The Fluid Nature of Language

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 5 of 5

The Fluid Nature of Language
We began this discussion of negative reinforcement by eavesdropping on a late night gathering of the Clicker Expo faculty.  It is now twelve o’clock and the conversation in the faculty lounge is still going strong.  We have shed Kay and several of the others.  I had promised myself that I would leave at 11:30, and yet here I am.  Another ten minutes and then I really will leave.  That’s what I say to myself, but I have been saying it all evening.

Eva has asked another question.  I am loving the twists and turns the conversation is taking, but really I do have presentations to give.  I find an opening in the conversation and stand up, bringing the discussion to a natural close.  The others all stand up, as well.  Good.  I won’t miss anything.  But as I am leaving, I hear Susan Friedman asking Ken Ramirez a question.  I want to stay, but I know if I do, I will be good for nothing tomorrow.  I leave, but the following day, I hear from Ken that he and Susan remained locked in a discussion over terminology until 1:30 in the morning.

Language is not fixed.  We add words.  We change words.  We think we understand the intended meaning when we hear words used in context, but do we?  We are so accustomed to the fluid nature of language we don’t even notice how the language has evolved until we run into someone who uses the same words but in a different way.

In behavior analysis precision matters, and the use of language is very structured and controlled. It is like that puppy in yesterday’s post who stays in the base position of lying down while he learns to move just his paw.  Lying down keeps the number of things that are moving to a minimum.  Change too many variables at once, and it becomes harder to notice the one thing that you’re doing.  Scientists attempt to constrain the language to make themselves clearer.  Terms such as positive punishment and negative reinforcement have very precise meanings.  Unfortunately, when you bring that language back into the realm of common usage, confusion is often the result.

As I thought about our wonderful late night conversation, I found myself straddling both sides of the fence.  I agree that we need to understand the technical definitions of the terms we use.  But along with that understanding is the consideration of how the terms have been used, interpreted, and misinterpreted over the years.  Are the definitions are still valid in light of additional research and development?  Do we need to modernize/change the definitions to bring them more in line with modern usage?  Is it time to develop new language that reflects more accurately our current understanding of the systems we’re studying.  Archaic language can keep us stuck in archaic belief systems.

How Words Are Used
Are there some terms that we need to snatch back from the scientists?  Are there some that are simply so useful and so easily understood that we need to say to the scientists you can’t have this one?  I think chains may well fall into this category.

A chain of behaviors is such a descriptive term.  It doesn’t take a lot of explaining for a novice to understand that you are asking for a series of behaviors, each one linked to the next.  It’s a good term, one that suggests it’s meaning almost without the need for a formal definition – except . . . the scientists have given this term a very specific meaning that excludes much of what many animal trainers mean when they refer to chains.

The scientists have their technical chains: you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

A sequence is something very different.  It’s a series of behaviors in which you cue one after the other after the other.

Hmm.  But are they really all that different.  Why does it matter if the cue comes from the green cone the horse sees after the jump or from a handler calling out “green”.  Both are cues.  And both link behaviors together.

The kind of chain that you wear around your neck is made up of links.  You can open up one of the links to take a section of the chain out or to add in more links. That’s why it is such a good image.  It provides such a clear visual image of one behavior connected to another.  You begin with one link.  You make that consistent, then you add the next link in the chain.  Link by link you can imagine growing your chain into longer and longer sections.  You can also imagine how links can be opened and a section of a longer chain taken out to be worked on separately or used in a different context.

It’s such a great image, I’m reluctant to give it over to the scientists.  We can certainly refer to technical chains, but I am also going to use the term chain to mean any series of behaviors which are deliberately linked together by cues.

poco-hug-3

 

With Poco I was using these links to build a two way conversation.  Touch could be highly aversive for him.  I wanted to show him that it didn’t need to be.  He could let down his guard and let me in.

 

The Power of Play
Play brought us step by step to this point.  It kept me laughing.  It kept me from treating him like something broken that needed to be fixed.  It kept me from becoming so fixated on his ears that I simply convinced him all the more to keep me at arm’s length.  Remaining PLAY FULL opened up creative possibilities.  It brought back old training memories, memories of Linda-Tellington-Jones in the mid 1980’s working with a fearful llama by doing TTEAM circles with her forehead, not her hands.  It let me take familiar lessons and combine them in novel ways.  It kept me listening to Poco and letting him lead me through the process.  It kept the training fun.

If you had walked into the arena in the middle of this session, you might not have said – “oh they’re playing.”

You would certainly recognize as play the rough and tumble of two young horses rearing up together in a field, or two dogs playing keep away with a stick.  You would see play when a handler clicks and throws a tennis ball to her dog or engages with him in a game of tug.  But this subtle exchange with Poco probably would not look like anything you would call play behavior.

With dogs you can use natural play behaviors very effectively to build bonds between you.  That’s not so much the case with horses.  Given their size, a horse’s natural play behavior means you are “playing” with dynamite.  So Poco and I developed our own form of play.  It evolved out of my approach to the session more than the specific behaviors I used.  If I am full of play, the horses respond by doing what Poco did – letting down their guard and inviting me in.

*  *  *  *

With this tenth characteristic of cues well in place we’ve moved from the realm of macro-responses to micro-shaping.  You’ve had a taste of what this means in the descriptions of Pocos sessions.  We’ll be covering it in even more detail in Part Three of JOY FULL Horses.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro

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.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

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