The Goat Palace – Finding Stillness
In my last post I caught you up on some of the changes that occurred over the Thanksgiving Holiday. I transformed what was to be a storage bay for equipment into a training area for the goats. And I started working Elyan and Pellias as a pair. Now it’s time to catch you up with the ladies.
I’m going back over my notes as I’m thinking about what to write. On Nov. 21st all the goats were still living together which meant we had the problem of separating one out for training. The problem wasn’t getting one to leave the group. The problem was convincing all the others that they had to stay behind and wait for their turn.
At one point I had Trixie by herself in the back area. We were definitely making progress in that she was now okay being by herself. I wasn’t seeing the extreme worry that had been there only a few short sessions before when I tried to work her by herself. As you’ll recall, initially I had to give her the “security blanket” of training her with Thanzi. That made all of our sessions feel more than a little chaotic.
Now that I could have Trixie by herself I would have liked to have worked her with protective contact. The only way that could be done in the back pen was to use the side gate, but that would take her out of sight of the other goats. That was too big of a stretch for her to make. So I went into the pen with her. She immediately crowded in next to me trying to get to my treats.
In a way this was progress. When you are working with timid animals, there is a point where you celebrate mugging. I’ve done that many times with people who are working with very shut down horses. “He mugged me!” is said with great excitement. It means the horse is finally feeling safe enough to experiment and explore. It is a sign of huge progress, but it is also a behavior that needs to be replaced quickly with something that we find more acceptable – and safer.
I couldn’t work Trixie with a fence between us, but I could use the next best thing which was one of the large posts supporting the lean-to roof. I hid behind the post which effectively blocked access to my pockets. I could now be stationary which took me out of the picture and brought the target into focus.
I had a feed tub next to the post. I held the target up directly next to the feed tub so it was easy to find. It took a few minutes for anything consistent to emerge. At first Trixie just tried to get to me, but I held my position and let the post block access to my pocket.
She looked at the target often enough for me to click and drop treats into her food bowl. The dots were finally beginning to connect. She would dive for her treat and then lift her head up and immediately orient back to the target.
She has been so much slower than the other goats to make the connections between her actions, the click and my delivering a treat. Her worry has definitely gotten in the way and made it harder for her to figure out the game.
She is much more settled now than she was when she first arrived. That’s helping her to understand the training. The fact that she was trying to get to my pockets shows how much more comfortable she is now both with me and the environment. So even though it felt like chaos in those first few days when I had to work her with Thanzi and about all I could ask her to do was come to my hand for a click and a treat, it was a good starting point for her. Before I could ask for anything more, she first had to discover that she was safe.
She was now making her next discovery which was that it is an advantage to be by herself. When she doesn’t have to compete with Thanzi, she gets a lot more treats. I am hoping that as she and the other the goats learn that they don’t have to rush to get a treat ahead of the others, they will settle down and slow down to a more relaxed learning rhythm.
But now I was hiding behind a post so I could bring myself into stillness. When I am trying to dodge away from her to avoid being mugged, she is not noticing the target. She’s just thinking about getting to my pockets. Using a post as a barrier was an odd way to create protective contact, but it worked. Again, the environment matters and you learn to make creative use of what you have.
Trixie has also given me a new training mantra:
In stillness comes understanding.
I’ve practiced this for years. It’s something I’ve known, but the goats have really helped to crystallize this concept so I can put it into words. With the horses we begin with stillness both with targeting and the “grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt” lessons. When I first introduce the target, I am behind a barrier so I can be as non-reactive and quiet as possible. I put the target up in approximately the same place each time I present it. I don’t move it around a lot and have the horses follow it – not yet. That comes later. In this first introduction I work to get a clean loop by having the behavior remain very much the same through a series of repetitions. Keeping things constant means it is easier to notice the things that are most relevant to getting your person to reach into her pocket and hand you a treat.
For grown-ups the handler stands next to her horse with her hands held together in front of her. This position helps to block access to her treat pockets, and it brings the handler into stillness. She is learning to be non-reactive to behaviors she does not like. Instead of pushing her horse’s nose away, or correcting the unwanted investigation of her pockets in any way, she stays quiet. As soon as her horse takes his nose away even for an instant, click, she hands him a treat.
The stillness gives her a neutral base position. When she moves out of stillness to ask her horse to back up or to come forward, the change is much more noticeable to both of them. When you begin with noise, it’s much harder to notice a small change. When the environment is chaotic, it’s much harder to pick out the one piece of information that’s relevant. Isn’t that how mystery writers try to confound us? They clutter up the landscape with lots of characters and side stories. The more red herrings they throw in, the harder it becomes to spot the relevant clues.
What stillness does is strip all away all the extra noise that’s coming from us. For Trixie that meant the target suddenly became the one noticeably element in her environment. Now she could quiet down the noise in her brain. Where was Thanzi? Where were the treats? What was this person going to do? All of that could drift into the background. Finally, just the target could come into focus, and she could begin to make connections. And the connections could begin to rewire her brain, to bring all the frazzled ends together in a way that made more sense and could help her to settle.
I was going to write so much more to get you completely caught up to the current training, but I think this concept of stillness is one that needs mulling over. So I will be still and end the day’s post here.