Building duration while training (Part 1)

This post is part of my notes from the 2013 Stamford, Connecticut ClickerExpo. ClickerExpo is 3-day conference for positive animal trainers that is organized by Karen Pryor Clicker Training. For the rest of the notes in this series, please visit my Conference and Clinics Notes page.

The second session I attended at ClickerExpo was another lab session. This one was given by dog trainer Kay Laurence and was titled “Hang in There! Duration in Moving & Static Behaviors.” I really enjoyed hearing and watching Kay explain how to build duration during training. I know building duration is something that is often difficult for animal trainers. In some instances, a trainer can easily get an animal to do a certain behavior. However, in some of these situations, it can seem much harder to teach the animal to do the behavior for an extended period of time.

What does it mean when you don’t click?

Kay started the session by discussing some of the ways in which clicker trainers build duration. Many clicker training instructors teach people to increase the duration of a behavior by withholding their click and waiting for the animal to offer the behavior for longer and longer periods of time. However, according to Kay, this is a questionable method that can often lead to confusion and frustration.

What does it mean when you don’t click?

For many animals, the absence of clicks has an ambiguous message. In some situations, the absence of the click means:

  • Wrong behavior for the cue given, please try again
  • Right behavior but not up to standard, better try again
  • Right behavior and keep doing it (withholding the click to build duration)
  • Please keep exploring and experimenting, during a shaping session

Sometimes the trainer withholds the click because she wants to build duration, and sometimes the trainer withholds the click because the behavior was not up to par (or the wrong behavior) and the trainer would like for the animal to try again. Do you see how this could be confusing to an animal?

A side note: For shaping new behaviors, Kay sits in a chair. This works well because for Kay’s dogs, the chair has become a cue for the dog to experiment and try new behaviors. Withholding the click in this context tells the dog to explore and try new behaviors.

Trainers should be care about withholding the clicker and should consider carefully what they want this to mean to their dogs. Withholding the clicker is certainly not the only way to build duration! During the lab, Kay shared some of her methods for building duration with both static and motion behaviors.

Building duration by building component behaviors

Kay talked at length about building duration by first building component behaviors. One method that Kay discussed involves builds duration by building a small component of the final behavior, then making a chain of three repetitions of this component. The middle cues are gradually removed, so that the animal is then doing the behavior for three times as long as he was originally.

Here’s how this might work. If training a long duration stay, the trainer might start with this initial component:

Cue –> Dog stays (4 seconds) –> Click / Treat

Then, the trainer could string three of these together to get:

Cue –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Cue –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Cue –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Click/ Treat

To make this work, the cues have to be given at exactly the right time. The trainer cues the first behavior. Then, the trainer gives the cue for the next repetition of the behavior right before the previous behavior ends. If the trainer gives the cue for the second repetition after the first behavior is over, the trainer will end up with the dog training equivalent of “stuttering.”

Once this chain is fluent, the trainer can start removing the cues starting at the end of the chain. So, the sequence of events would then look like this:

Cue –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Cue –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Click/ Treat

Which is really:

Cue –> Dog stays (4 s) –> Cue–>Dog stays (8 s) –> Click/ Treat

Next the trainer can remove the other middle cue, so that the final behavior is:

Cue –> Dog stays (12 s) –> Click / Treat

If the trainer wanted an even longer stay, she could then string together 3 more repetitions of the stay behavior, each 12 seconds in length. The two middle cues could then be gradually removed (as above), resulting in a 36 second stay.

Really, the key to building duration (whether you use this chaining method or another method) is to identify and build small units of component behaviors. It is hard (if not impossible) to extend a behavior or ask for another repetition of a behavior if the animal cannot first do the behavior really well for a short period of time.

However, many trainers try to do this. They try to build duration and extend the length of a behavior, when they did not even have a solid behavior in the beginning! Foundation skills and component behaviors build a structure for the behavior and allow you to then be able to increase duration.

Check back later for part 2 of this post, which will cover some of the specific exercises that trainers worked on during this lab.

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