting experience and showed, once again, that more effective reinforcement makes a difference.
I found this presentation particularly interesting because most of my ridden work is now done as long chains and sequences and it took me quite a long time to figure out how to do this effectively. I encountered some of the same problems as the dolphin trainers, so it was interesting to see how the same general strategies that worked for me also worked for them.
The topic of duration was continued in the next talk, which was by Emily Larlham. This one also looked at training for performance, but with dogs. I already mentioned that Emily and Ken shared some of the same advice on common points and you’ll see some other similarities in the following notes which are based on the material she presented in her talk.
Emily Larlham: The Show Must Go On
What makes a great performance? What are the qualities that contribute to a great performance? How do you get there?
Emily approached this topic by looking at the trainers she admires, identifying the qualities that make their performances exceptional, and then looking at their training to see how they got there. She identified 5 key concepts:
- The right attitude
- Strong behaviors
- Working for duration as a concept
- Preparing for performance
(note: despite the title, this presentation was not just about preparing dogs for competitions or shows. The information she provided is useful to anyone who needs animals to perform for longer periods of time)
The Right Attitude:
When watching performance routines, one of the qualities that makes the difference between an average and a truly exceptional performance is the attitude of the dog and relationship it has with the trainer.
Emily showed some video of freestyle routines that showed the kind of happy, expectant, and joyful attitude that she likes to see in a dog. This comes from a training method that does not rely on physical or psychological intimidation and that minimizes frustration so that the dog is looks forward to training and is an eager and attentive participant.
She had some video that showed teaching some simple behaviors and how important it is to set up your training to avoid frustration. Even something like teaching a dog to follow a lure can be frustrating if not done correctly and trainers need to learn when a dog is showing signs of frustration (before it becomes full-blown) and how to adjust their training so the dog becomes successful again.
Building strong behaviors:
Trainers often underestimate how much time it takes to take a new behavior and build enough reinforcement history and flexibility to make a truly strong behavior. She showed some videos by Maria Brandel and Siv Svendson that showed how they continually build on successful behaviors so the dog becomes confident and learns behaviors to fluency.
One way they do this is by starting new behaviors in environments where the dog is likely to choose to do the behavior anyway, and the behavior’s topography and emotional state are consistent with how they want to use it. For example, they teach the “down” by capturing it when the dog is lying down while they are watching TV or resting. This is a time when the dog is likely to lie down and stay there for longer and allows them to build duration more easily.
In this situation, the dog is also more likely to associate the down with calmly waiting or resting because that is what is normal for a down under those conditions. This idea of using environmental cues or context cues to facilitate learning can make it much easier to train behaviors with the emotional tone that you want.
Overtraining means planning ahead and setting up your training sessions and exercises so that the effort required in your “performance” is less than what the dog is used to doing during training. It’s a way of ensuring that the dog is physically and mentally prepared for the amount of effort or focus and has a bit of reserve to handle any unexpected changes.
Overtraining could mean paying attention to the dog’s fitness to ensure that the effort required during performance is well within its ability. That doesn’t necessarily mean the dog has to practice more, it may just mean taking the dog for longer walks or spending more time on play. One of her strategies is to do play sessions that are longer than the ring routine duration. If he dog is used to actively moving for 10 minutes in play, then a ring routine which is less than 10 minutes is going to be easier.
Teach working for duration as a concept:
A dog that has learned a lot of individual behaviors may struggle with chains and sequences, and the whole idea of duration over several behaviors because it doesn’t understand duration as a concept. She likes to teach this through the use of backchaining with a release cue.
She had a video of Emmy Simonsen showing how she could cue a behavior and then release the dog to the food dish. Then she could ask for two behaviors before releasing the dog to the food dish. Over time, the dog learned that it would be asked for a variable number of behaviors (that’s Steve White’s ping-ponging) before being released.
Along with this, Emily said it is helpful to teach the dog a lot of little chains, varying the order of behaviors and mixing in reinforcing behaviors so that reinforcing behaviors might occur at the beginning, middle, and end of the chain to keep it reinforcing. Using different markers can be helpful here as you can have some markers that are associated with excited reinforcement delivery and other markers for calm reinforcement delivery. Markers can be behaviors too so a behavior can be used to tell the dog it has responded correctly and tell it what to do next.
Preparing for Performance:
If you’ve done your work well so that your dog has strong behaviors, loves training, and is physically and mentally prepared to give a great performance. What are some other things you can do?
- Check to make sure your cues are going to be easily perceived by the dog in the performance environment.
- It can sometimes work well to train visual cues as they are often more salient in noisy environments and can also function as reinforcers
- Practice without the dog first
Challenges with Building Duration:
Several of the speakers touched on some of the difficulties you may encounter in building duration and I thought it might be useful to end with a little summary, because we all know that understanding how something “should” be trained is not a guarantee that things will go as planned. There’s always some little hiccup in the process and it helps to be prepared with some ideas for what to do when things don’t go as planned.
I have a list of items pulled from the various talks, but before I share it, I want to make a few comments on Alexandra Kurland’s presentation, about which I have said very little. This is for two reasons. One is that Alex’s presentation was less about the details of training duration, and more about the attitude of the trainer when training duration (or any other behavior). The other is that her presentation was based on a blog post she wrote, and I think that any summary I can give would not do it justice. You really need to just go read it. You can find it at https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/01/08/i-dont-understand-you-you-dont-understand-me-thank-you-donald-trump-for-helping-me-to-understand-why/
The main point of her presentation was that there are many ways to train behaviors and our choices are often based on the “frame” through which we are viewing behavior. The word “frame” comes from some work by George Lakoff who writes extensively about how we view and interpret the world based on information that we have picked up through life experiences. In her blog, she compares the contrasting frames of the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent” and shows how they relate to horse training.
When you choose how to train any behavior, you are viewing behavior (both yours and your learners) through one of these frames, and it will affect how you choose to teach and maintain the behavior. While the thoughts in her blog post apply to training in general, it is interesting to think about them in the context of training duration, because I think this is one place where cross-over trainers (those that started with traditional methods and switched to positive reinforcement) are likely to find it challenging to stay in the positive reinforcement mindset.
This is because we often start to build duration at the point at which we feel the animal “knows” the behavior, and it seems like it should be so simple to get more of it… but it’s not. So, it’s easy to revert back to previously learned techniques to get the animal to maintain it. One could say that when training for duration with your animal, you are also working on training yourself to stay in the positive reinforcement mindset for longer and longer periods of time as well.
Challenges and Solutions:
- Anticipation – The animal does not meet criteria for duration because it is anticipating the end of the duration behavior or the next cue. To address this, you should check your ABC’s and also make sure you are increasing duration at a realistic rate and with variations (ping-ponging) – (Steve White)
- Repetitive failure – Go back to a simpler variation and focus on only one variable (Steve White). You may also want to evaluate your reinforcement. Is there enough? (Ken) Is the reinforcement supporting the behavior? (active vs. static) (Steve, Emily)
- Plateaus – Do you have a training plan to get from A (starting point) to B (ending point) and a way to measure progress so you keep moving? Training can stall out when trainers are not aware of when to move on (Steve, Alex).Note: Alex talks about this in the context of Loopy Training where you should move on when a loop is clean. If you are not familiar with Loopy Training, you can read about it on my website (look under “Alexandra Kurland” in the articles section.
- Deterioration in behavior – Have you adequately identified the level of distracting stimuli (Steve), checked for adequate reinforcement and clarity of cues (Ken)? Go back and strengthen individual behaviors (Ken, Emily)
- Insufficient understanding of chains, sequences –Do you and your learner understand chaining? Is there any reinforcement built into the chains? (Ken and Emily) – Go back to shorter chains and include secondary reinforcers if possible.
- Cue confusion – Are your cues clear? Have you made things too complicated by asking for too many different behaviors or too many similar behaviors? (Ken)
- Not enough reinforcement (Steve, Ken, Emily, Alex)
- Secondary reinforcers are not strong enough (Ken) – Using secondary reinforcers requires a good understanding of when and how to use them and how to evaluate them. Barbara Heidenreich’s talk on this subject had many suggestions for how to use non-food reinforcers. I’ll be writing that up in another article.
- Mental or physical fatigue (Ken, Emily) – Learning to work for longer periods of time takes mental and physical fitness. If your dog loses focus or seems fatigued, you may need more careful preparation with fitness in mind.
- Distractions – It can be difficult to prepare for all possible distractions, but you should evaluate your animal and train for different types of distractions as much as possible (Steve). Having strong behaviors and a learner that is eager and engaged will work in your favor (Steve, Ken, Emily). You can also use the Premack Principle and change how your animal responds to distractions (Emily’s Saturday talk – more on this in another article).
- Additional Unwanted Behavior Creeps in: When working toward duration, there is a greater likelihood that other behavior will creep in and become part of the behavior you want. These are called adjunctive behaviors and Paul Adronis gave us a nice introduction to them. I will share my notes on his talk in another article.
I thought I would end this article with a fun video that Steve White shared. You can think of it as a little additional reinforcement for you if you have read through this entire article. He shared it to make the point that learning new skills is always difficult, and that we often underestimate how hard it is to learn something new once we are at the point where we don’t have to think about how we do it.
Thank you to all the speakers for permission to share my notes from their presentations.