What did Bailey do, and why: A training potpourri

This is part four of my notes from ORCA’s 2013 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. For links to the rest of my notes (which will be posted over the next few weeks),
please visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

I always love listening to Bob Bailey speak. His talks are always packed full of training wisdom, which comes from decades spent training animals of all shapes and sizes. If you’re not familiar with Bob Bailey, I encourage you to check out this post on my blog for a bit more information about Bob Bailey and Animal Behavior Enterprises. These are my notes from his talk at this year’s ORCA conference. His talk was titled “What did Bailey do, and why: A training potpourri.”

Some words of advice: “Think. Plan. Do.”

If you’ve ever been to a workshop or seminar with Bob Bailey, you know that he has certain training mantras that often repeats. Most of these little phrases seem simple at first, but are often packed full of wisdom. One of Bob’s sayings, which he discussed in detail during his lecture this year, is “Think. Plan. Do.”

All of your training, as well as the preparation work that you do before you start training, can be broken down into one of these three categories. Bob spent some time talking about the different things a trainer should be thinking about and doing during each of these different stages of a training program.

Step 1: Think.

First things first, spend some time thinking about what you are going to train. According to Bob, this is your time for novelty and creativity. Get out some paper and spend some time brain storming. Use your imagination and picture your animal doing what you want your animal to do!

Actually, although it seems like a necessary step, I think trainers sometimes forget this stage of the training process and jump straight into planning or training. The trainer has a rough idea of the behavior she wants to train, but she hasn’t spent quality time thinking about exactly what the final behavior might look like and she hasn’t considered all of the possible variations and options that might be available. Your first idea might be okay, but if you get in the habit of spending some time thinking and brainstorming before training something new, the quality of your training will likely improve.

Step 2: Plan.

This is your time to formulate a training plan that describes a clear path for how to get from where you are currently to where you want to go. Spend some time thinking about the details and deciding exactly how to do what you want to do. Bob says that the planning phase is the best time to make mistakes! Careful and thoughtful planning will give you time to analyze your training program and catch any potential errors or miscalculations.

Now is the time to evaluate your resources and to evaluate the pre-requisite skills that will be needed by both the animal and the trainer. Spend some time clearly defining your final behavior and any approximations, as well as the criteria for what exactly will count as correct.

Can your plan be simplified? Bob says to take the time to make your plan simple. It is much harder to come up with a simple plan than a complex plan.

Now that you know exactly what you want and what you don’t want, it’s almost time to start training. However, before you jump in and start training the animal, take some time to rehearse. (Here’s another step that’s often forgotten!) Rehearse in your mind and then rehearse step-by-step without the animal, but in the actual training location with the equipment you will be using. Practice the mechanical skills that you will need while training. If you cannot do something, reevaluate your training plan and/or spend some time practicing the skills you are missing, before you start training your animal.

Step 3: Do.

This is the time for action! Don’t waste your most precious resource, which is time. Once you get to this step, you should be completely ready to carry out your training plan. During his talk, Bob Bailey really emphasized that each step should be kept separate. Don’t plan while you are thinking or think while you are planning. And you certainly should not be in the thinking or planning stage while you are doing the actual training.

What often happens is that something isn’t working quite right, so a trainer starts thinking or planning while working with the animal. Don’t do this! If something isn’t working, that’s okay, don’t keep doing something that is not working. Stop training, take a step back, and return to thinking or planning. When you have a better plan, go back to  your animal and start training again.

Bob also warned against desperation driven clicks and desperation driven criteria changes. Often, when things aren’t working quite right, a trainer, out of desperation or frustration, goes ahead and reinforces a behavior that isn’t quite what she wants. If you find yourself slipping into this, take a break. Find a new starting point where you and the animal can be successful or go back to the planning stage, if need be.

Recording keeping: Data and videos.

Keep data while you are training, as well as daily training logs. No one has a perfect memory. This is especially important when you are working with animals or projects over the long term and when other people are also working with the same animals.

Bob also recommended taking video of at least 20 percent of your training sessions. Your videos should include both you and the animal. Sometimes, I think video can seem overwhelming, if you are doing a lot of training and end up with hours and hours of video. Bob suggested that each day you should watch three video segments, each 2-3 minutes in length. Watch each segment three times.

This should be enough to see what’s going on, what you are doing well, and what needs to be changed. Trainers often get stuck because they fail to follow their training plan, they reinforce the wrong behavior, and/or they are lacking mechanical skills. All of these problems should be obvious from short video clips.

During both planning and doing, it’s important to remember that you should never ask an animal (or trainer) to do something that she cannot do. Know your animal, know what your animal does or does not know, and know your animal’s limitations. Don’t ask an animal to do a difficult task, without first making sure that you’ve taught the animal all of the prerequisite skills and mechanical skills that the animal needs for accomplishing that task.

Training for long distances and long durations.

Bob gave lots of examples and showed lots of videos throughout his presentation. Too many for me to include them all here! But, I will share a bit about one of my favorites. Bob has done a lot of training with animals that must work for long periods of time, while being separated from the trainer by pretty long distances. This has included a diversity of species, such as dolphins, gulls, dogs, and even house cats. The animal is often separated from the trainer by at least a kilometer, sometimes much more. Bob gets lots of questions about how he accomplishes these training feats.

For example, Bob Bailey and Animal Behavior Enterprises worked on one project for the US government where dolphins were trained to deliver a nose cone and package to an enemy ship. The dolphin delivered the package to a location near the ship’s engine. Once activated, tiny pellets were released. The pellets expanded, disabling the ship’s engine. For another project, gulls were trained to fly long distances to find certain objects, or to pick up or deliver small packages.

For all of these projects, Bob and the other trainers spent lots and lots of time (months) working at close distances before moving to larger distances or the open sea. Bob advised that a trainer should always perfect a behavior at a short distance, before moving to longer distances. Weak behavior at 30 meters will not magically become strong behavior at 300 meters. Also, Bob suggested adding distractions and complexity at short distances, rather than waiting until you are working at longer distances.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Next time you are training, make sure you spend some time thinking, planning and doing! For more of my notes from ORCA’s 5th annual Art and Science of Animal Training Conference, please visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

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