Would you bet me fifty dollars?

Please visit my conference and seminar notes page for more notes from this seminar.

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to audit a seminar in Dallas with dog trainer Michele Pouliot. If you’re not familiar with Michele, I encourage you to check out her website. Michele is a very talented dog trainer who has won international competitions in the sport of canine freestyle. She also has worked for almost four decades with Guide Dogs for the Blind, training hundreds of guide dog teams. Michele really knows her stuff and it was wonderful to get to spend two days learning from her.

One of the most important concepts in training is shaping, which means using a progressive series of steps to train a new behavior. Shaping allows a trainer to start from a point where the animal can be successful and gradually build toward a more difficult or complex behavior.

However, shaping can sometimes be difficult for both beginner trainers, as well as more experienced trainers. When shaping a new behavior, the trainer must make split second decisions. The trainer often has to make decisions on the fly, and can’t spend time deliberating whether or not to click.

During one of the question and answer periods, Michele discussed when to raise criteria during shaping. This can be a tough decision. The trainer doesn’t want to stay too long at any one step, but also does not want to move forward before the animal is ready.

Many trainers use what is called the “eighty percent” rule. That is, you can move on to the next step when the animal is correctly doing the current step eighty percent of the time. The problem with the eighty percent rule is that most trainers are not actually taking data and calculating out the percentage of time that the animal does the behavior correctly. So, rather than the eighty percent rule, what most trainers use is the “well I think he’s probably doing it correctly around eighty percent of the time” rule.

In any case, Michele discussed that she prefers the “fifty bucks” rule rather than the “eighty percent” rule. That is, Michele often asks her students “Would you bet me fifty bucks that if you give the dog the opportunity to perform the step you are currently training, that he will do it immediately and correctly?

If you would bet fifty dollar, then it’s time to move to the next shaping step. If you wouldn’t bet fifty dollars, then you need to stay at the same step (or perhaps even modify your shaping plan). If the answer is maybe…it’s probably best to not move on yet! Michele uses this rule in her own training and when teaching students and she said it has really helped her and her students.

Also, Michele suggested that if something is not working and the behavior is not improving, rather than continuing to click, you should take a break and evaluate the situation. During training, you always want to feel like the behavior is getting better.

I think that trainers sometimes end up getting stuck and stay too long at one step because their shaping program moves in too big of steps. Often, by breaking a task down into even smaller steps, the animal can master each step faster, and the whole program actually moves much more quickly.

I found this discussion during the seminar very interesting because shaping is one area of training that, in many ways, is still much more of an art than a science. More research is still needed to develop better guidelines to help trainers understand how to shape behavior quickly and efficiently, with minimal frustration for the animal or trainer.

Do you use the eighty percent rule or the fifty dollar rule? Or, do you use another type of rule or strategy to decide when to move to the next step when teaching a new behavior?

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