Friday, April 29, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Helix Fairweather- Accelerating Success with Data Driven Training

There are two kinds of presentations at Clicker Expo: lectures and labs, which use attendee's dogs. I love this format, because it means that you get to see how a given idea works on a “real” dog (ie, not the presenter's). Helix Fairweather presented a lab on using data in training, and I really enjoyed the hands-on component. It took a topic that could have been dry and boring and transformed it into something fun and interesting.

This group- and dog- learned all about data-driven training.
Is your training data-driven? If you're like most people, probably not. Still, it's worth making the effort. Helix identified a number of reasons this is true: Data allows you to see progress in black and white: you know that your dog is doing better because the numbers prove it. Data helps you plan for your next session and can show you where there might be gaps in your training. Keeping data gives you a record that can help you learn how your dog learns.

So what data should you keep? There are two main things: rate of reinforcement, and success rates.

A sample training log. Click to embiggen.

Knowing your rate of reinforcement is especially helpful during the initial stages of shaping, because it lets you know if your criteria is too hard or too easy. Count out ten treats, then time how long it takes your dog to earn them. Divide by ten. For most tasks, the dog should be earning a click and treat every 6-10 seconds. Anything less means it's probably too easy, anything more means it's probably too hard.

Of course, these numbers may change if the behavior requires a lot of distance or duration, so repeat this step twice more. The average amount of time it takes the dog to earn ten treats should go down in each subsequent trial, because this indicates that the dog is learning. If it stays the same, or worse, goes up, try to figure out why.

During the lab, we all broke into groups. Each team would work with a dog on a given task three times, timing the rate of reinforcement. The conversations about why the numbers changed the way they did were very interesting. Everything from the way a treat got tossed to distractions in the room impacted those numbers. Figuring it out- and then compensating for it in the next set of trials- was almost like being a detective!

After you've attached a cue to the behavior, you can calculate how often the dog responds correctly to the cue. Count out ten treats. Cue the behavior. If the dog responds correctly, click and treat. If he doesn't, put one treat aside. Repeat until all ten treats are gone. Then look at how many treats you set aside and calculate your dog's success rate; each treat represents ten percent, so if you have two treats left, the incorrect response rate was 20%, and the success rate was 80%.

You can also keep track of how often your dog offers the behavior uncued. Ideally, your dog will only do the behavior when you've cued it, and keeping track of how often he does it without the cue will help you determine if you are achieving stimulus control or not.

No matter what you track, Helix said that it's a good idea to look at each data point separately as well as together. For example, it's a great idea to compare your success rate to your rate of reinforcement. A success rate of 100% with a really low rate of reinforcement is not good if you want quick, snappy responses to your cues. Similarly, a high rate of reinforcement with a high rate of uncued behaviors indicates that your dog doesn't quite understand the cue yet.

If you're thinking this is a lot of work, you're right! In the lab, we had teams of 4-5 people per dog to time, count, and evaluate what was going on. The punch line was that it's easy when there are lots of people to share the work, but not so easy when there's just you and the dog!

One of the best ways to track your data is by video recording your sessions. Doing so will allow you to concentrate fully on the dog, and not on counting or analyzing. Then, later on, you can go back and count and time things to calculate the various rates. It also allows you to see how things like treat delivery, body language or environmental distractions affects your dog. I have to admit, I hate watching myself train. I'm always really embarrassed by my sloppy handling skills, missed reinforcement opportunities, and unclear criteria. Still, I know that in the long run, this makes be a better trainer, too.

Helix also suggested using a voice recorder. That way you can talk as you're training (or immediately afterward) to summarize how things went. It's quicker and easier than writing during a session, although you will want to go back and transcribe those notes for future use.

I haven't actually started to keep data in training. I know I should, but I've been lazy about implementing it. I don't even have any excuses- at least not any good ones. But what about you guys? Do you take data, or record your training sessions in some way? What do find most helpful? What are your tricks and tips for getting the most out of it? If you don't take data, do you think it would help if you started? Why or why not?


Ninso said...

I don't at all. It's just not that important to me. I do have a daily log that I write down what I worked on that day and my general impression of how it went. But that is as detailed as I care to get.

Lindsay said...

I video about 80% of the training I do with the dogs and I have found it very helpful as long as I go back over it and review it. I can catch some of the little things that I don't realize I'm doing that may be effecting what's going on. Or I can sometimes get ideas for new things to try if we get stuck. But I don't really write anything down or keep any sort of data log.

Crystal Thompson said...

Ninso, your comment cracks me up. You say data collection isn't important to you, yet you already keep far more than the vast majority of trainers. (For the record, I think your approach is perfectly logical, and much easier.)

Lindsay, how often do you review your video?

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

With my own dogs I do none. At work I do a little write up with each dog and all their different behaviors, very general notes such as "sucked" or "very light contact made." Otherwise I'd never be able to keep track of everybody.

I don't worry about rate of reinforcement. If anything my rates are too high. Maybe it's because I intersperse luring (or usually body motion, targets) in with my shaping but I feel like I reward almost every response. Usually I don't have a problem with it but I wonder if my high ROR is the reason why I fail on certain tricks. We've been stuck on Lance's backward back leg limp on a while and perhaps it's because I suck at raising criteria in a meaningful way.

And then of course having such a high ROR is a huge hinder to success in the obedience ring. I'm much better about making a conscious effort on what and when I'm rewarding on heeling as it's a duration behavior but have failed to fade away the treats on fronts. I can't help but reward them when I like them!

Raegan said...

I am about 200% better at training when I keep a log. I love data, so when I can be arsed to do it, I get a lot out of it. I think I have mainly a recording problem.

This is why I need a smart phone.

Crystal Thompson said...

I have a smart phone! It hasn't helped me with data, though.