Dress rehearsals: Why train an invisible animal?

Want to improve your training sessions with your horses, dogs, or other animals? 

Start by practicing without your animal!

What is a dress rehearsal?

In my Shaping Skills Workshop courses, I encourage my students to do dress rehearsals without their animals before their training sessions.

Here’s how to do a dress rehearsal:

Step 1: Get ready. Start by finding the supplies you will need, such as your treats, treat pouch, target stick, clicker, mats, platforms, etc. Now, set up your training space. 

Step 2: Review your plan. You did already make a plan, didn’t you? Think through the actions you and your animal will be doing at each step. 

Step 3: Act it out. Perform each of the actions in your plan. Pause after each action to let your imaginary animal perform their behaviors. If possible, you can even have a friend pretend to be your animal. Think about things that could go wrong. 

3. Evaluate what happened. Did any parts feel awkward or uncomfortable? Could you imagine how your training set up or your training plan may make it harder for your animal to perform the correct behaviors? 

4. Make some revisions. Make changes, as needed, to your initial plan. Practice any of your own behaviors that aren’t fluent yet. Now, do another dress rehearsal.

This sounds silly.

Do I really need to do a dress rehearsal? 

Sometimes, my students think it sounds silly to do a dress rehearsal. However, you will learn a lot by taking a few minutes to go through this process. 

After doing a dress rehearsal, many trainers realize they need to practice their own skills. Or, they need to make adjustments to the props and equipment they are using. Or, they realize that what they are planning to do is going to be too difficult for their animal. 

For example, you may realize that it’s awkward getting your hand into your treat pouch when you are sitting down. You either need to change the position of the pouch or deliver the treats in a bowl. Or, you could stand up, instead.

You may be planning on teaching your horse to lower his head to touch a target. You realize that you are going to need a longer target stick and that you should be standing in a different position. 

You may realize that you don’t have very good aim when you are tossing treats into a bucket. You need to practice more (or deliver the treats a different way). First, you decide to experiment with a larger bucket and a different type of treat. 

Video example: Reinforcement delivery in a bucket

In this video, I’m practicing one small part of a training session — how I want to deliver a small handful of grain in a bucket. I’m practicing without my horse, Apollo.

This video is from awhile back. I had used this bucket previously to deliver food reinforcers. However, I had usually used larger treats, not small pieces of grain. 

Practicing without Apollo allowed me to figure out where I wanted to stand in relation to the bucket, how I wanted to hold my hands, and the sequence of behaviors I wanted to perform.

In particular, I realized that I wanted to walk to the bucket, stop by the bucket, THEN move my hand to reach for the pellets. 

Remember this: Training is a skill!

Practicing our own skills without the animal sometimes seems like a boring task. However, if your training session is well planned and if your actions are fluent, it will be easier for your animal to perform the behaviors you are trying to teach. As a result, you’ll be able to achieve your training goals much faster!

Try it this week — do a dress rehearsal before one of your training sessions.

Let me know what you discover!

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