Is it time to adjust your criteria for reinforcement?

This spring, as I teach my online shaping skills class, I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions we make during shaping. I find that many trainers don’t know quite what to do when their animal is almost, but not quite, performing a desired behavior.

For example, imagine you’re working with your animal on backing up. Your animal was doing great with four steps. You increase the requirement to six steps. Now, your animal is backing slightly at an angle for the last few steps, instead of backing in a straight line. What should you do?

You can adjust your criteria for reinforcement in several ways. One strategy involves staying at the current step but being more lenient about what you reinforce. For example, you could reinforce when your animal takes six (slightly crooked) steps. You hope the behavior will improve with practice and repetition.

However, hope alone is not a good training strategy. Your animal’s behavior may or may not improve! Any time your animal is performing extra behaviors or unwanted behaviors, you run the risk of accidentally reinforcing these behaviors.

An alternative approach is to change the shaping step so that your animal can do the desired behavior you are looking for. For example, you could go back to four steps, recover four steps of straight backing, and then try increasing the requirement to five steps.

You should also analyze your own behavior and the setting in which you are teaching. Can you figure out why your animal is doing a somewhat different behavior than the behavior you want? Can you change your behavior, the props you are using, or the teaching setting so that it is easier for your animal to do the perfect behavior?

For example, you may realize that backing six steps takes your animal fairly close to an object behind him. He is likely curving to the side to avoid getting near this object. If you move your animal to a new location or take away this object, it will be much easier for him to back in a straight line.

My advice: If you’ve tried a certain step several times in a row, and your animal isn’t doing the exact behavior you want, don’t keep practicing that same step. Instead, it’s time to make adjustments to the shaping step or to return to a previous step.

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