Last week I spent five days at Natural Encounters in their Professional Training Workshop hosted and run by Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Friedman. I watched crows and parrots learning new behaviors so fast that my head spun. The trainers there are so good they could train a flock of parrots to build a shopping mall in two weeks. (I’m talking about you, Steve Martin and Wouter Stellaard.) As part of their training, they frequently use lures and what they call “prompts, and quickly end up with animals that reliably perform to the smallest of cues, every time.
I found that encouraging, because I too have found lures to be invaluable training aids (IF used correctly and in the right context–more on that later) . Yet, I have heard some argue that one should NEVER use a lure. Recently I heard a trainer say that, to her, luring was anathema to good training. “Dogs learn much better if you let them figure out the behavior for themselves.“ And yet, many of us do get a behavior started using a lure or prompt. Since this seems to be a somewhat controversial topic, I thought it might be interesting to begin a discussion about it.
First, we need to define what we’re talking about. I’m going to use the training I got to do at NEI as an example (because I have lots of photos of it and I selfishly love seeing pictures of George, the parrot I was honored to work with last week at NEI). My goal was to teach George to hang from a hula hoop by his beak, feet well off the perch and up in the air.
Shaping is the reinforcement of successive approximations of a desired behavior. Thus, my training with George consisted of marking and reinforcing first walking closer and closer to the hoop, then raising up his head, then touching the hoop with his beak, then holding onto the hoop for a micro second, etc.
Luring is showing the animal something it wants, usually food, and using it to encourage the animal to move in the desired way. On the first few trials, I let George see that my right hand held food, and used it to encourage him to move toward the hoop.
Prompting is similar to luring, except the animal can’t see the food. For example, I held my hand (the one that always delivered food) above the hoop to encourage George’s head to move upward toward the hoop. I marked each approximation with “Good,” and then fed from the hand that did the prompting. On occasion, (I think when I was losing faith), I’d hold the food so that it was visible, but my coach Wouter encouraged me to hide the food and use prompts rather than a lure. In his experience, it is more effective to move one’s body in a way to encourage the desired action, rather than let the food itself be the focus. That way, he argued, the animal pays more attention to what he is doing in relation to the environment. A compelling point, I think.
Free shaping, on the other hand, waits for the learner to initiate a behavior him or herself. For example, I could have stood still and waited for George to just look toward the hoop. I’d reinforce that, and continue reinforcing each step closer to the desired behavior, without ever giving him any clues to what I wanted. I have no doubt that this method would have been successful. However, it would have taken much longer to achieve the goal.
Some argue that free shaping is a more effective way of training, because the animal figures it all out for himself, from the very beginning. However, in her lectures (brilliant!) Dr. Susan Friedman, reminded us that she hasn’t seen any evidence to support this claim.
Some even suggest that one isn’t using shaping at all unless one uses exclusively free shaping. For example, Karen Pryor, who has done fantastic work encouraging the training world to use positive reinforcement, has argued that it’s not shaping if you are using a lure or prompt.
Let me delve into this by continuing to talk about training George, because there’s really nothing different about it than teaching a dog a trick. I’m going to combine lures and prompts here into one category, and call them L/P’s just to keep us from getting bogged down.
I first used a L/P to create a success for George—if you move toward the hoop, even just by leaning forward, you get R+ (positive reinforcement, in this case in the form of food). Once it was clear he began moving forward without seeing the food, even just a bit, I closed my fist and used my hand as a prompt. But as quickly as I could (and still be successful), I dropped out the prompt completely and let him do it on his own. I added prompts back in when it was time for him to raise his head and move his beak toward the hoop, but again, only enough to get the behavior started.
It took 3 short sessions to teach George to hang from the hoop (thanks to my mighty team mates, Meg, Blake and Jane, who held up the hoop, and Wouter’s coaching)
“He’s looking for information,” Wouter would say, if I had waited too long for George to move to the next step. “Go ahead and help him out.” And I think that’s an important point here, at least from my perspective. If George didn’t get enough reinforcement, he simply would have given up and gone off to do something else. All the birds at NEI have 100% choice about whether they want to engage in training or not. If an animal is engaged in a training exercise, and truly wants to figure out the goal (or, better stated: continue getting more treats), the trainers at NEI always provide them the information they are looking for.
Free Shaping is great, really great, if you want to let your dog offer a behavior on her own and then turn it into something fun. A perfect example is to present your dog with a cardboard box, and start marking (with a clicker or a word like “Good”) anything that looks interesting. Free shaping has has some important benefits: It’s great for dogs who have little confidence, and are hesitant or shut down, because they can’t lose. Anything they do leads to something they want. They start learning that their own behavior has an effect on the world, and can start coming out of their shell. It also teaches dogs to be creative, which can be a wonderful way to promote mental exercise. (Pat Miller has a great article in Whole Dog Journal comparing luring and free shaping, and some good ideas for free shaping games with your dog.)
I can’t say enough good things about the workshop at NEI. It’s pricey, but if you can find the money it’s worth it and more. For five days, 24 of us (I’m guessing 2/3 training professionals in zoological parks, 1/3 dog trainers) spent half our time hearing lectures from Dr. Friedman and Steve Martin. You’ll never see better training videos anywhere. Ever. Honest. Operant conditioning and positive reinforcement is a topic I know a bit about, and yet I still learned a lot. The other half of our days was spent in a team with three others and a coach. Meg, Blake and Jane and I were lucky to have Wouter as a coach. I learned so much from him, not just about training, but about coaching. My primary goal was to improve my timing; it seems like I’ve gotten slower starting a few years ago. I definitely improved, although I’d still have a long way to go to match that of Wouter. I can’t recommend this workshop enough. They hold it twice a year, at least will next year–if you can possibly make it, I highly recommend it. I’ve rarely been in such a supportive and engaging environment.
Clearly Skip has something to learn about multi-tasking, never really good for any of us. Here’s to a week for you of focus, on as many good things as possible.