I will give you two different examples, one in which I am trying to make it less likely an undesired behavior will happen and another in which I am trying to promote a desired one.
I have perches around my house that my flighted parrots have learned via positive reinforcement to visit frequently. They have learned these are great places to go to for attention, toys, treats, head scratches, etc. Most of the perches do not have many unacceptable things near them that are tempting to chew. (That is one example of setting them up for success.) However one perch in particular has some unavoidably tempting attributes. There are some edges of the walls that are often too inviting for my parrots to resist. Traditional training methods would have caregivers punishing parrots with aversives for chewing, but the force free approach is to set them up for success. Which means in this example, I could move the perch to a less tempting location or I could make those wall edges less accessible and interesting. I chose the latter.
I decided to custom fit plexi-glass to cover the edges of the wall. Just this cover alone has made the wall less inviting for chewing. This allows me to relax when my parrots are sitting on the perch. I definitely don’t ever have to be the bad guy and punish bad behavior, I get to be the good guy and reinforce excellent behavior while they sit on the perch. Just by making it difficult to misbehave by removing access to temptation I have helped set them up for success.
Another way we set animals up for success is when we are training new behaviors. One of my favorite challenges is finding a way to get the animal to present the action we want so that it can be reinforced. Manipulating the environment is often one of the first things I look at. This means I visualize what movements the animal will have to do. I then think how can I minimize how much effort the animal will need to present for me to get that movement? For example if I need the animal to load into a crate, will it have to step over a lip of a crate? Is the opening so small that it needs to duck its head? Will the crate wobble and cause the animal to be unbalanced? All those factors mean more effort and therefore not a good example of setting my animal up for success. If I was in that situation I would be searching for a different crate!
Anyone who has been to one of my parrot training workshops has seen me apply these strategies in my parrot training demos. Little details like placing a station on the corner of the table instead of the middle, putting my hand at the end of the perch, in line with the perch and with a tight grip for step up, making tunnels for towel training, all of these approaches were developed from years of trying to find a way to make it more likely a parrot would participate and learn a new behavior. Do they make a difference? Absolutely!
The next time you hear someone say “Set them up for success!” Now you can nod knowingly and whisper to your friends “Oh they just mean manipulating the environment a bit so it easy for the animal to do the correct behavior……you know, antecedent arrangement.” More importantly now with a clear understanding you have a tool you can use that can really have an impact on achieving your training goals.
Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.