Welcome to my blog - a diary about living with donkeys, notes about care, my training sessions and the absolute pleasure of donkey companionship.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Steps to training using Operant Conditioning

Now that the course is over, I want to write out all the basic steps for training a donkey using operant conditioning. So that I don't write for pages and pages, this will be somewhat of an outline in two parts.
Part ONE will explain what I do before I actually go and get the donkey.  Part TWO will discuss training.

Okay, here is a basic step by step approach:

BEFORE you have your donkey with you:

1. Decide on a behaviour to train, for example "touch a target."

2. Get everything ready -  
  • have healthy treats in a pouch you can wear around your waist (I use Timothy hay pellets, sometimes some apple chunks, the occasional "horse" peppermint)
  • have a mechanical clicker on a strap around your left wrist (this works great as it's easily grabbed by your hand) 
  • have the target or props you'll be using 
  •  choose an appropriate area to train in, depending on what you plan to teach.  Even a stall can work - in other words set the environment for success!

3. Get a clipboard and pen and create a shaping plan.  This is an easy step to ignore but try to get in the habit of setting a goal and keeping notes. On the shaping plan, you will write down the small steps that you use towards training your stated goal.  You will evaluate the animal's progress towards fluency and this way you don't have to try to "remember" everything (which is impossible anyway.)  You'll have a piece of paper to show you where you left off and where to begin the next session.  After all, operant conditioning is based on science, so we need to be scientific about our training to avoid getting stuck and also so that we can move our donkey along smoothly from learning a new behaviour to putting that behaviour under stimulus control.

I write some of my shaping plan before I'm with my donkey - the goal, the approach I plan to take; some notes during training if I can manage it - how the donkey is doing with each small step, if I have to adjust anything; and some notes afterwards - my thoughts and evaluation

4.  There are 4 techniques to choose from using operant conditioning:  

Capturing (this is where the animal does something you like without you asking for it and you click to reinforce that behaviour)

Luring (this is where you encourage the behaviour by using a small treat to position the animal - picture asking the animal to Come towards you)

Molding (this is where you physically place the animal into a position - like lifting a hoof, for example)

Shaping (the most important tool in the box, where you train in tiny increments called "successive approximation"  towards your beautiful polished goal!)

Any and all of these techniques may be appropriate to use to train your animal!  Which one(s) will you try?

5. Mechanical skills - by this I mean, how you, the trainer, will stand, when you will mark the exact moment (click!) that the donkey does the "thing" you are asking and how you will feed.  Because we humans are giving cues to our animals all the time without even realizing it, it's important to think about your own body language during training.  The sound of the click! - a sharp clear sound that never varies in pitch, intonation or nuance, is called a conditioned reinforcer.  You are conditioning your donkey to recognize that this sound, which marks the exact moment they did "something" will be followed by some good, something they want - i.e. food!

To practice mechanical skills, it's a terrific idea to use a friend or a chair or something that is NOT your animal.  That way, when you are face to face with your donkey-student, you'll be able to communicate clearly and cleanly!

Initially, you can begin training "at liberty" so no need for a halter or lead rope to teach some basic behaviours. Great news, as there's one less thing to think about!

So now, to practice clicking at the exact moment, try some of these things: hold the clicker in your left hand, attached to your wrist by a strap. Rest your right hand under your left hand, both hands at your belly.
  • Turn on your TV and click every time you hear the word "weather" or something else.
  • Have a friend bounce a ball against a wall - click at the exact moment the ball touches the wall.
  • Play the training game: http://www.clickertraining.com/node/155
The thing is, you get what you click - so if you click something that isn't what you are intending to teach, well, guess what?  You just taught something else!  So practice getting good at clicking a specific thing at the exact moment it happens!
Next you'll want to practice how you will hold your hands when feeding your donkey. The food reward, or primary reinforcer is the paycheck that follows a job well done, i.e. your donkey doing the correct thing.

So you've got your clicker in your left hand, your treat pouch strapped around your waist and you will feed with your right hand.  Practice standing straight, your feet  balanced under you - click with your left hand - immediately reach into your pouch, take a treat with your right hand and extend your hand away from you by unfolding your arm from the elbow and towards your (imaginary) donkey.  Do this until it becomes smooth and easy - click with left hand, take treat with right hand, unfold right arm and offer treat in a flat hand (so none of your fingers are curled.)

There's a lot to think about before you even get to start training your donkey but it's worth the effort.
I'll continue this in another post.

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