Training when you’re not training

This is part five of my notes from ORCA’s 2013 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. For more notes, visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

Ken Ramirez gave a very interesting lecture at this year’s Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. His presentation, “Training when you’re not training,” discussed the importance of the informal interactions between a trainer and his or her animals. Trainers often take care to be deliberate and systematic when planning and assessing training sessions. However, trainers sometimes forget how important it is to pay attention to their informal interactions with their animals.

Every interaction you have with an animal has some type of reinforcing value for that animal, either positive or negative. Although some owners and trainers don’t realize it, an animal is always learning, twenty-four hours a day. So, it’s good to be aware of what your animal might be learning! You, environmental events, or other people can sometimes inadvertently shape up bad habits, even if you are not aware of it.

When are you training?

You have dozens of opportunities throughout the day to interact with your dog or other pets. Ken listed a handful of them, including while you are preparing meals, watching TV, providing access to toys, cleaning the house, reading, or on the computer. All of these are learning opportunities because they are times when you can influence behavior by adjusting your behavior or the environment to promote certain behaviors or decrease the likelihood of other behaviors. You can even influence you pet’s behavior while you are at work or sleeping, by providing access to certain types of environments or activities.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that you should always be in “training-mode” or that you should direct or control every little thing that your animal does! You do not have to be thinking about training 100% of the time. However, Ken cautioned that when many people stop a formal training session and put away their treats and clicker, they “take off their training hat” and completely stop thinking about training.

Rather than being super controlling at one extreme, or being completely oblivious of behavior at the other extreme, a trainer or owner must find a balance between the two. This means giving thought to how your actions and the environment are impacting what your animal is learning throughout the day. This is especially important if you have concerns about your animal’s behavior or if you start to see unwanted behavior developing.

Ken showed some great video clips of a baby Beluga whale from the Shedd Aquarium. Although formal training sessions don’t start until much, much later, the Shedd staff starts training a young animal the minute the animal is born. They are systematic and aware of how they interact with a young animal, since they believe the animal is constantly learning.

Do you have a good relationship with your animal?

Ken Ramirez spent part of his talk discussing the relationships trainers develop with their animals. Relationships are often strengthened (or weakened) outside of formal training sessions, during your informal, day-to-day interactions with your animals. Lots of factors help build a relationship with an animal, but Ken said that it always starts with the trainer caring about the animal.

From a scientific perspective, some trainers dismiss the idea of relationships as irrelevant or undefinable. However, trainers should not deny the power of relationships, because this can be a powerful training tool. At the same time, Ken pointed out that trainers should not overstate the power of relationships. Relationships enhance training, but trainers still need good technique and need to understand how to use a variety of reinforcers and training tools.

Trust and relationships can take time to build. Since they are an important part of training, relationships should be developed with care. Playing with your animal is a great way to build a relationship. However, Ken discussed that many people play with their animals without much thought about building relationships or training. Depending on how you play with an animal, it can lead to bad habits developing or even weaken your relationship with the animal. However, with a little forethought, you can play with an animal without having an agenda, but still use the play time to teach desirable behavior, such as cooperative behavior or polite interactions.

Ken also briefly discussed environmental enrichment. Providing an enriched environment is a fantastic way to keep your animal happy, healthy, and active during the times of the day when you cannot be interacting with the animal. Bored animals often engage in destructive behavior or other types of unwanted behavior. Toys, puzzles, and other fun items are great ways to “train when you’re not training,” by keeping your animal active and engaged in desirable behavior.

What are you teaching your animal?

Non-formal interactions between animals and their owners or trainers are often overlooked. However, animals learn twenty-four hours a day. Just because you turn off your training brain, does not mean that the animal has turned off his learning brain.

Just because you turn off your training brain, does not mean that the animal has turned off his learning brain. Click To Tweet

You can use this knowledge to your advantage by being aware of the environment and what is happening around your animal. Pay attention to what you or others are doing, and how this might effect your animal’s behavior. Understand the principles of learning and apply them consistently, both within and outside of your training sessions.

What do you think? How are you training when you are not training?

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