Your results may vary: The how and why of choosing training tools and techniques

These are my notes from the 2012 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.
Click here for more notes from this conference.

At the 4th annual Art and Science of Animal training conference, Steve White talked about training choices and how they’re made. During his lecture he discussed the hows and whys of choosing different training tools and techniques.

I love listening to Steve White speak. If you’re not familiar with Steve, he’s a dog trainer from Seattle. He’s also an excellent speaker. Steve has worked with police departments training police dogs, drug dogs, and bomb dogs. This kind of training requires a great amount of precision and skill—the security and safety of many people depend on these dogs doing their jobs quickly and accurately. During his talk at the conference this year, Steve drew some interesting parallels between dog training and law enforcement. This post will be a few snippets from his talk that I found particularly interesting and have been thinking about.

The Law Enforcement Model

Steve talked a bit about how law enforcement officers must work. In any situation, an officer must do three things. He or she must assess the situation, formulate a plan of action, and then act on it. Often, this must all be done very quickly! The officer has to scan the situation and gather as much information as possible in a short amount of time, and then begin working toward an appropriate solution. Animal training is pretty similar. Although we aren’t often trying to catch bad guys or working in life or death situations, a trainer often must operate under similar conditions. When an animal trainer is called in to solve a problem, the trainer often needs to quickly come up with an effective starting point or solution, even though the trainer usually does not have the whole story of what’s been going on.

Steve said that in law enforcement situations, the officer must continuously assess the situation and select the most reasonable option relative to the circumstances as perceived at that point in time. This statement offers a lot of reminders related to good animal training! Let’s look at two parts of this statement:

Continuous assessment: First, an animal trainer must continuously assess the training situation and make changes immediately, if needed. Good trainers has a well mapped out training plan. However, a great trainer is able to reevaluate a situation and make changes to that training plan, as needed.

Most reasonable option: Sometimes, the best, most perfect, ideal training option is not available. The trainer might lack information about the situation, certain resources, or cooperation from certain people. It’s important to remember that we live in the “real world.” For most training situations, there never will be a “perfect” option. However, we can evaluate the best options and make sure we select the most reasonable option that has the highest chance of being successful for the animal.

Susan Friedman’s Three Prong Test

Steve said that trainers often are tools of last resort. People call up the trainer when they can’t solve a problem on their own and have exhausted the options of their friends and their dog training books. When making training decisions, we need to devise solutions by considering effectiveness, intrusiveness, and social acceptability. This three-pronged test for evaluating training plans comes from bird trainer Susan Friedman. However, it’s a good test to keep in mind when training any species!

Effectiveness: Did (or will) your training program work? Will the results last over time? Did you train the appropriate behaviors in all situations that they will be needed in? Will it be easy for you or the client to continue to maintain the newly trained behaviors?

Intrusiveness: How much does the training plan disturb and interfere with the owner and animal’s daily life? Remember, simple training solutions are usually better than more complex or complicated ones. How much control does the learner have over the training process? How much, if any, does your training program rely on restraint, confinement, deprivation or other procedures that alter the animal’s normal routine?

Social acceptability: Are both your training plan and the results of the training socially and culturally acceptable? Did you meet the client’s expectations? If the client feels uncomfortable with your training procedures or the results the client is not going to follow through with your program.

If you are a professional trainer, these three points are great things to consider when designing training programs for your clients and their animals. However, even if you aren’t a professional trainer, these points are important to consider for your training programs for your own animals. Does your plan work well without being too intrusive into the animal’s life? Do the results benefit the animal, as well as you?

Also, in most situations, other people also interact with our animals. This could include spouses, children, friends, veterinarians, and others. If you are designing training plans, think about Susan Friedman’s three prong test and consider whether your training program is going to be effective, non-intrusive, and socially acceptable for the other individuals who interact with your animals. If your answer is no, you might want to consider altering your training plan so that others who interact with the animal will be able to help you maintain the behaviors you train. Or, you might want to consider simple ways to train these people so that they can be helpful.

Do you find this model helpful? What additional considerations do you think are important when designing and implementing training programs for your own animals or for client’s animals?

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