Wednesday, October 10, 2012

For Celeste Holmes

I received an email from a nice young lady who is interested in becoming an animal trainer some day.  She asked "what do you think about giving animals rewards during the training process?  Do you think it is good, or not good?"


Rewards are absolutely essential in the training of animal's, but I have found that there are three type's of rewards, a food reward, a tactile/verbal reward, and what I call an "action reward" if dealing with a group of animals working together, as opposed to one.  In the initial stages of training the animal a food reward is recommended, but as the animal progresses in it's learning, the food rewards need to be substituted for an verbal or tactile reward, if it is an animal that you can physically touch.  You never have full control of an animal or a 100% assurance that they will perform the behavior if it is motivated solely by a food reward.   When an animal performs the asked for behavior for your tactile/verbal award it is "trained." 

In dealing with a group of animals, instead of a single animal, in which a number are required to work together or perform a behavior together, such as a liberty horse act, you quite often run into a reward/praise "conundrum."   5, 10, 15 etc. may perform the behavior brilliantly, while 1, 3, 7 etc.  may not.  The "conundrum" is "how do you reward a few, while correcting a few.  A rule of thumb in animal training is to keep the training sessions "short and sweet," with a release from the regimentation, or stopping the training session and letting the animal have free time upon the successful performance of the asked for behavior.  Doing it over and over proves no point except "souring" the animal.   In a group situation where a few may do well and some may do poorly, the ones' who have done well are theoretically "punished" by being made to do it again, so that the one's doing poorly can be corrected.   The "action reward" mentioned earlier, an example of, pictured above, is what I have found to work extremely well in a group situation allowing me to correct as well as reward.

An example of a "group trick" is being trained in the new tiger group.  I call it a "circle leap frog."   Four tigers stand at North, South, East, and West and a fifth tiger runs around the arena and jumps over each one.   North, East, and West then move and stand side by side each other and the tiger runs around the arena and jumps back and forth over the three.   North, East, and West then move to the back of the arena with South so their are four tigers standing side by side and one tiger runs around the arena and jumps over them.  A fifth tiger then jumps over the four and stays so there are 5 tigers standing and another tiger crawls under them, then two tigers jump over the five standing tigers, then the 7 tigers move to the middle of the arena and laydown with the other 9 tigers joining them for a wheel and a sit up, ending with a lay down oblique.  If at any point in the process, from when the first tiger goes to stand at East until they oblique, one or more of the animals do not perform their "part" correctly, the "whole" group has to do it again until the one or two or three respond correctly.   How do you reward the correct animals with "down time" when you need them to do it again, and often again, because they are "part of a whole" in a liberty type of behavior?  How do they understand they have done well, when they are asked to keep repeating their part for the benefit of the few not doing their part.  That's what the "action reward" is for.   When they ALL perform the required behavior, as a GROUP they are permitted DOWN TIME as a GROUP.   I allow them all off of their seats, releasing the regimentation of sitting on their seats, where they are not permitted to lay down, no matter how tired they may be, or how long the training session lasts.   BUT, they have to lay where I tell them too, as a group, and not where they want to.  They can lay however they want to rest, by their buddy, on their side, on their back, or facing a different direction, BUT they must lay as a group.  What I have found over the years?  By rewarding them as a group, as well as correcting them as a group, there is no confusion at to whether a few performed correctly or a few performed badly.   They get some, and by insisting they rest where I tell them to, I get some, and that make's all of us happy. 

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