Musing about movement cycles

Recently, my friend Cindy sent me a great video from agility dog trainer Susan Garrett. The video shows Susan shaping two of her dogs to jump on a cooler.

Both dogs are eight-year-old border collies owned by Susan. Both dogs are pretty smart pups with an extensive history of training. However, the second dog learns the behavior much, much faster. In fact, she jumps on the cooler almost immediately.

So, what’s the difference here? The difference is that in the second video (which was filmed 13 years later), Susan changes her own behavior in more than a dozen ways. This makes it much easier for the second dog to figure out the behavior.

(Now, go watch the video if you haven’t already!)

Designing an environment for success

The first thing I noticed about these videos was the environment. The environment in the first video is full of distractions. In the second video, on the other hand, the training room is virtually empty. In addition, the dog is on leash, Susan stands right next to the cooler, and the blanket makes the cooler more inviting. All of these differences mean that when Susan stops playing tug with the dog, the first behavior that the dog immediately offers is to jump on the cooler.

If you want to improve you training, start by being more careful about where you train. Before you start, evaluate your surroundings. Will the current environment make it easy for the dog to succeed? Or, are there things in the environment that will slow down your training? Are there ways you can modify the environment that will lead to faster learning?

Mind the movement cycle

As I watched the video, I was also reminded about movement cycles, and about how understanding the concept of the movement cycle can improve our shaping.

The “movement cycle” is the complete sequence of actions the learner does while completing the behavior. For example, imagine that you are opening a door. The movement cycle consists of you walking to the door, lifting your arm, touching the door knob, grasping the knob, twisting the knob, and pulling the knob toward you.

(If this is your first time hearing the term movement cycle, I recommend that you read this article that I wrote several years ago on the topic.)

Sometimes, there are multiple ways to accomplish a behavior:

  • Movement cycle 1: The dog could approach the cooler, lift her shoulders, place her front paws on the cooler, shift her weight forward, and then lift one back foot onto the cooler and then the other back foot.
  • Movement cycle 2: Alternatively, the dog could approach the cooler, leap forward, be momentarily suspended with all four legs in the air, and then land on the cooler.

Either way technically works. However, the first way is more difficult for the dog because the top of the cooler is quite slippery. Both dogs ultimately use the sequence of behaviors that make up Movement Cycle 2.

The shaping plan in the first video starts by reinforcing approximations that are part of Movement Cycle 1. The dog receives a treat for approaching the cooler, holding her head over it, putting her front paws on it, etc.

These “seem” like logical approximations. However, they ultimately slow down the learning because the dog is spending time learning and practicing actions (put two feet on the cooler) that will not be part of the final sequence of actions. That is, the dog is practicing the wrong movement cycle. (You can even see several times when Stoni, the first dog, puts her front feet on the cooler, then changes her mind and puts her front feet back on the floor before jumping onto the cooler.)

In contrast in the second video, the blanket and other environmental arrangements mean that the dog leaps on the cooler at the very beginning. The movement is correct from the start. Then, Susan can make modifications such as slowly removing the blanket, standing a little bit farther away from the cooler, and increasing the duration that the dog stays on the cooler.

The video of the second dog is an interesting example, because the dog basically does the entire movement cycle from the beginning. This often is not the case during shaping. However, shaping will go faster when you identify and reinforce actions that are part of the final movement cycle, instead of actions that are part of alternative movement cycles.

There’s always room for improvement

Watching and analyzing videos can help us better understand the elements of good training and give us ideas for how we can continue to improve our training.

So, I applaud Susan for sharing these videos. I know many professional trainers who would not want the world watching videos of what they were doing two decades ago!

Did Susan’s video or this blog post give you any ideas for how you can improve your training? If so, leave a comment below or send me an email.

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