Think, Plan, Do!

Posted in: Clicker Training

As my clients know well, and at the risk of repeating myself again ;-), I am always emphasising the immense value and importance of training plans and shaping plans.

Substantially more time really ‘should’ go into the planning phase before executing any training.

Think, Plan, Do!

We know that we are supposed to move a behaviour onwards when we train, otherwise we might fall into the trap of clicking and treating it forever, or certainly for longer than is necessary, which is far from ideal too. But how do we move it on and how do we know exactly when is the right time to move on?

This is where having detailed training plans and shaping plans really does help.

They help you to:

Not only that but they will help you learn to read and notice your horse’s subtle body language signals so you are reading them, the situation and how their learning is progressing. Are they steaming along so quickly that you are finding it hard to keep up? Or is your horse experiencing any confusion and/or frustration?

Having a good, well thought through, solid plan helps you to be able to adjust your training quickly and effectively as and when necessary. As such, those times where your horse has picked it up so fast that you are left thinking “what now, where next?” or those times where the behaviour begins to break down and your horse is getting confused or frustrated are all avoided.

I recently came across a brilliant article by Diana Guerrero, an animal expert with a degree in animal behavior, training & management and extensive experience with both wild & domestic animals. I thought you would all enjoy it too – so many little gems included in this article!

Food for thought over the weekend perhaps?!

Happy Clicking!


Moving Forward Before A Behavior is Stabilized

Written by Diana L. Guerrero (

“One of the most common training errors is to move forward into higher levels of distraction, variations of a behavior, or location the behavior is delivered in before it is stabilized. Many times the parameters of a behavior are not clear to an animal and any variations can cause a breakdown of the behavior, confusion, and in worse cases, aggression. 

This is why it is important to decide what it is that you are attempting to train before you begin the actual training. You need to define the steps you will take, how you will approach teaching and shaping the behavior, where the training will take place, and when the behavior will be considered finished. 

Other considerations will come into mind once you have obtained success consistently. These will include when to turn the behavior over for others to work, when to add variables to the behavior such as new locations, positions performed, and other related topics. 

For instance, when observing a training session at a zoological facility that had recently experienced some aggression from one of their training animals, it was not clear to me what was being trained. At first I thought the animal was okay with his lessons. As I watched the cues, the animal and the trainer, I began to suspect that the trainer was teaching a certain behavior. The trainer moved the animal to different locations and the animal offered variations on the behavior in those locations and was reinforced for them. However, once in a while the trainer would not reinforce the behavior and since he was using continuous reinforcement, this confused me – and the animal! 

Once the session was completed, I asked what it was that the trainer was working on – since I wanted to confirm my observations. He was trying to teach something completely different from what I surmised by my observations. Both the animal and I interpreted his intent the same way, but this was not what the trainer was thinking he was trying to accomplish! (He was actually working on training a “stay” or a “place” behavior.) 

The behavior being offered from the animal, and what I had guessed he was attempting to train, had nothing to do with what he was trying to accomplish. To obtain success he needed to outline what his goal was, when it would be considered complete, and when he would begin to add variables to it. In training this behavior, he would have enabled the animal to be successful by training the stay and approximating up in the duration of the behavior before he moved forward into more intricate variations of it. 

The behavior which should have been reinforced would have been the stationary position in one location by training attention, relaxation in that position, or by using a target to develop the stability without confusion; then he could have lengthened the amount of time spent in that location or position. The trainer could next engage in variations of his position (while maintaining animal attention), but not with the animal’s positioning. 

Subsequently, he could begin to move the behavior to another location and get it successfully there. Many times when you move to higher levels of distraction, or into variations on a behavior, you will have to go back to shorter increments of duration and work back up to the behavior longevity; this will allow you to obtain it in another location successfully. 

Although he knew he wanted –to add variations by moving to the different locations, the trainer was also adding variations of behaviors in those locations – which confused the animal and alerted me to the problem! If he had obtained the stationary behavior in one location, and then moved the location, obtained the behavior there (with no other behaviors or responses), he could have achieved success. Then he could have successfully added variables, and prevented confusion, by introducing other behavior variations to prevent boredom later. 

Instead, he was experiencing a breakdown in behavior and some frustration from the animal. Moving forward too fast, while adding too many variables at the same time, is a common reason for breakdown in behavior or confusion. To avoid this type of problem it is important to outline the following information and strategies before training a behavior.

Define your objectives:

This is just a partial list meant to stimulate thought and ideas related to obtaining success and avoiding the pitfalls of progressing too fast. You must also be alert to individual differences between animals when implementing new training procedures. Some animals will learn much more quickly than others, – and non-response is not always flat refusal! Understanding the difference comes with experience. 

Remember that if you take the time to build a firm training foundation, the rest of the work will fall into place more easily and with less effort. If you try and shortcut this work you will have to tear down your structure and begin again! It is less work to do it right the first time even though it might take a bit longer to do! 

For instance, here is an example of a foundation being destroyed; in a marine mammal training situation, one of the trainers wanted to force a beach behavior (where the cetacean voluntarily comes up out of the water onto a mat or into a stretcher) and placement in an unpopular pool. From past experience, this pool was known to be a very negative experience for the animals. Knowing this, another trainer suggested some alternatives, but rather than work through the situation and take several weeks, the decision was made to force the issue. The result? Breakdown of behaviors (not just the beaching) and flat refusal to cooperate. In the end, the animal took over six months to get back what was once a very stable beaching behavior. 

The point? Although the front end time would have taken longer to accomplish the goal (six weeks or so) it would have avoided the additional eighteen weeks of lost progress from this animal. So, not only did they not get the cooperation and behavior they wanted, they lost ground with this particular animal and tied up valuable training time later. The animal had to be reconditioned, and in some cases, forced through situations which could have been tolerated and cooperative instead. Once you have the foundation in place – keep it!”