Okay, gang, I’m back with the Shedd Animal Training Seminar recaps. It’s been awhile, but thankfully I left off at a pretty good breaking point because we’ve come to the section on advanced concepts.
Ken defined advanced concepts as those that require experience in order to apply them. This is any training that ventures past the basics of “reward behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don’t.” You know you’re ready to start dabbling in some of these concepts when you understand training theory well enough to know when to ask for help (seriously. All good trainers get in over their heads sometimes) and you have some good mechanical skills (able to use a marker with good time, able to deliver reinforcers efficiently and effectively).
That said, just because YOU are ready to use an advanced concept does not mean that your animal (or your human client) is ready for the concept. So you also need to know when it’s appropriate to use one of these concepts, and when to stick with the basics.
A great example of this is the concept of defining criteria for a behavior. In the early stages, we think of behavior as a black-or-white kind of thing: either the behavior was 100% correct, or it was wrong. Except… there IS a gray area in training. This happens fairly often when a behavior is still in training, especially when you’re shaping a behavior with a series of approximations. Sometimes the animal gives you something you weren’t looking for or expecting, and you need to make a quick judgment call about whether or not to mark it.
With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about when Ken considers reinforcement to be an advanced concept.
|Being sprayed by a water bottle is a secondary reinforcer for this dolphin.|
One situation in which using reinforcement requires an experienced trainer is when a secondary reinforcer is being used. Also called a conditioned reinforcer, this is something that the animal is taught to value. The most common example is a clicker or marker, but it’s anything that any animal will accept as a reinforcer. Secondary reinforcers can be indispensable when an animal is sick and is refusing to eat but you need to give them medications or reward them for a behavior.
Ken notes that your relationship to the animal is critical when you’re using a secondary reinforcer; while a kiss from your significant other may be welcomed, a kiss from your boss probably won’t be. For a more in depth discussion on secondary reinforcers, please see this post. http://reactivechampion.blogspot.com/2011/08/ken-ramirez-seminar-non-food.html
Another reinforcement technique that Ken considers to be an advanced concept is the use of variable reinforcement. Ken likes to look at reinforcement schedules simply. Instead of all the technical terms like CRF, FI, FR, VI, VR, etc., he tends to see them as either continuous and consistent or variable and intermittent. Of course, he readily agrees that understanding the technical terms can be helpful, but said that most of the time, it really isn’t necessary in most situations.
Variable reinforcement happens when an animal does not get a reinforcer for each and every behavior. It’s often used in training because it makes a behavior more resistant to extinction. This allows you to have the animal do a number of behaviors for only one reinforcer. However, it does need to be carefully introduced or it can lead to frustration in your animal.
Although there are many ways to introduce a variable schedule of reinforcement, Ken shared how the Shedd staff do it. First, every new trainer AND every new animal begins with a continuous, fixed schedule of reinforcement. They will provide a variety in the types of reinforcers, though. Then, they condition and establish secondary reinforcers (see the post linked above for more details on this). Next, start using your secondary reinforcers so that they are not always followed by a primary reinforcer. Finally, use other well-established behaviors as a reinforcer. This entire process generally takes four to six weeks with an experience trainer AND an experienced animal. With a naïve trainer and animal combo, it can take several years.
There is one more advanced concept in regards to reinforcement that Ken discussed: negative reinforcement. However, I decided it makes more sense to present it with the seminar summary on aversives and punishment. Keep an eye out for the next installment in the Shedd Animal Training Seminar series!