Improve your timing by clarifying your criteria for reinforcement

You’ve just started a training session with your animal learner. 

Your animal does several great reps of the behavior you’re teaching.

Click and treat!

Then, your animal does something you hadn’t anticipated. 

The behavior isn’t quite the same as your goal behavior…

However, it’s pretty darn close to the behavior you want… 

You freeze!

Should you click and reinforce the behavior? Or not? 

Image reads: If you don't know exactly what behavior you want to reinforce, your clicks will be late!

Do you have clear criteria for reinforcement?

If you’re evaluating in the moment whether you should or shouldn’t reinforce a behavior, your timing is going to be late if you do decide to reinforce.

In that moment of hesitation (and perhaps a bit of panic), I find that trainers often make the wrong decision.

They may reinforce a behavior that is somewhat similar to their desired behavior and later regret reinforcing that variation because the animal now keeps offering it. Or, they delay too much and end up missing the opportunity to reinforce a good approximation.

Both in my own training and when coaching my students, I find that poor timing is often closely linked to the trainer’s criteria for reinforcement. When the trainer hasn’t fully thought through exactly what behavior(s) will earn reinforcement, this results in poor timing! 

Here’s how to improve your clicker timing by creating clearer criteria: 

  1. Start by thinking about the behavior you want to reinforce. 
  2. What exactly does this behavior look like? What actions will your animal perform? Can you clearly picture the behavior? 
  3. Brainstorm variations of this behavior that may occur. 
  4. Which of these variations will you reinforce? Which do you not want to reinforce? 

For example, perhaps you are working on having your animal stand with their front two feet on a mat. If your animal has one foot on the mat and one foot halfway on but partway off, will you reinforce this behavior? 

Depending on your goal and your animal’s level of training, you might want to reinforce this behavior or you might not want to reinforce this behavior.

What other variations might occur, and have you thought through what you would do in each of these situations?

Apollo happily stands on this cardboard mat. However, one front foot is barely touching the mat.

When a training session doesn’t go as planned

Of course, training doesn’t always go as planned. Even if you think about the possible behaviors that your animal may offer, your animal may invent other possibilities that you didn’t consider. 

If your learner does something unexpected and you aren’t sure what to do, don’t try to evaluate the situation and make decisions in the moment. Instead, take a break so that you have more time to think about what to do next.

This post is a follow-up post to last week’s article: What is Good Timing?
It was also inspired by some of the conversations that I have had recently with the participants in my Shaping Skills Workshop course. 

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