Michele Pouliot and Freestyle Training with Platforms

Last weekend was ClickerExpo, a wonderful clicker training conference that is organized by Karen Pryor Clicker Training. If you’re not familiar with ClickerExpo, check out my post about why you should go to ClickerExpo. I, sadly, am not going this year. However, this evening I found I blog post that I wrote two year ago but never got around to publishing. The post is my notes from a wonderful lecture by dog trainer Michele Pouliot that I attended during clickerExpo two years ago. If anyone went to clickerExpo last week or is planning to go the second expo in April, I’d love to hear a report.

Recently I attended clickerExpo, a large animal training conference held in Kentucky. One session at clickerExpo that I really enjoyed was a lecture by Michele Pouliot called Going Up!: Elevating Your Freestyle Training with Platforms. Michele Pouliot is a top trainer, she’s worked for decades with the training programs for Guide Dogs for the Blind and is also well known for her performances at national and international canine freestyle competitions.

Her lecture centered around using platforms to get and train precise behaviors. First, Michele stressed at the beginning that this is not anything new. Maybe not, but it can be so helpful for an expert to take something that seems simple enough and define and illustrate it in a way that gives it more meaning and makes the advantages clearer.

For many freestyle behaviors, Michele Poiliot first trains the behavior using a platform (or multiple platforms). The platform can be anything, an old doormat, a carpet scrap, a board, a small box, as long as it is easy for the animal to find. Having the platform slightly raised or a different texture makes it easier for the dog to distinguish between the floor and the platform. The appropriate size for a platform can vary, depending on the size of the dog and the task that you are teaching. Here are some examples of how this might work during training:

1) Train a dog to go from a heel position at your side to a front position in front and facing you with two platforms, one in each position. Once the dog learns the movement, add a cue and then fade out the platforms.

2) Train a dog to stand 10 feet away from you and wave its paw at you by having her go to and stand on a small platform, then do the waving behavior.

3) Train a dog to rotate his back legs while the front legs stay stationary by starting with the dog’s two front feet on a small raised platform or stool. Once the dog learns the movement and cue, remove the platform.

During the talk, Michele Pouliot showed some very nice video footage of the first example, a dog going from heel position to a front position. This is a behavior that can be hard to get correct–the dog swings too wide, or doesn’t line up correctly, or any other number of errors. Its a behavior that often looks messy at the beginning and then the handler has to clean up the behavior over time.

The platforms serve as targets that tell the dog exactly where he’s suppose to line up. The dog knows (and enjoys) going to platform 1 and platform 2. So, you can then arrange the platforms to get the behavior you want–going from heel to front.

The platforms help restrict the environment and limit the range of behavior you get during the teaching process. Rather than having to guess, the dog knows from the beginning exactly where to go. This reduces frustration or stress for the dog (and trainer) and gives cleaner behavior from the beginning because the dog is not practicing errors.

When we teach new behavior, we’re teaching the animal the muscle movement sequence for that behavior and cue. If the behavior is messy at the beginning and we’re required to go through a lot of shaping steps, we end up reinforcing a lot of behavior that we really don’t want later on. These approximations can then crop back up later on. If we can get clean behavior quickly, the dog learns the correct behavior sequence from the start.

I think there are many times when our training processes are not as refined as they should be. Even with good shaping skills, it’s easy to end up with bits of messiness or unwanted behavior while teaching a new skill. Platforms, pedestals and mats have plenty of applications in the horse world–everything from teaching a horse to line up to a mounting block to helping a horse learn to lunge in a circle. Good training is also about being creative. I saw some uses of platforms in Michele Pouliot’s talk that I never would have thought to use a platform for training that particular behavior. If we can figure out ways to constrain the environment, we help the animal be successful from the beginning.


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