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Karen Pryor Seminar

written by Jyl Snyder

Karen started out by talking about Clicker training (CT) and how it was a cognitive process, where the animal was asked to figure out the task thru a series of clicks. She talked about how it was important for the animal to learn what was being asked of him, and that process would lead to a task that was solidly learned because the animal participated, actually--directed, the learning. She said that most clicker trained animals always remembered their lessons and didn't have to be "refreshed" every week or so.

One of the more important points she stressed was always "clicking behavior that was moving in the direction of the desired finished behavior". One lady had brought a Schnauzer and the task was that the dog went under a chair that was placed on the stage. She clicked when the dog was going in the direction of the chair, even if the dog wasn't even near the chair, reinforcing the direction she wanted the dog to go in. Karen stressed that if the trainer had clicked when the dog was going away from the desired behavior, this would take the dog longer to figure out what the trainer wanted.

We played the "trainer's game". I was the experimental animal and it was really fun. I was to sit on the edge of the stage. Karen clicked by the edge as I walked up the stairs but I got stuck on going up and down so she got me up on the stage and then tried to click me back to the edge. One thing she stressed here was to try to make the animal come to you for the treat, as it broke up the pattern and didn't allow the animal to get "stuck" in one spot, not moving. She said to do it with the dogs/horses/cats etc to encourage them to move. When I didn't "get" the edge of the stage, she then changed tactics to get me to sit down because I offered to sort of kneel and so she changed from getting me to the edge of the stage to sitting down. For all you trainers that wonder if this is possible, it sure is. If something isn't working, change your behavior goals to something else that is part of the task. In this case, it was sitting. I got that fine. So then.. while I was sitting, I got stuck there, she got out her target pole and then led me over to the edge of the stage.. I sort of crawled over because I was still "stuck" in the sitting position, and Karen then artfully positioned me so I had to get off the stage, clicking when I was going in the desired direction of the behavior, then suddenly I was on the stage and sitting there.. everyone started clapping so I "knew" that was the right behavior. This took about five minutes or so. I could see why the trainers want to get a lot of positive moves in the right direction right away so that the animal doesn't get frustrated or "stuck" in a position and not move (or offer behaviors).

Of course, when first working with what she called "naive animals", those just being introduced to training, it is very important to pair the click/reward simultaneously. She inferred that dogs were better at understanding a time lag whereas horses were not. When she started working with the naive dogs, she C/R so that the clicker was clicking as the dog was eating, she said the simultaneous pairing was "charging up the clicker" allowing the dogs to understand that the clicker meant food coming. The two dogs she started with were 6 month old bench Labs, they were afraid of the stage stairs... so she worked on shaping them up the steps as a first task. The dog was fine with going both up and down the stairs in about five minutes. The male Lab was less interested in the clicker/target (but understood targeting quickly), very unfocussed but the female Lab was very interested and seemed to pick it up and progressed further in the training. I don't know if they were from the same litter (it was possible) but it was apparent that one dog learned faster than the other.

She talked about the reinforcement, the food, and then the cue. The reinforcement strengthens the behavior that you want and the "cue" cleans up the behavior, bringing the task under stimulus control. Thereby, having the animal offer that behavior only on cue. The number of offered behaviors during a training session would be dramatically reduced after the cues were established, which would be a benefit for those working on higher order behavior chains.

A question came up about click and no treat. Karen emphasized this has been a BIG question and debate among trainers. On the stage sometimes she did click and not treat, but it was because the dog was offering the behavior and she wanted to emphasize to the dog she was correct. She said not to make a habit out of it, though, because then the trainer would most likely cause the dog to stop working, extinguishing all behavior.

She then showed a video clip on shaping dogs to push a ball. I have to say the pace and timing were a lot faster than I would have expected. The other lesson of the video was that the timing was VERY important. Karen said that the video clip was one that showed excellent timing and it was apparent that the dog learned the behavior very quickly. She said it was because of the excellent timing between the "direction of the behavior" and the click. She again emphasized working the click on the "direction of the behavior" such as clicking when the dog started to push the ball instead of after.

For getting started with dogs (or any animal, I suppose-- esp those that might not seem to "want to work") start training with the most delicious food (to that animal) and right before dinner. Once again she made a point of saying that if the dog offered the wrong behavior to just ignore it. She also said not to talk much to the dog/animal while doing the training. She said she rarely talks as it defocuses the animal and can cause some confusion. Humans tend to think words are important; animals do not. She said if the talking was meaningful (such as the "keep going" or "good boy") then do it, if not, and just idle chatter to keep the trainer's brain company, then KEEP QUIET!!! Animals think human behavior toward them is important. She did give a lot of "Good dogs" and praise, but said to keep the rest of the session silent. Also, once again, she said to make sure to make the session easy for the animal.. if the dog wandered away, Karen would walk around, make a circle as to intersect the dog, and offer the target to touch. She said to mix and match direction approaching the dog, so as to make sure the dog learned the task, not the environmental cues. Apparently, one dog trainer had his dog trained to go 20 feet and touch a cone. He moved the cone to 22 feet and sent to dog to touch. The dog was clueless, looking around and then finally touched a grid on the floor (so the trainer "knew" how far away 20 feet was) and consistently returned to that grid time and time again until she became very frustrated. The trainer had to start at 6 inches and work his way back out to 20 feet before he was sure the dog understood the "touch the cone" task, not go to 20 feet.

Karen suggested the way to make sure environmental cues were not being perceived by the animal was to make sure the animal could do the task on the North wall, South wall, East wall, and West wall of the room. And the walking around to "help" the dog understand was better than fixing the dog in one spot. Also, it was interesting that she worked with the Labs separately and it seemed like the female, the second dog up, was more in tune with the training than the male. She said animals definitely did learn by observation and that the reason the female might have been more receptive to the training was because she had watched her companion going thru the same task of "touch the target".

Some people asked when the best time was to incorporate hand cues. Well, up went another volunteer. Karen said that she knew what she wanted to do so she would save time by going on without asking the audience what they wanted to do. Of course, it was VERY apparent to us what she wanted, but not to the "animal". She was asking for the person to make a turn to the right down to sort of a spin. She then incorporated the hand cues AS she worked with the person.. and not long after the person caught on to what Karen wanted, she already had subconsciously picked up the hand cue and then Karen developed that with the clicker after the animal had learned the task. Karen called this "shaping the cue recognition" or building a cue. At the moment of insight on the animal, then introduce the verbal or physical cue.

Karen also explained a term "latency". Latency is the time lag between the cue and the behavior. She showed how to speed up the cue and the behavior, doing the "come" cue with a nine week old puppy. (the puppy already could do sit, come, stay and down). What she did was call the puppy to come, which she already knew and got an excited "about coming" tone to her and backed up as the puppy came to her. There would be zillions of ways to probably do this, but the idea was to get the puppy to respond more quickly and enthusiastically to the "come" command. She said that in order to get the dog moving more quickly, she would Click! at the first sign of the dog coiling the hindquarters-- after all that is where the power to move the dog comes from, so she would reward the hindquarter spring and then shape from that.

She also talked about commands, when to introduce the verbal commands, which was after the animal was consistently producing the behavior. She said that cues were different from commands... as animals learn what not to do by a command such as "NO!" or "STOP" and that the cue was a signal to "do" something, not stop something. She said that was the difference between teaching a the animal a concept then putting it on cue. Sort of like proofing for dogs.. they take the dogs to the field to "proof" their behavior and I suppose the traditional way is to expose the dog to distractions and "get after them" for not paying strict attention to the handler. The CT way is to teach the dog the concept, then go out where there are distractions and work with the dog in a way that he understands that the trainer's cues are more important than the environment.. rather than condition the dog into listening to the trainer because of "what might happen" such as a pinch or a scolding, etc.

Karen then showed raw video of Corally Burmaster's mule Ringo... Ringo was afraid of almost everything, had been abused and forced-- he was so afraid of people that Corally couldn't even brush him so she thought she would take him into the washroom and wash the dirt off him, but he had other ideas. He saw that washroom and backed the entire length of the barn, dragging her with him. So she got out her clicker and worked getting the mule into the washroom... Karen suggested that this behavior, after he went in, would be permanent because the mule chose to go in the washroom on his own; he wasn't coerced or forced. Therefore, he would probably go into the washroom with a much more relaxed attitude because the mule had learned to trust the trainer's judgment. The mule did not learn by rote.. being dragged in every time, with a "you WILL go in here attitude".

The sequence was like this: (1) Click means treat, (2) mule learned to make the trainer click, and (3) mule learned what the direction of the desired behavior was (he learned to "learn" and (4) he made the decision to go into the washroom on his own, no one forced him. Therefore Ringo had not been "desensitized" to the washroom, he cognitively understood what he was asked to do, and complied by doing so on his own.

Karen showed a video of a six week old puppy that Gary Wilkes was teaching to spin, using a target stick. I was amazed at how fast that little Boston learned to touch and follow the target stick. So, any animal can be trained at any age to do something as long as they are physically able to perform the task, and they have the mental capability to do so.

Another young puppy was brought on stage, a seven month old Australian Shepherd. She was entranced by the noise, the crowd, the lights, and Karen went on to explain the "new tank" syndrome.. where the animal is overwhelmed by the new stimulus and the old behavior disappears. She had the same problem at Sea Park when she trained the dolphins in one tank and then moved them to the performance tanks. The animals would seem to forget their training. Once the animal was comfortable with the new stimulus, the learned behavior would return. The reason they "forgot" the behaviors was because the new sights and sounds had to be assimilated into their neural pathways before they could go back to performing. The owner targeted a few times and the dog went on to give a stellar performance. The owner was working on the "stack" or the set up of the dog. She would only C/R the dog for having her front paws in the proper stance position. Then she had the dog target a laser pointer.. something that might be handy for getting horses into a trailer, sort of a "moving" target. The trainer used the pointed to show the dog she wanted her to go up the steps. Once again, Karen pointed out that the trainer can click for lots of stuff during a training session.. (1) make sure the trainer knows specifically what behavior she wants so that she can translate that to the dog, (2) reinforce those behaviors going toward the final behavior.

After this session, Karen also said it is helpful to have a "end session" cue, sort of by saying, "that's all now" or "Thank you". She also stressed ending on a jackpot or a good show of insight on a task.

Karen also said it helps to do some research on your animal that you are working with. Horses live on the plains and tend to be "flight" animals, whereas burros and donkeys live in mountains and tend to be "stand in place" animals when frightened (so they don't fall off the cliffs). So for donkeys, they would be more apt to stand when frightened.. and it would be helpful to move them around a bit during the session.. lead them or ask them to move with a target.

The next video clip was our own Alexandra and Robin. Alex was teaching Robin the "retrieve the cone" cue and the "leave it" cue. More examples that "dog" activities are not just for canines!!!!

The next video involved giraffes in the zoo. For all you who have no place to put your extra horses while working with one, the giraffe people had the same problem. Three giraffes and one cage. What they did was have a special target for each giraffe. The animals soon learned that if their target was not up, they would not be reinforced. I am going to mention what the targets were, one was a star shape, one was a milk jug and the other one was a tin can. The zoo keepers were introducing the giraffes to the stocks where the animals are vetted and have their feet trimmed. The sequence was much like loading horses, the giraffes were loaded into the stocks and the doors were banged about, noises made.. the giraffes were only reinforced when they had their heads lowered into a relaxed position. Karen also said that the trainer could have taught the animals their names, and when that name was called, it was that animal's turn, if the trainer did not want to use targets.

The next video was the Llama video where the young llama learns to come to the halter, put her nose in the halter and learns to stand while the man buckles the halter. My favorite line from this video is "if the llama can be conditioned to run from the halter, they can be conditioned to run TO the halter." Karen also showed him loading two llamas into a trailer at liberty at about 40 feet. The trainer had the llamas run to the trailer, get in, turn around, and come back for a food treat. Advanced exercises had the llama load, turn around, lay down, get up, then come back for a food treat. The other llama segment was handling. The llamas in the video were about 2 years old and had not been handled much before set to the trainer. The segment showed the trainer asking the llama to stand for handling and the beginning of picking up the feet.

Karen at this point stressed again, to start where the animal is successful and move toward your behavior.. at some points this was start at ground zero. For example, in the llama video, the one young llama would run from the trainer so he had to find a place where the llama was successful.. when she would stop and stand, even it was for a second. He clicked that and started there.

She also brought up the fact that the animal still may not know what he is getting clicked for, even after reliably performing the behavior, reminding everyone to do the task in lots and lots of different places to make sure the animal understands the behavior.

Karen's next video clips were of gerbils trained to go thru a pattern, stand on a pedestal and swing on a trapeze, and a fish (oscar) trained to go thru a hoop in his tank on cue. She said that the best way to make sure the training was moving forward was to keep good records. She trained the oscar to perform the hoop swim in about 25 one-minute sessions performed twice daily. (about 2 weeks time).

The next video was awesome, a baboon that had diabetes. This animal is very valuable as a breeding baboon because there are only 18 left in the universe. The keepers and vet taught the animal to stick his arm in a special sleeve and grab a "hand hold" at the end of the tube. On the tube was a cut out area where the blood would be drawn, much in the same place as a human. The baboon was also trained to turn around and present his buttock for an insulin shot. This training was done in about 6 weeks. The trainers never went in the cage with the baboon. The video showed the vets drawing blood and giving the baboon his shots. Over time, they even eliminated the sleeve and the young guy just held his arm out for the blood to be drawn. Talk about TRUST!!!!!!!

After that, Karen talked a little about doing behavior chains, teaching them backwards. The reason to teach the last part first is that the animal is always getting rewarded for doing part of the chain correctly.. especially at the end. If the behavior took 6 tasks, teach the last one first, then introduce the 5th one, move to the 6th one and the animals already know the 6th so it is easy for them to get reinforced. Ordinarily, if they were not getting the 5th, then they be dropped back to the 4th. For some reason it is easier for them to learn the 5th, then go to the 6th, a task they are successful doing.. rather than being successful and going to a task they don't know.

More videos with our star Alexandra and Robin, her first ride with him and a subsequent one. The person doing the video was surprised that Robin was so calm during the session and had a hard time believing he only had a couple rides on him. Alex was riding him bareback with a halter.

At the end of the session, Karen asked for the naive dogs (2 Labs) to be brought back. Leo, the male, still was having trouble focussing on the target, but had no trouble with the steps. The female remembered the target and was improving over the 10 minute session to where Karen could have her touch the end of an item that was about 12 inches long. The dog had transferred over from touching her hand to deliberately touching the end of the target. She then started to move toward the target as Karen moved back away from her. Karen said, now the dog understands (or appears to understand) the task. She did it from about 5 different directions to make sure the behavior wasn't a learned environmental behavior.. and pronounced that the dog most likely understood the task.

We then practiced the trainer's game in groups of 6, everyone had a chance to do it...

Karen's last video was a tape of a cat going through a dog agility course, which was a delight to two wonderful people sitting next to me.. who had a cat rescue and were hoping that they could work with cats that didn't like to be touched. They had a hard time placing those cats. After they saw the cat agility tape, I think they were excited about going home and getting started.

Her last statement to the crowd was "first.. get the behavior....!!!!"

This was a wonderful seminar and I highly recommend attending one.