Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

So maybe you are new to clicker training and you keep hearing people talking about lumping and how bad it is. Be a splitter, not a lumper, they say. You have a vague idea about it but maybe aren’t exactly sure what they mean except that lumping is bad.

Or maybe you are a teacher and you would like a really clear example of lumping vs splitting to show your students.

Do I have a video for you!

For the verbal types: splitting is to look for and reinforce small steps in the right direction. Lumping is skipping the small increments and hoping that the whole perfect behavior, or huge strides toward it, will somehow appear.* But having said that, to a newbie that’s still a little confusing. What do the increments look like? What really happens if you lump? Is there fallout?

This video shows the second training session in which I’m teaching Zani to nose target a piece of duct tape on the wall. This can be the predecessor to other behaviors such as pushing an object around or closing a cabinet door, or even teaching “go outs.” A go out is an obedience behavior where the dog runs out away from you on cue and stops and turns around when you say so (25 feet away).

The targeting behavior is also useful just to give the dog some exercise: run them out to a spot, then call them back.

Small black and tan colored hound looking at her trainer with her mouth open. There is a piece of tape on the wall behind her.
Zani says, “Quit that lumping!”

Zani already knows how to nose target my hand, my foot,  and various objects I am holding in my hand, but I have never taught her to target a spot on the wall. We are following the directions in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, Level 2 Target Step 4. The increments are as follows:

  1. nose touch my palm
  2. touch the piece of tape in my palm
  3. touch the piece of tape on my fingertips
  4. keep touching the tape on my fingertips while I move my hand in increments toward the wall
  5. touch the tape on my fingertips while my hand is flat against the wall
  6. (handler quickly sticks tape on the wall while the dog is getting the treat)
  7. touch the tape on the wall

If anything, a good trainer would be ready to add more increments to these seven. What I did was to skip #4 and #5. You can see what happened.

I wish I could say I planned this so I could gift the world with a movie. Not so. This is what my dogs have to put up with from me a lot of the time. But I know I’m not the only one. Lumping is incredibly seductive.

The backstory is that we had practiced this behavior the very day before, and I had gotten Zani successfully touching the tape on the wall. So today, I decided to be a good girl and start from the beginning again with touches to the tape in my hand to remind her what we were doing. Then the little lumping devil came and sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear: “She gets it. You don’t need to do that silly ‘getting closer and closer to the wall’ stuff! Just go for it!” I did, and you can see what happened.

The training session took four minutes. It’s pretty clear that if I had just done the increments to the wall in the first place, we would have gotten to our goal faster than when I tried to skip stuff. That’s why people say, “Slow is fast.” More important, I would have avoided getting my dog irritated with me. (Isn’t she cute?) But seriously, as I say in the video, lumping creates fallout for the dog, then for the handler. If Zani weren’t pretty seasoned at our training games, she could easily have given up when I suddenly made things too hard. That’s how lots of people come to say, “I tried clicker training but it didn’t work,” or “My dog just sits there.”

There is also a good chance Zani couldn’t see that tape very well. Later I learned to use blue painter’s tape. That falls under “Arranging your antecedents to make the behavior more likely.”

Note: There are plenty of other training errors in the video; many are discussed in the comments. 

Got any good lumping stories? What did your dog do? How did you apologize? Want to see more of my mistakes?

*Note: I would have bet that Bob Bailey invented the terms splitting and lumping. But I looked it up and the earliest usage of “splitters and lumpers” dates to Charles Darwin, on the topic of species classification. He wrote in 1857, “Those who make many species are the ‘splitters,’ and those who make few are the ‘lumpers.'”

Update 4/2/13

Zani has learned the behavior very nicely despite my previous errors.

Zani bopping the wall
Zani bopping the wall. Sorry it’s blurry: that girl was moving fast!

She now doing a great job finding and touching tape and sticky notes on the wall, and enjoying doing so. Here is a video follow-up.

We have varied the objects: tape, sticky note, band-aid. We have varied the height a little but she doesn’t know yet that it is OK to get up on her hind legs to reach the target. That’s next!

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

22 thoughts on “Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

  1. love your training videos, eileen.
    re: homework assignment, i can only think of one thing i would have done to make it easier in the final stage and that is to move my hand away from the tape gradually over about 3 trials. and i suppose a jackpot for the first time she targeted without your hand there, but i’m not sure that has anything to do with the shaping process, or even with the rate of learning. looking forward to reading what your thoughts are!

    1. Thanks Diana. Yes, everybody including me agrees that I could have worked out a way to move my hand away from the tape on the wall more gradually and/or faded it down to a point or hand gesture. I’m just lucky that Zani got it the third time I lumped that! I’ve had two people suggest blue painter’s tape as aiding visibility. A YouTube commenter and I both noted that I am asking for distance right away when she gets to the wall. I am throwing the treat away, which was useful at first when she was hand targeting so that I could re-set. But it’s completely counterproductive at that point in terms of “explaining” that I want her to touch the tape on the wall. It makes her have to hunt for it each time. I should have kept her right there, dropping or handing her the treat. Finally, it bugged me that when I was finally moving her towards the wall, she missed the tape on my hand every time but I marked anyway. That’s not a good way to explain that it’s about touching the tape. However, I know why I did that. It was because the previous day when I failed to mark if she missed the tape, she started biting it. Instead of backing up more and trying to fix that, I just discarded that criterion for a while, also unfair to her. But that one I got away with. She started targeting the tape rather than my hand again when it was on the wall. Whew!

  2. Ha ha 🙂 I’m always skipping steps and hoping the end behavior magically appears! You’re videos and blog are awesome. Thanks for reminding me to slow down and “be a splitter.”

  3. You are very kind to post this video and blog. For beginners like me, is very enlightening. Thank you. ;-D

    1. Suzana, thank you so much for saying that. It is sometimes hard on my ego to post this stuff and comments like yours make it all worthwhile. I’m so glad it helps.

      1. And years later it is still great for a beginner to be able to see an “easy-to-understand” video of what lumping is, and how it can mess up the learning-curve. Great video Eileen.

  4. Eileen, your idea for doing videos like this is great! I think showing what not to do is so helpful. I did the exact same thing on this Level and Step with one of my dogs! I had to back up and start all over again, too! For the homework, I wonder if a different color tape would be helpful – something that has more contrast to the wall? And maybe put it on a target stick just before putting it on the wall, so your hand can get gradually further away before it is on the wall? That was what I ended up doing with my dog – its been a few months and I’ve forgotten exactly what I did. But it was still too big jump for him to go from fingertips to wall, so I put it on a target stick and gradually moved my hand away with the target close to the wall.

  5. I thought of the target stick, too. However, I will throw in that there’s no harm in trying; putting the tape directly on the wall might have worked, especially since you had done it the day before. I’ve had a dog get that very quickly before, and others not as quickly. I remember Bob saying, “If you have a good idea, try it! But don’t do it more than twice if it doesn’t work; then rethink the plan.”
    I like to put the tape on a piece of cardboard and then put masking tape on the back so that the target remains visually consistent instead of having the tape get all wrinkled up, too; all the better to put it on the end of a target stick. I also think you had a great idea with “feeding for position,” feeding with the feet in place after Zani touched the tape on the wall so it’s easier for her to do it again. That’s worked well for me. I so enjoy your videos and intend to refer people here for examples!

    1. Thanks Nancy, for making me feel a better about trying. When I’m in the midst of training, all sorts of things seem like a good idea that perhaps aren’t. Looking at video in retrospect can make me feel really silly and think I need to take a much more conservative approach. I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I love the cardboard backing idea. I’ve also been using tape for a foot target for another dog and it sure does wrinkle up. Thanks for your comments and for referring folks over.

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