The Goat Palace
I took a break from the Goat Diary reports over the Thanksgiving Holiday. This past week I’ve been nose to grind stone getting my presentations ready for the 2018 Clicker Expo. 2018 marks the 15th Anniversary of the Expo. I’m looking forward to looking back.
For the past four or five years I’ve been doing a program at the Expo titled: “Getting Your Horse Started with the Clicker”. As you’ve seen from these goat diaries, there’s a lot to be said about introducing any animal to the clicker. Look at how many of these goat diary reports I’ve posted and we’re only at Day 4 with Elyan and Pellias. Imagine squeezing all this down into just two hours which is the time I have for this talk at the Expo. I could make it easy on myself and give the same basic talk every year, but that’s no fun. Instead every year I create a new program. The title stays the same, but the content changes.
Last year I used the work of the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, to help us understand the great divide between command-based and cue-based training. When you’re first dipping your toe in the water of cue-based training, it’s good to know that this divide exists and that it very much impacts your training choices.
This year’s program is inspired by the goats. They are such incredibly enthusiastic learners. They are quick, agile, smart, eager – and fantastically greedy for treats. That makes them perfect candidates for clicker training.
I want the eagerness, but I also value calm, settled learners. So this year’s program focuses on the teaching strategies that help create a balance between calm and eager. I resisted using pictures of the goats in the “Getting Your Horse Started” talk, but I did put some into my introduction to the Rope Handling Lab.
I sent the programs in yesterday – one day ahead of the deadline, so now it is back to the Goat Diaries. A lot has happened in the nine days since I last posted. For starters I decided to separate the goats. The ladies now have their own separate living quarters in the back half of the lean-to. Thanzi was doing too much chasing of the youngsters. I didn’t like the stress that was causing for them. So now youngsters have the front area to themselves, and Trixie and Thanzi are much more settled in their own quarters. It certainly makes it easier to manage the swaps in and out for training.
The other big change has been that I turned what was supposed to be the storage area for the lawn mower and the snow blower into a training area. When the snowblower went out for repairs, the space it freed up was just too good to give back. So I’ve moved both machines to the storage bay of the composter. We’ve never really used that space because it is so open to the weather, but I figured out a very clever way to build a temporary roof over the equipment so we should be able to leave them there all winter. That gives us for training the thirty feet of what has now been dubbed the hallway. Priorities! We can’t have machines taking up good training space!
Having a designated training space has made a huge difference. It makes the swaps so much easier, and it gives us an area in which we can set up platforms and any other props we want for training. While one goat is working, the other goats often watch. Not even Trixie is anxious either about being left or being the only goat in this area.
The only stress is with Elyan who wants to be part of every training session. If he could figure out how to crawl through the cracks, he would. The stress is not so much his as it is mine. I have to work very hard not to succumb to how cute he is as he pleadingly tries to convince me to open the gate and let him join the fun.
Over Thanksgiving I worked with Elyan and Pellias individually on platform training. Out in the hallway I set a platform next to my chair and put a feed tub a short distance in front of it. Elyan’s platform was always on the left of the chair. Pellias’ was on the right.
I sat in the chair and whichever goat I was working with would hop up onto the platform. They are both very familiar with platforms so this was nothing new for them. What was new was the food delivery. In July after I clicked, I would hand them a treat, feeding them where the perfect goat would be. The perfect goat would have all four feet on the platform, and he would be looking straight ahead. The change I made now was after I clicked, I tossed the treat into the food bowl. They had to take a step down off the platform to get the treat. Which meant they had to get back onto the platform again to get clicked. Both goats were quick to figure this out. They got their treat and then backed up the one or two steps it took them to be all four feet once again on the platform.
I was thinking about this earlier this morning as I was writing out my journal notes for yesterday’s training. Backing up to return to the mat was well primed, meaning it was already in repertoire. If I had tried this early on in their training, it would have been a mess. They wouldn’t have had any understanding that getting back to the platform was relevant. Even if their feet happened to be on the platform, they were so fixated on the treats, they probably wouldn’t have noticed where their feet were.
If they had somehow understood that being on the platform was what got me to toss treats, backing up to return to the platform wouldn’t have been an available answer. We would have been floundering. They would have been mugging me or wandering off to hunt fallen leaves, and I would have been struggling to find something worth clicking. It would have felt chaotic and wrong.
Instead very early on I put backing into repertoire through the food delivery. So now when they were just a step off the platform it was easy to find the solution to the puzzle. Priming the training pump is a beautiful thing. (That, by the way is going to be one of the teaching strategies I’ll be talking about in my Expo presentation.)
Over several sessions I moved the food bowl further away from the chair so instead of taking just one or two steps to get back onto the platform, they now had to go four or five feet. That was about as far as I could reliably toss the treat. Pellias was particularly good. Once on the platform he positioned himself so he was parallel to my chair and looking straight ahead. Click, toss the treat. He dashed off to the food bowl, got his treat and backed himself right back onto the platform. Very fun!
Elyan was always angled on the mat so he was facing in more towards me. The mat was wide enough that he didn’t have to stand parallel to stay on it. So I built him his own mat which was half the width of the previous one. That sorted the problem. Now to have all four feet on the platform he couldn’t stand at an angle to the chair. You can solve so many training puzzles by just changing the environment.
Having two very different platforms also helped to designate which side of the chair they were to be on. I put out both platforms, but only reinforced them when they were on their own platform. There were surprisingly few mistakes. Even when both platforms were available to them, Pellias consistently went to the larger platform on my right; Elyan consistently went to the narrow platform on my left.
I worked them individually through the Thanksgiving weekend. Then on Monday evening I let them both out together. There was a swirl of activity around me. One of the goats hopped up onto the big platform. It was dusk, so the light was failing. A quick glance made me think it was Elyan. I told him he was on the wrong platform. But then I realized that it was Pellias. I clicked, gave him a treat, and then sat down in my chair. Instead of rushing over to Pellias to try to grab his treat, Elyan hopped up onto his own platform. I had two goats standing on either side of my chair – very neat. Click – toss the treats. They went each to his own food bowl, and then dashed back to the platforms.
Pellias was faster at getting back than Elyan. He had to wait until Elyan was also on his platform and both goats had their heads away from me before I would click. That was entertaining to watch. They were trying so hard. One would be perfect, but not the other. So I would wait. Now the second goat was where I wanted him, but not the first. They both had to meet criterion at the same time for me to click. Their heads helicoptered around. They were trying so hard. And now they both had a split second of stillness with their heads looking forward. Click – both dashed to their buckets. Pellias backed up onto the platform. Elyan turned to get back to his so he took a little longer. Pellias had to wait on his platform until Elyan was back on his. Then it was wait even longer until both met my criterion simultaneously.
I was delighted at how well the session went. There was no head butting, no trying to stand on the same mat, no competition at the food bowls. I clicked, they raced forward, each goat got his treat from his bucket and then it was back to his designated platform. Very neat.
I’ve continued to work on this with them. Yesterday I was astounded. I had two goats who were actually still, and not just for a second or two, but for real duration. It is amazing how things sort. Especially with such quick, agile animals, there is so much movement, finding still is a challenge. It’s easy to get active behaviors. Run to touch this target or race over here to this platform. That’s easy stuff. But stillness. Just stand here next to me. That’s hard. Something is always moving. If the feet are still, the head is moving. If the head is still, the feet are dancing. You click one thing that’s good, but what about everything else? And now to complicate things I have two goats who have to meet the criterion both at the same time. It’s amazing that it ever sorts itself out. I say amazing because it never gets old. I never take the puzzle solving for granted. It never becomes ho hum, of course it is all going to work out. Been there, done that. What’s to celebrate?
I’ll tell you what’s to celebrate. We have stillness – and the joy is still there.
Tomorrow I’ll catch you up on the ladies and then I’ll get back to the July goat diaries.
Setting up the environment so training can flow, there is a lot to that thought. Thank you for this article. I think I need to do some rearranging in my classroom.
Arranging the environment for success is a keys to the kingdom concept. It can be something as major as opening up the outer section of the goat palace for training, to something small such as changing the size of a platform. I’m sure there are many ways a classroom can be set up to contribute to good learning success.