Are you moving in the right direction?

Have you heard the big news? Alexandra Kurland, Dominique Day and I have just released our first audio course about behavior analysis and animal training. You can find out more here.

As part of our course launch, I am part of the conversation on this week’s episode of the Equiosity podcast. In the podcast episode, we chat about movement cycles and loopy training. If you want to know what the course is like, give this episode a listen. Our course follows a similar format. Each episode is a back-and-forth discussion that explores scientific concepts and how they relate to animal training.

In addition, I’m featured this week on Hannah Branigan’s Drinking from the Toilet podcast! You can listen to the podcast on Hannah’s website or on most podcast apps. In the episode, Hannah and I chat for over an hour about shaping. It’s a great conversation with lots of examples related to training dogs, horses, humans, and more. I hope you’ll check it out.

Using movement cycles to improve your shaping 

In the Equiosity podcast episode, we discuss the idea of movement cycles. If you’re not familiar with the idea of a movement cycle, you may want to start with this article that I wrote several years ago for the ASAT blog.

Movement cycles help you see the smaller actions that make up a larger behavior. This can help you both while planning and when troubleshooting. 

In both podcast episodes, we discuss an example related to a dog getting into a car. In this post, I want to further explain this example and share a few photos that will help you better understand what was going on.

Logan was a service dog in training that lived with me for several months. When he first came to stay with me, I was told that he was comfortable riding in cars.

However, the first time I tried to take him somewhere, he was hesitant about getting in my car. He would jump up halfway. Then, he would stretch a little farther. But, he wouldn’t get all the way in. You can see what this looked like in the photos below.

One shaping approach: Climb in the car

One way to solve this problem would be to celebrate that the dog was already halfway in the car. I could then try to reinforce when he got father and farther into the car. For example, I could start by reinforcing when he lifted a back leg and build on this until he had three legs in the car. 

However, look below at the picture of my car. Because of the hammock in the back seat and the way the door frame is designed, it would be difficult for him to climb into the car. This approach may work at the beginning, but it may lead to a dead end. 

Another shaping approach: Jump in the car

Rather than climbing, Logan could jump into the backseat of the car. This is a completely different movement cycle, which starts with him approaching the car, shifting his weight back onto his hind end, and then springing into the car. 

If I were to reinforce him for climbing halfway in the car, it would look at first like I was making progress. However, this would actually make it more difficult for him to jump in the car because I would be reinforcing the wrong movement cycle. 

To solve this problem, I needed to start with him outside the car and arrange the environment so that the movement cycle of jumping would be very likely to happen. To make the action of jumping easier, I used a bag of bedding as a step. 

Having a little bit of extra height was all he needed! He was able to easily and confidently jump into the car. You can see what this looked like in the series of photos below. After we practiced several times with the step, we were able to remove it. 

Think about your own training

The next time you get stuck during shaping, stop and think about movement cycles. Are you reinforcing actions and component behaviors that will take you toward the movement cycle that makes up your goal behavior? Or, are you reinforcing actions that are taking you toward a dead end?

Logan wearing his service dog vest
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Are you moving in the right direction?