Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1: Emotions and Environmental Triggers
My Cue Trumps Your Cue
In the previous section Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues. Among them were curbs marking a street crossing. Moving cars are one of the many dangerous obstacles a guide has to deal with. People who aren’t familiar with guides often ask how the animal knows when a light has turned green and it’s okay to cross.
The answer is that’s not the guide’s job. The guide finds the curb and stops the handler before they get to the edge. Then the handler listens to the traffic patterns. When the handler thinks it is safe to cross, she will tell the guide to go forward. But these days with cars turning on red, and so many people riding bikes, and the new, very quiet electric cars, there are many opportunities for mistakes.
Moving cars trump go forward cues. If Ann tells Panda to go forward, but Panda sees something coming that will cut across their path, she will stand her ground and refuse to move until the vehicle has passed. If they are already crossing and a car suddenly comes towards them, she will stop quickly and back up, taking Ann out of the path of the on-coming car.
When Ann asks Panda to go forward off a curb, Panda knows perfectly well what she is supposed to do. When she refuses to move, she isn’t being bad. She’s doing her job. There’s a name for this kind of response: intelligent disobedience.
When I took on the project of training Panda, this was one of the areas I was most interested in There were so many myths floating around about intelligent disobedience. Ann told me that many people believed guide dogs were especially intelligent and could do a job that ordinary dogs just wouldn’t be able to handle.
There were certainly people in the horse community who huffed and puffed when they heard about Panda. “If I were blind,” they declared, “I would never trust a horse to guide me.”
I always thought – how sad. Is that really what they think about the horses that they get on and ride? How little do they understand the amazing abilities of the horses they say they love. I would much rather think that I am entrusting my safety to an intelligent animal than one I regard as stupid.
Horses as Guides
As a herd animal, guiding made perfect sense to Panda. It was easy to teach her the basic elements. A dog might want to explore the hedgerow. That’s where the rabbits live. To a horse it makes sense to go around. By extension going around other obstacles also makes sense. And because horses do live in herds, they understand that they need to make room for the person walking next to them.
A dog is nimble and can easily handle rough footing. So can a horse, but they are very aware of where they put their feet. Looking out for rough ground makes sense to them. A broken leg from a fall is a death sentence for a horse.
Dogs are distracted by squirrels, other dogs, pigeons and lots of other things that can run or fly away. Panda has never chased a squirrel in her life. She can be distracted by grass, but as Ann has said, the grass isn’t likely to run away. It’s a much easier distraction to deal with.
Some horses are very spooky and nervous in unfamiliar settings. Panda seems to thrive on the puzzles they present. I live not far from Albany, the Capital of New York State. During the time Panda and Ann were first learning to work together, there were a lot of street repairs going on in Albany. We used to take field trips into the downtown sections where we knew the sidewalks were under construction. Every visit presented monster-sized challenges. Sometimes the entire sidewalk would be torn up, and Panda and Ann would have to work together to find a safe way through the construction zone. I never saw Panda even hesitate. She would size up the task in front of them and proceed forward. (You can see an example of one of these sidewalk hazards in the video at the top of this page.)
Panda guiding Ann safely through a construction zone.
Ambulances blasting their sirens just a few feet away, people on bicycles, busy traffic, nothing seemed to surprise or frighten her. Whatever was in front of her was just another puzzle, another opportunity to earn clicker treats, another part of the game.
Teaching Panda to guide a handler over and around obstacles was easy. It was really just a matter of supporting the good decisions she was already making. The outstanding question was would she be able to understand intelligent disobedience? Could a horse understand this concept?
Evidence in Support of Intelligent Disobedience
Before I ever started training Panda, I already had the answer to this question. Anyone who rides out has experienced some form of intelligent disobedience. There are so many stories of horses who have refused to go forward on a trail. The horse stops, feet firmly planted, his whole body clearly saying “No!”. The rider gets after him, kicking him, maybe even hitting him with a crop or the long end of the reins. The horse just plants himself even more. And then a friend’s horse catches up to them and passes them on the trail, only to find itself mired up to its belly in deep mud. Horse and rider are lucky to escape uninjured.
Of course, the first rider always feels about two inches tall. Her horse was trying to tell her the trail wasn’t safe. This is a horse who grew up free to roam over large tracks of land. He understood the signs that were in front of him. The second horse may have grown up in a small field and had never seen this kind of boggy ground before. But the first horse was trying in every way he knew how to say that it wasn’t safe to go forward, and his rider didn’t know enough to listen.
Trusting Intelligent Disobedience
Intelligent disobedience is a wonderful response to build into our horses. Panda’s training shows us we can do so deliberately. If I know that I have taught a behavior well and my horse doesn’t respond to my cues, I need to look for a reason.
Suppose I have taught my horse to come to me from the middle of the arena over to a mounting block. If he comes every time, and then suddenly one day, he hangs back, I need to look for a reason. It may be that he isn’t feeling well, and his reluctance to ride is his way of telling me. It may be that I’m in a grump of a mood, and again, he is letting me know that riding isn’t the best choice for the day. Whatever the reason, I need to listen and not simply assume that my horse is “testing me” with his disobedience. That “disobedience” could one day save my life.
Teaching Traffic Checks
Let me describe briefly how Panda’s traffic checks were taught. The lesson that I followed was given to me by Michele Pouliot. Michele has thirty plus years of experience working with guide dogs. She is currently the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind where she has played a primary role in transitioning the training of their dogs to clicker training.
I don’t know if this is still how she teaches traffic checks, but these are the instructions she gave me in 2002 when I was teaching Panda this lesson.
Step 1: We began with a parked car. We walked directly toward the car. When Panda stopped in front of it, I clicked and reinforced her.
Step 2: I enlisted the help of one of my experienced clicker friends. As we approached the car, she began to drive it very, very slowly forward towards us. Panda stopped on her own, and I cued her to back up. Click and treat.
Step 3: Panda stopped and backed up without needing to be cued by me when the car went into motion. Click and treat.
Step 4: We now moved to simulated traffic checks. Still using my experienced driver, we had her wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway. (You do wonder what people looking out their windows must have thought!) I walked Panda along her familiar route. As we began to cross the driveway, my driver would pull out slowly across our path. Panda backed us up out of harm’s way.
We were essentially teaching Panda that moving cars trumped the go forward cue. If I asked her to go forward, and there were no cars or bicycles coming, she was to take me across the intersection. But if there was a vehicle in motion, she was to stop. She wouldn’t be punished for refusing to respond to a known cue. Keeping us out of the path of a car produced clicker treats.
Step 5: The traffic checks continued. We used different cars and different locations. They became increasingly more like real world situations.
Step 6: Once Panda was paired up with Ann, we went through the whole process again, making sure that the behavior was solid now that the possibility of real traffic checks existed.
Testing the Training – How Strong are your Habits?
Panda was so good at these checks I wanted to get them on film. Our usual driver wasn’t available so we enlisted the help of Ann’s husband. We gave him the instructions. He was to wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway and, as Ann approached with Panda, he was to pull out in front of them.
That was fine. He knew how traffic checks worked. The one part of the instructions we forgot to tell him was we only needed one or two traffic checks. After that he could go home, and we’d keep walking. Since we left that part out, at every driveway and parking lot intersection along our route – there he was.
Later when we watched the video, we thought we should have the sound track from Jaws playing in the background. There was the gold van stalking Ann and Panda yet again! Ann was taking her usual route heading for the barn. It’s a long walk, and that day we all learned just how many driveways there are between her house and the barn! (You can see one of the many of these traffic checks in the video at the top of this page.)
All of these traffic checks served them well. Prior to pairing up with Panda, Ann had had two guide dogs who both failed to stay in work. They were both very distracted by other dogs, squirrels, really anything that moved.
Crossing streets was always a white-knuckled affair. Ann would get to the barn with horror stories about missed curbs and missed traffic checks. Neither of these dogs should ever have been passed by the school that trained them, but they were hoping that an experienced handler like Ann would be able to manage them. In both cases they had to be returned to the school and re-homed into other careers. I think both went on to be police dogs, work they were much more temperamentally suited to.
Ann’s experience with Panda was completely different. Dogs were something you ignored. And traffic checks – for Panda they were like playing a video game where you’ve reached master level. Ann would get to the barn laughing, telling me about that day’s adventures. For well over a year the high school she walked past on her way to the barn had been under construction. Every day there was some new challenge for them. One day there would be a sidewalk for them to navigate along. The next day it would be gone. All that was left would be a gaping hole and piles of rubble.
This once familiar landscape has been transformed by construction, but Panda still manages to find a safe route.
Traffic checks didn’t just mean avoiding cars, school buses and the high school track team out for the day’s run. It now included encounters with heavy construction vehicles and bulldozers. Panda had to watch out for traffic and figure out how to find a route across a parking lot that was completely transformed. This was nothing like the tidy sidewalks and suburban side streets she had trained over. All those trips into Albany paid off here.
I’m writing about intelligent disobedience because this is something we need to be more aware of in our training. I wish our big horses could have the same freedom to say no that Panda does. If we’re going to ride a horse, he should be able to say no, not today. If we’re going to jump a horse, or ride him over uncertain ground, we need to trust those times when he slams on the brakes and says not there. You may not see the slick ground or smell the grizzly bear, but I can.
If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want. If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask. If he says no, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed. Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is. If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training. It makes sense to use their senses to help keep us both safe.
The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that it is okay for a horse to say no.
Coming next: What About Mistakes? When is it okay for us to say no? Panda has some things to teach us about that, as well.
You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Visit: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html
Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda: Panda: A Guide for Ann by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.
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