Setting up Optimal Training Sessions

There’s a video of mine that’s being passed around several training groups of what not to do during training. It’s one of my older videos, from when I had been clicker training for almost a year. I love taking videos, as I think they are great for improving my training skills. (In fact, videoing yourself is part of my list of 10 tips to improve your clicker training.)

One thing that I love about the positive training community is that many trainers I meet are actively trying to improve their training skills. Me too! It’s always a search for how we can communicate more clearly and effectively with the animals we train. I post a lot of videos, both so I can share what I’m working on, as well as get feedback from others. I leave videos up even if they’re a little rough around the edges with the hope that someone else might benefit or learn from them.

That said, this video that’s being passed around has some really important considerations for setting up ideal training conditions. As I talked about recently with Georgie, small environmental changes can make a big difference.

Watch Toot learn how to target using clicker training.

This is a year and a half old gelding who was very people oriented and very food oriented. He had a bit of previous work with targeting and backing. However, he still had little understanding of personal space and boundaries. He’s actually doing pretty well in this video, he touches the target when I hold it out to the side and is pretty willing to back up from a gentle touch on the chest.

However, there are handful of changes that I could have made that would have greatly improved his rate of learning and the quality of the session. It’s beneficial to closely study your training sessions–what impact would (seemingly) small changes have?

Here’s what I would do differently today in this clicker training session:

1) Put my treats in an easily accessible pouch or fanny bag.
I’m wasting a lot of time in this session fumbling around trying to get the treats out of my back pocket. Treats should be easy to reach in one smooth motion. These days, I often use a rock climber’s chalk bag.

2) Pick something that is easier for him to target.
In the video, I was sometimes holding my click until he stopped trying to chew on the tennis ball. A better way to eliminate the chewing would be to switch to a larger object that was harder to nibble on. No chewing would mean that I could click as soon as he touched the target, which would lead to a higher rate of reinforcement.

3) Find a different target stick.
I’m having a bit of trouble holding on to the sweat scraper, especially when he pushes on it. Finding something easier to hold would improve my presentation of the target. Also, if I had a longer target stick, I could stand a bit farther back. This would eliminate some of the mugging.

4) Make sure target is out of reach between touches.
A few times, the horse reaches around behind my back to touch the target. It’s a bit confusing to him when he can still reach the target between attempts. A longer target stick that I could hold to the ground or out to the side would eliminate this.

5) Change the barrier we are working behind.
Working behind a barrier is great with a horse who still does not understand rules around food. However, the height of the gate makes this training session awkward. We had more success later on working behind a fence.

Part of the discussion surrounding this video centered on whether I was lumping too much. Lumping basically means training too many criteria at once. I’ve written about it before in my post Are you a splitter or a lumper? and in my post on Alexandra Kurland’s loopy training concept.

So, is this lumping? I’m working on several things together here, including targeting and backing. However, the colt usually does a pretty good job of backing out of my space as soon as I present the treat. I think many of our issues were related to some of the issues I outlined above. Many horse clicker trainers commonly use backing as part of the food delivery process. This can be helpful to do with horses, as they learn to move away from you to get their treat, rather than toward you. Also, many horses do fine working on backing and targeting together. I think much of the unwanted behavior in this session was not because of lumping but because of how the session was set up.

Here’s a later, much smoother, session with the same colt. I’m reinforcing him for turning his head away from me. This is great for a horse who likes to be in your space–they learn rewards only come when they stay OUT of your space. The timing isn’t perfect is a few spots, but he has a pretty clear idea of what he’s suppose to do and I’m much more in control of the session. Video: Toot and the Terrible Twos

So, here’s your homework. 🙂
Think about past training sessions you’ve done that have worked, and that haven’t worked so well. What’s one tip that you would give to someone new to clicker training to help them have optimal, effective training sessions?

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