Goat Diaries: Day 1 Continued – Lessons From Panda

Please Note: If you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/

p5_TrainerAlexandraKurlandPandaWithLittleBoys AtPostOfficeDelmarNYNeilSoderstrom.jpgThese goats were not the first dog-sized herbivore I have worked with. Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide for the blind, has that honor. I was quickly discovering that the principles and lessons I had used in her training were going to apply very much to these goats. They may be very different species, but their training needs were similar. The rules I set myself for Panda very much applied to the goats.

One of the primary rules was a core training principle:

You can’t ask for and expect to get something on a consistent basis unless you have gone through a teaching process to teach it to your horse.

That meant I couldn’t ask Panda for anything that I had not taught her. If I wanted her to stand still while I talked to my neighbors, I had to first teach her what I wanted her TO DO. I couldn’t expect her to just know how to be patient. And she had to learn to be very patient because people were bubbling with curiosity when they saw me walking a miniature horse around my suburban neighborhood.

Panda at curb in neighborhood.png

Panda at 10 months out for a walk around the neighborhood – fall 2001.  I am reinforcing her for stopping at the curb after crossing the street.

I also had to be consistent. I kept in mind a phrase I had learned from John Lyons many years ago: “The horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count, so it always has to count.” Panda’s blind owner would never be able to see a curb crossing, or a root sticking up through a sidewalk. If I wanted Panda to be consistent in her guide work, I needed to be 100% consistent in her training.

These two training rules served me well when I took them to the goats.

Panda napping goats nappingSession 7: 4 pm
I took the chair back in and set it in the middle of the stall. Both goats were eager for food, so eager in fact they were practically in my lap. I decided to work on “grown-ups” to get a feel for how that would work with them.  Grown-ups is short for a lesson I refer to as “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.”  Grown-ups means the goat (or horse) stands beside me in his own space. Ideally he is looking straight ahead so his nose is well away from my treat pockets.

Sitting as I was in a chair, I was thinking about Panda. One of the early behaviors I worked on with her was this one of having her position herself beside my chair.  In fact, my second book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures” was written while I was teaching Panda to stand next to me while I worked on the computer.  It was the start of teaching her a base position out of which so much of her guide work evolved.

Panda guiding - great walk.JPG

Panda as a working guide

Panda is tiny. At nine months of age when her training started, she weighed about 120 pounds. I could easily have pushed her into any position I wanted, but that would have broken one of the rules I had set for her training. It’s worth repeating that my primary rule was I could not ask her for anything that I had not first introduced to her through a teaching process. If I hadn’t taught her how to stand next to my chair, I couldn’t ask her to do so and expect her to be successful.

Connected to this rule, I could not physically move her around. It was always up to Panda to move her own body in response to my request. If she was standing with her hind end swung too far out away from my chair, I could not push her back into position.

With small animals that’s so easy to do. We can push, pull, and drag them around. We can even pick them up and carry them.  Who needs training when you can do that!

With ponies that is so often why they get such awful reputations for being stubborn and for “misbehaving”.  They may not get picked up like a baby goat, but they certainly get pushed and shoved around.  They aren’t really being taught what is wanted.  While they are still too small to put up much of a fuss, they are just pushed around. It’s easy. It’s quick. It gets the job done, but it leaves behind negative fallout.

With Panda if I wanted her to move her hip over, I could put my hand on her hind end. I could indicate a direction I’d like her to move, but I had to stop at that point of contact and wait. Another wonderful phrase for the point of contact is point of attention. I would wait there for Panda to notice my hand and then make a response.

When she shifted her weight even the tiniest bit, I would take my hand away as I clicked. The click was always followed by a treat. Pushing her over would have been faster in the moment. Waiting took more focus, but the results were well worth the wait.

Panda has been working as a guide for over fourteen years.  Following these rules in the foundation of her work helped build this long-term durability in her work.

Panda walk 1.1.17  cross delaware.png

Winter 2017

I was following the same rules with the goats. They were so much smaller than Panda. E probably weighed only about thirty or forty pounds. I could easily have picked him up, moved him around any way I wanted. That would get him from point A to point B. It would be easy – this time. But the more I followed that path, the less he would want to have anything to do with me. He might approach me because I had peanuts, but the minute my pockets were empty, he’d be off. That wasn’t enough. That wasn’t the relationship I wanted to build.

P was the first one to come over to visit. He came around the right side of my chair and got lots of clicks and treats for staying by my side. E was still eating hay which made it easier to focus just on P.  When E joined us, it was harder to separate out who was getting clicked for what. We were very much where you would expect to be at this stage – eager chaos with some order beginning to appear.

I kept this session short. Better to do a little and then leave to think about what to do next next than to stay and let their eagerness turn into unwanted behaviors.

(Note: each of these sessions were only about five or six minutes total.)

Session 8: 8 pm
For their final session for the day I went in without treats and set my chair down near their hay pile. They were comfortable enough with me to continue eating. I reached out and stroked their backs. They didn’t run away but they stopped eating. Curious.

I haven’t worked with goats enough to know what – if any – stroking, scratching, rubbing they enjoy. Are they like llamas who really don’t want the contact? Or are they more like horses who enjoy a good social grooming? I scratched the base of E’s ears. He stopped eating, but he stayed.

His body was tight. He showed no outward signs of enjoyment. His lips weren’t wiggling the way a horse’s would. His eyes weren’t getting dreamy. But he was staying. I scratched some more around his ears and the back of his neck. P crowded in so I switched to him. As soon as my hand left him, E went back to eating.  As I scratched P, he also froze.   When I stopped scratching, he put his head down and began eating hay. Scratch – the eating stopped. Interesting.

I sat with them for about half and hour and then left them for the night.

Goat Diaries Day 2 Cuddle Time

Evening “cuddle” time.

Coming Next: Day 2: Quick Learners

Please Note: If you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/

And to learn more about clicker training visit my web site: theclickercenter.com

5 thoughts on “Goat Diaries: Day 1 Continued – Lessons From Panda

  1. Wonderful, wonderful article. Like your training sessions-short and packed with learning moments. Great to see that Panda is still hard at work, knowing that Anne would have had at least two dogs by now and be setting up for a third. That is a gut-wrenching process even if it goes perfectly. Thanks so much for taking us along with the goats’ journey.

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  2. I gain so much from everything of yours that I read, but this one in particular has made me think. The moving around as we wish of animals, anything really, small enough to be manhandled easily, and the resentment that builds within them. I know I am guilty of that with my children. It is so much easier and faster to move them than to try to get them to want to do things. In everything I do it has made me stop and think and work harder at training instead of forcing. Thank you.

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