Plateau schmateau! Why progress matters

This is part seven of my notes from ORCA’s 2013 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.
For the rest of the notes, please visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

Steve White’s lecture at this year’s ORCA conference was titled “Plateau schmateau! Why progress matters.” During his talk, Steve discussed training plateaus, including why they happen and what to do about them. I loved Steve’s talk because most trainers get “stuck” sooner or later. Understanding plateaus and what to do about them can greatly improve your training.

What is a training plateau?

Although many animal trainers talk about training plateaus, there is no formal definition of a training plateau. For the purposes of his lecture, Steve defined a training plateau as a multi-session stall in the acquisition of a skill. A training plateau is more than just a single training session without progress. Training plateaus are often very unpredictable in length, which can make them very frustrating for a trainer!

A training plateau can include both lack of progress and inconsistent performance. A trainer might see inconsistency in the topography of the behavior, in responses to cues, in the speed or duration of the behavior, or in an animal’s resistance to distractions. A trainer might also observe avoidance, aggression, freezing, reactivity, or displacement behaviors. Training plateaus are no fun because they lead to both a frustrated animal and a frustrated trainer.

What causes a training plateau?

What’s the cause of a training plateau? The source of a training plateau is usually the trainer. However, this is actually good news. If you’ve caused it, you can also fix it, by carefully analyzing the situation and designing a training plan that will be more effective.

Steve discussed several factors that can cause training plateaus. Sometimes, training plateaus happen when a trainer rushes through the early training or fails to teach important pre-requisite skills that will be needed later on. This often leads to a frustrated animal, inconsistent performance and lack of progress because the animal does not understand what the trainer is asking or does not know how to properly do the behavior. During his talk, Steve made a great analogy to building a house. Don’t start framing your house until you’ve built a strong foundation!

Unrealistic expectations can also cause training plateaus. A trainer might think that the animal “should” be able to do better. This often leads to a low rate of reinforcement and ends up frustrating both the animal and the trainer. At the extreme, both the trainer and the animal begin to dread or even avoid training sessions because they just aren’t fun or “worth it” anymore. Every trainer needs goals, but make sure that your goals are both realistic and achievable. If you are teaching someone else to train, help that person set realistic goals and give the person a way to measure her progress.

Now, imagine that you find yourself stuck in a training plateau. Don’t despair! Steve says that in his line of work (training police dogs) he actually wants failure during training sessions. Although this might seem counter-intuitive at first, it actually makes a lot of sense. If the dog doesn’t perform as expected during training, this tells the trainer that the dog is not ready for work on the street. If a dog gets stuck or offers incorrect or inconsistent behavior during training, this is just information that tells Steve he still has more training to do. Failure during training is an opportunity to make changes so that your final behavior will be even stronger.

Ineffective solutions for training plateaus

Trainers do not like being stuck on a training plateau. However, many “common-sense” solutions for training plateaus are actually often ineffective. One commonly advised solution is to increase the value of the reinforcer. So, if a trainer sees a stall in behavior, she immediately reaches for a higher value reinforcer. Rather than kibble, she might start giving her dog yummy dog treats, then later on (when that doesn’t work), switch to giving the dog bits of cooked chicken.

Other common solutions often include increasing the rate of reinforcement or decreasing criteria and expectations. However, all of these can risk sustaining the plateau. If you immediately reach for the higher value treat, the dog can figure out that if he doesn’t perform, he’ll get even better stuff. Furthermore, none of these (a bigger treat, a higher rate or reinforcement, or a decrease in criteria) will be helpful if the animal is missing critical pre-requisite or foundation skills.

Also, when trainers are stuck on a training plateau, they tend to start reaching for crutches. This can include misapplied cues, lures, prompts, no reward markers, or keep going signals. The trainer starts trying various strategies to get the animal back on track. If you notice that you are doing something that was not part of your original training plan in an effort to get the animal to respond correctly, stop and take a break, so that you can evaluate the situation. (Also, this points to the importance of having a detailed training plan, as Bob Bailey emphasized in his talk this year about “Think, plan, do.”)

Effective solutions for training plateaus

According to Steve, effective solutions for training plateaus are both principle driven and momentum sustaining. Steve gave the metaphor of a flywheel. A flywheel is hard to start turning, but once it starts turning, it is easy to keep it going and it resists change. Training is similar, in that it is harder to generate momentum than to maintain it. A comprehensive training plan that teaches all of the needed foundation skills with minimal error might seem really difficult to put together and get going in the beginning. However, each little session of progress will build momentum. If you work hard in the beginning to build momentum, training will be much easier later on. In this sense, prevention is the ultimate remedy for training plateaus.

Steve also talked about what he calls “component rotation.” He compared component rotation to jacking up a house. A few people working together cannot lift an entire house. However, if you move each corner up a little bit at a time, rotating your way around the building, you can slowly lift the house off the ground.

For fluency, a trainer wants great accuracy, latency, intensity, and appropriate speed. For generalization, a trainer wants the animal to be able to work at a distance, for a certain duration, and with appropriate distractions. However, rather than attempting to work on all of these at once, rotate through them, working on improving one component of the behavior at a time. Gradually rotate through and build all of them together. Just like jacking up the house, your behavior will get lopsided if you spend too much time building up one of these components, without focusing on the others.

You can also use what Steve calls the “training triad” to give yourself a reality check. In the training triad, a trainer, a coach, and an observer work together to train the animal. This system involves short training sessions and lots of feedback and assessment. The coach helps the trainer plan and evaluate each short session and the observer serves as a third pair of eyes to analyze the situation and help assess whether training is progressing in the right direction.

Training should be fun, not frustrating

No one likes getting stuck on a training plateau. Steve ended his talk with a great point – trainers need to find ways to keep training fun at both ends of the leash. If you do find yourself stuck, take a step back and assess your training plan. Figure out what skills your animal is missing or what you need to spend more time teaching. Spend time thinking and planning before you start training. Ultimately, prevention is the best cure for training plateaus.

What do you think? Have you ever gotten stuck on a training plateau? What did you do to solve it? Do you do things during training that help keep you from getting stuck?

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