Are you teaching “new” behaviors?

A (brief) introduction to Israel Goldiamond’s Blue Books

The Blue Books

Recently, I have been reading through The Blue Books. I plan to share some of my thoughts and musings as I work my way through them over the next few weeks. (Well, probably more like the next few months, they are over a thousand pages!). I have read most of The Blue Books over the past few years while I was earning my Master’s degree, but I have not read the entire text chapter-by-chapter from start to finish. So, I decided to tackle them as part of my summer reading this summer.

First, a short aside. “The Blue Books” were a series of educational texts about the analysis of behavior that were written by Israel Goldiamond and Donald M. Thompson about 50 years ago. Although no longer available in print, they have been edited and revised and are available digitally through The Cambridge Center’s website.

As Paul Andronis describes in the introduction to the revised edition:

“The so-called ‘Blue Books’ were a series of brilliant, relatively short, apparently basic, yet overall comprehensive ‘modules,’ developed for a course taught at IRB during the 1960s, originally called A functional analysis of behavior and its extensions….The Blue Books comprised a series of short units, printed ‘landscape-style’ on durable 8 ½” x 11” paper, and bound in sky-blue cardboard covers (hence the eponym). These modules were sequenced to produce a programmatic introduction to the functional analysis of behavior, well before that term gained its current popularity and form, and conceptually well beyond what is currently considered under that rubric….It represented (and still does) a comprehensive approach to the analysis of behavior that transcends any specific uses.”

Two types of behavior change

From some of the reading I’ve been doing, I’ve been thinking some about what it means to train new behaviors. Animal training is all about teaching our animals new behaviors.

Or is it?

When training an animal, the trainer is changing behavior, but the trainer is not necessarily teaching new behavior.

As Goldiamond writes in the Blue Books:

“One meaning of behavioral change is the development of new behaviors that did not exist before, such as the child learning to speak. Another meaning of behavioral change involves bringing the behavior, which had hiterhto occurred only under certain conditions, under the control of new conditions that had not affected the behavior before. When first graders learn to read, they are saying words they have already acquired elsewhere now in the presence of printed material. This material did not control such verbal behavior before they learned to read.”

Start thinking about the behaviors you have taught (or would like to teach) your animals. What behaviors have you “taught,” but that the animal already knew? In which instances have you taught truly new actions or behaviors?

In most cases, when we are training, we are not teaching new behaviors, but instead teaching the animal to do old behaviors in new contexts or in response to new cues.

For example, Ginger dog knows how to sit, lie down, stay sitting, come running when called, speak, bow, turn in a circle, and much more. The horses I’ve trained know how to come when called, back up, lower their heads, turn right and left, target objects (touch the object with the nose), pick up their feet, and more.

These are just a few examples of behaviors that are commonly taught to animals, but that are actions that the animal can already perform and that the animal already does as part of its normal life.

Realizing this can improve your training.

How does the animal do the behavior? If you are training a behavior the animal already “knows” it can be worthwhile to see which version(s) of that behavior the animal already knows! For example, a dog can go into the down position from a stand or a sit. From a stand, he might lower his front end first, and then his back end, or lower both at the same time. He might lie down so that he is straight (in a sphinx position) or lie on one of his hips, or stretch out all the way on his side. Or, endless more variations. If you will be trying to train a particular version of down, it will be helpful to know how your dog usually gets into the down position and which position(s) he favors.

Training is really all about communication. Your dog already knows how to sit, lie down, stay, and come over to you. If your dog is having difficulty learning one of these, what this really means is that you are having difficulty conveying to the animal which behavior you want and when you want the animal to do it. If the animal is not doing the right behavior, he’s not dumb or stupid, he just doesn’t understand what you want.

When does the animal do the behavior? If you know in what contexts or situations the animal already does the behavior, you can often train the behavior by capturing it and adding a new cue. I have some nice quotes from Kay Laurence about capturing in this blog post, so go check it out for a longer discussion about this concept.

When does the animal do the behavior? (part 2) Most basic behaviors are things the animal already does. However, if the animal is really struggling to learn a behavior, it can be helpful to pay attention to when and how the animal does the behavior. You might realize that the animal doesn’t actually do the behavior all that often, and there might be a good reason why.

For example, I have a middle aged Rottweiler mix in one of my group classes that really does not like going from a sit into a down. It’s not because she’s stubborn, but because she has hip issues. I also had a terrier mix in a class earlier this year that was not comfortable sitting or lying down on our hard rubber floor, but that was more than happy to practice on a towel or blanket. Certain species and breeds also sometimes have difficulty with certain actions because of the way the animal is built. It will be much more difficult to train a “sit” if the animal does not sit naturally!

So, next time you set off to train a “new” behavior, take a second a consider – is this a new behavior, or something your animal can already do?

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