I recently saw this video of a training session focusing on transferring a cue and I was awed by it. It’s easy to read about training in a textbook, but it’s actually rare to see textbook training. This video shows trainer Laura Monaco Torelli training her Rhodesian Ridgeback Santino. She is transferring his visual cue, which tells him to spin in a circle to the right, to the verbal cue “twist.” I thought the training was so beautiful that I want to share it. I must admit in all honesty that Laura is a friend of mine, but it is her training skills and not our friendship that has prompted me to write this post.
The video is not edited, which I like. When videos are edited, often for good reason, it’s hard to know if you are getting the full story of the training session. Watch this video to see excellent training, and see below for more on what I like so much about it.
Laura sets up some good training basics and sticks to them. She is very clear about her goals of transferring the cue and of ending on a good note. She works without a leash, which is always best for training (if it’s safe) since the leash won’t get in the way and because the dog has the freedom to choose where to be. She works in short sessions of one minute. Training takes a lot of mental energy for both dogs and trainers, so short sessions are best. In the breaks between sessions, she gives Santino lots of happy attention and makes it fun for him. She mixes other cues into her training session, which makes it more interesting for her dog and also assures that he is really responding to each cue rather than always doing the same behavior. She uses a high rate of reinforcement for Santino, which is so important when learning something new.
Laura uses a clear visual signal without extraneous movement. This is typical of people who train marine mammals, which is where Laura got her start with training.
Laura begins with high rates of reinforcement for Santino’s attention and his choice to wait for a cue rather than simply offering behavior and hoping that he hits on the right one. It is so critical in training for an animal to be attending to the trainer and to cues rather than just performing random behaviors, but this has to be taught and reinforced just as other actions do. I love that she reinforces him a lot for attending to her, which is the basis of all training.
She links the verbal cue with the visual cue clearly, saying the new cue “twist” before giving the visual cue of her hand motion. They must be paired in this order and linked tightly in time for the transfer to be successful.
Laura’s timing is impeccable. She clicks as Santino starts the behavior she’s looking for, whether it’s for a right spin or any of the other behaviors she cues him for during the session.
Her delivery of the treats is clean, and by that I mean that it is clearly separated in time from the clicks she gives him. It’s important not to pollute the marker (also called a bridge or a secondary reinforcer) with the food by having them overlap in time.
Great training requires great choices, and Laura makes a lot of them. Her decisions about what to reinforce are spot on. It’s easy to see that in the video, but it’s hard to make those choices in real time, many per minute, in a situation where microseconds matter. She also chooses wisely to start by warming Santino up with the original visual cue in the first one-minute session.
Early on in the second session, Laura gets to the cue to spin rather than reinforcing him a lot of times for attention. I like that progression from the previous minute because he is already deeply into training mode.
The steps she takes to fade out the hand signal are methodical and gradual. She moves from following the verbal cue “twist” with a full hand signal to a smaller and smaller one until her last cue is faded to the point of just being a slight movement with her shoulder that doesn’t even involve her hand at all.
She wisely ends at this point when the dog has either responded to the verbal cue or to just that tiniest hint of the original visual cue. Ending on a good note is a goal of all training sessions, but recognizing that moment is an art.
Laura is always thoughtful of her dog, aware of distractions such as his thirst, activity behind her that he can see through the window, and “treat dust” on the ground.
Notable in this video is that Laura obviously enjoys the training and likes being with her dog. I love that she lights up around him, and adores him. She refers to him as “handsome” multiple times. (I prefer to describe him as a “bronzed god”, but her term works, too.)
Seeing training done well, as in this video, is instructive for anyone seeking to improve training skills. Are you like me? By that I mean, does it make you want to have a training session with your dog RIGHT NOW?
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.