Practicing for excellent performance

Every year since 2009, I’ve attended the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. And, (nearly) every year, I’ve posted my notes from the conference on my blog. This year, I got a bit behind after the conference in February! I’m slowly finishing up my notes. You can find all of my notes on this page and information about our 2016 conference is available here.

IMG_0036.PNGAlexandra’s talk at the 2015 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference was full of so many gems. I think I could write several blog posts about her talk and about all of the discussion points it raised!

However, rather than sharing all of my notes from Alexandra’s talk and putting your brain on overload, I want to share with you three ideas from her talk that really got me thinking. And, I hope that they will get you thinking too!

Do your metaphors lead to excellence?

Alexandra Kurland opened her lecture by discussing talent. One commonly accepted metaphor, or belief, has always been that talent is something you are born with. Mozart’s exceptional music abilities are often used as an example of this. However, what most people don’t realize is that Mozart’s father was obsessed with his children becoming musically brilliant, which led to the children spending hours and hours practicing. So, perhaps a different metaphor is more accurate, that talent can be the product of intense and deliberate practice.

We all have metaphors that we use when we are observing and examining the world. They help us to interpret and make sense of things, and they influence our actions. Alexandra cautioned that we should examine our own metaphors and beliefs and make sure that the metaphors we believe in are ones which will lead to excellence — both in our own performance and the performance of our animals.

For example, what do you believe about yourself and your potential for change? Are you like a rock, set in stone, with a fixed mindset? Or are you more like a small plant, with a growth mindset, and a belief that you are still changing?

Handsome Harrison

Handsome Harrison

Alex discussed that fixed mindset people tend to be hard on themselves and on their animals. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe in possibilities.

Alex showed some wonderful video footage while discussing all of this. The first video was of an awkward, out of balance horse that could hardly trot a circle. The second video was of a horse doing a graceful, floating trot, the kind that many riders dream of! The best part was that the videos were the same horse, an appaloosa gelding named Harrison. By studying clicker training and adopting a growth mindset, Natalie had transformed her horse ugly duckling horse to a beautiful swan.

Units of practice

Much of Alexandra Kurland’s talk was about practice, and specifically the “deep practice” that Daniel Coyle and others have written about. (If you are interested in practice, talent, and related subjects, I highly suggest that you check out Coyle’s book The Talent Code. You can find it on Amazon here.)

Horse clicker training - Garrow trottingOne essential part of deep practice is breaking down behavior into smaller units. Rather than working on a whole sequence of behaviors, you identify the core component behaviors and work to perfecting these key pieces. It is often much more effective to focus in on one part at a time, rather than to rehearse the whole sequence or routine over and over again.

This also translates to training new behaviors. When teaching a new behavior, the trainer should keep thin slicing the behavior until she finds a step where she can get a clear, consistent unit of behavior that does not include any errors or unwanted behaviors. What the trainer should be aiming for is a “clean loop” of behavior. (By “loop,” I mean the sequence of cue – behavior – click – reward – cue – behavior ….. and so on. See more in my loopy clicker training article, if you are not familiar with this concept.)

However, trainers sometimes try to progress in steps that are much too big. Then, when errors or unwanted behaviors get repeated, these pieces can start to become part of the behavior and can be hard to remove later on. It can be easy to think, oh well, it’s almost what I want, I’ll clean it up later. But, that cleaning up will almost always end up being much, much harder than you think. What research on practicing and habit formation has shown is that when errors are rehearsed, both the good behavior and the little bits of unwanted behavior start to become habit.

Let the horses go eat hay

So, the big question becomes, what is the best way to practice? And how do we practice in such a way that we can improve our skills, but without frustrating or confusing our animals?

Part of what makes training difficult is that we are dealing with a living, breathing creature. And, horses and dogs and other critters notice everything! So the tiny details matter. Your mechanical skills matter, and you technique matters.

This is especially important for beginner trainers. If a novice trainer does not have the necessary skills, she inadvertently ends up reinforcing lots of the wrong behavior, and her animals can end up very confused.

shaping-workshop-40-300x225One solution that Alexandra Kurland discussed is that we can “let the horses go eat hay,” and use simulators to sharpen our training skills, practice new techniques, and improve our ability to make decisions during training. By simulations, Alexandra meant any sort of exercise or game that allows you to practice your training skills, but that does not directly involve the animal you are training. (Hence, putting the horses back in the barn and letting them eat their hay, while you practice your training skills in another context!)

Simulations can include the shaping game, rope handling or leash handling exercises that are done without the animal present, tabletop shaping games (such as PORTL and GENABACAB), exercises done with “human horses,” and much more.

The benefit of simulations is that the trainer can learn new skills and practice different variations in technique, without annoying or confusing her animal. The simulation can provide lots of focused repetition, so that the trainer is better prepared when she goes back to working with her animal. With simulations, the trainer can also practice in slow motion, which allows a careful analysis of movement and mechanical skills.

One neat example that Alexandra discussed and that Coyle discusses in his book “The Talent Code,” is the Brazilian game of futsal. Soccer players often play futsal to improve their technique and skill. One researcher has investigated futsal and discovered that futsal players come in contact with the ball 600% more times than they do in regular soccer. This means they have many more practice repetitions than a normal soccer player and their skills improve faster when playing futsal.

Do you have any simulations, exercises, or games that you use to improve your training skills without your animal present?

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  • Sadly, I tend to become impatient when working with Nike, so I often have to “train myself” rather than her. For me it’s a matter of stepping away for a moment to kind of “center myself” and then I’m good to get back to working with her. She’s really super smart and rarely does she test my patience, but sometimes it does happen. Thankfully I’m wise enough to know that’s MY problem, not hers! :)

    • Hi Christina,

      Sounds like you’ve figured out a good system that works for you and Nike!
      One thing that I often do (that I learned from horse trainer Alexandra Kurland) is to measure out 10-15 treats, then go train, then take a brief break, then measure out another 10-15 treats and so on.

      This works really well because the breaks are pre-planned. I’ve found taking lots of little breaks like this helps the animal learn faster and really helps me as well.

  • annstaub

    They say practice makes perfect! I tend to do exactly what Christina mentioned. Shiner is smart, although she can be quite goofy sometimes. But, she is definitely a very stubborn dog which is fine. She’s not a super star trick dog, but she has her basic stuff down. :)

  • I used to be the WORST lumper. I was so bad at splitting things down! Over time I’ve gotten a lot better and I try to make things more of a game, too! You are right practice makes perfect! I always tell everyone that even goes for bad behaviors, which is why management is so important. :) Great post!

    • Great point that practice makes perfect for unwanted behaviors too!

      I know I’ve accidentally rewarded unwanted behaviors before…. it can be easy to end up doing sometimes, if you aren’t paying really careful attention to what is going on.

  • Tenacious Little Terrier

    Alexandra Kurland is a great speaker! I saw her at ClickerExpo last year. We teach the kids during therapy visits about the basics of clicker training and before they practice on the dogs, we practice the mechanics using a card game first.

    • That’s super cool that you teach the kids about clicker training on your therapy visits!

      Will you be at ClickerExpo in 2016?

      • Tenacious Little Terrier

        Unfortunately, probably not. Probably won’t make it back until they come to Portland again or Seattle maybe. Our therapy program director hopes to do a presentation there one day. We’re hoping to maybe go to Terry Ryan’s chicken camp next year though! What about you?

        • I think you would really enjoy a chicken camp with Terry Ryan!

          I am helping with one of the labs, so I’ll be at both the expos this year. I’m looking forward to it.

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