JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed
In the previous post I shared with you some stories from Panda’s early training. Panda’s manners developed over time because she lived in a world of total consistency. Throughout the early part of her training I was the only one who handled her. She didn’t have to figure out how the rules worked with different people setting different standards.
Ann’s first guide dog, Bailey, had been a great guide. I learned a guide’s job in part by watching him. The job description is pretty straight forward. The real key to training a guide is consistency. I knew that Ann would never be able to see the raised curb in front of her, so I knew that Panda and I always had to stop at each and every curb.
By the time Panda went to live full time with Ann, it was actually a relief sending her off. Maintaining that level of consistency when you yourself don’t need it is a challenge. There is always the temptation to cut across the parking lot because you’re in a hurry instead of following the edge the way a guide should. I remember being at a conference where there where several guide dog trainers in attendance. One of them spotted us and cut through several rows of empty chairs to come talk to us. She had a dog with her who was about a week away from being placed.
I was horrified. I would never have cut through those chairs with Panda. We would have walked to the end of the aisle and gone through all the navigational checks that a blind handler would use to move to a different row of chairs.
There’s a great horse training expression that applies here:
“The horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count, so it always has to count” John Lyons
The more consistent I was, the more consistent Panda was going to be.
But what happens when you can’t maintain this standard of handling? What happens when clicker training isn’t a consistent part of a horse’s life? That’s often the case with the horses I work with. I see them for short periods of time, and then they are back to handling as usual.
One such horse was Pico, a wonderfully clever horse who right from the start adored clicker training. I began with him, as I do all horses, with protective contact, but I quickly moved to a larger work space where he had more room to move. We worked on basics – grown-ups, targeting, the beginnings of mat work, backing and head lowering.
On my first visit I spent four days with him during which time he had two short sessions per day plus some casual interactions over his stall door.
For four days his world was completely turned upside down. He was singled out from a group of fifty horses for all this special attention. Every morning I greeted him as I walked into the barn. I gave him extra attention. He got to play this very neat game out in the arena. He had the goodies, all the social interaction, and then I left and there was nothing. From his perspective I simply disappeared. What a topsy turvy world it must have seemed to him. I was gone. There was no morning greeting, no play time after coming in from the day’s turnout. Nothing.
I was gone for about a month, and then I suddenly popped back into his life. Pico was so excited he could barely think straight. During my first visit he’d been a superstar, but now he was a mess. He was in my space, mugging my pockets, forgetting the manners he’d been showing me so beautifully before. He was truly like a small child the day before Christmas. He was just so excited, he couldn’t do anything right.
I certainly didn’t want to punish this enthusiasm, so I turned it instead into a game.
The game was: “What’s the new cue?”
I thought of it for Pico because I truly enjoyed his company. I wasn’t training him. I wasn’t working him. “Working” opens one set of files. It gives you access to tried and true methods. It doesn’t open the creative files that bring you to new solutions. Those are opened only when you are playing. Play and creativity are like two vines that have grown together and hold one another up.
Creating New Cues
So what is this “What is the new cue” game?
It is based on the process of creating a new cue for an established behavior.
Here’s the process:
Suppose you have taught a puppy to sit. You’ve added a cue to the behavior. When you say “sit”, your puppy sits readily.
But now you would like to change the cue. There are many reasons you might want to do this.
Your puppy may at first have sat with his hips off to the side. That’s how young dogs often sit. Over time you’ve cleaned up the behavior for the show ring, and he now sits with his hips squarely under him.
By changing to a new cue, you are creating a performance cue that refers only to this tidied up version of sit – not the original sloppy sit. If you kept the original cue, under the pressure of competition, your puppy might revert back to the first-learned version of the behavior.
Or perhaps you have been sloppy with your stimulus control. “Sit” means sometimes, if you feel like it, when the spirit moves you. It doesn’t mean now. So you tidy up the behavior and give it a new cue that has none of the old sloppiness associated with it.
Or maybe your puppy sits just fine. There’s nothing wrong with the original cue, but you’d like to do some freestyle with your dog, and you’d like to use some props. When you knock over a suitcase, you’d like your puppy to sit.
You can come up with lots of different situations where changing to a new cue for an established behavior would be useful. Whatever the reason for wanting a new cue, they all depend upon the same process:
1.) Build the behavior.
2.) Attach a cue to the behavior.
3.) When this first cue is solid, you can begin to transfer the behavior to a new cue.
You’re going to give the new cue first, followed immediately by the old cue. This will trigger the behavior – click then treat.
Repeat this process several times. You will begin to see the animal initiating the behavior before you can give the old cue. So now you can give the new cue and get the behavior – click then treat.
Sleight of Hand Magic Tricks
This is the underlying process I used for Pico to turn an unwanted behavior – mugging my pockets – into the cue for a desirable behavior – head lowering.
That’s straight forward enough. What changed was turning this into play. The end result was great manners taught without the frustration of extinction. I didn’t want to just fold my arms and wait for Pico to stop trying to get past me into my pockets. As excited and eager as he was, that would have spoiled his game. From his perspective he’d be saying: “I put my quarter into the candy machine. Why isn’t my carrot bar coming out?!”
What do we do when a vending machine isn’t working? We get frustrated. We jiggle the vending machine, and if that doesn’t work, we bang on it harder.
Eventually, we’ll give up and leave, but we’re not going to be very eager to try again.
This was not the downward emotional spiral I wanted for Pico. I loved his enthusiasm. I just needed to redirect it.
So I began with head lowering. I used my hand as a target. I invited him to drop his head by following my hand down. Targeting made the behavior “hot”. Follow my hand down – click and treat. Easy. The cue became the combination of my targeting gesture and a slight bend of my body.
Next I transferred the cue to a light touch on his poll. I reached out towards him and rested my hand briefly on his poll.
By itself this is a very standard “horse training” way to ask for head lowering that can be easily adapted for clicker training. You rest your hand lightly on your horse’s neck just behind his ears. Your horse won’t at first know what you want. The most normal reaction is he’ll lift his head up, or he’ll brace against you. You’ll follow his head movement, keeping your hand in place with a steady, neutral pressure. You aren’t trying to push his head down. That’s his job – to drop his own head. You’ll simply wait with your hand on his poll. Eventually, he’ll drop his head, and you’ll remove your hand. If you’re a clicker trainer, you’ll add a click followed by a treat.
This strategy is based on the following:
A little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change.
If your cat is sitting on your lap while you read this text, eventually, no matter how much you love her, you will need her to move. A little bit of pressure from her curled up on your lap has created a very great need for a change. You’ll be squirming out from under her. (Of course, she will then go to work training you. She will turn into a boneless rag doll and very mysteriously manage to pin you down even more. And she will charm you into providing even more of a lap to sit on by purring loudly.)
Your horse will eventually get tired of having your hand resting on his head. Up doesn’t dislodge you, so he’ll try down. At the slightest drop of his head, you’ll take your hand away. Click then treat.
This method works, but it can take a lot of patience on the part of the handler. What usually happens is the person gets impatient and begins pushing down. The horse pushes back, and suddenly you’re moving a long way away from play.
Play and the Transferred Cue
So instead of waiting for Pico to discover the answer, I used the transferred cue process. I put my hand on Pico’s poll, but I didn’t linger there. I wasn’t trying to trigger the behavior by leaving my hand there.
I rested my hand on his poll long enough for Pico to be aware that I had done so, then I offered him my hand as a target. He dropped his head. Click then treat.
I repeated this process:
After the third or fourth repetition, I hesitated just fractionally after reaching out to his poll. He dropped his head. Click and treat.
After that, all I needed was my new hand-on-poll cue. If he hesitated at all, I could offer a reminder by shifting to the hand targeting. I only needed the reminder a couple of times before the new cue was solid.
So then I moved to the next transfer. I used the simplest version of asking for head lowering from a lead. I milked the line down.
This is a curious expression. It means I slid my fingers along the line to create a slight downward suggestion. My hand didn’t close around the lead. I stroked down a couple of inches and then brought my hand back up to the snap and stroked down the lead again. But remember this was a transfer-cue process. I wasn’t waiting until the stroking of the lead triggered the head lowering response. Instead I stroked the lead just a couple of times, and then I reached up and touched his poll.
He wasn’t expecting that, so I continued on back through my chain of cues and targeted him down with my hand. He dropped his head, click then treat.
On the next repetition I got as far as my hand on his poll before he dropped his head.
And then he had it. As I milked the line down, he dropped his head. Very neat.
The Transfer Continues
We practiced this for a few more reps, and then I made the next transfer.
Now the cue was a bump of my hand against his nose.
So here was the sequence of cues he knew:
I could go as far back into this sequence as I needed to trigger head lowering.
I thought of it like learning how to say “horse” in five different languages. When I say “horse” as part of a children’s game, you’ll point to the picture of a horse – not the cow or the sheep.
Pferd is the German for horse.
If I say “pferd”, I want you to point to the picture of the horse. At first, this odd word won’t mean anything to you, but if I say “pferd”, then “horse”, you’ll point to the picture I want. Click and treat. I’ll only need to repeat this a couple of times to have you pointing to the horse when I say “pferd”.
Okay, got that. Before I need to remind you what pferd means, you’re pointing to the picture of the horse.
Caballo is the Spanish for pferd.
So now I say “caballo”, followed by “pferd” and you point to the picture of a horse.
“Caballo”. You don’t need the extra hint. You point right away to the horse.
Cavallo is the Italian for caballo. So again I say “cavallo” followed by “caballo”. The new word trips you up for a moment, so I continue on to “pferd”. Now you have it.
“Cavallo.” You point to the horse.
Cheval is the French for caballo.
So now I say “cheval” and you point to the horse. This is an easy game – as long as I don’t mix in other farm animals. That’s when it becomes a real test of memory. Right now I am simply transferring the cue through a chain of words.
By the time I get to cheval, you’ll have no trouble making the switch. You know the game. Pointing to the horse is the hot behavior. Played at this level of difficulty, this is a game you are guaranteed to win.
Pico was guaranteed to win.
I bumped his nose – he dropped his head, click and treat.
Sleight of Hand Magic – The Trick Revealed
Now if you are thinking all of this was built over a period of many sessions – think again. These transfers happened in rapid fire succession, one after another. It was like watching a magician’s trick. Where’s the quarter that was just in my hand? Oh look! It’s on your shoulder. How did it get there? And how did your watch get on my wrist? You weren’t watching. Oh look! When I bump his nostril, your horse is dropping his nose to the ground . That’s a funny reaction!
So now I could fold my arms into “grown-ups”. If Pico bumped me looking for treats, his own mugging behavior cued him to drop his head. Magic!
But then it’s all just child’s play!
Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9: You Can’t Not Cue
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
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