equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2019: Ken Ramirez – Common Trainer Errors: How to avoid them and why we make them.

Ken Ramirez has been a professional animal trainer for almost 40 years. I am constantly amazed at the scope of his work. He has trained more species for more different applications and in more environments than anyone else I have met. He currently works as the Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for Karen Pryor Clicker Training and does consulting work for other organizations. At this conference, he talked about common training errors and how to avoid them.

Why Focus on Errors?


  • Genesis of this topic – It is a question he is often asked. Since he has a very broad range of exposure to different trainers and different training environments, he sees common errors.
  • Considerations and discussion about the top 16 errors that I will share
  • Common trainer mistakes or missteps, let’s look at:
    • Why we make them, and
    • How to avoid them

Why focus on errors?

  • May seem odd since positive reinforcement trainers focus on desired behavior, but …
  • Not being aware of pitfalls makes you more likely to fall into them, and …
  • Awareness assists in prevention
  • We all make them – Sometimes we have to make choices because of time constraints or other limitations. When we do take short-cuts, we should know we are taking them and be ready for any possible fallout.

Common Trainer Mistakes

He developed a list to focus on the most common mistakes that trainers make when training husbandry behaviors.

  • Many arise when there is pressure to train
  • Initially he thought the list would be useful for novice trainers, but later he realized that the same errors are made in many situations by trainers at all levels
  • Sometimes we knowingly take the short cut or avoid best practices
  • He started with a dozen errors, but the list grows every year
  • Ken had stories and video for many of these errors.

Error 1: Looking for The Quick Fix

  • Looking for the quick fix – a fast, easy resolution
  • This desire causes us to take short cuts
  • It is the reason people want to use punishment
  • In general, people don’t like to put time into finding solutions
  • People think training is magic, as opposed to science

Error 2: The Animal “Knows”

  • The animal “knows” what I want
  • He should know that behavior
  • He’s just messing with me (mad at me, etc.)
  • Mistakes happen for a reason
  • Mistakes are information
  • Go back to the basics (timing, criteria, rate of reinforcement)

Error 3: The Power of the Click

  • Not using one with finished behaviors that need strengthening
  • Using it poorly without thinking. This is particularly problematic with new or non-trainers.
  • Assuming it is not needed. This is common when people think a medical procedure is complete – which really never happens – you always need to maintain or improve it.
  • Use a clicker with purpose. Pay attention to what you are clicking and if you are using your marker effectively.

Error 4: Ongoing Desensitization

  • Desensitization is never complete
  • No animal can be desensitized to everything
  • We must always be aware that training never ends – it is an ongoing process.
  • The animal sees the world different than us – we need to assess comfort based on their behavior, not on our assumptions.
  • The animals will indicate to us when we have pushed them too far or they need more desensitization.

Error 5: Getting Greedy

  • Pushing a behavior for longer than is appropriate
  • Asking too many times for a behavior
  • Wanting more from your animal than you have actually trained
  • To avoid it, plan ahead and don’t move too fast for the animal

Error 6: Learning Never Ends

  • We forget that learning is always taking place
  • Animals learn 24 hours a day, not just when you have treats and a clicker.
  • Be aware of passive learning (non-formal training)
  • It is outside of formal training that most problem behaviors are learned.
  • Pet clients often don’t understand why undesirable behaviors start – because they are not paying enough attention to ALL interactions
  • video of beluga spitting at the trainers when they weren’t paying attention

Error 7: It’s in the Details

  • We can get into trouble by not paying attention to details
  • We tend to look at the big behavior picture and not focus on small but important aspects of behavior like: calmness/tension, focus, distribution of weight, foot position, body orientation, balance, muscle movement, and many more…
  • Experienced trainers refine and improve by observing small details
  • video of llama haltering where the trainer was not paying attention to tension and the behavior was sticky. When he shifted his focus to pay more attention to how the animal was doing the behavior, the haltering behavior improved.

Error 8: Predictable Patterns

  • We are creatures of habit and often develop predictable patterns of behavior
  • Be aware of patterns and what the animal learns
  • Inadvertant cueing;
    • for example, if you’re not careful about starting food delivery after marking the behavior, your hand can become the marker
    • if you use “good boy” a lot, it can become a prompt, crutch, or Keep Going Signal)
    • other noises – gasp (or sigh) can become a No Reward Marker
    • behavior patterns: sequences can become chains

Error 9: Two’s a Crowd

  • Using too many trainers for one task can create problems
  • Urgency to get a behavior completed can necessitate multiple trainers
  • Behaviors needed daily may also require more trainers
  • But even the best trainers will view behavior and approximations a little differently
  • Different trainers may also present cues slightly differently
  • Using multiple trainers does not set an animal up for success

Error 10: Relying on Maxims and Sayings

  • We should not accept every saying or teaching phrase as gospel
  • What do these really mean?
    • reinforce for position
    • the click ends the behavior
    • use a high rate of reinforcement
  • As teachers we develop sayings and instructions that are meant as metaphors or temporary instructions or general ideas
  • As learners, we must recognize the meaning and original intent behind these sayings and not take them literally or as always and never.
  • note: Ken talked on this subject (common myths, mantras, etc.) at ClickerExpo 2013. You can read my notes on his talk here.

Error 11: Lack of Communication

  • Communication is key in working with multiple trainers
  • Lack of communication can create problems when maintaining existing behaviors
  • Often indicates a lack of shared goals and priorities
  • Good communication is a necessity in families, organizations, roommates, etc.

Error 12: Lack of Consistency

  • As just described, this can occur due to communication gaps or simple lack of attention to details.
  • Also occurs for other reasons such as competition between roommates, spouses, co-workers (inadvertant or on purpose). Each one thinks their way is the best and sabotages the work of others.
  • Different expectations of the animals can lead to lack of consistency.
  • Variable cues. Even when we try to use the same cues, there will be variations – sort of like accents. The animal has to learn to recognize several variations of the cue. This is more of a problem with larger repertoires.

Error 13: Not my fault

  • This error is when we making excuses for behavior problems – and don’t accept responsibility
  • WE put labels on animals (Friedman): -He’s reactive. -She hates men in uniforms, -My spouse lets her get away with it
  • Change your thinking. It should not be “what’s wrong with the animal,” but “what can I train?”

Error 14: Using Behavior Before it’s Completed

  • There’s often a temptation or desire to use a behavior before all approximations are completed
  • For simple behaviors, this creates sloppy behavior
  • For difficult behaviors, it can break down trust and make the behavior harder to complete
  • If a behavior is not complete, don’t be in a hurry to use it
  • He told the story of the beluga whale who had to give a blood sample multiple times before the behavior was really complete. She did cooperate a few times, but then she stopped offering the behaviors.
    The initial work took 1.5 years and it took him 2 years to retrain the behavior. The amount of time it took to regain her trust and get back on track far exceeded the original training time.

Error 15: Giant Steps

  • Taking approximations that are too large
  • We are in a hurry to complete the behavior
  • We believe our animal does not need smaller steps
  • We are too cocky about our own training skills
  • Moving quickly is not bad, but skipping steps does not give the animal as solid a foundation

Error 16: What’s in a Relationship?

  • We can make errors when we misunderstand the role of relationships in training. Sometimes we overestimate the power of relationships, sometimes we underestimate them.
  • Defining a relationship
    • science shies away from the concept, but animal trainers know that your training history with an animal affects your training.
    • relationships are based on reinforcement history. A good relationship comes out of a strong reinforcement history.
  • Restraint – People often ask him how to handle restraint in medical situations
    • should the trainer do it
    • better to use a stranger?
  • He had two stories. One was how he had worked with the orphaned sea otter pups and developed a relationship with them before he had to help with blood samples. Their relationship was so strong that it was not damaged by having to hold them down for the blood draws. The other story was about helping to do a blood draw on an owl who he had only known for a week. The owl still hisses at him 15 years later.

Error 17: Overestimating Relationship

  • My animal loves me. My very presence is reinforcing
  • Relationships are unquestionably key to successful training
  • However, many trainers depend on it without looking at whether or not it actually functions as a specific reinforcer

Error 18: My Animal “Loves”

  • Making assumptions about what an animal likes
  • As easy trap for all trainers to fall victim to
  • Reinforcers strengthen behavior, an animal may not necessarily like them. (note: is he referring to negative reinforcers here?)
  • Reinforcers are context specific – expectations are developed through the training process. He showed a video of his dog rejecting her favorite toy after nail clipping, because she expected food – the usual reinforcer for that behavior.
  • Make sure your reinforcers are effective

Error 19: Training is Easy

  • Assuming that all training can be done by anyone
  • Assuming that training is straight forward and suitable for everyone
  • However, there are limits to what a beginner or novice can accomplish. Common errors are:
    • training beyond your skill level
    • using tools before your animal is ready
    • not seeking advice when you are in over your head

Error 20: Confusing a Chain and a Sequence

  • Many attendees at the conference will be leaving with a great confusion about these two terms
  • Chains and Sequences (all types of sequences) all require good skilled training
  • Maintaining sequences requires
    • working to maintain the individual components
    • interrupting the sequences to offer reinforcement at all parts of it
  • video of dog doing long behavior sequence (which has some chains within it) – they interrupt the dog if he makes a mistake, so that he doesn’t get to continue on unless each behavior is done correctly.

Final thoughts

  • Careful planning and attention to detail can help you avoid making errors.
  • If you have to take a shortcut, do it with your eyes wide open.
  • If an error does happen, and you recognize it and adjust your training, you can minimize its effects.
  • Awareness of common errors will make you a better trainer.

While I try to be accurate in my note taking, there may be some errors either in my understanding or my presentation of the information from this talk. If you have questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

Thanks to Ken Ramirez for allowing me to share his presentation. Thanks to the ORCA students and to the organizers of the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference for all their hard work on putting on this great event.

If you want to learn more about Ken, you can visit his website www.kenramireztraining.com. If you click on the media link at the bottom of the page, he has a nice selection of video clips of some of his projects. To find out more about Karen Pryor Clicker Training, visit www.clickertraining.com.

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