To train an animal, you really need only two things: a marker it can recognize, and something it wants as reinforcement.
To train an animal efficiently, you need a way to track and plan your sessions, or you’ll waste time in moving too quickly (confusing your learner) or moving too slowly (frustrating you both).
There are many ways to do this, of course, but I just got home from Gen Con, the world’s largest gaming convention, and I thought I’d mention some less common planning tools you might not have seen.
So you’re working on duration, and you’re trying to decide how many steps of heeling or how many seconds of a down-stay you need before you can mark and reinforce. And being a good trainer, you know that this is a decision you have to make before you start the exercise, because otherwise you’ll find yourself stalling out and getting less reliable duration instead of more. (And if you don’t know why, that will have to be another blog post, I guess.)
You also know that any “random” numbers we choose aren’t likely to be random, and that often our dogs (or others) recognize our unconscious patterns before we do. So you need a random number generator.
Fortunately, my nerdy geeky self knows just where to find this.
Dice have a number of advantages. They’re readily available and dirt-cheap. Odds are, you probably already have them in your house, but if you buy an extra set, you won’t find them missing on Monopoly night, so order them in bulk from Amazon or a game store (or join me at a gaming convention, their native habitat).
They are truly random, and they can produce a nearly infinite range of random numbers. Most people are familiar with the cubes (known as a d6, for the number of sides/numbers), but dice are available from d3 to d100. This means you can start super easy (1-3 steps of heeling) and build up in difficulty (100 or more steps). Combine dice, and you have a truly amazing range of random numbers which will keep you and your learner both on your toes, never knowing exactly what the next duration will be.
If using dice, roll out your numbers for your training session ahead of time and write them down. For 10 reps, for example, rolled with 2 d6 (two cube dice), you might have a note or whiteboard reading
and you can simply glance at this as you go along.
Managing TAGteach or Conflict
Often TAGteach instructors (working with human learners) find themselves working in a token economy — every so many TAGs earns a specific reinforcer. Dice can be great for setting up such an economy, in a third-party way, and the dice can be changed as necessary just as for extending duration.
Alternately, throwing a ruling to the impartial dice judges is a great way to avoid conflict. When Emma came to make Christmas cookies with me a few years ago, I found myself nagging her about sneaking too much cookie dough. Trust me, I’m sympathetic — my husband knows to make a double batch of dough when it’s just the two of us, because only one batch will ever make it to becoming cookies — but I didn’t want to nag at her during what should have been a fun event. So I invented a simple system, and I’ll let Emma tell you how it worked:
She rolled a die, made that number of cookies, and then got a bite of cookie dough. Once the system was in place, we didn’t have another cookie dough debate!
(Also starring Laevatein near the end, and her tail makes a few passes.)
Dice On the Move
If you need to roll on the fly, or if you’ll be heeling around a large field and won’t be able to check your notes, or working a service dog candidate on the street, or if you just want an alternative, there’s another option I just found this week. It’s a ring which works like a die.
Pretty cool, huh? The rings come from CritSuccess, and they come in a variety of styles, sizes, and colors.
In short, any time you need some randomizers, grab some dice. Need to test cues and stimulus control in quick sequence? Number each cue and roll dice. Need to test duration? Roll dice. Need to know how many steps to walk away from the mat this rep? Roll dice.
Of course you don’t have to, but you’re probably not being nearly as random as you think, and dice are a really cheap way to fix that. You don’t need them for every session, but if you find your dog shuffling during the long down or your human student whining at unclear (to him) criteria, you might consider dice.
I’ve only scratched the surface here, for a shorter post. What other uses can you think of?
(Full disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate and the Amazon link is an affiliate link.)