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Who Needs Data? We All Do!

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Good trainers are doers! We enjoy interacting with our animals and teaching new behaviors. However, most trainers are not great record-keepers. Often we claim we don’t have time to keep records, and don’t really see the need.

I realize that I just made a sweeping generalization, which is certainly not representative of all trainers. But I come across the questions of the benefits of record-keeping and the importance of monitoring data frequently. During a recent trip to Europe, I found the need to address the benefits of good data with skeptical trainers on three separate occasions. I used the following examples to help illustrate my point and to convince trainers of the value of recording accurate data.

Narcotic detection dogs  

One group of trainers that does an admirable job at record-keeping and tracking data is drug enforcement K-9 officers. It’s not that law enforcement trainers love record-keeping; they are not that different from other trainers. Rather, good record-keeping practices were developed out of a necessity; the documentation is essential to combat attorneys representing individuals accused of drug possession. Defense lawyers in the U.S. are particularly adept at poking holes in drug-related arrests that result from the work of detection dogs, claiming that the search that led to the arrest was illegal. The lawyers hire former trainers as expert witnesses to discredit the way the narcotic-detection dogs were trained. They use the experts to find errors in the data to suggest that the dogs are not reliable. As law enforcement dog trainers began keeping better records, however, they were able to prove in court that their dogs were reliable.

In some of the early cases I was involved with, the defense lawyers had a point—not every dog was trained using the best practices to assure maximum success. Keeping better data allowed the trainers to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their training protocols, which were then revised. As a result, the accuracy and reliability of their dogs were greatly improved.

Because of improved record-keeping, drug alerts made by well-trained narcotic dogs now hold up in court.
The clear improvement in detection accuracy also gave K9 officers more confidence going into court. These officers now had data that showed that their dogs had been trained, tested, and proofed against alerting on any substance other than the specific drug in question. Because of improved record-keeping, drug alerts made by well-trained narcotic dogs now hold up in court. Excellent training alone was not enough, of course. Trainers had to have the data to prove that the training was done correctly and that the dogs had been tested for accuracy in varied conditions with multiple distractions.

Zoo enrichment 

In an effort to enhance the quality of life of the animals in their care, zoo staff members provide their animals with environmental enrichment. The enrichment may come in the form of food puzzles, toys, exercise games, and other creative options. The goals of enrichment vary from one group of animals to another, and may include increasing use of certain parts of the habitat, increasing foraging activity, decreasing stereotypic behavior, and reducing aggressive behavior. If asked whether or not the enrichment they have provided has actually accomplished their goals, trainers usually reply with an emphatic “Yes!” But when asked how they know, or can they prove it, the trainers find themselves at a loss as to how to respond.

However, this problem is resolved when the zoo staff members keep records and analyze the data. Thoughtful trainers conduct specially designed ethograms, which are scientific observations that help answer specific questions about an animal’s, or group of animals’, behavior. Prior to providing enrichment, an ethogram is conducted to establish a behavioral baseline, such as use of space, aggressive incidents, minutes of stereotypic behavior, etc. Then, once enrichment is provided, ethograms are repeated and the trainers track the change in behavior. This data determines whether or not the enrichment has actually effected the desired change. The trainers can either prove that the enrichment is working, or adjust their enrichment plan to achieve the desired result.

Aggression-reduction 

When we implement a training plan designed to reduce aggression, there needs to be some concrete way to determine progress.
I work with aggressive dogs regularly, and have been involved in projects that assess whether former fighting dogs are able to be rehabilitated and adopted to families. There is no way to be certain that a dog with an aggressive history won’t be triggered into an aggressive reaction. However, when we implement a training plan designed to reduce aggression, there needs to be some concrete way to determine progress. It is possible to feel as though progress has been made, but unless aggressive incidents and exposure to typical triggers have been carefully tracked, it is impossible to be sure.

With training as complex as aggression-reduction, good data does so much more than just prove progress; it allows trainers to assess the efficacy of the training plan. Accurate data encourages the trainer to adjust the training plan and make sure that an appropriate plan is in place. This type of data is useful for more than just aggression management; it is useful for any type of problem-solving.

With difficult cases like fear, aggression, separation anxiety, and self-injurious behavior that take a long time to solve, both the trainer and the client can get discouraged and feel as if they are not making progress. But keeping track of incidents, frequency, intensity, recovery time, and other significant data will help everyone stay on course, see improvements, and not give up. It’s easy to feel so busy, overworked, and underpaid that you do not see the immediate benefits of record-keeping. But creating graphs or before/after comparison charts will help your business and keep your clients happy.

General everyday use

If used properly, documentation will help improve training by providing solid evidence of which techniques are most effective—and that will ultimately help improve and advance our profession.
If the only goal of your training is to teach your dog to sit or lay down when asked, detailed records are not important. But as we get more serious about our results, record-keeping can help guide us in making more informed and accurate decisions. Professional trainers need the data from those records to continually improve training and help others see the value of the tools and techniques used. We often make sweeping claims about the benefits and drawbacks of certain training tools, but without data to back up those claims we are simply stating an opinion. One of the most compelling arguments to be made when helping people transition to the use of positive reinforcement is to show actual data that compares the differences in, and illustrates the benefits of, using positive reinforcement in various projects.

Until we see the benefits of record-keeping, it is easy to let it slide and not maintain records. Once in the habit of good record-keeping and then learning how to put the data to use, it does get easier. Most important, if used properly, documentation will help improve training by providing solid evidence of which techniques are most effective—and that will ultimately help improve and advance our profession.

Happy Training,

 

Ken

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