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This morning I watched my 4 year old training his rabbits with differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour. He didn’t realise that’s what he was doing, but he was.  Is his lack of understanding an issue, considering that his methods were effective?

I had sent him out to give his bunnies their breakfast. They were crowding the gate, but instead of just squeezing past, or growling, or pushing them, he put the pellets down and went to pick some spinach leaves. When the bunnies hopped along the fence-line after him he dropped the spinach to them well away from the gate, then he picked up the pellet box and in he went to fill up their bowls.

I was busy watering plants and only looked over in time to see the end of this sequence but it made me smile. Making ethical and humane training decisions doesn’t need to be complicated or counter-intuitive. My pre-schooler does it without even thinking much about it. Pity we can sometimes lose that clarity as we get older.

Most of the people I teach are already training animals on a daily basis. Even if they’re a novice horse owner they have very likely had other animals in their lives. And every time we interact with our animals, even if we aren’t setting out to “train” them, we are influencing their future behaviour. They’re learning all the time. About us, the environment and the way we interact with it, about our behaviour and how it impacts upon them, about how they can influence human behaviour to their own benefit.

So whether we realise it or not, we are all trainers. Some people are naturals, with sound instincts, excellent timing and observation skills. Others of us need to go through a process to learn those skills. I am a firm believer that the mechanics of good training (including the elusive “feel” that horse people go on about) are not mystical abilities that one is born with, they are able to be learned.

Often I have students attend my clinics who are naturally gifted trainers and have been training horses, sometimes to quite high levels, for decades. It is not my role to teach them “how to train better” (how presumptuous and condescending), but rather how to put a layer of logic and consciousness over the everyday training decisions they’re already making. To enable them to continue to be guided by their gut instinct, and to know when to question it.  My goal is for these trainers to understand and clearly articulate WHY they make the training choices they do, and why what they are doing is working (or not!). This means they can more effectively transfer their training to other animals or to new problems, and they’ll be better at teaching others.

If I asked my 4 year old how or why he trained his rabbits to station away from the gate when he approaches, he would probably not have an answer but would simply point to its effectiveness. What will one day (hopefully!) make him an excellent trainer of animals and teacher of people, is the ability to take the knowledge from that particular scenario and utilise it elsewhere. To draw parallels between rabbits and dogs or horses, between gate-crowding and jumping up or stepping away at the mounting block, and therefore be able to influence and inspire behaviour change wherever it's required.

A key goal on our journey as a trainer is to be able to look THROUGH the surface layers of species or problem or behaviour and see the bare bones beneath; to understand the universal principles that underpin all learning, whether our learner has fur, fins or human skin.


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Shaping behaviour is a two-way conversation, in which we ask a question, receive an answer, listen and acknowledge, back and forth. When the animal tells us they’re ready we respond by changing the question slightly or asking for a little more. It is an art-form akin to a dance; we might take two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward and in this way we dance our way ever closer towards our goal.
You may have heard the terms "splitting" vs "lumping". Or the phrase "rewarding the smallest try". I’m going to add another word to the mix: criteria.

Criteria is one corner of the golden triangle of training, to which Bob Bailey asserts we can attribute the vast majority of training problems. It is crucial that we don't always set our criteria too high or else the animal won't be successful and our rate of reinforcement will drop too low. (Cue frustration, shut down or disinterest from the animal). I'll say that again with different words: when we ask for more than the animal is capable of understanding or delivering in that moment what we get is hesitation, wrong guesses, or our animal gives up, shuts down or otherwise "fails" and doesn't get rewarded. Doesn't feel good for them, or for us.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to think fast, to set goals for the future and want to achieve them yesterday. We also tend to have unrealistic views (from our comfortable perch atop the mountain of prior knowledge and human agenda) of how “obvious” the answer is, how quickly our animal should be able to figure it out; in short we assume the job of learning is easier than it actually is. In fact, what you think about it all is irrelevant - your animal tells you whether your criteria is small enough or not, by their success rate (and therefore by your rate of reinforcement, i.e. the frequency of your rewards).

Setting our expectations and our criteria too high and trying to move on too fast before the animal is ready (aka "lumping") is a pretty well-known training issue. It's safe to say that in almost every scenario it wouldn't hurt to split or “thin-slice” behaviours more than we already are. ​ However, something I see quite a lot but doesn't often get a lot of air-time is the opposite - the tendency to spend too much time drilling at a stage the animal already knows well. This usually happens due to a lack of trainer confidence and the sense of success and safety that comes from the animal getting it right every time. Sometimes we actually sabotage our own progress because we like to stay in the comfort zone where the animal, and therefore the trainer, is successful. It also happens because of a lack of a clear plan as to next steps.
"Some of the most annoying hours in my school career were spent listening to an instructor drone interminably through explanations of a concept I already understood. Remaining at a low level of criteria or performance can be intensely frustrating to a learner. In "Don't Shoot the Dog", Karen Pryor points out that failure to move ahead when the student is ready can be just as aversive as any punishment."
​- (https://clickertraining.com/node/2091)
So once our animal is getting it "right" about 80% of the time at our current criteria, we NEED to move on up and ask for more! More duration, more precision, more distance, more expression, more speed, more softness, more distractions, or whatever it might be. We just gradually paint those layers on, one at a time. (As we shift the focus to another criteria we may see a drop in quality of the other aspects we’ve been working on. Don’t worry. It’ll all even out in the end).
Alexandra Kurland talks a lot about loopy training, which is an analogy or framework of sorts for this exact scenario. She describes it as follows:
​“In a clean loop, the trainee performs all the elements within the loop smoothly and without hesitation, and no unwanted behaviors creep in (as might happen if the emotional balance is off). Once the loop is clean [before and after the click], it’s time to move on to the next criterion. In fact, when a loop is clean, the trainer should move on!".
​For more about loopy training read this blog.
​Good training is rhythmic, almost meditative. (Here's a nice example - do you see the clean loops of behaviour?). I find it puts me and my learner into a flow state where the world disappears and we're completely in the moment with each other. The reinforcement process (click, reach for food, deliver food, return to neutral ready for the next rep) is a cohesive part of the “loop” and there’s no hesitations or sticky bits at any point and so it flows. No training session is going to be entirely like this, but this is always my goal.  
Free shaping back up - YouTube
You can see how any messy moments will disrupt your flow - these might include confusion or frustration behaviours from the animal, or your equipment malfunctioning so you're having to reset it all the time, or if there's anxiety or foraging/mugging behaviours going on between reinforcers, etc. By setting criteria well, cleaning up your food delivery and fine-tuning your environment/props/set up you can eliminate many of these messy moments and create smooth clean rhythmic loops of behaviour that spiral steadily outwards towards your goal.  

Shaping behaviour is a continuous dance in which we step forward, step back, pause, skip three steps forward and so on... if you stand in one place too long or repeat the same steps endlessly when dancing, your dance partner would likely get frustrated or bored.  Be brave enough to ask the questions; your animal will probably surprise you.  Keep the flow going and enjoy the process as you dance your way toward your goals.

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