Michele Pouliot: Step up! Beyond basic platforms

This post is part one 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.

I had a fantastic time at ClickerExpo this year! I am slowly typing up my notes and will be posting them on my blog over the coming weeks. CilckerExpo is three full days of fun, so I have lots of notes to share.

There are two types of sessions at ClickerExpo, Learning Sessions (lectures) and Learning Labs (hands-on sessions where attendees can sign-up to work with their dogs). At any given hour, there are three lectures and two labs, so there’s lots of hard choices and no way to see everything!

The first session I attended was a laboratory session given by Michele Pouliot that focused on using platforms to train advanced behaviors. The session was titled “Better, Faster, Smarter: Competition Training with Platforms.” Michele is quite the accomplished trainer and has won many international canine freestyle competitions. She also has worked for several decades with Guide Dogs for the Blind and helped them transition from traditional training methods to clicker training. Michele often uses platforms in her training to train both simple and advanced behaviors.

Why use platforms when training?

A platform is nothing fancy, it’s really just any sort of object that creates a raised surface for the animal to stand on (or sit or lie down). However, a platform can be a great tool for teaching both foundation behaviors and advanced skills.

Depending on the size of the animal and the behavior you wish to train, a variety of different types of objects and different sizes of objects can be used as platforms. For example, with a behavior I’m currently teaching one of my rats, I’m using a brick as a platform to help limit extra movement and get the exact behavior I want.

Platforms can help during training because they give both the animal and the person a visual cue. The trainer is more consistent because she can see exactly where the dog was and envision exactly where the dog should be. They also add precision to your training by guiding the animal toward the correct movement. For instance a trainer could use an appropriately sized square platform to teach a dog to spin. The platform limits the dog’s movement and keep the spin nice and tight.

Platforms are a great tool for getting a jump start on a new behavior. A trainer can use the platform to quickly train a new movement and then fade out the platform. However, Michele explained that platforms can also be a wonderful tool when a trainer needs to tune-up a behavior that lacks precision or accuracy.

Planning your training, before you start training!

Planning seems to be a reoccurring theme on my blog this year! If you missed my post on Bob Bailey’s lecture about “Think, Plan, Do,” I encourage you to check it out. Planning is one of the most important steps of training, but one that is often neglected or rushed.

Michele discussed four questions that a trainer should ask before each training session. First, define your goal behavior. Next, specify your session criteria – what behaviors will and will not earn reinforcement? Also, take time to clearly identify your starting point.

Finally, take some time to determine what reinforcement strategy will work best for the behavior you will be training. For example, for certain behaviors a trainer might want to deliver the treat while the animal is on the platform, while for other behaviors, it might be better to give the treat off the platform. As another example, with a small breed dog, a trainer might want to be sure to feed the treat low to keep the dog standing. Feeding in too high of a position often encourages small dog to sit instead.

If you are going to teach new behaviors with the platform, Michele suggested not putting the platform on a verbal cue. The platform itself is the cue to get on the platform or do something with the platform. However, this means that a trainer should carefully structure her training session so as not to be sloppy with the platform. When the training session is over, remove the platform or take the animal away from the training area. Otherwise, the platform is liable to lose some of its power as a training tool.

One participant in the lab seemed a bit discouraged, as she was having difficulty managing her dog, clicker, treats, target stick, and platform. Michele cautioned everyone not to get frustrated about learning mechanical skills. Even experienced trainers have to learn new mechanical skills when trying something new. If you start something and realize that you don’t have the mechanical skills to execute it effectively, it’s okay. Stop, take a break and figure out what component skills you need to work on. Practice without the animal present, if need be, so that you can work out the mechanics without confusing yourself or your animal.

What behaviors can be trained using a platform?

During the lab, participants worked on a variety of different behaviors. Also, through videos and stories, Michele introduced us to many more behaviors that can be taught using platforms.

Platforms are great for teaching behaviors at a distance, as the platform serves as an aid to help the animal maintain the distance while practicing the behavior. For instance, a trainer could use a platform to teach a dog to do a bow or spin at a distance, to transition from stand to down at a distance, or any other number of behaviors. With distance behaviors, Michele suggested taking the treat to the animal, rather than having the animal leave the platform and come to you to collect the treat.

Some participants in the lab worked on teaching their dogs a reverse front. That is, the dog standing in front of the person, but instead of facing the person, the dog faces in the same direction that the person is facing. This can be a complicated behavior because many dogs want to turn around or turn their head to look at the person.

Remember to think carefully beforehand about the behavior you will be teaching and the size of your dog, so that you pick the correct size of platform. Also, if your animal tends to want to come off the platform at the beginning, get a slightly higher platform so that the animal is encouraged to stay on the platform.

An example: Using a platform to isolate hind foot movements

During the session, several of the participants worked on isolating hind foot movements. This can be a difficult behavior to teach because the trainer has to be able to communicate to the dog that the exercise is about hind foot movement, and not other body parts. The goal of the exercise was to get the dogs lifting their hind feet on and off of the platform.

Michele had participants begin this exercise with the dog stationing on the platform. Then, the trainer fed the dog a treat in a position so that one foot would come off the platform. Most dogs feel out of balance at this point and will lift the one foot back on the platform. When the dog lifted the foot back onto the platform, the trainer clicked and delivered the treat in a position to again get one foot off.

Once the dog understood this sequence, the trainer started presenting the treat in position so that two feet came off the platform. Depending on the dog, some participants gave a treat for both the two feet coming off the platform and for the feet going back on the platform.

Next, the trainer delivered the food so that both the front feet and one hind foot came off the platform. As soon as the dog put one hind foot back on the platform, the trainer clicked and gave a treat. From this point, the dog’s front feet stayed off of the platform and the trainer worked on getting one back foot on and off and then two back feet on and off.

The trick with this exercise is to build the behavior slowly. If the trainer goes too fast, the dog will get all the way off the platform. Often, the dog will then get confused and turn around to get back onto the platform. By training the behavior in this sequence, the trainers were able to communicate the goal of the exercise to their dogs, with minimal errors.

Removing the platform

The platform, in most circumstances, is a training tool. This means that at some point the trainer wants to remove the platform and instead have a verbal or visual cue for the behavior. According to Michele, when to get rid of the platform really depends on what you are teaching and what you want to achieve.

However, if you train a behavior with a platform, you should plan your exit strategy for removing the platform from the very beginning. Otherwise, it will be easy for you to get stuck in a situation where it is difficult to remove the platform.

Michele often reduces the dog’s dependence on the platform by adding a verbal cue for the behavior. Also, although this might seem counter-intuitive, she often gets rid of the platform by first adding more platforms!

For example, if teaching the dog to stand precisely in front of her and facing her, she might arrange half a dozen platforms in a half circle around her, like the spokes going out on a wheel. Then, she would give the dog the “front” cue and rotate back and forth between the platforms. She would be looking for the dog to cue off of her body position to choose the correct platform and to move quickly and accurately to the correct platform when she changed her position.

With a dog that was almost ready to remove the platforms for the cues to heel on the right side, heel on the left side, and face front, Michele might put a platform in each of these three positions and see if the dog could fluently rotate around to each position when given the correct cue. At this point, the dog is cueing off of the verbal cue and person’s body language, and the platforms just help with a little bit of extra precision.

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