Several years ago, Ken Ramirez gave a talk at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference which was called “Training when you’re not training.” You can read my notes from Ken’s talk in this post.
One of Ken’s main points was that training is always going on. We have many informal interactions with our animals that we don’t think of as training sessions. However, the animal is still learning things.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, I am still going to feed and visit my horse, Apollo. He lives at a nearby ranch that has only a handful of boarders. If I go at the right time of day, I don’t see anyone else when I am there.
This spring, we have been going on some walks around the big pasture. We walk casually together, sometimes with Apollo on a lead rope and sometimes with him staying near me at liberty. I reinforce him occasionally for walking with me. As well, we stop several times on the walk to do little mini training sessions, spending a few minutes practicing behaviors he knows well.
On one of our recent walks, I noticed that our reinforcer delivery was starting to get a little sloppy!
Over the winter, Apollo and I worked really hard on our reinforcer delivery process. Apollo has learned to keep his head still after the click, rather than bringing it toward me and the treat pouch. He’s nearly perfect now during our training sessions in the barnyard.
But, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking of the walks as training sessions.
So, I had not been as deliberate about how I delivered reinforcers, and I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the behaviors Apollo was engaging in while I delivered the reinforcer. As a result, when I clicked, he was now sometimes starting to bring his nose toward my treat pouch.
Since this realization, I’ve been a lot more thoughtful about reinforcement delivery on our walks. I’m being more deliberate about how I give the treats, and I’m making sure that my body position and other cues match what we use during our “real” training sessions. And, I am seeing improvement already!
Behavior is always changing
It’s important to realize that behavior is never static. The reinforcers in the environment are constantly reshaping our behavior and our animal’s behavior, even when we don’t think training is happening.
Sometimes, these are big changes that we notice immediately. Other times, the behavior is evolving in subtle ways, and it takes awhile before we notice.
So, keep a close eye on the behaviors you have trained. For each behavior, you can ask yourself: Is the behavior getting better and better? Or, is it slowly deteriorating in certain contexts?