Don't Shoot the Dog!

Sunday July 5, 2015

On the recommendation of Sasha Laundy, I read Don't Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor.

  1. The advice on memorizing by starting with the end of a passage, so that rehearsal always starts with the difficult and then progresses to familiar material, strikes me as good advice that I may have heard before but forgotten.
  2. I would like to play the Training Game, which is described in the selection below.

It's a fun book, and it makes me want to train a cat or dog to do fun things.

Don't Shoot the Dog! pages 52 to 54, The Training Game

Even if you know and understand the principles of shaping, you can't apply them unless you practice them. Shaping is not a verbal process, it is a nonverbal skill—a flow of interactive behavior through time, like dancing, or making love, or surfing. As such, it can't really be learned by reading or thinking or talking about it. You have to do it.

One easy and fascinating way to develop shaping skills is by playing the Training Game. I use the Training Game in teaching the techniques of training. Many trainers play it for sport; it makes an interesting party game.

You need two people at least: the subject and the trainer. Six is ideal because then every person can experience being both subject and trainer at least once before the group gets tired; but larger groups—a classroom or lecture audience, for example—are feasible, because observing is almost as much fun as participating.

You send the subject out of the room. The rest of the people select a trainer and choose a behavior to be shaped: for example, to write one's name on the blackboard, jump up and down, or stand on a chair. The subject is invited back in and told to move about the room and be active; the trainer reinforces, by blowing on a whistle, movements in the general direction of the desired behavior. I like to make a rule at least for the first few reinforcements that the “animal” has to go back to the doorway after each reinforcer and start anew; it seems to help prevent a tendency of some subjects to just stand still wherever reinforcement was last received. And no talking. Laughter, groans, and other signs of emotion are permitted, but instructions and discussion are out until after the behavior is achieved.

Ordinarily the Training Game goes quite fast. Here's an example: Six of us are playing the game in a friend's living room. Ruth volunteers to be the animal, and it's Anne's turn to be the trainer. Ruth goes our of the room. We all decide that the behavior should be to turn on the lamp on the end table beside the couch.

Ruth is called back in and begins wandering around the room. When she heads in the direction of the lamp, Anne blows the whistle. Ruth goes back to “Start” (the doorway), then moves purposefully to the spot where she was reinforced and stops. No whistle. She waves her hands about. No whistle. She moves off the spot, tentatively, away from the lamp as it happens. Still hearing no whistle, Ruth begins walking around again. When once again she walks toward the lamp, Anne blows the whistle.

Ruth returns to the door and then returns to the new spot where she just heard the whistle, but this time she keeps walking forward. Bingo: whistle. Without going back to the door, she walks forward some more and hears the whistle just as she is coming up against the end table. She stops. She bumps the end table. No whistle. She waves her hands around; no whistle. One hand brushes the lampshade, and Anne whistles. Ruth begins touching the lampshade all over—moving it, turning it, rocking it: no whistle. Ruth reaches up underneath the lampshade. Whistle. Ruth reaches underneath the shade again, and, the gesture being very familiar and having a purpose, she executes the purpose and turns on the lamp. Anne whistles and the rest of us applaud.

Things don't always go that smoothly, even with simple, familiar behaviors. Anne, as it turned out, made a good training decision when she withheld reinforcement as Ruth moved from the spot where she'd first been reinforced, but in the wrong direction. If, however, Ruth had then moved back to the spot and just stood there, Anne might have been in trouble.