M is for Method of Approximations

MI touched briefly on this subject in yesterday’s post. A method of approximation (also known as incremental learning) is really important to understand if you are ever going to teach an animal any behaviors. The more complex the behavior, the more this applies. A method of approximation is simply breaking down a “behavior in training” into several steps. If you’ve ever watched an animal show where an animal does many things at once, this behavior was trained one step at a time. If you’ve ever watched a dog run through an agility course, this was trained one section at a time until the dog can perform it in one go.

Years ago, when I was working at a privately owned facility, I had an extremely intelligent miniature horse under my care. His name was Spartacus. He LOVED to work and train. I decided I wanted to train him how to take a piece of trash and walk it over to a small trash bin with a foot pedal. He would have to step on the foot pedal, flip the lid open, and then throw the piece of trash away into the bin in order for the behavior to be rewarded. If you break down the components of the behavior, it would be something like this. The piece of trash was represented by a piece of soft cloth. He first had to learn to take this piece of SpartTrashsoft cloth and hold it in his mouth until told he could release it. Then, while holding this piece of cloth, he’d have to walk to the trash bin. Once at the trash bin, he would have to step on the foot pedal. Trash bin lid would flip open. Spartacus, with cloth still in mouth, would lean his head down and let the cloth go so it could drop into the bin. He could then walk away. He got pretty lucky in that he didn’t have to keep his foot on the pedal in order for the lid to stay open. It was an old and battered bin, so once the lid flipped open, it stayed open. All these components were taught to him one step at a time.

First was the piece of cloth that actually scared the crap out of him. I had to train him to see it was not a threat and I simply did this by putting the cloth on the ground and feeding him carrots. I’d pick it up and present it to him and feed him more carrots. He got over the scare fairly quickly since the cloth = carrots! Then I presented the trash bin. Spartacus was already pretty good at kicking his foot out. The first time he stepped on the foot pedal (which was modified and made much bigger for his hoof) the lid did scare him. but he got over that really quickly too. I continually popped it open in front of him and fed him carrots. Once he got used to that, I went back to the cloth training. Sometimes, in the animal training world, when you have a chain of behaviors that create one large behavior, it’s easier to train the sequence from last to first. So, I began training Spartacus to hold the piece of cloth right in front of the bin and hoof the foot pedal. This took quite a bit of SpartTrash2training. Then came the part of releasing the trash into the bin. Again, this took a lot of practice. I discovered, because of normal horse anatomy, that Spartcus had to “guess” where to place his head and mouth so that the cloth would drop into the bin. I don’t believe his line of sight allowed for him to get a clear sight. Once this was pretty consistent, now came the part where I would take him away from the bin and he would then have to walk to the bin with cloth in mouth. This took quite a bit of working out because he would just drop the cloth prior to arriving to the bin. So, additional training was required. Eventually, the behavior was trained. The most rewarding part was when Spartacus’ light bulb lit up and he “got it”. He actually vocalized in excitement and he understood what was being asked of him. That was a really exciting and joyous moment in my career.

Through approximations, I was able to train a complex behavior, one step at a time. This allows for breaking down the behavior and strengthening components that may have gone weak.

© Semi Charmed Life

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge


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