If it’s 8:30 pm, you better believe my mind is scrolling through the options of ice cream that are lurking in the back of my freezer. Dinner > put toddler to bed > prepare for tomorrow > sit on couch > want ice cream–it’s a very predictable sequence for me.
But this post is not to talk about my obsession with the creamy deliciousness of this nighttime treat or my conditioned behaviors. Today’s blog is to highlight the teeny tiny steps that need to occur in between identifying “I WANT TO EAT THAT ICE CREAM” and actually consuming it.
All learners have to figure out what they need to do (behavior) to get to their end goal (goal + reward). Often, we think of what the end behavior should look like (when my dog sits, he gets a cookie), but we forget that the end behavior has a bunch of tiny behaviors that need to take place on the way. To save you some frustration and your pup some confusion, let’s figure out why we should split instead of lump when training any behavior.
Splitting: breaking down the criteria of a learner’s behavior into smaller approximations to the end behavior
Lumping: assuming that the learner knows what behavior specifically helped them get to the end goal
If my end goal is to eat a sundae, let’s see the steps I would take to reach my reward.
- Go to freezer.
- Grab ice cream.
- Scoop ice cream into a bowl.
- Add toppings.
- Put ice cream back in freezer.
- Eat ice cream : P
You probably followed all of my steps with no confusion, right? Sure, you’ve gotten yourself a bowl of ice cream before so it makes sense. But what about someone who has never gotten ice cream before? Someone who doesn’t know English? Someone who doesn’t have the same physical abilities as you?
The roadmap to this behavior above is an example of lumping. We’d reinforce (read: give treat) after each step along the way. For someone who has a good understanding of english and has done these behaviors before, you could probably get them to the end goal with just these few instructions.
But for someone who is new to your house, language, physical demands, etc., you’d tell them to go to your freezer and they wouldn’t even know where to begin. Let’s see what questions we can ask ourselves about these smaller goals. Your answers will help you to split these behaviors to create more opportunities for success.
1. Go to freezer.
“Where did I start? Did I feel like getting up? How does my body have to move to get myself into a position to walk? Where is my freezer with ice cream (the garage)? Do I need to put slippers on to go into the garage? Is the path clear of baby toys as I make my way through the house or do I have to step over things? How heavy is the freezer door? Do I have both hands free?”
2. Grab ice cream.
“Where is the ice cream in the freezer? Are there more than one? Which do I want to eat? Is there anything in the way of grabbing the ice cream? Do I have enough hands to hold the door/move the vegetables/grab the ice cream?”
3. Scoop ice cream into a bowl.
“Wait, am I scooping ice cream in my garage by the freezer? Did I have to go back inside? Where are the bowls? Where is the ice cream scoop? Where are the spoons? Which hand should I use? Do I always use this hand? Why is the ice cream tub so cold and sticking to my fingers? Is there a towel around for me to hold this? Why is the ice cream so hard? Would it be better to soak the metal scoop in warm water? Should I just wait for the ice cream to soften? Should I have worked out my biceps today? Do I want to put anything on this ice cream–I’ve done it before and it tasted good so maybe I’ll do that again?”
4. Add toppings.
“What do I have in my cabinets? What do I feel like eating? Do I like all these textures? Does this make the ice cream taste better or is it more work than reward? Where are my toppings located? What ice cream to sprinkles ratio makes sense? Is my whipped cream still good? How long after the expiration date can I use these maraschino cherries? Should I just risk it? Yep, they smell fine.”
5. Put ice cream back in freezer.
“Do I have to do this now, or will it make it until I finish eating? Where are those slippers again? Where should I put this sundae while I go put the ice cream away so Opie doesn’t taste test for me?”
6. Eat ice cream : P
“Ugh, finally.” (*sits on the couch and turns on an episode of The Amazing Race from 2004 as Opie sits hopefully alongside*)
There are so many things that you have to have a handle on in order to achieve your goal. Maybe you don’t normally have to go to the garage freezer for ice cream (learner confusion). Maybe you have thought about other ways that were easier that got you ice cream before (reinforcement history). Maybe the set up of your house or your physical limitations make getting the ice cream more difficult (management of environment). Maybe you just don’t think that ice cream is worth getting off the couch for (value of reward). The same stuff happens in our dogs’ brains when they’re trying to learn something new. They don’t exactly know what we want. They try out other behaviors that have been rewarded in the past. The environment is not set up for success. They do the things that are most valuable to them.
When you’re feeling frustrated or stuck with a behavior that you are trying to train, just take a beat. You aren’t a terrible trainer. Your pup is not stubborn, or disrespectful, or dumb. The team just needs to reevaluate what is going on. Ask yourself some guiding questions and see if the answers can help you split the behaviors into smaller, more successful chunks. You’ll get it (or you’ll find someone to help you get it).
- Make yourself a bowl of ice cream (It’s for science.)
- Identify a training trick/behavior you and your pup are struggling with.
- Ask yourself questions to help break down the smaller steps that need to occur.
- Reward consistently as the team experiences success.
You’re doing great!