When the pandemic became a serious concern in the United States, like many of us I found myself at a loss. How to cope with being isolated at home? I know I’m lucky, I live on a ranch in a beautiful location with wonderful animals all around me. But I miss the students and I miss the ability to travel and teach. I had an idea! Why not do a weekly broadcast and invite guests to talk about training and do training sessions for a live audience? The audience members could participate in the discussion! Everyone at Karen Pryor Clicker Training supported the idea, so in early April, just a few weeks after the stay at home orders began, we did our first Live from The Ranch broadcast. Little did I know that this half-baked, harebrained idea would become so popular. As I write this article, we are getting ready to start our sixth month of live broadcasts.
After doing so many episodes and so much live training, I have received numerous questions about some of the training choices I make. The benefit of live training is that you see the training as it happens live and have the advantage of watching me make decisions on the spot. The downside is that viewers see the training unedited, mistakes and all. But that is a good thing. I am happy to let people see my mistakes and watch the way I adjust training to compensate for those errors. Although in many cases, what people perceive as errors or mistakes may just be a misunderstanding of the goals of that particular training session. I decided to answer the five most common “why did he do that?” questions.
Why do you use a verbal cue and a visual cue simultaneously? I was told that is bad training.
That is a great observation and an excellent, often-asked question. Most of my animals respond to visual cues primarily. When I am teaching or presenting training in front of an audience, the hand signals are for the animal, but the verbal information is for my human viewers. As a teacher and presenter, I want the observers to be able to follow my training. When I extend my hand in a specific way, the viewers (my class or audience) do not know what that cue means, so I announce the behavior so that they know what to watch for. I am not expecting my animal to respond to that information. The animals are focused on my hand signal.
If I want my animals to learn a verbal cue as opposed to or in addition to a visual cue, I am more thoughtful and careful about how I present those cues. I like my animals to respond to both visual and audible cues but presenting both at the same time would not be the best way to teach them. I like to start with a visual cue. Once that is learned, I add the verbal cue just before the visual cue. After a few training sessions, the animal will learn that the verbal cue has the same meaning as the visual cue—this is often referred to as a “new cue/old cue transfer procedure.” When the animal is comfortable with both cues, I alternate carefully and vary the version of the cue I use so that the animal responds well to both cues.
You seem to talk a lot when you train. I thought that was a habit we should avoid?
Talking while you train can be a bad habit because it can teach your animal to ignore what you say. I teach trainers that it is wise to refrain from talking too much when training. However, I find that as a presenter and teacher speaking while I train helps narrate what I am doing. By expressing my thoughts out loud I provide a better learning experience for those watching me. As a side note, I do not consider it a bad thing to talk to learners occasionally. A few gentle words of encouragement or an occasional “good boy” or “what a good girl” never hurts. But I have seen people take it too far. Constant chatter becomes distracting and, in some cases, becomes an unwanted secondary cue for the animal. It’s important to be thoughtful about everything we do and say when we train.
So many questions about my use of a marker!
I get lots of questions about my use, or lack of use, of a marker signal. Statements such as, “Your use of a clicker seems really inconsistent. Sometimes you click for every behavior, sometimes you don’t, but you still reinforce.” Others will ask, “Why do you say ‘Good’ instead of clicking, but then later click? Isn’t that confusing to the animal?” I realize my use of the marker may be confusing to some people watching. There are a lot of questions to unpack, so let me break my answer into parts.
Most of my animals have learned multiple markers, so I use a clicker, a verbal “good,” a visual point, and a tactile pat on the side—these are all markers that give me flexibility when I am working with an animal. I choose the marker that will be easiest and most accurate for me to deliver at the time. Sometimes my hands are full, so I switch between a clicker and a verbal marker. I think multiple markers can be confusing to a new learner, but when animals are experienced with a training program, they are able to interpret multiple markers easily. Teaching more than one marker can be very helpful.
I also have an adage that I share with my students: “When in doubt, don’t click.” However, you can still reinforce once you have assessed the behavior. A sloppy, poorly timed click does not convey accurate information, so I would rather not click in the moment. I may still reinforce once I determine if the learner has performed the correct behavior or made a successful approximation.
Why do you feed so much?
I believe in maintaining a high rate of reinforcement. When I am conducting a class or a broadcast, instinctively I reinforce even more. When there is a class going on or something unusual taking place, like a live broadcast, I purposely up the rate of reinforcement. When I know that I may be distracted and that unexpected things might happen, that is the best time to really increase the rate of reinforcement.
The generic, “Why did you do that?”
There are many varied questions related to not following some protocol that a viewer heard was critical to good training. Questions like, “I thought good training requires X, but you didn’t do that. Why?” Sometimes in the pressure-filled setting of a live broadcast, I make mistakes! I am trying to split my focus between the animal being trained, the animal off-camera, the viewers, my guest, and my intended message, all while trying to handle the technology of my computer (Zoom controls, the camera, the microphone) and staying in frame. I have lots to focus on and there will be errors. I don’t consider the broadcast to be the most ideal training environment, so it is not where I do really focused training. It’s a show about training, not serious training.
I get many other questions from viewers new to clicker training, including:
- “What is the clicker for?”
- “Why do you need a target?”
- “Why would you need to train a goat?”
- “Why do you always have your dog on a platform?”
The list of questions does not end! I address the issues that I can and deal with other issues in after-broadcast emails. Since the five questions I have discussed have been so common, I thought it would be helpful to address them here in my monthly Letter.