Reflections on Being a Terrible Trainer

I am terrible at training animals. No, really, I am. Any good behaviour my animals show is mostly entirely accidental. I understand the theory, I can correctly distinguish between continuous and variable reward schedules, but I lack patience, and I lack consistency, two of the key aspects of animal training.

There are loads of resources on how to train your pets, and loads of blogs talking about it, so this post doesn’t want to teach you how to be a better trainer.

This post wants to talk about reflection.

 

See, in education research we talk a lot about self-reflection and how important it is to the process self-development. In my experience, scientists and clinicians (and I include myself in this) are rarely as good at self-reflection as they think they are.

Last week I decided I was going to train Athena to give me her paw. I had three main goals:

  1. My big overall goal is to relax Athena. There has been a lot going on this year and her anxiety around people has gotten worse. By giving her something to think about and a ‘job’, I hope that she’ll start to feel more in control of her environment.
  2. My specific reason for teaching ‘paw’ first is that Athena is phobic about her paws being touched which means clipping her claws is a hassle. She’s also had occasional contact dermatitis on her paws when she gets into places she’s not supposed to, so getting Athena comfortable with presenting a paw would be a great help down the line.
  3. Training is a bit of fun for both of us!

 

Here is a short montage of nine days of paw training with Athena.

 

I’m going to use Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle to talk about this training experience.

 

Description

What we have here is continuous reward (Athena is being rewarded with a treat every time she performs the behaviour), with some less-than-ideal shaping of the behaviour. To encourage her I would take her paw in my hand instead of waiting for her to lift her paw spontaneously. Overall I was not using best practice training methods. Why? Well, impatience for one thing. I knew it would take far longer to shape the behaviour properly, and while I know continuous reward is a problem, I felt like she needed to be very motivated to sit and train (see the earliest session where she walked off after I annoyed her!).

 

Feelings

Overall I’m pretty delighted with Athena’s performance. I think she picked up the behaviour very quickly and all of our sessions were short and enjoyable. Watching the videos back I’m also surprised by how quickly she learned to sit patiently. I didn’t start out to teach the ‘sit’ but that behaviour became part of the game very quickly. Keeping the sessions short meant that even when things went a bit wrong, I wasn’t frustrated.

 

Evaluation

Doing one to two short (less than 10 minute) sessions a day was great for both of us. I typically did one in the morning and one at bedtime. They feel like just the right amount of work for both of us.

There are three things that could be improved: a variable reward ratio, shaping the behaviour more naturally, and for me to stop rewarding other behaviours. Of these, the third one is the big thing for me as a trainer, and always has been. I’m the type of fidgety, unpredictable person that is just generally bad at training, so keeping myself controlled in these sessions would be a big help to Athena.

 

Analysis

I explored a lot of dog training blogs when writing this post, not before starting (remember, patience is not one of my virtues). I found surprisingly few cat training discussions, with a few from Catster.  That very link was highlighting the importance of shaping behaviours without forcing the cat into doing anything. My two big mistakes during training (variable ratio reward and shaping behaviour naturally) are definitely things that the literature doesn’t like, but they are both extremely tricky skills to master. I knew about both, and yet diving in to get to my end goal I conveniently put both out of my mind.

 

This was what got me thinking about failure, one of my favourite topics at the moment. I hate failing, and yet there would have been nothing ‘wrong’ with waiting for Athena to do these behaviours herself. I wouldn’t have failed at anything unless I’d stopped training altogether.

 

Conclusion

What else could I have done? I could have thought about Athena a bit more during this whole thing. One of my initial motivations was for her to be less phobic about her paws being touched, and you can see in the video she’s still not 100% happy about it. There’s a huge value to the natural shaping of behaviour and it’s Athena’s affection for me that kept her willing to engage (and at least when she did walk away I let her!).

On the other hand, I’m really impressed at Athena’s demonstrable ability to be trained. With all the affection in the world, I don’t think she’s a particularly biddable cat. I hope that means she enjoyed the training sessions and found them rewarding. Establishing whether animals find training rewarding or not is a sometimes controversial topic, so I’d like to look into that in more detail.

Overall though, I’m really pleased she’s picked up the training, and I think I showed a lot of progress in the video too.

 

Action Plan  

We’re going to continue this training and move onto a differential reward reinforcement schedule, where Athena gets different type of reward depending on her performance. An ok performance will get a verbal reward, a good performance will get an ear stroke, and an excellent performance will get a treat.

Once we have a clear, clean lift of Athena’s paw into my hand on vocal command, I’ll start raising my hand and maintaining the differential reward schedule with the aim of Athena raising her paw above her head to hit my hand. I expect this will take a month or so to be achieved reliably if I stick with the current 1-2 training sessions a day.

I’d also like to introduce another trick, perhaps in a few weeks. While I’d like Athena to give both paws on command, I feel like it would be good to start with some more active behaviours (as she is a bundle of energy). I think consolidating her ‘up’ command would be a great one to start, which could maybe move on to a ‘jump over’ command.

 

 

 

Why is Reflecting Important?

I know I’m not a very good trainer, I don’t need the structure of a reflection cycle to tell me that, I have Athena who has successfully trained me to do several behaviours, while I still struggle to get her to do ‘up’ on command. What the reflection cycle lets me do is identify the weaknesses, and identify why they exist. One of the reasons I like the Gibbs cycle is that the analysis allows you to contextualise the ‘why’.

I find this very useful, especially with teaching. In my experience, many of my teaching ‘failures’ have come from my own problems, either my own desire not to fail, or not being clear enough about what I wanted. And yet this impacts on my students more than it impacts on me.

For example, here I was rushing to get to the paw touch phase of Athena’s training, even though one of my main motivations was to have Athena relax about paws. I was focusing on my feelings about what was going on, and not hers. Despite being pretty damn familiar with all this theory, in practice I was making the same mistakes that many others do simply because I wanted to feel better about myself. Vanity in teaching is a dangerous thing!

 

Teachers should not be afraid of mistakes or failures. They are a natural consequence of learning. This is not a good training video, I make many mistakes, and that’s precisely why I’m sharing it. Please feel free to make use of it (the YouTube link is here, there is also a copy on the University of Edinburgh’s Media Hopper service) without fear of hurting my feelings, or Athena’s! Being bad at something makes it a lot easier to learn from it!

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