I was one of more than 500 trainers from across the globe who convened on Dearborn, Michigan in March for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Expo. It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers and behaviorists whose focus is on modifying behavior in the most positive way.
In one of our labs about hands on experience teaching a behavior chain, Trainer and instructor Laura VanArendonk Baugh began with a sort of Wii game. She gave instructions at the very beginning. The game involved a foot pad with up, down, right and left arrows. On a large screen, arrows moved up and when one touched an arrow at the top, the contestants were told to tap the corresponding arrow on their foot pad. As the game went on, the movement got quicker and quicker. The winner had the highest number of correct foot taps.
Although Laura gave directions at the very beginning and asked if there were any questions, once the game began things got a little complicated. In addition to the moving arrows on the screen, there were other distracting lights in the background and people in the audience making noises. There was the added pressure of increased speed.
One of the contestants thought she needed to put both feet onto each arrow on the foot pad which required a tiny bit more time to do the behavior. As the game sped up, people in the audience shouted guidance to them.
When it was done, we analyzed what had just happened and compared it to animals we train.
Performing the behavior of tapping their foot to the correct arrow on the pad when the arrows matched on the screen was a challenge with the distracting lights, and the difficulty rose as the speed of the arrow movement increased. When this happened, errors also happened more frequently. And, as errors began happening more quickly, some of those watching couldn’t help but shout out tips.
So, even with Laura having given clear directions at the beginning of the game, learners still had some pretty major hurdles to overcome and their ability to succeed waned as a result.
What does this have to do with training?
Well, for one, it was a great reminder to us of some of the factors that go into helping our animals succeed in our learning environment.
It demonstrated the importance of having minimal to no distractions when teaching new behavior skills. Focusing on learning is enough of a challenge. This includes environmental stimulus such as the presence of other dogs, and also trainer chatter. Remember, pets do not speak English so your verbally telling him what to do can complicate the classroom.
If we make our classroom too difficult and that causes errors, then our learner is practicing unwanted behavior. Additionally, it can cause frustration and lack of interest in the training.