Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Be Careful What You Teach (and you're always teaching something)

Understanding behavioral momentum and its applications | Stale Cheerios

You know all about behavioral momentum.  Really.  If you have children, you're practically a certified expert.  If you live with animals, you've seen it in action and developed whole, often rude vocabularies around it.  And you've stunned family and friends with the amazing tricks you've taught to whatever species surround you.

Behavioral momentum is also called "habit strength", and the bottom line is that learning is the instillation of habits, good, bad, and indifferent.  That makes it pretty dull, doesn't it?  When you watch a demo on TV or at a horse conference by a trainer who has managed to instill in an equine some habits that are so unnatural that you gasp in awe that he even thought of doing that, you're witnessing the artful application of reinforcement in service to habit strength development.

I was crossing the lawn on the way to the pasture to nab my equine du jour for a ride, and in the pen next to me, the mini, Duke came trotting to the fence with a smile. He was hoping for a cookie, and he got one, because that's how I roll.  They don't call me Cookie Pockets for nothing.  The reason I'm bringing this up is that he will do that identical behavior every time I cross the lawn whether or not he gets a cookie.  And it's not just the trot to the fence.  He first walks to a spot where his pen adjoins the riding ring.  He'll look at the horses in the pasture.  He'll make a quick, curving left turn.  And he'll wind up in exactly the same spot every time with the same nicker, head toss, and smile as punctuation.

Obviously, I taught him that he'd get a cookie if he approached me politely.  The rest of the routine he created on his own, and that's what we need to discuss.
Two Learners Learning

I didn't teach him where to stand, how fast to trot, where to turn, or which behaviors I consider polite.  He figured those out on his own.  In fact, I'm not actively rewarding anything other than his appearance at the fence and the smile, which I did teach him.  The rest is all him.

When we teach an animal (of any species) to learn, we also teach them to freelance a little.  We teach them to chain behaviors in a string that, because reinforcement (reward) follows the entire chain, will continue to be linked as one behavior in their minds.  Reward a toddler for picking up his blocks and putting them in a bin, and he'll eventually do that with a fair amount of certainty.  You may or may not notice that somewhere along the line he started dragging his blanket (or bottle, or the cat) behind him on this journey.  Or that he makes the same vocalizations every time he performs the task.  But because the reward ("That was awesome, Billy!  Good job!") follows the entire chain, he doesn't discriminate among the pieces of the process.

So it is with horses.  In the Stale Cheerios blog linked above, Mary mentions learning about superstitious behavior.  This has nothing to do with hauntings or throwing a handful of grain over your horse's shoulder when you spill his ration.  It has to do with his ("the learner's") belief that things that occur together are related in a causal fashion.  The learner will see and hear and sense things that the teacher may not be attending to.  When synchronicity comes into play, the learner attaches meaning to meaningless coincidence, and adds that to the behavior chain.  You didn't intentionally teach Furball to side pass away from the gate.  The gate did that when the wind made it rattle on one pass.  Furball firmly believes that it was his proximity to the gate that made it rattle.  So a proximal behavior was born!

Your best efforts to teach Fuzz Butt to side pass will be thwarted at every turn if you allow too many distractions to be introduced into the instructional setting before the habit strength of that behavior is set in stone.  With humans (even wee, little ones), it may take only one or two trials for the behavior to become permanent.  Just watch a parent-child interaction in the toy aisle during the holidays when the displays are attention-grabbing in the extreme to see how fast a kid can develop an overwhelming behavior pattern heretofore untried.  With some animals it can take ten or twenty trials.  With horses the rule of thumb is more like 100 perfect repetitions in a distraction-free setting before we can say learning has, indeed, taken place.

The good news is that those superstitious behaviors are easier to unteach.  The bad news is you can't actually "unteach" anything.  You can only replace unwanted behaviors with entirely new ones that, by their very nature, eliminate the possibility of performing the original obnoxiousness.  The baby can't throw cereal on the dog if the baby's hands are full of Magic Blanket.
This behavior is in Zip's
bag like flies on manure.

As you work with your animals and your humans, try to avoid "losing your bird".  If the behavior isn't being repeated with 100% certainty over time, then don't let the learner try his wings in public with lots of noise and other intervening stimuli that may suddenly become part of the behavior chain, embarrassing you and frustrating your attempts to look cool in front of the rest of the humans. Clicker training is best begun with the horse in his stall with only the top of the door open, no halter, no other horses, and you alone standing in front of the stall with the target and the treat bag.  You don't want to start in the middle of the warm-up pen before a beginner costume class.  You don't try to teach your child to spell  standing in the cereal aisle at the supermarket for the same reason.

Dial back the enthusiasm and the distractions, resort to the most detailed task analysis you can muster, and go forth and teach!
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