Lessons From A Weekend With Ken Ramirez

Lessons From A Weekend With Ken Ramirez

Ken Ramirez, the author of this blog, and some of her friends at his Cleveland seminar.

Ken Ramirez, Liz Wyant (the author of this article), and some of her friends at his Cleveland seminar.

A Weekend With Internationally Recognized Animal Trainer, Ken Ramirez

Ken Ramirez has been in the animal training/behavior world for over 35 years.  He has worked with guide dogs, law enforcement K-9s, zoo animals, and marine animals.  He has worked at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium for 26 years, most recently as the training advisor.  In October of 2014, he started a new role as the Executive Vice-President and Chief Training Officer of Karen Pryor Click Training.  Ken is an avid proponent of force-free animal training.

In November, Ken presented a two-day seminar we were able to attend.  26 pages of notes later, here are some of the concepts we felt were most important.

Training 101

Ken describes training as teaching an animal what the rules for living in a particular space are.  He emphasizes that it should be a shared process; the animal should WANT to be with that person and should WANT to train.

Ken feels the cornerstones of animal care are:

  1. Health Care
  2. Nutrition
  3. Environment
  4. Behavior Management – As Ken says repeatedly, “training is not a luxury.”

That last point is what struck me the most – training is not a luxury.  So often our clients factor in costs of health care, food, and grooming, but not training.  Training is only used when something goes bad, not to provide the mental stimulation that dogs need to have a basic, happy and healthy life.

Least Reinforcing Scenario/Stimulus (LRS)

Ken explained the LRS as the most positive approach to dealing with unwanted behavior.  It was developed in the zoological training community as a way to operationalize the mantra of “ignore the unwanted behavior.”  Though very basic, it can be a powerful tool.  The Least Reinforcing Scenario is simply a 2-3 second neutral response after an animal gives an unwanted behavior, followed immediately by another opportunity to earn reinforcement.  For example, you cue a dog to sit and it lies down instead. Immediately when the dog lies down instead of sits, give a neutral response for 2-3 seconds and then cue the dog to do a different cue that you are positive they can successfully complete.

So what is a neutral response? There is no straight answer to this.  It is not a freeze, it is just a continuance of what you are doing – if you are looking at the dog, keep looking at the dog.  If you were in the process of scratching an itch, keep scratching the itch.  The key is to just maintain the environment so the dog is neither punished nor rewarded. This is only effective for a dog that is accustomed to working in a positive reinforcement environment.  When you reward, reward, reward and then don’t, the dog will notice the lack of rewarding.  There’s no need to extend the time or get emotional – just 2-3 seconds of a neutral response is enough feedback.

Alternative Reinforcers

Alternative reinforcers are learned reinforcers. They can be anything – clapping, toys, touch, play, words, or anything else the animal values.  They give you a chance to provide some variety in your reinforcers to keep the dog excited about working with you.  Alternative reinforcers need to be trained as behaviors so the dog understands what they mean.  This means it needs to be paired with food and marker signals and practiced for weeks.  Once the dog begins to value the alternative rewards, you should still use treat rewards 80% of the time during training sessions.

For alternative reinforcers to be effective, the trainer and animal must already have a predictable and solidly established relationship.  It is incredibly important to constantly maintain the strength of the alternative reinforcer by keeping it paired with food.  Also, be mindful that if a dog’s behaviors deteriorate after using the alternative reinforcer, the alternative reinforcer is NOT a reinforcer at all!

These are just a few of the topics that Ken discussed.  He kept everybody captivated for two full days and we left feeling invigorated about training and ready to try his ideas.  Should you get the opportunity to see him, we couldn’t recommend him highly enough!

Have you tried using LRS’s or alternative reinforcers?  Tell us in the comments!

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