The Bubble Blog » Hoop-Dee-Do (Behavior #7: Hoop)
Hoop-Dee-Do (Behavior #7: Hoop)
Posted on July 04, 2008 by freshwater

Mango Smoothie is making progress with her Hoop trick.

For the first three sessions she was convinced that targeting (touching) the hoop was the goal. Targeting will probably always be a default behavior for her. This is partially, perhaps, because she targets the feeding wand every time I feed her. So she automatically gets more practice with "target an object" than she does with any other behavior. I have also observed, with dogs and other species, that the first really solid behavior they learn sometimes becomes default; they often offer it when they're not sure what the trainer wants. The first trained behavior an animal learns probably makes a big impression; that's the behavior that elicits the first "Aha! I get it!" moment, when the animal figures out the system: behavior -> click -> treat. This is a big moment in the training life of an animal, so it's not surprising that it becomes deeply entrenched in the animal's memory.

In spite of Mango's fondness for targeting the feeding wand, I've mostly been shaping her to swim through her hoop instead of luring her all the way through with the wand. She's a wiggly, impatient fish. If I rely too much on the wand as a lure, she gets very caught up in swimming up and down the length of the wand trying to get the treat out. This feeding frenzy sometimes seems to obliterate her ability to associate the hoop with the treat. In operant conditioning, the animal's behavior needs to be a clear predictor of the reinforcement (treat) to follow. If the feeding wand itself becomes the strongest predictor of reward, the training sequence falls apart, and I end up reinforcing the wand shimmy instead of the hoop swim.

To correct this problem, I stopped using the wand as a continuous lure (pulling it from one side of the hoop through to the other). Instead I clicked for her head touching the hoop, then quickly put the wand in the tank and fed her in front of the hoop. This prompted her to swim through, since swimming through was the fastest way to get to the treat. In this scenario, the wand is technically still a lure. But it's a more passive lure that "feeds for position" at the end of the behavior instead of encouraging fixation on the wand through the whole behavioral sequence.

The brilliant advantage of the feeding wand is that it can be such an alluring target. Lots of behaviors are based on targeting. Every animal is different, too; the wand was  perfect for initially luring Ricky into a spin. He's more relaxed about training, so the presence of the wand wasn't much of a problem. And, again, the wand makes it possible to quickly and accurately "feed for position." That alone makes it a spectacular training tool.

So how is Mango doing now with her hoop training? Quite well. In her fourth session she began swimming through the hoop during most reps. She's not fluent in the behavior yet, so not ready to have a cue attached. But I expect to reach that point soon.

I'm also still asking for a few repetitions of Check In (stop at front of tank and look for cue light) at the beginning of each training session. Eventually I hope this will be her default behavior. Right now I don't reinforce Check In during reps aimed at hoop swimming. Once Mango is fluent in Hoop and the cue has been added, I will put Check In and Hoop together as a behavioral chain. Then the light cue for Hoop will serve as the reinforcement for Check In.

Video of Mango's hoop trick coming soon!