Kay Laurence: Assessing Your Animal Training Skills

Are you good at training animals? Are you great at shaping, but not so good at putting behavior under stimulus control? You know you’re a better trainer than your next door neighbor, but you’re nowhere near the level of the expert trainer who runs your agility class….

Good, better, worse, best, intermediate, beginner, expert. The ways we evaluate our skill as a trainer and compare ourselves to others is usually completely subjective. What are we actually measuring? Kay Laurence spoke about the important hows and whys of assessing our own skills as animal trainers. Below are a few of the points she highlighted that I thought were particularly important.

1. Learning to Assess
Being able to self assess yourself is essential for moving forward. Part of Kay Laurence’s talk focused on her Competency Assessment Programme (CAP). However, assessment is not about ticking off boxes and passing a test. Instead, it’s much more important to learn how to evaluate your own strengths, weaknesses and progress. For any skill you want to assess you must understand the point of the criteria and what it is measuring. This is far more important than someone else telling you if you’ve passed or failed.

2. Measurable Criteria
Any form of assessment needs objective, measurable criteria. We are inclined to measure training subjectively, saying a task looked “good,” “very nice,” or “better than last time.” But this is not an accurate way to actually tracking progress and skill. Defined goals and detailed training logs are a more efficient way to track progress. As well, we need to assess all parts of training–getting behavior, shaping, finishing behavior, generalization, stimulus control and maintenance over time, rather than just looking at the final behavior.

3. Skill Based Criteria
Most of the time our assessment criteria is based on tasks and final products; we look at the end result. However, understanding the teaching process of how to get from A to B is just as, if not more beneficial. Excellence in a competitive field is not a measure of training competency, it could just indicate that you had someone great who was giving you good instruction. As I look over Kay Laurence’s CAP program, I see that many of the things it tests are skills, rather than specific tasks (such as sit or stay). For instance, part of the Level 1 program requires being able to “operate the clicker in either hand with a non-visual movement” and to “give reasons for choice of reward.”

4. The Teacher Takes Responsibility
The good trainer will take responsibility for what her students (animal or human) have or have not learned. Sharon Foley says this nicely: “If the horse knew what I wanted and believed he was able to do it, he’d BE doing it.” If the dog (or horse or human) knew what you wanted, understood how to do it and was motivated to carry out the request, he or she would be doing it!

5. Assessment is Never Comparative
Comparing yourself to your neighbor, trainer or best friend isn’t going to get you much of anywhere. Instead, focus on comparing yourself to objective criteria or tracking your progress over time. Aim to be the best you can be, rather than better than someone else.

6. Periodically Reassess the Basics
When’s the last time you retested your basic mechanics or tried some of the basic behaviors you first taught the animal? As training gets more complex and our skills get more refined, it’s important to check and make sure your foundation is still in place. Double check what’s cueing the dog, your clicker or your right elbow! (Some) horse people could really benefit from this back to basics idea. It’s startling the number of upper level show horses who have trouble with basic skills such as trailer loading or leading.

Towards the end of the talk, Kay Laurence shared a great quote for any trainer:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

Ultimately, advanced skills are only a refinement and deeper exploration of basic skills. But, if we develop our ability to self-assess, we will be better equipped to discover the nuisances of training and the differences between good and great training.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the rest of my notes from the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference or my notes from the 2009 conference. Better yet, bookmark the ORCA website and come to the 2011 conference next spring! Sign up for e-mail updates to make sure you don’t miss any of the great posts from stalecheerios.com.

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