Mechanics matter: Examining the little details of food delivery

The more animals I train, the more I understand how tiny details can make a huge difference!

Often times, a seemly insignificant change in how we interact with an animal can totally change the learning process. A small change can sometimes make learning happen faster, but sometimes can make learning happen slower, and sometimes can result in the animal learning something completely different from what we intended.

It can be particularly helpful to start examining the little details when the animal’s behavior changes in a way you weren’t expecting. When behavior deteriorates suddenly, many people assume that the animal has forgotten, is being lazy, has gotten bored, or is just having a bad day. Often, though, the animal’s behavior has changed because the trainer has unknowingly changed her own behavior (or something has been altered in the environment without the trainer noticing).

Here are two recent examples from my own training that illustrate how little changes in the placement and timing of the treat can result in big changes in the behavior of the animal.

Down and up

I have a student with a smart, young mix-breed puppy that has been doing great in class. The dog learned how to lie down on cue in one of the first classes and had been doing great with this behavior. However at the last class, the owner reported that the dog was now lying down, then immediately popping back up into a sit position. The owner was frustrated, as the dog wouldn’t stay in the down position for longer than half a second.

After a bit of experimenting, we discovered that the owner had been feeding him the treats just a tiny little bit too high, so that he had to slightly reach up out of the down position to take the treat. What started to happen was that the puppy was anticipating that the treat would be held high and was scooting back up into the sit position, so that it would be easier for him to take the treat.

Originally, the owner had been bending all the way down and placing the treat between the pup’s paws. Her behavior had probably changed gradually over time, as the dog is quite small and over extended practice it was probably more effortful for her to bend all the way down. Her treat delivery had changed without her even realizing it.

We had the owner practice feeding the treat on the ground, right between the puppy’s paws and also feeding several treats in a row to encourage the dog to stay in the down position. With a bit of practice during class, he was starting once again to stay in the down position, rather than popping back up into a sit.

The black lab with the head bob

black lab mix puppy works on training

Here’s another interesting example. I have an adolescent black lab mix that has been doing some training with me for a couple of weeks while his owner is out of the country. He’s is a sweet, smart pup that picks up on new things pretty fast!

One skill we’ve been working on is eye contact. This is a foundation behavior that I’ll use later on to teach him the cue “Leave it.” When we practice, he sits in front of me and gets a click and a treat any time he looks me in the eyes. He figured out this game after just a bit of practice and pretty quickly started giving me a few seconds of sustained eye contact.

Recently, one of my assistant trainers spent some time practicing with him. He did well at first. However, he then started glancing back and forth between her eyes and her hands. This continued to increase, until the dog’s eyes were moving rapidly between the trainer’s face and her hands.

After a bit of analysis, we realized that the trainer was beginning to tear off a bit of treat before she sounded the clicker. Her anticipation and early hand movements were causing the dog to anticipate the delivery of the treat and focus on her hands. Instead of the click signaling the delivery of a treat, he was trying to guess when the next treat would come, based on her hand movements.

So, she practiced keeping her hands still. When he looked at her, she clicked, then broke off a piece of treat and handed it to him. After a bit more practice, she was getting eye contact with some duration. He would still sometimes glace around, but she had lost almost all of the rapid back and forth eye movement.

Have you had any recently “aha” moments or interesting learning experiences related to training mechanics and treat delivery?

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