Monday, February 03, 2014

Gain a Little, Gain a Lot






There's a lot to be said for the "slow and steady wins the race" philosophy.  We humans are aces at rushing to the finish line and arriving out of breath and cursing fate for causing us to miss our moment of glory by mere inches.  It takes a special kind of human to accept that it's the little gains along the way that make for the big finish at the end of the race.

This could not apply more directly to working with animals, regardless of breed (including Human), gender, size, or personality defects.  Possibly the two most important rules of animal training are the two most likely to be overlooked:

1.  Task Analysis is the ultimate cheat:  Break it Down, Fool!  It doesn't need to be so hard.

2.  Be careful what you teach because adding behaviors is a lot quicker and easier than extinguishing the ones we don't want.

Whenever I hear a fellow horseman whimpering about needing a new horse because "this one just doen't have the [brain power/attitude/talent/willingness] to learn what we need to know to move upward and onward," I know I'm listening to someone who does not have a clue about the core principles of learning.  That's not to say that every $500 hack horse is capable of 70-point canter pirouettes.  It is to say that most animals (and their human companions) are capable of more than they're already doing. They just need a bit of direction and understanding and less silliness and ego-involvement on the part of the teacher.

I was reminded of this while I was reading possibly the best dog training book of the year, Chaser:  Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, by John W. Pilley.  Enjoy the video below before we move on to what you're doing wrong.




Pilley describes the interesting results of letting his students at Wofford College, where he is Professor Emeritus, work with his dogs.  He is a brilliant theoretician of the psychology of learning, and he was quick to note that his students, responding appropriately to the challenge to give the dogs new behaviors connected to unusual cues, did exactly that...and that it can take months to extinguish an unwanted behavior.

So to teach a new behavior, we have to break down the desired end result into the steps it will take to achieve it.  He uses the example of teaching the dog to get food out of an overhead cabinet.  The dog had to be taught to grab a rope tied to a chair, drag the chair into position, climb on the chair, move from the chair to the counter, stand on his hind legs, reach up with both front paws on the cabinet door, open the door, get the treat.  That's a lot of steps, and each one required time and simple instruction.

So it is with teaching horses.  Of course once each behavior in the list has been accomplished to the level of earning a reward, it's cemented in place.  Animals are fans of food rewards, so that's the easiest and most effective reinforcement method.  But once that cement has hardened, if you decide that you're not so happy with the fact that your pet can now grab a rope and drag things around, getting rid of the behavior is a lot harder.  One cookie can buy his performance, but you may be in for days, weeks, even months of a ramp-up in demonstration of the behavior without a reward before he'll give it up.  Get used to the idea that you can't get angry during this time.  You set up the problem.  You need to live with the consequences.  At least it's unlikely that your horse will learn to unlatch car doors and climb inside as his dog did thanks to student enthusiasm.

If you've got a horse who is acting up, think really  hard about what you might have rewarded him for without noticing.  Think about what behaviors you thought were cute for a day or so and caused you to throw cookies and praise at him and that now are not useful for your continued progress in whatever sport you're engaged in.  Think about how you are the cause of the problem.  You are.  I promise.  If not you directly, then someone around you whose behavior has been unmonitored.  If those people are laughing and telling Bozo he's cute for eating their hair, you're going to be hard-pressed to get him to stop.  Task analysis:  Stop them first.

The key to all training is enjoyment.  If the trainer or the learner are not enjoying the process, then it's pointless and likely to be futile.  Watch the video above. Read the book.  Then go forth and enjoy!

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