Offered behaviors and unwritten rules

On the Thursday before ClickerExpo, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and I gave a one-day PORTL workshop to an excellent group of about 40 Karen Pryor Academy trainers. 

Here’s one interesting idea that came up during our discussions.

As we interact with our animal or human learners, the patterns of behavior we reinforce can sometimes unknowingly create unwritten rules. As a result, this can limit the behaviors our learner feels free to offer. 

I’m not sure if “rules” is the right word here. However, the following examples will help explain what I mean. 

Example 1: During one PORTL exercise, the teacher wanted the learner to lift an object higher and higher, until the learner was holding the object above her head. 

The teacher could get the learner to lift the object several inches off the table. But, the learner would not lift the object past a certain height. 

What was going on here? All of the previous lessons had involved keeping the objects on the table or just lifting an object several inches. 

This learner had “learned” that the objects were supposed to stay on the table. The teacher was fighting against these past experiences. 

Eventually, the teacher tried using a target as a prompt. Within a short amount of time, she was able to teach the learner to raise the object in the air. 

Example 2: During another PORTL exercise, the teacher placed a button on the table and then held up a bracelet. She expected the learner to pick up the button and drop it through the bracelet. However, the learner refused to touch the objects.

Here’s what had happened. The learner thought she was not supposed to touch the objects if the teacher was touching an object! She thought the teacher was still setting up the objects.

The teacher realized this could be the issue.

So, she put the bracelet on the table and clicked when the learner placed the button in it. Then, the teacher continued to leave the bracelet on the table, but she touched it with her fingers. Finally, she lifted the bracelet an inch, then two inches, and so on, until she was holding it at the original level. 

One of the fun parts about playing PORTL is that the learner can talk to you after the exercise is finished. The helps the teacher better understand why the learner acted in certain ways.

Example 3: My horse, Apollo, and I sometimes practice our clicker training lessons in a small pen next to the barn. The recent rain and warm weather means that this pen is now full of grass.

I decided recently that I would let Apollo graze in this pen while I groomed him. However, he would not eat the grass! He kept looking at me expectantly, as if to say, “When are we going to do some clicker training?” 

Apollo had learned that this area was supposed to be an area for fun clicker training games. So, it made no sense to him that I would want him to graze here. 

I wanted to test to make sure this was what was going on. 

So, I opened the gate. Once he was on the other side of the fence and in an area where we rarely do training, he happily started grazing while I brushed the mud off him. 

Puzzle solving

In all of these situations, the teacher expected a certain response. However, because of the learner’s past experiences, the learner did not consider that behavior to be an option. What helped in each situation was giving the learner additional assistance and clues by changing the environment or adding extra prompts. 

Keep these examples in mind the next time your learner’s behavior does not match what you expected!

(You can visit Behavior Explorer to learn more about PORTL.)

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