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!

MOOCs as a mechanism for behavioural change

Have you always wanted to hear my opinions on MOOCs but been unable to bring yourself to search through the MOOCs tag of this blog (or read the papers, or look at Twitter, or . . . never mind).

Well it’s good news for you! The Human Behavioural Change for Animal Welfare conference did a great job recording all the talks, including yours truly. The full set of talks can be found here, but I would highlight Melanie Connor’s talk on the Duty of Care projefct and Anna Saillet’s talk on maintaining behavioural change.

You can watch yours truly here:

The Five Freedoms at Fifty – Part Two

Here at SRUC we’re having our Animal Welfare Day celebrating the Five Freedoms at Fifty – a packed day full of talks, demonstrations and a panel discussion.

You can watch the talks on our live stream: here!

And you can come join the conversation on twitter using the #Freedoms50 hashtag.

Enjoy!

When You Know Better than the Expert

John Bradshaw, a scientist at Bristol, wrote two fabulous books: Dog Sense and Cat Sense. They are some of the best popular science books I’ve ever read, and helped me to decide that the Animal Personality book could be a good pop science book. I cite Bradshaw a lot in this blog, if you take a look over the companion animal and cats tags you’ll see his name come up a lot.

So I was interested to see the Guardian’s regular “You Googled It So We Asked the Experts” column had been given to John Bradshaw to answer “Why Aren’t Cats Loyal?

You know from the number of Guardian links that appear on this blog that I enjoy a good Guardian article, but there is the phenomenon “Below The Line” where the Guardian commenters turn their rabid, foaming fingers to the columnist.

In this article I was near in stitches reading the likes of:

I thought that study was pretty superficial. My cat is more out going and more assured when I’m around. It may not be immediate like for a dog but they do miss us. At least mine does.

Superficial, this is why I have decided to go into great depth and talk about my one animal.

My cats have a range of facial expressions and have several vocal expressions to let you know what they want.

Which is why your cats have ten times the facial muscles everybody else’s have . . . oh, they don’t? Perhaps your ability to ‘understand’ them is part of this whole scientific question? Who knew.

The studies are a heap of crap I reckon, my cats are totally loyal more loyal than dogs I’d say without a doubt. With dogs its their nature, cats choose who they are loyal to, there is a big difference when comparing the two.

Science communciation, what a joy.

To all those who read the article and feel their cats were misrepresented, I urge you to pick up Cat Sense which is a sublime read and puts a huge amount of effort into communicating the science, because as another recent Guardian article points out, it is everybody’s responsibility to try and understand the science.

Science Outreach All Day, Erry Day

Hi all,

Check out this amazing blog about my good friend Lucy’s work in the Antarctic.

And if that’s not enough science for you, on the 2nd October I have wrangled some of our SRUC Animal Behaviour and Welfare scientists together to talk about the Five Freedoms at Fifty.

You can watch by signing up at the Google + Page here, or watching direct on YouTube.  If you want to submit a question, please feel free to do so by tweeting @SRUCResearch using the #Freedoms50 hashtag 🙂

You can read more about the event on the SRUC webpage.

Ethical Eating – The Climate

We’ve come to the last of my three considerations for ethical eating, eating with a climate conscious. Much as we have been discovering throughout this set of themed posts, there is no ‘easy’ answer to this. The climate is a complex system that is definitely heating up, but the best way to mitigate these changes is not so obvious.

It’s common to hear about two main challenges here: the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from our agriculture, and the GHG emissions that come from our food transport.

Agricultural GHGs

This has been a huge topic within agricultural science lately, and it never fails to make people giggle because it’s all about farts and burps, and as someone who has regularly been farted and burped on by cattle in my life, I’m aware of their abilities in this area. There’s a fairly old (2007!) article about this in the Guardian which I think lays out the issues well, and then almost the exact same article was run in 2010.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of United Nations, worldwide, the agricultural sector accounts for 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO). This is unequally split between methane emissions (35% of global emissions), CO2 (only 9% of global emissions) and Nitrous Oxide (a whopping 65% of global emissions). Check out their comprehensive infographic here.

The methane comes mostly from the digestive process of our livestock (from 2001-2010 they emitted 40% of the agricultural GHGs) and this is what the Guardian articles were getting at when suggesting we should eat less animal products. This is not just meat, but dairy products are a big emitter here. (Seems like dairy just can’t catch a break, and seeing as it certainly makes me emit methane . . . well, less said about that the better I suppose).

There are attempts to mitigate livestock emissions, most often through changing their diet (Boadi, 2004; Beuchemin et al 2007; Several PhDs I know), as the fermentation process inside the gut which produces methane is heavily influenced by the microbiota in there too.

De Vries & De Boer (2009) reviewed the entire life cycle of various products and ranked the production of 1kg of each animal product in terms of their global warming potential. Their ranks end up being:

  • Beef, most global warming potential
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Milk, least global warming potential

However, they are quick to point out the difficulty of comparing all these different life cycles. All the same it’s very convincing evidence that at the very least we need to be drastically reducing our meat consumption.

But what about other produce . . .

Food Miles

Weber & Matthews (2008) have an open access paper looking again at the life cycles of food, but they also investigated transport. Their abstract is really good from a science communication point of view, finishing with a succinct and relateable statement that even non-experts can understand:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

How can this be the case? Well as the paper details, transport is only a small part of the overall chain. Edward-Jones et al (2008) have a critical review of the ‘buy local’ ethos and point out that without taking into account the whole life cycle (for which information can be limited), you can’t comment on whether local grown is better (in GHG terms) than imported food. But can it really be better for my Braeburn apples to come from New Zealand than England? Gonzalez et al (2011) conducted a study in Sweden investigating this and the culprit is the amount of heat these non-seasonal and non-native products need to grow. Better to grow them in season in their native ranges and fly them over.

Eating Ethically

With all of these posts I think there’s a common theme, which isn’t going to surprise anyone. We need to eat less meat, waste less food, and buy from sustainable sources. The ethics of buying from the right communities is the part that I find the most difficult, but I also know I lack the food-based skills I need to waste less food.

So here are some resources to get me, and maybe you, started:

Have you got any others I should know about?

Ethical Eating – Quality of Human Life

If you’re based in the UK, you will have heard about the problems facing our dairy industry due to the plummeting price of milk, and even if you’re not, you’ll have seen me talk about it in the Ethical Eating Introduction. The welfare of our producers is another thorny issue.

The archetypal story here is the middle class handwringing buzz around Bolivian quinoa farmers. Is it true that the Bolivian can no longer afford their staple grain because it’s suddenly the green food of choice in the west? The Slate has an interesting article explaining some of this but I’m not going to focus on this particular example (I confess I don’t think I’ve ever tasted quinoa). Instead I’m going to talk about the ubiquitous symbol of buying ethically, ‘Fairtrade’.

The Fairtrade Foundation (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/) describes their mark thusly:

When you buy products with the FAIRTRADE Mark, you support farmers and workers as they work to improve their lives and their communities. The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects 

Do you look for the Fairtrade mark when you shop? I do, particularly for the equitorial products like coffee and chocolate, which made this paper (Beuchelt & Zeller, 2011) depressing reading. From the abstract:

Certified producers are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers. Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fairtrade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers. We conclude that coffee yield levels, profitability and efficiency need to be increased, because prices for certified coffee cannot compensate for low productivity, land or labor constraints.

How can this be so? There’s another paper (Dolan, 2010), whose abstract contains the most amazing piece of writing:

the paper explores how certain neoliberal rationalities are emboldened through Fairtrade, as a process of mainstreaming installs new metrics of governance (standards, certification, participation) that are at once moral and technocratic, voluntary and coercive, and inclusionary and marginalizing

Holy Hera, how is anyone supposed to know what to buy? “A process at one voluntary and coercive, inclusionary and marginalising” – I mean I love it as a piece of prose, but as a communication piece it only tells me that I’m still confused.

Oh, and wine isn’t receiving a pass either, with the Argentinian Fairtrade wine market ‘further marginalising’ the sector (Staricco and Ponte, 2015

I should say that not all papers are critical, Fairtrade cotton in West Africa was found to empower women (Bassett, 2010), the same was also possible for coffee farmers in Mesoamerica (Lyon et al, 2010).

It may be that it is our supermarkets influencing the Fairtrade market that is causing the ethical problems (Smith, 2010), which is interesting because some of the researchers think that Fair Trade only works when building communities and empowering the community’s interactions (Renard, 2003). Something that many of us would say supermarkets really lack.

I am not a social scientist, though I am interested in the discipline, and I can’t review these articles as thoroughly as I can the animal welfare ones. But it’s interesting the path that a relatively cursory scholar search of Fairtrade has brought us to. Particularly when you think about the dairy issue from the introductory post. Monopolies have a staggering amount of bargaining power, and in some cases (such as nationalised health care) this works to the community’s advantage. But is it working to our global advantage here?

In my perfect, Pinterest lifestyle, I’d be shopping at farmers markets and growing my own carrots on my windowsill, and I’d also spend less money on frivolous items, make all my dinners from scratch, and stick to the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended intake of alcohol units in a week. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be the person you are on Pinterest?

But the person I am on Pinterest isn’t also on a quest to snap a selfie with a cow in GTA V online.

On the scale of personality responsibility to nanny state, I tend to fall on the Big Brother side of the spectrum. I fully support Scotland’s minimum alcohol unit pricing for example, and I tend to think the problem of encouraging individual to eat in a globally friendly way should be tackled through legislation.

But I know I’m on the extreme side of that spectrum, and I’d be interested to hear what more liberal readers might think. How would you solve this issue?