Monday, October 8, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Outside the Session

How much do you train your dog? How often? I’ve asked many people this question. Some say that they train for an hour every evening. Others say they train for one minute out of every hour that they are awake. Personally, I train very little. When I’m working on a goal- preparing for a trial, maybe- I will train for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 4 days a week. In the last two months, I’ve done exactly one formal training session, and it lasted about 60 seconds.

And yet, I’m training all the time. Even on our thrice-daily walks I have a pocketful of treats so I can reinforce behaviors I like. It’s just that I usually don’t have a specific goal in mind. This is what Ken described as the difference between formal training and non-formal interactions. Even the most dedicated of trainers will spend more time interacting with their animals in a non-formal situation. After all, even at an hour a day of training, that still leaves 23 hours of unstructured time.

The truth is, every interaction we have an animal has some type of value- hopefully reinforcing- and animals learn outside of formal training sessions just as readily as inside them. I think most of us understand this at some level, but what I loved about the Shedd experience was learning how the staff use this to their advantage. They actually have what Ken calls passive training sessions, where the staff simply spend time with the animals in their care.

We got to see this demonstrated with their Magellanic Penguins. The trainers didn’t show off any behaviors, and they didn’t demonstrate the science behind training. Instead, they brought the penguins into our classroom solely to observe how the penguins acted when around strangers. Did they play with their toys? Look for food? Curiously inspect their surroundings? Not only were we excited to get up close and personal with these amazing animals, but the trainers were able to gain some valuable information.

More importantly, though, non-formal interactions are often when the most bonding occurs. Although training sessions can and do contribute to relationships, the time we spend interacting with our animals with no pressure and no expectations has the biggest impact. At the most basic level, relationships are simply about being together with no strings attached. For me, these informal moments are the most important part of my day. I cherish walking through the woods with my dog at my side, the way she flops down exhausted after a good play session, and the quiet moments late at night where she lies pressed up against my side.

What about you? What non-formal things do you do with your dog that makes you happy?


Jen said...

We occasionally do formal sessions where I have a specific behavior in mind, get out the clicker, get out X amount of treats, and work on it with Elka. She gets very excited by these scenarios, and the session lasts as long as the treats do.

Impromptu things occur throughout the day. She does something that I cheer her on for and reinforce, or almost does something that I urge on a bit.

Lorac said...

I train like you. A few times a week for 2-3 min, except for agility training class. The rest of the time, I am actually 'training" constantly - reinforcing and practicing known behaviors, reinforcing new behaviors that I like. Most of the time we're together we hang out, go for a walk, trail jogging, fetch, tug, belly rubs (for her, not me), just be together in the same room. Quality time. The best kind of time.

Anonymous said...

I rarely formally train, I guess. I probably should, but I just don't. I actually find I'm better at "training" things I like when I'm not trying! I have rock solid reliable behavior when I'm cooking, for example. Both Shanoa and Simon will lie down on beds in the kitchen because I've randomly rewarded that (usually with what I'm cooking, so it's high value!). I wasn't really trying to train it, but it happened and I love it :)