Note: This post is a bit of a “blast from the past.” These notes were originally posted last summer on a different website, which unfortunately no longer exists. So, I am making them available here. I hope you enjoy them, this was a great seminar and I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights in my notes.
In June 2013, Dog City Training Center hosted Michele Pouliot for a weekend seminar. Michele is a very talented dog trainer who has won international competitions in the sport of canine freestyle. She also has worked for almost four decades with Guide Dogs for the Blind, training hundreds of guide dog teams. Michele really knows her stuff and it was wonderful to get to spend two days learning from her.
During much of the weekend, Michele focused on crucial details that distinguish pretty good trainers from exceptional trainers. Michele discussed a variety of concepts and principles that contribute to great training. Great trainers are strategic about planning, conducting, and evaluating their training sessions in ways that promote optimal learning. During the weekend, trainers explored how to put these ideas into practice in several diverse training contexts, including trick training, training a formal obedience style retrieve, and while using platforms to teach new behaviors. The following notes are some of our favorite highlights from the seminar.
Is your training “clean?”
One of the first concepts Michele discussed was what she calls “clean training.” Clean training means effective handling of rewards, whether the reward you are using is food, playtime with a toy, or anything else. The trainer should handle and deliver the rewards in a way that will make her training more effective and efficient.
What’s an example of reward delivery that is not “clean?” Many clicker trainers hold the next few treats in their hand or reach for a treat before they click. Trainers do this so they can be ready to quickly deliver the next treat. However, this often results in a dog that stares at the trainer’s hand or treat bag when, instead, he should be watching the trainer for cues or performing a behavior.
After Michele discussed this, she had everyone practice reaching for the treat after the click, not before or during the click. Michele told trainers to think: click, pause, and THEN reach for a treat. The pause does not have to be long at all, but it helps prevent you from reaching for the treat while you are clicking.
This seminar was full of experienced clicker trainers. Yet, it was interesting to see the number of participants who had developed habits of reaching for treats before or during the click. This was a good reminder of how it is so important to not just be focused on your dog’s behavior, but to also take the time to evaluate your own behavior during training.
Are you strategic about reward placement?
Once you are training “clean” and waiting until after the click to reach for that treat, it’s time to start evaluating how and where you will deliver the reward. For example, a trainer could toss the treat to the dog, take the treat to the dog, toss the treat to the side of the dog, or have the dog come to the trainer to collect the treat. Many trainers always use the same method of reward delivery or select a method at random. Experienced trainers, however, use strategic reward placement. Based on the behavior they are training, they select a reward delivery method that will support the goal behavior and lead to faster, more efficient learning.
For example, if training a dog to crawl, Michele suggested giving the treats down low, either by handing them to the dog or placing them on the ground. The dog learns that food always comes down to him, so there is no reason to get up. Very quickly, the dog will be crawling several feet, rather than crawling an inch, then bouncing up, then crawling another inch, and getting up again. The reward is delivered in a way that enhances training because it encourages the dog to stay in the correct position.
Michele cautioned, however, that strategic reward placement does not mean that the trainer gets to ask the dog to do more behavior after the click. Imagine that the dog is in heel position, the trainer clicks, and the dog gets out of position. The trainer should not spend several seconds trying to use the food as a lure to circle the dog back into the correct heel position. Instead, the trainer could just give the food close to her body, so that the dog learns that he doesn’t have to leave her side when she clicks.
Do you plan before you train?
Most people just want to jump in and start training. However, during the seminar, Michele emphasized the importance of planning before you start training. What is your end goal? Where will you start? What steps will take you from your starting point to your end goal? How will you hold your clicker, treats, and other equipment? How will you use reward placement to enhance your training? When will you raise your criteria?
Michele encouraged participants to actually spend a few minutes writing down their training plan before starting each training session. When training her own dogs and when working with clients, Michele uses dry erase boards to jot down quick notes before and during training sessions. She suggested writing down the end behavior, the criteria you will be working on, and what you expect to happen during the training session. If you don’t usually write notes before or during your training sessions, Michele recommended trying this for at least a week.
Planning can help trainers anticipate and avoid potential training problems. For example, imagine that a trainer knows that her dog is likely to try a certain type of behavior that she doesn’t want. During her planning time, she can figure out how to set up her training environment, set her criteria, use strategic reward placement, or use other strategies to get the correct behavior without the dog offering extra or unwanted behavior.
Finally, during training, Michele said that you always want to feel like the behavior is improving and as if you are moving steadily toward your goal. If training gets stalled or things aren’t going as planned, don’t keep clicking. Take a break and evaluate the situation. Once you have a new plan, you can start training again.
Are you making wise choices about equipment?
Seminar participants spent one afternoon working on platform training with their dogs. Michele often uses platforms in her freestyle and obedience training to teach a variety of different behaviors. Check out this blog post for more information about some of the behaviors Michele teaches with platforms.
However, not all platforms are created equal. The size of the platform should be determined by the size of the dog, the behavior you want to teach, and the dog’s level of training. Little dogs get little platforms. Larger dogs get larger platforms. Dogs get longer, rectangular platforms if the dog is required to stand or lie down and dogs get square platforms when teaching the dog to sit on the platform.
Interestingly, the platforms Michele uses are slightly narrower than I would have guessed. However, this helps keep the dog straight and aligned in the correct direction. For dogs new to platforms, Michele typically uses a platform that is slightly wider and slightly taller. A wider platform is easier for a dog to get all four feet on top when the dog is learning and a taller platform makes it easier for the dog to distinguish between the platform and the floor. Once the dog gets the hang of it, Michele switches to a narrower platform.
Hearing Michele discuss all of the different types of platforms was a good reminder that trainers should be thoughtful and deliberate when choosing a platform or any other kind of equipment to use during training. Dog trainers use all sorts of different kinds of equipment during training, including targets, platforms, mats, treat pouches, and much more. Take the time before you start training to evaluate your equipment. Make sure each piece of equipment you plan to use is appropriate for your dog and for the behavior you want to train. Having the correct equipment will make your training faster and more efficient and lead to better end results.
When do you move to a higher value reward?
Many times, if a dog is unfocused or training is not going as planned, trainers immediately reach for a bigger value reward. If the trainer has been training with the dog’s kibble, she might switch to pieces of chicken. Or, if she’s been training with little dog training treats, she might switch to cheese.
However, Michele cautioned seminar participants to be very careful about switching to a higher value reward when your dog is giving you sub-level performance. In some instances, you can end up teaching your dog that sub-level performance will lead to better rewards. More importantly, rather than jumping to grab the better treats, you really must first take the time to reassess your whole training plan. Were you asking for too much? Are you working in an environment that is too distracting for the dog? Did you move to the next step too fast?
If you really do think you need a higher-value reward, Michele said to not change in the middle of a training session. Put the dog up for five minutes or so, and really think about what you were doing and your training plan. Then, if you still think you would be better off with a higher value reward, go and get it. I found this discussion particularly interesting, as I think many trainers often move to a higher value reward as a “quick fix” and they do not take the time to reevaluate their training plan and assess whether other things could be changed instead.
I hope you enjoyed these notes and were able to get a glimpse of some of what we learned at the seminar with Michele Pouliot. If some of these ideas were new to you, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about them and then see if you can incorporate them into your training. Also, if you are interested in learning more, check out Michele’s website for information and DVDs.