Steve White: Your dog ain’t so special!

ORCA conference at UNT 2014

These are my notes from the 6th Art and Science of Animal Training Conference, held in March 2014 at the University of North Texas. Visit this page for more conference notes.

Steve White gave a very interesting talk at the conference. His talk was titled “Your dog ain’t so special! Why discipline-specific training methods might be slowing you down.”

Many areas of training have discipline-specific cultures. This often includes discipline-specific methods for training certain behaviors. The discipline or sport has a handful of gurus and the followers all replicate the methods of the gurus. Often, a perception forms that this discipline requires these specific methods or procedures. This can then make it very hard for anyone to do things a different way. However, trainers can often improve their animal’s performance by changing their methods and adopting and adapting methods from other disciplines.

Barriers to innovation

Steve White began his talk by discussing some of the common barriers to innovation and change. These include institutional cultures, tradition, available resources, philosophy, logical fallacies (people tend to have their own biases and not be objective), and an individual or organization’s history (past experiences can make it difficult to embrace new ideas). Finally, one of the worst barriers to change and excellence is GE, that is, good enough. If it is “good enough,” then there is not always incentive to change.

During this part of his talk, Steve White commented that institutional cultures can become so deeply ingrained that from the outside, another person can’t even see how someone would ever consider doing something a certain way. However, from the inside, doing it that way makes perfect sense. People also often feel constrained, because they feel that the way they are behaving is the way that other people expect it to be done.

Embracing change: A tale of two organizations

During his talk, Steve White discussed two case studies of large organizations that have drastically changed their training practices, thanks to progressive, cross-over trainers who were at the head of the training programs for both organizations. These were the Seattle Police Department’s K9 unit and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Steve White discussed some of the similarities and differences between these two organizations and their progress, as they made the transition from outdated, force-based training methods to positive reinforcement based methods. For example, one difference was how each organization regarded their staff. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, all staff members were considered trainers. In the K9 unit, on the other hand, the staff members who worked with dogs were considered “handlers” not trainers. To the dogs, of course, the distinction is irrelevant. We are all trainers and we are always training. Whenever we interact with an animal, we are strengthening or weakening behaviors.

I found this part of Steve White’s talk quite interesting. If we are helping a group of people change their behavior, it is so important to understand the ins and outs of the organization’s culture. For example, someone might respond differently to a certain new idea or suggestion if the person considered themselves a “handler” versus a “trainer.”

Both organizations were quite devoted to their old ways and pretty resistant to change, especially at the beginning. In part, this was because change was quite risky for both organizations. There was a high cost of failure if the new methods did not work.

Because of the different cultures and training systems previously in place, each organization approached change a bit differently. For example, the police force started by just training a few dogs with positive methods. Guide Dogs for the Blind, on the other hand, started by just training a few skills with positive methods to most of the dogs. Both saw great benefits after they changed their training methods. The police force saw a 75% shorter transition for dogs moving from training to field work. Guide dogs for the blind saw a huge increase in dogs successfully completing the guide dog training program.

The J curve of change

Why is change so hard? Why can it be so hard to get people to change to new methods? One really interesting concept that Steve White discussed was the J curve of change. During the process of change, there’s usually a natural decline or dip in performance after new procedures are implemented. Then, there’s recovery and improvement, so that the final performance is then better than the original.

However, when an organization changes, the leaders and supervisors have usually explored and investigated the new methods first. So, the leaders are farther along on the J curve than their staff members. The staff might reach the decline in performance stage at the point where the supervisors reach the improvement phase. This can create confusion and distrust. The staff members still do not understand why the decision to change was made, because they have not yet seen any improvement in performance with the new methods. Organizational leaders must anticipate the J curve and be prepared to help staff during the transition to new methods.

Moving toward greatness

Steve White ended his talk by discussing what he considers to be five steps to greatness. These included cultivating curious, open-mindedness, having discipline and being committed to a path, surrounding yourself by the right people, taking the first step to get things started, and being able to pursue your passions while focusing on what you are good at.

Finally, Steve discussed the importance of continually pursuing improvement. This includes ongoing experimentation (Is there a better way to do this?) and ongoing assessment (How are things going currently?). I find trainers (both positive trainers and traditional trainers) often get stuck with what they are doing. They stop assessing how things are going and stop experimenting with new methods and ideas.

Even if you train using positive methods, it can still be easy sometimes to get stuck doing things a certain way because “that’s the way it is done” in your sport. Perhaps your instructor or mentor thinks that there is only one “right way” to teach an agility dog to weave poles or to teach a horse to stand at the mounting block or to add a cue to a newly shaped behavior.

So, here’s my challenge to you – take a look at your training. What kinds of things do you do because “that’s the way it is done?” Do you assess and evaluate your training methods to check and see if your “right way” is the best way? And in what ways are you currently experimenting, in order to find new and better ways to do things?

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