Shaping behaviour is a two-way conversation, in which we ask a question, receive an answer, listen and acknowledge, back and forth. When the animal tells us they’re ready we respond by changing the question slightly or asking for a little more. It is an art-form akin to a dance; we might take two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward and in this way we dance our way ever closer towards our goal.
You may have heard the terms "splitting" vs "lumping". Or the phrase "rewarding the smallest try". I’m going to add another word to the mix: criteria.
Criteria is one corner of the golden triangle of training, to which Bob Bailey asserts we can attribute the vast majority of training problems. It is crucial that we don't always set our criteria too high or else the animal won't be successful and our rate of reinforcement will drop too low. (Cue frustration, shut down or disinterest from the animal). I'll say that again with different words: when we ask for more than the animal is capable of understanding or delivering in that moment what we get is hesitation, wrong guesses, or our animal gives up, shuts down or otherwise "fails" and doesn't get rewarded. Doesn't feel good for them, or for us.
Unfortunately, it is human nature to think fast, to set goals for the future and want to achieve them yesterday. We also tend to have unrealistic views (from our comfortable perch atop the mountain of prior knowledge and human agenda) of how “obvious” the answer is, how quickly our animal should be able to figure it out; in short we assume the job of learning is easier than it actually is. In fact, what you think about it all is irrelevant - your animal tells you whether your criteria is small enough or not, by their success rate (and therefore by your rate of reinforcement, i.e. the frequency of your rewards).
Setting our expectations and our criteria too high and trying to move on too fast before the animal is ready (aka "lumping") is a pretty well-known training issue. It's safe to say that in almost every scenario it wouldn't hurt to split or “thin-slice” behaviours more than we already are. However, something I see quite a lot but doesn't often get a lot of air-time is the opposite - the tendency to spend too much time drilling at a stage the animal already knows well. This usually happens due to a lack of trainer confidence and the sense of success and safety that comes from the animal getting it right every time. Sometimes we actually sabotage our own progress because we like to stay in the comfort zone where the animal, and therefore the trainer, is successful. It also happens because of a lack of a clear plan as to next steps.
"Some of the most annoying hours in my school career were spent listening to an instructor drone interminably through explanations of a concept I already understood. Remaining at a low level of criteria or performance can be intensely frustrating to a learner. In "Don't Shoot the Dog", Karen Pryor points out that failure to move ahead when the student is ready can be just as aversive as any punishment."
So once our animal is getting it "right" about 80% of the time at our current criteria, we NEED to move on up and ask for more! More duration, more precision, more distance, more expression, more speed, more softness, more distractions, or whatever it might be. We just gradually paint those layers on, one at a time. (As we shift the focus to another criteria we may see a drop in quality of the other aspects we’ve been working on. Don’t worry. It’ll all even out in the end).
Alexandra Kurland talks a lot about loopy training, which is an analogy or framework of sorts for this exact scenario. She describes it as follows:
“In a clean loop, the trainee performs all the elements within the loop smoothly and without hesitation, and no unwanted behaviors creep in (as might happen if the emotional balance is off). Once the loop is clean [before and after the click], it’s time to move on to the next criterion. In fact, when a loop is clean, the trainer should move on!".
For more about loopy training read this blog.
Good training is rhythmic, almost meditative. (Here's a nice example - do you see the clean loops of behaviour?). I find it puts me and my learner into a flow state where the world disappears and we're completely in the moment with each other. The reinforcement process (click, reach for food, deliver food, return to neutral ready for the next rep) is a cohesive part of the “loop” and there’s no hesitations or sticky bits at any point and so it flows. No training session is going to be entirely like this, but this is always my goal.
You can see how any messy moments will disrupt your flow - these might include confusion or frustration behaviours from the animal, or your equipment malfunctioning so you're having to reset it all the time, or if there's anxiety or foraging/mugging behaviours going on between reinforcers, etc. By setting criteria well, cleaning up your food delivery and fine-tuning your environment/props/set up you can eliminate many of these messy moments and create smooth clean rhythmic loops of behaviour that spiral steadily outwards towards your goal.
Shaping behaviour is a continuous dance in which we step forward, step back, pause, skip three steps forward and so on... if you stand in one place too long or repeat the same steps endlessly when dancing, your dance partner would likely get frustrated or bored. Be brave enough to ask the questions; your animal will probably surprise you. Keep the flow going and enjoy the process as you dance your way toward your goals.
We often see the most creative and effective methods of behaviour management coming from those dealing with exotics and wild animals. (Perhaps because you can't put a choke chain on a parrot or a shock collar on a dolphin, and "whip taps" simply aren't effective on a rhino?)
Earlier this year a group of kea (a highly intelligent and notoriously cheeky New Zealand alpine parrot) began entertaining themselves playing with road cones in Milford Sound. They were shifting them around and tipping them over and generally causing havoc in the one-way tunnel where roadworks were underway. The delightful and very sensible response by the authorities was to give the kea their own roadside playground in a bid to encourage them to invest their time in less disruptive hobbies. The kea gym was regularly updated with new toys and treats to keep them interested.
On my way to a clinic recently, I passed two cyclists complete with packed panniers, travelling along rural State Highway 2 (a narrow and dangerous 100km/h road). My attention was drawn by the bright yellow pool noodles they had strapped to the back of their bicycle seats, extending a metre or so out into the road towards the cars.
This is the first time I've ever seen this, and it really struck me as it is such an innovative example of influencing behaviour. (Apparently this is a thing - I found this photo by googling "pool noodle cyclist").
I just LOVE these sorts of elegant management solutions to problems! These people were taking personal responsibility for their own safety, and had found a simple and quick way to effectively prevent unwanted behaviour by the vehicle drivers (that of driving too close). The kea playground shows a pragmatic acceptance of the playful nature of these birds and a tidy redirection of that play drive onto something more appropriate than the roadworks.
"Prevention is one of the greatest tools in force-free training. When something goes wrong, don’t ask yourself how can you punish your animal. Ask yourself “How can I prevent this in the future?”
A very common question I get from dog owners is "how do I stop my dog from getting into the rubbish bin?". The obvious answer (obvious to the trainer, at least!) is "... put the bin somewhere the dog can't get to it?". It doesn't matter how good a trainer you are, or how much time you have to devote to that one animal, you can't train ALL. The. Things.
Yes, it's possible to train an animal to do just about anything it is physically capable of doing. However we all have limited hours in our days, and we can't train every single thing to the nth degree. We also want to set our animals up for success, and prevent them from practising the behaviour we don't want. Therefore management and prevention is a critical tool. In the dog example, this might mean removing the object of interest or using baby gates or crates to limit your dog's options around the house. With a new horse it might mean putting him in a yard or behind a gate when doing initial training, so that he doesn't get to practice any mugging behaviour. (And then of course, in all cases, we reinforce alternative, more appropriate behaviours, because no animal can exist in a vacuum, right? If we want to eliminate a behaviour we need to fill the space with something else).
“The learner is never wrong. When an animal doesn’t do what we expect, it’s the program. And, the solution is to change what we, the trainers, do. To change behavior, change conditions. The animal changes himself/herself.”
One of the keys to successful behaviour change is (in behaviour-speak), arranging your antecedents. Or in normal talk, set the environment and the animal up for success. There is no "should". He is either doing it, or he's not. If not, that's your problem not his. Change the conditions to better enable success. Break it down further and explain more clearly what it is you want. Motivate him sufficiently. And then he'll do it.
Remember that whatever behaviour it is we're asking our animals to do, it's all our silly idea. It isn't hard for most people to grasp that if an animal is giving us a genuinely unwanted behaviour then we should immediately act to prevent that from happening (because it's in our own interests). However what if the behaviour isn't "unwanted" but it's just a "wrong answer"? Well, same deal. If for no other reason than the sake of the animal's enjoyment of the training process, we don't want to passively allow them to repeatedly make the wrong choice over and over, waiting for them to randomly land on the answer we're looking for. It's not efficient training and they'll likely get frustrated and eventually switch off.
However, if I simply stand outside the rail and hold the target in such a way that it's easy for her to do the right thing and she can get multiple rewards in a short space of time, then when I enter the paddock and stand right beside her, what will she do? She'll very likely do what she's just been rewarded dozens of times for doing - touching the end of the stick. Problem solved. Less time spent, more success.
Take this concept to any behaviour you're training. If you want square halts when riding, you could ask for dozens of halts (which would give you lots of variability) and just reward the ones that are vaguely square... or you could train your horse to stand their front feet in balance on a mat and then put the mat in the arena when riding. Do a little more practice from on top and when you take the mat away they're very likely to halt square again. All that repetition and reward has greased up the neural pathways in their brain to produce "muscle memory" for balance and straightness in the halt.
Ethical training can (and should) also be efficient and effective training. Dragging out the process by not communicating clearly with the animal, or allowing them to make endless "wrong choices" which result in a low success rate, is not fair on them. Nobody wins. So keep your eye focused on the end-goal, your remarkably creative and logical brain focused on the steps needed to get there, and through it all maintain an unwavering dedication to proactively helping your animal partner to succeed and have fun.
Animals are learning constantly. The dinosaurs were learning and adapting their behaviour as a result of consequence and association long before humans came along to peer at lab rats in boxes and write papers about operant and classical conditioning and argue endlessly online about quadrants.
For this reason, I define “training” as simply “learning that happens in the direct presence of a human”. Broad? Yes, intentionally so. Any time we are interacting with our horses, we are potentially training them. If a human allows a horse to learn that shoving or biting or pinning ears is an effective way of getting what they want, then it is not deliberate training on the part of the human but it is training nonetheless. As the incomparable Dr Susan Friedman says, "Reinforcement is a natural process like gravity - it's in effect whether or not you notice it and make good use of it".
Most of you reading this have handled and/or ridden horses for years, or decades, and thus have spent an equal amount of time TRAINING those same horses. That training is not always deliberate, or conscious. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, we may well be getting good results, and yet often we still don’t truly know WHY it is working (or not working, as the case may be). I say “we” because this was me, from when I got my first pony as a child and on right through the next 10 years or so, despite plenty of coaching and relative success in both dressage and show jumping. I was working on gut feel and instinct, combined with some basic “recipes” given to me by instructors.
It doesn't matter at all that I didn't know the proper terms for what it was I was doing, what matters is that it worked. However, I lacked clarity about why it worked and how I might apply the same principles to different scenarios or different horses or different training problems. Looking back, it feels like I was operating in a bit of a fog, riding and training quite effectively, but without a conscious understanding of how I was doing it. After teaching many hundreds of humans to train their horses and dogs, I believe this is the way many (or perhaps most) people are, to some extent.
The thing is, if we don’t have the ability to observe and analyse behaviour, and a clear understanding of how to gain the animal's cooperation to influence that behaviour, then we’re missing out on the real magic. There’s plenty of instructors that can teach you HOW to achieve a certain outcome, just as I can buy a recipe book and bake quite a good cake by following the instructions exactly. But I don't understand the science behind baking. I can't invent a recipe, or substitute important ingredients. I don't know why one recipe calls for 1 tsp bicarb soda and another one calls for 2 tsp of baking powder, and if my scones end up hard as a rock I don't always know what to do differently next time to fix it.
We can learn specific techniques to fairly reliably get our horse to back up, or go in a “frame” before a dressage test or get him over a jump etc, but it is understanding the WHY of learning that enables our efforts to be more efficient, repeatable, and transferable to other horses and other behaviours. And importantly, this is also what enables us to train ethically and consistently, with clear communication in both directions, and ultimately giving our horse the best chance of succeeding each step of the way. And that right there is the foundation of true partnership and trust.
I want to pass on some tips at this point, in case you feel like you're experiencing a bit of fog yourself, or if you have students or friends who could do with some blue skies and clarity.
Get your hands on as many different animals as you can! The video above is of an impromptu training session with a friend's new kitten. The photos below are from the multi-species clinic I ran last year at Bullswool Farm Park. Training other species is an opportunity to improve technique, cement concepts and underlying training principles, and makes us more creative and flexible as trainers.
What experiences have you had that have caused those "pennies to drop from the heavens"? Have you got any tips to share on how to help lift the fog and start having more clarity and consciousness around the training that is happening every time we interact with our horses? Leave a comment below!
'til next time,