Setting your animal up for success is one of the key qualities of a successful trainer. This concept can take many forms, but one of the most important is your ability to manage your animal’s environment. Environmental management minimizes distractions, prevents your animal from making mistakes, and allows you to focus on shaping and rewarding those behaviors that you like.
One frequent argument that opponents of positive reinforcement training make is that reward-based training is ineffective in an emergency or uncontrolled situation. “Clicker training may be great,” they say, “but what good is it going to do when my dog is chasing a squirrel towards the highway?” “How is it going to stop my dog from barking at the fence in the middle of the night?” “Are you telling me that I can’t tell my dog ‘no’ when he’s biting the delivery man in the face?”
All of these arguments ignore one of the most important facets of reinforcement-based training, which is setting the animal up for success. My response to questions such as these is always the same, “Why would you allow your dog to be in that situation in the first place?” If your dog does not have a good recall, why is he off leash in an unfenced area? If he tends to bark at noises, why is he outside unsupervised in the middle of the night? If you haven’t socialized him to delivery people, why would you allow him to interact with one? A smart trainer knows what their dog can handle, and doesn’t put the dog in situations that will overface him.
In order to manage your dog’s environment, you must be honest with yourself about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Using gates, crates, tethers, leashes, visual barriers, and the like will allow you to set your dog up to be successful. Smart trainers set the environment up for optimal learning.
When my shy adolescent dog, Dobby, began growling and barking at people as they walked past the house, I covered the front window so that he could no longer look out. Preventing him from practicing this behavior was a form of environmental management. I was then able to teach him to accept people walking past by sitting on my front steps with him on leash and rewarding him for calm behavior when people walked by.
Trainers at Shedd aquarium reduce the risk of aggressive behavior from the sea lions by always leaving a clear path to the water for the animals. If an animal becomes frightened, he can go back to the pool where he’s comfortable, and is therefore more likely to choose flight than to aggress at the trainer. The beluga whales are taught new behaviors in quiet areas away from the public before those behaviors are proofed in the noisier and more chaotic locations. Animals of many species are taught to go to specific targets so that they can easily be separated out from the group and so that large groups of animals can be worked together.
How do you manage your dog’s environment to set him up for success? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!