Happy New Year Everyone! The turning of the calendar year always prompts a looking back, so let me begin with a story.
Years ago when I was in the early stages of exploring clicker training, I was visiting with a local trainer who taught natural horsemanship. I had just been watching her with a very anxious thoroughbred. She was borrowing him for a ride the following day, and she wanted to get to know him. She had gone out into his very muddy paddock, driven all his friends away and then worked him on a lead until she was satisfied that he would obey her the following day. It was an impressive display of her skills.
Afterwards, we went back into her house. It was a relief to be out of the cold. We were sitting in a cosy living room. Picture a warm fire with arm chairs on either side and you have the setting. From our chairs we could see out the window to a large, unfenced hay field.
This trainer knew I was exploring clicker training. She didn’t get it. What could clicker training do for her that she didn’t already have the skill to get from a horse? So she asked me what I would do if someone drove up with a horse trailer and unloaded the horse she had just been working with into the hay field. As a clicker trainer, what would I do?
I hadn’t been teaching clicker training very long at that point. I was still in the early stages of figuring things out. I didn’t have a good answer for her. Now I do. The answer is I wouldn’t unload that horse into the hay field. If I did, I would have ended up using management tools that would have looked pretty much like the session I had just watched her give the thoroughbred out in his paddock.
Managing for safety is different from teaching.
As a naive horse, he would not have had an established clicker training repertoire to draw on. I would be left having to act like a “horse trainer”, meaning I would be using the lead and probably a whip to drive the horse from side to side to keep him from bolting away from me. I knew how to do that. It’s a lesson I learned many years ago from a very skilled horse trainer. It works to control a horse’s feet, but it’s not a technique that I ever enjoyed using. Whenever I found myself going to this lesson, I would say to myself, in ten years I don’t want to be doing this anymore. That was before I knew anything about clicker training. It has been over twenty years since I have used that lesson. I have a broader tool box now which lets me make other choices. Always, I prefer to teach rather than to manage.
Train where you can not where you can’t.
My preference is always to find an environment in which my learner feels secure and can comfortably focus on me and the lessons I want to teach. When you are working with a panicked animal that weighs in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds, the reasons for starting in this way are pretty obvious. They are just as important with small animals like the goats. The progress I was making with the goats were a great illustration of this training mantra.
The July Goat Diaries: E’s 9 am session
I’ve been describing the beginning steps of reintroducing a lead to both E and P. In my previous Goat Diary post (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/12/29/) I described P’s platform work. In my session with E I worked directly on leading. He was great. He’s so very soft. In our first leading session, I had asked for just a turn of his head, or a single step in my direction – click then treat. Now I could ask for multiple steps. Compared to the previous day, this was real progress. Beginning in the small space of his stall was definitely helping him to learn fast.
Several things were making it easy for E to learn. First, this is a space he knows. There really isn’t anywhere to go which makes staying with me easier. If we were out in a larger space, he might want to either run back to the safety of the stall, or to charge ahead to go exploring. Beginning in the stall was teaching him how to stay with me – and it was showing him that doing so was a good thing. The small space also meant we did a lot of turning. The turning helped to keep him close to me.
I loved how much slack I could keep in the lead. He was staying connected, listening to me and using the cues that the lead provided.
E was working so well, it was time to add another layer to his training. Out in the real world there are lots of distractions. There are things you want to run from and things you want to run to.
“Running to” makes a good starting point. There’s something you want – turnout, another herd member, a favorite friend. I know these goats were well practiced in heading straight to whatever they wanted and dragging their handlers along for the ride. Here in the stall I could begin to teach E the next layer in the rope handling. I had primed something he wanted – the platform. Platforms equaled treats – yeah! The platform itself was a cue, beckoning to him like the Siren’s song. The lead also presented cues. I wanted to teach him that the cues from the lead were the ones that had the highest priority.
The two mantras that guides this process are:
Never make them wrong for something you’ve taught them.
You can’t ask for something and expect to get it on a consistent basis unless you have gone through a teaching process to teach it to your horse (or in this case your goat).
If I wanted E to be able to walk beside me keeping slack in the lead out in the real world, I needed to go through a teaching process to make sure that expectation could be met. I couldn’t assume it would just happen. The teaching process began here in the stall with a distraction that I had created and could therefore control.
I took E’s lead off and set up the platforms. I wanted to review with him the basic platform lesson before I added in the complication of the lead. E hopped up on the first platform, click and treat. He waited while I stepped back away from him. Click treat.
I used the target to ask him to transfer to the second platform. Click – treat. Then it was back to the first platform. As he stepped down, the board he’d been standing on flipped off it’s base. It didn’t seem to worry him, but it bothered me. I put that platform away and took advantage of it’s absence to work again on leading.
I put the lead on him and asked him to step down off the remaining platform. I was cueing with both the target and the lead, so he had an overlay of information. The lead changed everything. He felt the restriction of the collar and didn’t know how to get off the platform. I’m sure it must be worrying, especially if you have had other experiences with a lead. If he jumped down would he be caught by the collar?
He did finally jump down – click and treat. But then he wanted to go back to the platform. I didn’t just follow. Instead the lead blocked him. The draw of the platform created a perfect opportunity to explain how the lead worked. I didn’t want to wait to be outside with all the distractions the world has to offer to present E with the puzzle of leads. It was much better to set up the lesson here in a familiar environment with an easier puzzle he could solve.
When he pulled, trying to get to the platform, I kept a steady hold on my end of the lead, but I did not add extra pressure. I let E experiment. Backing up didn’t help. Leaning to the side wasn’t the answer. But looking back to me immediately put slack back into the lead. AND I clicked and gave him a treat.
The platform was doing it’s job. It was serving as an environmental distraction. Here in this stall he was learning how to leave something he wanted and come back to me instead. The platform created a draw, but not at such an intense level that he couldn’t find the answer.
It would have been so easy to add pressure to the lead. E was a little goat. He weighed only about thirty pounds. I could easily have overpowered him, but that’s not the lesson I wanted either of us to learn.
E was illustrating beautifully what it means to wait on a point of contact and let the learner discover how to put slack back in the lead. The lead should NEVER be about dragging an animal around. It should be about presenting a cue and having the animal move his own body in response. This works whether you are working with a horse, a dog, or a goat. I was putting in place lessons that I hoped would give him an alternative to the sled-dog pulling that I had experienced when he first arrived at the barn.
His behavior indicated to me that he was learning fast. With each new iteration, he responded faster and found the answer that returned slack to the lead.
When we were finished with this session, I let both goats out in the outside run while I tidied up the stall. I gave them some fresh hay and brought the chair in to sit with them. They wanted chin and shoulder scratches. P stood beside my chair so I could rest my arm on his back while I scratched his withers. P was on my right. E on my left. E positioned himself for head rubs. If I stopped, he would lean in closer to let me know what he wanted. I stayed with them a good half hour or more just scratching and cuddling. This was my reinforcement for taking my time with their training.
The Goat Palace
I have to go shovel the snow from yesterday’s storm, so I’ll wait to catch you up on the current training. Right after Christmas the temperature plummeted. We’ve been sitting on either side of zero ever since. For those in Europe – that’s Fahrenheit not Celsius. The bitter cold has slowed down the training considerably, but there are still some fun developments to report. I’ll save them for the next post. Right now there is snow to shovel.
Coming Next: Goat Diaries Day 6: The World Gets Larger
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/ Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July. The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period. In November these two goats, plus three others returned. They will be with me through the winter. The “Goat Palace” reports track their training. I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.