Looking for Advanced Dog Training?

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

Try “simple” dog training!

Whether training dogs, horses, birds, or other species, many trainers seem to be in a hurry to get to advanced training. This post is some of my notes from Bob Bailey’s lecture at the 4th Annual Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. The full title of Bob’s talk was “Looking for advanced dog training? Try simple dog training for a change – it really works!” A rather long title, but a rather interesting one! Please check back throughout the week, as I will be posting notes from the rest of the conference.

Complicated training versus simple training

Bob Bailey explained that even very complex or complicated tasks can be broken down into very simple stages or components. This is a key piece to good training, but is also something that can take time and practice to learn. If something seems too complicated or hard for you or the animal, rethink your training plan! Can you change the environment, alter your training plan, or teach addition prerequisite skills so that what seemed difficult is now simpler? Usually, the answer is yes. However, it sometimes takes a bit of creativity or problem solving to find a better solution.

Bob Bailey talked a bit during his presentation about his work with the U.S. Navy. When Bob worked for the navy, he trained dolphins for all day missions in the open ocean. A dolphin has to have a very high level of training to be able to follow instructions all day in the ocean and not choose to swim away. However, even this kind of “advanced” training begins simply with teach smaller building blocks and fundamental skills. Putting together and then successfully carrying out a training plan for a task like this will require a lot of careful thinking on the trainer’s part.

As Bob likes to say, training should be simple, but it is not necessarily easy. It is easy for people to start making things more complicated, but it takes practice to be able to break things down and make things simple.

Animal training: craft vs. technology

People have been training animals for millions of years! Bob showed a few pictures of 20,000-year-old cave paintings that showed that people were already caring for and interacting with dogs. However, for most of history, dog training (as well as the training of other species) has been a craft, not a technology.

In the past century, animal training has started to become a technology. Because of behavior analytic research (What is behavior analysis?) we understand processes such as reinforcement and punishment and why certain training methods work. Trainers should study the science of training. Studying the principles of training will improve your training, help you understand why certain methods work, and help you come up with creative solutions when you encounter new problems.

However, Bob Bailey also cautioned us to not become too “intellectualized” about training methods. Some trainers today have studied the science of training, but have not spent enough time actually practicing training. Although they can talk about training, these trainers still lack the mechanical skills and observational skills needed to be great trainers. Bob says–Don’t be guilty of knowing but not doing. There is only so much we can learn from books or watching others train. At some point, you have to get out there and practice your training.

Simple ways to improve your training

During his talk, Bob Bailey suggested a few very simple ways that animal trainers could greatly improve their training. These are simple suggestions. However, many of the trainers I know don’t do these.

First, before training a behavior, clearly and objectively define the behavior. If the behavior has several teaching steps or several final components, define these too. Know exactly what you want the behavior to look like so that someone else could read your behavior goal, watch the animal, and be able to say with certainty whether or not the animal was doing the behavior correctly. Also, clearly define what your final signals or cues will be. Importantly, write all of this down! Don’t just try to remember it in your head.

Next, if you can, video your training. If you can’t do this all the time, do it as much as you can or at the very least try and find a friend who can watch you train. Video will help you improve your observational and mechanical skills. Videos will also help you identify problem areas or things that could be changed or improved. A lot happens even in a short training session and you can miss quite a bit while training that you might be able to catch if you could watch back through a video.

Finally, take data. I find that the idea of taking data scares a lot of trainers. “Taking data” seems pretty complicated or complex. Data sheets, measurement, charts, and graphs–thinking about taking data can be a bit overwhelming. However, Bob thinks that animal trainers can find simple, but meaningful ways to take data.

Bob suggested a very easy way for trainers to take data. Buy a small notebook that you can stick in a back pocket. Before starting a training session, jot down what you are going to do. After the training session, write down how the session went and what you actually did. Also, write down the approximate length of the session and how many reinforcers you used. This is a pretty simple way to take data without a whole lot of extra time or effort. But, it should give you meaningful information about how your training is progressing and ideas about what changes you should make.

Do you take data or notes about your training sessions? If so, what kinds of notes or data do you take? I’d love to hear more ideas about simple ways to record training sessions.

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