Monday, June 30, 2014

A little insight from the dog training front

Steve White: Your dog ain’t so special! | Stale Cheerios Blog

And your horse ain't much either.

Only joking.  Animal training is a complex endeavor with a lot of science and a lot of emotion behind it.  Whether your trainee of choice is canine, feline, avian, equine, human or "other", the steps to learning remain the same but current trends differ.  Sometimes the difference is huge.  Sometimes it's minor.

In the blog post by Mary Hunter relating a lecture by Steve White (linked above), there is a passage explaining a study on the application of positive training methods by The Seeing Eye for their guide dogs, and the Police for their K-9 partners.  Both used positive methods (reward for producing the requested behavior).  One taught a few skills to some of the dogs.  The other taught most of the dogs a few skills.   Both found increased success in terms of speed of training and replication of trained behaviors using the positive methods compared to other (negative reinforcement or punishment) methods.  The change in training methods was relatively small (neither group had been engaging in punishment as a method), but the difference in results was measurably large.

And so it goes with all training.

A correspondent and I engaged in a discussion recently about our personal experiences in how small things make such a large difference.  In her case, it was something she did (or didn't) do or say to a frightened adult beginner rider that got the woman on a horse and moving.  In my case it was an interaction I'd once had with a student that (unbeknownst to me until later--I'm not psychic) thwarted his suicide plan.  That a difference was made was obvious.  What made the difference, not so much so.

If it's hard to figure out how your behavior impacted another human who can tell you in words what he or she is feeling or thinking, it's nearly impossible to do the same with a non-verbal critter like a dog, cat, horse, gerbil, teenager, monkey, earthworm....whatever floats your training boat.  We can guess like crazy and postulate and hypothesize and get nowhere.  Our only source of data is experiential.  We need to do it and see how it works out.

To that end, I'm going to suggest that if you're serious about improving the outcome of your training, you should start keeping some sort of records.  A calendar with notations is lovely and makes a fine wall-hanging.  There are nifty training record books available for all sorts of activities from gym work for humans to riding experiences for horsemen and everything in between.  There's an app for that.

Whatever your choice, if you can follow what I've written about in many (many) previous posts about task analysis , and you can find a format that works for you for note-making, then you can start to figure out what you're doing that works and what doesn't.
Jess and Dolly prove that baby steps
add up quickly.

It's important to note that no two people will have exactly the same experience using the same method.  If you tend to be high-strung and testy or loud and aggressive, or if you're the quintessential Cool Cucumber, quiet and focused, your results will reflect your personality and how the trainee's personality reacts to it.  If you are aggressive and the trainee is nervous and passive, the results aren't going to be anything to write home about.  It would be best if, in the process of breaking down the training into baby steps, you took a moment to assess your mood and approach and broke that down as well.  Most people can be calm and focused for a few minutes at a time even under stress.  So cut your training efforts down to a few minutes to start.

This is training for you, too.  I've often said that my training and riding improved by giant steps when my doctor prescribed a Beta blocker for my high blood pressure.  It's a class of drug that works by blocking the signals that increase heart rate. While it seriously impaired my aerobic efforts because I couldn't get my heart rate up over 100 no matter what I did on the damned treadmill, it made my heart rate so stable that even the flightiest of my horses (Zip, yes, that's you) was less reactive.  Bingo!  An accidental coup.

I'm not advocating drug use. I'm using that example to indicate that your level of reactivity can directly impact on the level of reactivity of your trainee.  So crank it back a notch and start over.

Training is complex but it's also exciting, even if only for us control freaks who love to see our trainees bounce like puppets on our strings.  Have at it, and see if you can find the small changes that make the big differences.

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