ORCA: Part 6. Kay Laurence

These are my notes from the ORCA Great Minds conference at UNT in March 2009. The Great Minds conference brought half a dozen top trainers together to talk about animal training, clicker training, operant conditioning and the future of training. This is the sixth post of my thoughts and notes and the first post about Kay Laurence. To read more about the conference in general, please see this post.

Kay Laurence, who is a dog trainer from England, talked about reinforcement patterns and reiforcement styles, and how these both affect our training results. I found her ideas fascinating, mainly because many of her points dispelled many of the beliefs people have about reinforcers and clicker training. In addition, her ideas gave me some really interesting things to think about.

I think some people (both those who don’t clicker train and even some who do) view clicker training as the following scenario:

animal performs behavior –> trainer clicks –> animal gets a treat and behavior will increase.

I think we think about it this way because it’s an easy way to generalize the process and often, mechanically, this is how it works. However, by over simplifying the process of reinforcement, we forget to think about many of the intricacies of the process that separate the good trainer from the great.

The process of reinforcement is actually much more complex than this. Depending on the situation or the behavior, the treat we offer might not always be reinforcing. As well, many people forget that a reinforcer doesn’t have to be a treat. Kay talked a bit about the subtle different between the dictionary meanings of reward and reinforce. A reward is something giving in return for a deed or service. Reinforce is to give added strength or support too. A small difference but interesting to think about.

We might give a treat to reward a behavior, but if the behavior does not increase, we have not reinforced it. What we think is a reinforcer, might not actually be one. Largely, our intentions are irrelevant. What matter is what we are doing, and how the animal responds. Does the rate and performance of the behavior increase or decrease? This is the true test of whether we are reinforcing a behavior or not. As well, often we don’t mean to reinforce a behavior, but we do. We didn’t set out to teach the dog to jump up on us, but if the behavior is increasing, somehow we are reinforcing it.

In addition, how we present the reinforcer can change it’s value. One interesting concept Kay touched on was body language when delivering rewards. If we are disengaged, looking away or not paying attention to the dog when we reward, we inadvertently punish the dog by removing our attention.

Kay said during her training classes, participant will often be focused on the other dog/trainer pairs or on asking her a question, rather than on their dog’s behavior. By not giving the dog 100% of our focus when rewarding, we take away a bit of that reward. Sometimes our agenda with our dogs (or other animals) is not about training the animal, but about getting social approval from other humans. We we let our ego get wrapped up in our training, and then when we train we focus on how others are responding, rather than the animal.

Punishment knocks out part of the reward and makes the behavior weaker and occur less frequently. We punish our animals when we don’t pay attention to ourselves and our body language. Also, we punish the animal when the environment changes and we don’t change the reinforcers to match the new environment. Touching the animal can also be punishing during training. Some dogs, when engaged and learning, absolutely do not want the training to stop so that you can gently stroke them. Petting for a good behavior might be reinforcing to the trainer, but we must consider if it is also reinforcing for the animal.

Interestingly, we must be aware of food getting wrapped up in our emotions when it comes to wanting to reward. Sometimes we become embarrassed, or sorry for our bad timing or guilty for something we asked the animal to do. Sometimes in these situations, a person’s gut reaction is to give the animal a bit of food to make the trainer feel better. But if there’s nothing we actually want to reward or reinforce that the animal has done, we’d be better off waiting for something we do want to reinforce.

Kay also touched on many natural behaviors that are reinforcing for dogs. All of the behaviors in the hunt repertoire are reinforcing–seeking, tracking, chasing, attacking, retrieving, stalking and so on. However, some of these are more reinforcing for some dogs than others. For example, when playing a game like fetch, for some dogs, the chase is the most rewarding, for others, the retrieve is. My dog Ginger absolutely loves chasing balls, but god luck getting her to bring it back!

As well, many social behaviors are reinforcing, such as connection, being part of a group, proximity, mirroring and copying others. This is why the relationship and bond with the animal can become so integral to the training process.

Lastly, having choice can be incredibly reinforcing. When the animal gets to make a choice, learning takes place. However, at the same time, too much choice can be punishing. If we go to a restaurant where just one menu choice is served, we eat what they give us. Even if we enjoy it, we don’t feel quite as involved in the process. If we have a menu of 10 items, and get to pick, selecting our food becomes part of the eating process. We become more involved in the process and the outcome and take more ownership for the results. However, if we have a menu of 100 items, things start to become a little overwhelming! If too much choice creates stress or anxiety, then the pressure of choosing could become punishing.

How does this apply to training? When we give the animal choice, it gives them more control over the learning process. This makes the animal feel more engaged and more part of the process. The animal is an active part of the learning, instead of just having things being done to it or forced upon it. However, we still must set the animal up for success and give them some guidance.

Kay Laurence shared a quote with us from B.F. Skinner. I’m not sure if I copied it down exactly word-for-word, but the gist of it was this: The way reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount. I think there is quite a bit of true to this, and a lot of what Kay said can be tied back into this. What and why we reinforce and our actions while we train carry just as much weight as whether we give the horse one cookie or two.

To read the next post about Kay Laurence’s talk, please click here.

Be sure to check back tomorrow and later in the week, as I’ll be blogging about the rest of the conference speakers. If you don’t regularly read my blog, but find this interesting, I encourage you to subscribe via the RSS feed or by e-mail subscriptions (both located at the top right. Thanks for reading!

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