Waiting to capture a behavior?

Positive reinforcement trainers usually rely on several different methods to train new behaviors. This includes (but is not limited to) shaping, capturing, and luring.

Capturing is often described as waiting for the behavior to happen, then rewarding it when it does. The idea is to teach the animal that the behavior “pays off.” Once the animal figures out which behavior is being rewarded, the trainer can then add a cue to the behavior.

For example, if you wanted to teach your dog to roll over on his back on cue, you could just wait and watch him throughout the day. Every time he rolled over on his back — click and treat. After a handful of clicks over a few days, the dog would probably start offering the behavior more often and you could begin adding a cue for the behavior.

When trainers think about and talk about capturing, they often talk about watching and waiting. That is, waiting for the behavior to happen randomly, so that they can capture it.

I’ve been reading Kay Laurence’s new book, Clicker Revolution. I am really enjoying this book so far and will write a proper review of it when I am finished. Part way through the book, Kay talks a little about capturing. Kay takes a slightly different perspective on capturing than what I usually hear from animal trainers.

In the chapter titled Antecedents and Cues, Kay writes:

“Capturing is often described as reinforcing a behavior that is freely offers without prompts or stimulus from the person. ‘It is spontaneous.’ Nah, not really. All behavior will have antecedents, sometimes we may not be attuned to them, see them or recognize them…. The purpose behind an attempt to capture a behavior is the ability to call upon it with a cue that is under our management.”

The behavior you want to capture already has environmental cues (antecedents). During capturing, the trainers takes a behavior that has naturally occurring environmental cues and adds a new cue, so that she can now ask the animal to do the behavior at certain times.

And also, when discussing house training, Kay Laurence talks more about capturing:

“In this example, we have ‘stepped into’ an existing cycle [of behavior], made slight modification, added a reinforcer and associated additional management cues. This is referred to as capturing a behaviour. But I think that term can imply waiting with thumb-poised clickers for this spontaneous occurrence, when — with good observation and a little planning — we can predictably and easily step into their cycle.”

I often hear people talk about behavior as if it happens randomly or spontaneously. However, as Kay talks about in the first quote, behavior always has a cue. It always has certain conditions or contexts during which it happens. Imagine if behavior was truly random! None of us would be able to survive.

If you can, instead, think of behavior as always having cues associated with it, this will help you not only when using capturing, but when doing any other kind of training.

You will also become much more deliberate about how you capture behaviors and much more successful in the end, if you think about the cues that could already be associated with a behavior.

For example, imagine teaching a dog to bow. Dogs are often likely to bow when stretching when they have just gotten up from a nap or while playing. Or, imagine teaching a horse to lie down. Horses are more likely to lie down in certain types of soil, such as sand or soft dirt. Also, horses often lie down, in preparation to roll, when they are wet after a bath.

It becomes much easier to capture a behavior if we can determine when the behavior is likely to occur. Rather than waiting all day, you can watch closely when these situations are beginning and make sure that you are ready to reinforce the behavior. Or, even better, you can arrange for these situations to happen.

Behaviors always have cues. When we train a behavior using capturing, we are just adding a new cue to the behavior. We are also usually adding a new reinforcer as well. This allows us to take a behavior that is already occurring naturally and be able to call upon it at will.

What behaviors have you trained using capturing?

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