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Jump-start Your Training

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It’s back to school time for students in many parts of the world, and I find myself thinking about getting into the rhythm of learning and continuing education. People often ask me how to get out of a training rut and bring their training to another level. There is always the option of taking a course like the ones we offer through Karen Pryor Academy or The Ranch, attending a conference such as ClickerExpo, reading a new book, or watching a new video. Those will always be excellent choices to advance learning, but I thought I would share a few other less conventional ways to help you elevate and jump-start your training.

Reread an old book 

I am always surprised when I reread a book or an article that I had enjoyed in the past and discover a new idea or gain a clearer understanding of a technique I. I have probably read Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog at least a dozen times. Each time, I swear someone replaced the book with a new edition. There always seems to be information that wasn’t there before! When we reread a book, we look at it with the advantage of more experience, and we see and understand things we weren’t able to use or understand during previous readings. 

Watch free training videos online 

Watching others train has proven to be a productive way for me to self-evaluate.

I love to go online and search for free-style training routines, agility competition runs, examples of medical training, and training of unique species. When I watch a great training video, it inspires me and prompts me to consider how it was trained. When the training is poorly done or uses techniques I don’t agree with, I don’t dwell on critiquing that person’s training; instead I look for what I can learn from those errors that will improve my own training. Are there errors that I myself have made? Are there shortcuts that I recognize in my own training that I should avoid? Whether I am watching successful training or observing poor decision-making, watching others train has proven to be a productive way for me to self-evaluate.  

Call a colleague to talk training 

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I love sharing ideas with colleagues at conferences and seminars. Everyone’s enthusiasm is infectious! Those interactions do not have to be limited to in-person meetings, however. I talk to training friends often, and those conversations can be so helpful in renewing my energy, giving me new ideas, or simply recognizing that I am not alone.  

Observe your animal 

I love watching my animals when they don’t know I’m there. It lets me to see how they like to play, what animals they like to hang out with, and where they like to rest. I understand more about how they spend their time. These observations inspire me. They give me ideas for new things to train and reveal possible natural reinforcers or aversives in the environment that can inform my future training. 

Improve existing enrichment 

I like to play around with enrichment and see how I can tweak, adjust, and manipulate it so that it remains interesting for my animals. For example, I like using feeder toys and puzzles; I think they are great forms of enrichment for most animals. When certain types of feeder puzzles are used regularly, however, they become easier and easier for the animal to solve. I may take a food puzzle and turn it upside down so that the animal has to work at turning it over before reaching the main puzzle. Or, I may bury the puzzle under mats and blankets or seal it in a paper bag to add a challenge to the task. In addition to enhancing the enrichment experience, making feeder puzzles more challenging allows me to observe how the animal thinks and problem-solves, which can give me ideas of new behaviors to train in a session. 

Take your session to new locations 

You may be surprised by how small changes can impact behavior...

I often look for ways to take my training to new locations, new rooms, new spaces, or to any type of new environment, which helps to teach generalization and prepares the animal for unexpected surprises. Even when we are confined to one work environment, I can take the animal to different corners of that room or space, have the animal face different directions, or rearrange the furniture or props in that room. You may be surprised by how small changes can impact behavior, and force you to work harder and find solutions to regain fluency. I don’t make dramatic changes at first—I always start with simple adjustments and advance the complexity of those changes as my animal demonstrates readiness. Change is an easy way to challenge my training skills, and I find it makes me a better problem-solver.  

Change your training props 

When I believe I have trained a fluent behavior, like a go to mat, get on a platform, touch a target, allow touch with a medical tool, etc., I take it to the next level by changing that prop constantly. For example, when my animals touch my hand as a target reliably, I switch to having them touch a ball on the end of a stick, then try having them touch a toy, nail clippers, a piece of paper, the back of a chair, and so on. I use prop variety as a way of practicing generalization. It forces me to find solutions when the animal shows discomfort with an unexpected change. I do the same thing with different types of mats, different sizes and shapes of platforms, or any prop that I use on a regular basis.

Practice cue generalization 

Although it may not be needed with some cues, I like to test my verbal cues and make sure the animal is not picking up on unintended signals, such as body position or something else in the environment. For example, once my dog knows how to sit on the word “sit,” I like to see if it really is the word alone that cues the behavior. I will turn my back on the dog and say “sit.” Trainers are often amazed when their dogs do not respond when they do this. I will lay on the ground and say “sit.” I will cue my dog through a walkie-talkie or from a live chat on a computer screen. It surprises me what changes do and don’t affect an animal’s behavior.  

Have someone else work your animal 

Allowing others to work with my animals forces me to articulate and describe cues, criteria, and reinforcement needs. When the person is unable to follow my instructions or is unsuccessful with my directions, I must rethink how I explain it. Sometimes that makes me realize that what I believe is important information may not be critical at all. Helping someone be successful with an animal that I have trained makes me a better teacher, but it also makes me more aware of what my animal is experiencing and forces me to clean up my own training. 

Watch a film with animal actor 

I am a big film buff and I go to movies all the time. When I see a film that includes animals, I like to watch the film again so I can analyze it a second time as a trainer. Just like watching online videos, I enjoy figuring out how I would train those behaviors. I also love to observe the animal’s body language. An animal “acting” aggressive often does not really look like it is being aggressive at all—it may be growling or barking, but other body language tells me that something else is going on. I particularly enjoy seeing if an animal that is supposed to show devotion and love to an actor on screen is really looking at that actor or looking at someone off camera. Sometimes these things are subtle and sometimes not, but watching animal actors makes me a better trainer because I learn nuances of reading body language. Since it is on film, I can play it over and over and pay attention to the details.

Each of the suggestions helps me think about training in new ways and inspires me to be more creative.

The ideas above are just a small sampling of things you might want to try if you are looking to jump-start or elevate your training. They are not needed or even recommended for every animal, but they are the types of suggestions I make when people want to challenge themselves or their learners. Each of the suggestions helps me think about training in new ways and inspires me to be more creative. I hope a few might work for you

Happy Training, 



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