Give Me a Break!

These are my notes from the 2012 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.
Click here for more notes from this conference.

Training can be a lot of fun. However, it can also be physically and mentally challenging for both the animal and the human. Although breaks are needed, they can really disrupt a training session if they are used haphazardly. Trainers need to think carefully about breaks and learn how to effectively incorporate breaks without interrupting the flow of the training.

At the conference, Alexandra Kurland discussed how to give breaks during training sessions. The full title of her talk was “Give me a break: How to give breaks without giving breaks.” At the beginning of her talk, Alexandra explained that she doesn’t really like breaks. However, breaks are good for learning. So, she explained ways we can give breaks without really taking breaks.

Why take breaks?

After a break, many trainers report an improvement in the behavior they are training or an increase in learning. A break gives both the horse and the human time to process the training session. Also, many trainers forget that breaks are just as useful for humans as for horses.

For instance, when people are new to clicker training, Alexandra recommends that they start training in short sessions, 10-15 treats. A short beak after each short session lets the human evaluate what just happened and plan what to do for the next 10 clicks. This is also great for teaching self-control to horses who are new to clicker training. Some horses get uncertain or unsure when the clicker training session ends. Taking breaks teaches the horse that the person or the treats can sometimes go away, but they will both come back again.

What’s a break? Using favorite behaviors as breaks

What comes to mind when you think about breaks? You might be thinking about resting and doing nothing or you could also associate breaks with stopping and interruptions. However, the main point of Alexandra’s lecture was that breaks don’t have to be “breaks.”

For example, other behaviors can be used as breaks, especially known behaviors that the animal really enjoys doing. You’ve probably seen dog trainers doing this—-a trainer might take a break from practicing agility and let a dog play with a tug toy for several minutes.

Any previously learned behavior that the animal likes and is comfortable doing can be used as a break. For example, if you’ve seen Alexandra’s microshaping DVD, she used a target to give the horse short breaks from equine pilates, which is physically challenging for the horse. After a handful of good repetitions of microshaping the pilates behavior, the trainer switches to targeting and gives the horse several clicks and treats for touching the target.

Breaks don’t have to be long. Sometimes even a very short break can be beneficial for both the horse and trainer. Alexandra showed one video clip of a clicker trainer working with her horse on a circle of cones. The trainer would take very short breaks every now and then and pause a bit to stroke the horse on his face. Alexandra suggested thinking about breaks as punctuation marks in a sentence.

More Benefits of Breaks

Breaks can function as reinforcers. This is especially true when we are creating structured breaks that involve activities that the animal really enjoys. For example, in the pilates mircoshaping work that I discussed above, Alexandra does not give the breaks randomly or at set intervals. Instead, she uses short breaks (during which the horse gets to touch the target to earn reinforcers) to mark improvements in the behavior she is currently teaching. While training, try to think about giving breaks at clickable moments. This is related to Alexandra’s loopy training concept, which she talked a bit about in her presentation.

Breaks can also be used to mark a transition to new criteria. So, if a horse is doing very well with a behavior, the trainer can give a break, and then move on to something slightly different after the break. This helps the trainer be clearer to the horse about when criteria are changing. This is something I’ve been thinking a bit about. If a trainer did this consistently–increasing criteria after a break–would the horse learn this concept and start offering more or different behavior after the break? I’ve never played with this idea consistently, but I can see how it could be beneficial when training new behaviors.

How do you break up long sessions when you are training? Do you take breaks during sessions? If so, what do you do during the breaks? Are you systematic about how you structure your breaks? Have you experimented with different ways to set up sessions or take breaks?

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