Animal Behaviourist, pet dog trainer and blogger extraordinaire, Mary Hunter asked me what the best part of the seminar was. Now that is a difficult question as there were so many highlights!
First of all I would have to comment on the ‘cruise’ style of presenting. Although there was an ‘agenda’, the three days felt more like a conversation between friends than a seminar. That doesn’t mean to say that learning didn’t take place, as every piece of information was either absorbed or written down to be pondered at a later date!
I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which the material was presented. Everything was explained with a story and wow, Kay, Alex and Jesús sure have a lot of interesting stories! Scientific topics are frequently presented in a dull and often difficult to understand format but every story increased the understanding of every topic. All conversations continued into break time. There were small pockets of people either working on balance with Alexandra, talking about cues and reinforcement with Kay or happily chatting about behavioural analysis with Jesús. There was a great selection of attendees, some from the dog world and many from the horse world. I myself travelled back from Spain and others had travelled from as far afield as Israel, Germany, Portugal…
We played lots of PORTL, which I’m sure had a great impact on everybody there. It was fascinating to learn a little about the character of our learner just through watching how they responded to the game. Much time was spent on planning each behaviour taught and many breaks taken to revise the criteria in order to set our learners up for success.
Many of you will know that I think all training should be fun but science based. I teach all behaviours as ‘tricks’ as I believe that, in doing so, we set both trainer and learner up for success. Whether teaching a ‘stay’, a ‘recall’, a ‘spin’ or a fun routine, teaching behaviours as ‘tricks’ sets the theme – learning should be playful! I therefore loved the fact that much emphasis was placed on play. RAGE, FEAR, GRIEF/PANIC (punishing) and SEEKING, LUST, CARE and PLAY (rewarding/reinforcing) – Jaak Panksepp’s primary-process affective emotional systems of the brain were referred to several times with emphasis on play being essential for healthy brain development and for learning – when playful one can find solutions that are not available when afraid!
In the TrickMeister – Mastering fun and increasing your team knowledge and skills Course curriculum I not only place an emphasis on play but also on making sure that we break each behaviour down into easily achievable criteria to set our learner up for success and achieve minimal or ‘micro’ error learning. Kay Laurence calls this ‘micro-slicing’ and I myself, use Kay’s terminology and practice of micro-shaping behaviours. I also love to teach learners a wide repertoire of behaviours, all successfully learnt without incurring lots of errors. Jesús‘s talk on extinction and resurgence highlighted how important this is.
Micro-shaping behaviours means that only micro-extinction occurs as we build in each new approximation to the final behaviour. Micro-errors do not destroy confidence. Our learners need ‘puzzle moments’ (Kay Laurence) and the ability to explore their options. These ‘micro-errors’ are actually just information. Teaching with too large an increase in criteria leads to an extinction process that can be stressful, frustrating and punitive for the learner – “The failure of response to get reinforced leads not only to operant extinction but also to a reaction commonly spoken of as frustration or rage” Jesús Rosales-Ruiz. We also need to bare in mind that when resurgence occurs we fall back on previously learnt behaviours. We should always strive to build from a clear base position. This foundation behaviour will be the behaviour our learner returns to when unsure of how to proceed. If our base behaviours are taught without errors, well practised, building confidence and trust in the learning process, we really are setting our learners up for success! The more fun-filled, ‘thoughtfully’ taught, positively reinforced behaviours our learners know, the less space there will be for our learners to fall back on behaviours we would rather not see!
I have previously spoken out about training behaviours just because they might look good (impressive) to the spectator. I, for example, was once questioned as to why I haven’t taught Jambo to do a free-standing handstand. My answer was that it isn’t a suitable ‘trick’ for him. Yes, I teach some behaviours just for fun but I will always endeavour to never teach anything that could be detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of my learner. I have also been criticised for advising people not to do anything that would place undue stress on a learner’s joints (for example ‘jumping tricks’). Alexandra pointed out that the training methods we choose evolve from our underlying beliefs and principles. Kay added to this by saying: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. We are using very powerful training technology and just because we are using positive reinforcement – “It isn’t okay”.
I will end with a quotation from each presenter.
Alexandra Kurland: “For every step you include in your training, there is always a smaller step you can break the behaviour down into. Don’t get louder. Get quieter – Take smaller steps!”
Kay Laurence quoting Chris Bond: “It’s not about training impressive behaviours, it’s about impressive training of behaviours.”
Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz: “Build the behaviour with what you want, so when you use extinction, or it occurs, you fall back on wanted behaviours.”
The seminar description said: ‘A boost to the deepest Winter dreariness. Presentations to inspire, explain, explore and discover PORTL Activities to deepen understanding, reflect and absorb.’ It certainly didn’t dissappoint! A big thank you to Kay , Alex, and Jésus – It was a privilege to be part of this amazingly informative yet fun-filled ‘land cruise’