Monday, May 20, 2013

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Other Advanced Concepts

Picture is unrelated. But awesome.
There are four more advanced concepts that Ken discussed. Each is interesting, but there’s not quite enough material to flesh out separate posts. So… here’s the quick run-down.

It surprised me that Ken put a recall (which he defined as a behavior that requests an animal to return to “station”) as an advanced concept. After all, every puppy or beginning class I’ve seen teaches “come!” I think the reason Ken classifies it this way is twofold. First, he considers it a safety behavior, either for the trainer or the animal. And second, he outlined a number of errors that novices often make when teaching a recall.

Really, the errors people make with the recall all boils down to one thing: reinforcement. Ken said that a recall should be reinforced often and well. He recommended practicing it daily with your animal. If you use a recall in an emergency situation, you should always reinforce the behavior, preferably with a high-value item. And finally, he noted that novice trainers often use the recall only when the animal has done something wrong, or when good things are going to end (like when you call your dog to come at the dog park and then leave).

Behavior Chains
A behavior chain happens when the completion of one behavior cues the start of the next. Each subsequent behavior reinforces the previous one. Ken discussed two types of behavior chains, technical chains, where the trainer gives ONE cue and the animal then performs a series of behaviors, or common chains, where the trainer gives a series of cues, but there’s only one reinforcer at the very end.

There are two ways to teach a behavior chain. With back-chaining (which is the preferred method) the last step of the chain is taught first, and then the trainer teaches backwards to the first step. This is more reinforcing for the animal because he is always moving towards something he knows well. Forward-chaining (teaching the first behavior, then the second, and so on) also works, but there are usually more errors.

It is best to teach each individual component of the chain successfully. Each should be maintained separately as well. Ken shared that the animals that are the most successful at learning chains are ones who have learned about reinforcement variety because they already know that a behavior can be reinforcing.

Keep Going Signals (KGS)
A KGS is a signal that tells the animal that he is on the right track. It’s encouraging feedback that literally says “keep doing this and I’ll reinforce you!” It’s technically a tertiary reinforcer- that is, it’s a signal that a secondary reinforcer is coming (and thus, a primary). It’s sort of the way you get a poker chip that can be traded in for money which can then be used to by an actual reinforcer, like food.

Most people don’t purposely train them; they tend to happen along the way naturally. That said, you can purposely teach them by introducing them as a secondary reinforcer and then approximating longer periods of time before giving the primary. Interestingly, Ken said he doesn’t use them; he just doesn’t need them.

End of Session Signals
An end of session signal tells the animal that the training session is done and there will be no further opportunity for reinforcement. While it might be helpful to let your pet dog to stop bothering you, Ken pointed out that he doesn’t particularly want a 700 pound animal realizing the (fun!) session is over and thus refusing to let the trainer leave. That can be dangerous. In fact, the staff at Shedd are pretty careful that they don’t create an accidental signal that might lead to chaos, like picking up a bucket of fish and walking away.

That doesn’t mean you should use them. Ken simply doesn’t think they are important enough to argue about. If what you’re doing is working, great.

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