Train One Thing at a Time!

Last week we had a woman come and give several lectures to our department about behavior analysis and autism. She helps run a large treatment center in Georgia for children with autism.

The two lectures she gave in the morning were pretty interesting. In the afternoon, we had a handful of presentations so that some of my fellow graduate students could share their current research projects. This was great fun because it resulted in a lot of good discussion and conversation.

One fun thing about graduate school is that I get to interact with and learn from people who are involved in areas of behavior analysis that are pretty different from what I do. It’s fascinating to get to see different perspectives and approaches to teaching and training. At the end of the day, though, what I’m often left realizing is that good training is good training, no matter what species you work with or what task you are trying to train.

One thing that the speaker mentioned in one of her morning lectures was that when teaching a particular behavior, we should focus on training only one thing at a time. During a training session, only work on improving one aspect or feature of a behavior at a time.

Animal trainers often get in to trouble here! For instance, when teaching an animal to stay, work on increasing the duration of the behavior separately from increasing the distance between you and the animal. Don’t try to train both of these at once! This can be confusing to the animal and can slow down our training. When training, try to do what animal trainers refer to as a splitting, rather than lumping. (What is splitting?)

Taking lots of short breaks during a training session can make it a lot easier to be a good splitter. This is one thing I’ve learned from horse clicker trainer Alexandra Kurland. I often train in short sessions, 10-20 treats. At the beginning of the session, I decide what we’re going to work on during that session. Then, when I run out of treats, I take a short break before the next session. During the break I decide whether to work again on the same thing or whether we’re ready to move on. If the last session didn’t go so well, I might decide to move to something easier or different, so that the animal can be successful and understand what I want.

I think the take home message from all of this is that it helps to have a well thought out plan before you begin each training session. When we are trying to train too much at once, it is often because we haven’t thoroughly assessed where the animal is currently and what exactly, specifically, we want to work on in the current training session.

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