Let’s consider the idea of Clarity within the teaching process itself – once learning has begun.
If you think about it for a moment, true clarity, the dog being clear on what is required, is impossible with a trainee. If the dog knew what you wanted you wouldn’t be teaching it, and the less clarity that exists, and the harder it is for the dog to figure it out, the more frustration the learner will experience. Frustration expresses as stressing up or shutting down, depending on the dog. How quickly a learner expresses signs of frustration are a combination of genetics and the animal’s learning history; prior success with learning will create a more resilient and less frustrated learner. So how does one increase clarity – progress to a new behavior as quickly and painlessly as possible?
Let’s think about teaching on a continuum from pure luring with an exceptionally high rate of reinforcement to pure shaping with very little reinforcement.
At first glance, it might appear that pure luring with a high rate of reinforcement is the solution. The dog is eating! So – happy and unfrustrated, yes?
Not really. Because there is another consideration – the value of puzzling.
Luring is effectively a buffet and shaping is a puzzle. Both are useful, but if you offer a buffet to a full learner it’s not much fun and if your puzzle is too hard (or too easy) then that’s not much fun either. The trick is the right amount of puzzle with the occasional buffet, according to the preferences of you and your learner.
Animals enjoy puzzles; the trick with a puzzle is getting it right. If it’s too easy it’s boring and if it’s too hard it’s frustrating.
And how about the buffet, does everyone enjoy a buffet? No. Buffets are a lot more appealing to individuals who could care less about the work itself or solving puzzles – they simply want the reinforcement. Not all dogs are interested in eating past a basic level of satiation; some take great value in the activity and working with a handler as a source of reinforcement and that is a quality that should be nurtured, not discouraged.
There is also the reality of progress. As mentioned earlier, the true source of clarity is understanding what is required, so your choices – buffet or puzzling – must move the learner towards the final behavior as expeditiously as possible.
What’s the solution?
Clarity comes from the right amount of participation from the trainer (helping) and the learner (puzzling). What is “right” will vary by the team; the skill and preferences of both the learner and the trainer need to be taken into account.
In shaping, appropriate handler help comes in the form of structuring the environment so the dog is likely to hit on the correct solution quickly and frequently – that means rewarding small increments of success. Not so small and structured that the dog isn’t using their brain at all (let the dog be a part of the process!) but not so free form that the dog feels adrift and guessing, left to their own ability to stay in the game as frustration rises.
In luring, appropriate handler help comes by regularly giving the dog a chance to demonstrate what has been learned, in tiny doses, and stepping in immediately with help when the dogs’ behavior suggests that they are not ready to take ownership of the expectation, or that the path selected is not communicating what is required to the learner.
Both methods work. Select the one that fits the specific dog and handler in question at the given time, sliding back and forth with how much you open up a buffet and how much you allow the dog to puzzle.
At the end of the day, it’s the learner’s behavior that informs you if you’re succeeding. Signs of frustration in a dog such as barking, panting, offering random behaviors, wandering away or disconnect, etc., are LATE signs of distress; look for the earlier signs such as glancing away, a delay before beginning the next repetition or just the slightest change in the learner’s enthusiasm from what you know is the normal baseline. When you see those early signs emerging, you may or may not change course, but you need to recognize them because over time “what happens next” after those early signs is how you will become more sophisticated in your training of that given learner.
The thing to hold on to here is that clarity in the learning process is impossible; our best middle ground is discovering the correct amount of support vs. puzzles for the learner and setting up sessions that allow for a good deal of success while paying attention to your dog’s opinion of the whole experience.