Building duration inside a chain (video)

Adding more duration to a behavior can sometimes be difficult, even for teachers who are good at shaping.

When the teacher changes the criteria for reinforcement, the learner may wonder, “Should I do MORE of this same behavior? Or, am I supposed to do a DIFFERENT behavior?”

If the learner engages in other behaviors, this makes building duration more difficult. This variability can also result in unwanted behaviors getting accidentally reinforced.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about different strategies for building duration. One strategy that I wanted to explore further involves using a chain to build duration. I decided to see if I could model this idea in PORTL.

Here is the basic strategy:

The teacher has a certain goal behavior that the teacher wants the learner to do for a long duration.

The teacher starts by building a chain of two behaviors:

Goal Behavior –> Cue for Behavior 2 –> Behavior 2 –> Reinforcement

Next, the teacher adds duration to the goal behavior by delaying the cue for Behavior 2.

Once the learner can do the goal behavior for a sufficient amount of time, the teacher can start reinforcing the goal behavior directly, rather than giving the cue for Behavior 2.

The chain is used as a tool. The second behavior is used to help build duration, but it doesn’t have to be part of the final goal behavior.

What does this look like in PORTL?

This spring, I’ve tried this idea with a dozen different individuals. The following video explains this strategy and shows two PORTL examples: holding an object very still and turning an object upside down over and over again.

Why does this work?

Once the learner understands to wait for the cue for Behavior 2, the learner is much less likely to try other behaviors. My experience trying this in PORTL is that once the chain is established, the learner rarely, if ever, offers unwanted behavior, as long as the teacher increases the duration in reasonable-sized steps.

This strategy works because the chain gives the goal behavior a clear beginning and end. Once the learner understands to wait for the cue, this predictable sequence helps communicate that the goal is “keep doing this same behavior,” rather than “do something else.”

More video examples

Here are two more videos showing how chains can be used to build duration.

In this next video, the goal is to teach the learner how to pinch open a clothes pin and hold the clothes pin open for several seconds. This can typically be a difficult behavior to shape. The learner often tries opening and closing the clothes pin.

Think about the two examples you saw in the previous video. How could you use the ideas from those examples to build a chain that involved pinching open a clothes pin? Then, how could you use the cue for the second behavior to build duration? Think of your own solution before you watch the video below.

In this final video example, the goal is to have the learner touch the top of a car with one finger and hold his finger on the car. This behavior is challenging to shape, because most learners are very eager to push the car. Of course, this makes sense, because “push” is the typical behavior associated with a toy car.

Spend a few minutes thinking about this goal.

Can you come up with a solution for how to teach the learner to hold a finger on the car for some duration? How could use use a chain of two behaviors to achieve this goal?

Your turn

I have plenty of ideas regarding how this strategy can be used to teach both people and animals. In fact, I know some people who are already taking advantage of this idea in their teaching.

I would like to encourage you to think about how you could use this strategy to build duration.

Do you have ideas already?

If so, please leave a comment on this post or send us an email. After you try your ideas with your learners, let us know what happens!

If you liked this article, take a minute to share it with your friends!

26 thoughts on “Building duration inside a chain (video)”

  1. Hi Mary! As a dog trainer, I use “release cues” to train long still maintained behaviors and stays. I train the release cue as a behavior and then add duration to the stay and it does in my opinion stop the dog thinking to vary behavior when you increase criteria. The same with holding an object, before adding duration, I would teach the cue “drop”. By training the release cue, marking and reinforcing it, the dog starts to wait for it. For extended eye contact, you can teach going to a bowl of treats on the ground on cue, then add duration to the eye contact, as the dog is waiting for the cue to be released to the bowl.

  2. Hi Mary, this is so great!! I’m loving the format with the video, the challenges to think how I would do it and then another video. I had such fun going through this exercise. And I’m itching to get out tomorrow and try this technique on one of the horses to teach a long duration head lower. I’m thinking I’ll shape the head lower then ask for a hand target.
    Thanks again! Can’t wait for more!

    • How did that go? I have just been watching the video and was wondering how I can use it for duration in head lowering 🙂

      • Hi Tine,

        I’m not sure how it went for Bex, but I’ve been doing something with my gelding that is similar to what Bex suggested for head lowering.

        1) I first taught head lowering, but the behavior had very little/no duration.

        2) Then, I switched to this chain:
        Horse lowers his head –> I present a target on the ground –> Horse touches the target –> Click and treat

        3) Next, I started briefly delaying when I presented the target. Then, I delayed it a little longer, then a little longer.

        We are still in the process of Step 3. Once we get to the stage in which we have a decent amount of duration, I am planning to make a video clip showing the process and steps that we went through.

        If you try it with your horse, I’d love to hear how it goes!


        • Hi all. Just been working on similar exercises. With the young horse Stationing on a mat- (the duration behaviour.) Touch target is the chained behaviour. Working really well so far and have been able to start to add distance and distractions during the stationing. (Not simultaneously of course). Thanks for posting these really helpful videos.

          • Hi Trish,

            I’m so glad that you found the videos helpful and that you have been having success with your young horse!


  3. Can’t wait to try this on a few people 🙂
    I use this technique with dogs already – for instance : put your paw on a target ==> target is withheld a moment, C+T – I get duration on paw lift 🙂

  4. I also teach stationary duration to dogs using back-chaining taught release cue first, and have done so for years. Clarifying end-points is so important and so helpful! The way I teach it, the release is always reinforced, which holds the chain together. So really the terminal behavior is “move to reinforcement on cue.” But I like this idea of a more specific terminal behavior even better. I’m already thinking about all the ways I can apply a specific terminal behavior to more complex duration behaviors beyond the normal sit-stay, wait with eye-contact until released to toy, wait on pause table until cued to GO, etc. I also teach nosework as a chain as well, starting with the terminal behavior, which is actually also a release to reinforcement. Then I shape nose on odor UNTIL release. Then source odor–nose on odor (duration)–release. Then search for odor–source odor–nose on odor (duration)—release. In the end it is quite a long chain of behavior–but always with a very clear end point. Very exciting! So elegant, Mary!

    • These are great examples, Sarah! Please let us know what you discover as you continue exploring these concepts with your dogs.

  5. Love this! Love to see such CLEAR video’s! Thanks for this!!

    I think this is how I have built duration with my horse. I first taught my horse to ‘walk-on’ on cue and ‘stop’ on cue. Then I cued walk and instead of clicking, I cued stop. Then clicked and reinforced. I gradually built the number of steps before I cued stop. I do the same at trot and canter. Cue trot, then cue walk, then cue stop. Then click and treat.

    The reason I did this in the first place was because if I clicked while she was moving, she would stop too suddenly and at the trot and canter, it didn’t look comfortable. So I decided to use my R+ trained, trot, walk, whoa cues to mark, reinforce and give info for the next behavior so I could bring her to a stop gradually through the paces.

    So then it was easy to withhold those cues (to slow and stop her for her reinforcement) and build duration on the gait. However, I didn’t know I was actually making it easier for her to build duration this way! So thanks for the validation. So cool. I try and teach folks to do it this way and you have given me another good reason to do it other than not have them stop abruptly.

  6. I found the final flip into the slinky super interesting! This is such a great clarification of the idea. Might try to think of behaviors I want more duration on and how to chain them…but I think this is one of the reasons the dogs we work with love our “find it” game for teaching stay! The short version is that after teaching a little duration in a position, you teach them that a cue means “I’ve hidden a treat for you to sniff out and eat.” Then you have them stay while you hide the treat nearby (eg seated on ground next to a chair, hide treat behind chair leg) then release them to find it…it is fun for the trainer too, oftentimes, and naturally incorporates distance and distration a bit as well as you progress to longer stays as you move further away to hide the treat and pretend to hide it in various places…Thanks for the great write up!

  7. Mary,

    Thank you for making this available. I recently was shown one of these videos at a workshop Alexandra Kurland was leading. I then saw the link on the Animal Training Academy podcast #100 with Susan Friedman. I was so happy it is available to share. I am sending the link to all of the animal care staff here at the San Francisco Zoo. Thank you again this is a fabulous teaching tool.

  8. Hi Mary,

    Love this! As much fun and informative as your classes. Thank you for making this available, it really got my wheels turning, so did all the wonderful comments. Can’t wait to start playing with all these ideas tomorrow!


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