The July Goat Diaries: Visitors
The goats were nearing the end of their stay with me. The original plan for this day was for Sister Mary Elizabeth to bring some of her 4-H children to the barn for a visit and then to take the goats back home with them. The goal of the visit was to show them what I was doing with the goats and also to show them how clicker training can be used with horses.
I was having so much fun with the goats I was reluctant to see them leave. I would happily have let them stay through the summer. When they did go back to their herd, I also wanted them to be solid enough in their training that they would be good ambassadors for clicker training. I didn’t feel we had yet reached that point. I asked if they could stay a little longer.
What did a little longer mean? Sister Mary Elizabeth needed E and P for the summer 4-H activities. She had children waiting for them. For me that made their clicker training introduction all the more important. I didn’t want a half-learned lesson to create problems for either the goats or the children. So we agreed to extend their stay for a few more days. I was going to do a workshop for the 4-H group the following week to introduce the children to clicker training. Sister Mary Elizabeth would pick the goats up the day before, so Day 9 was just for visiting, not for saying good-bye.
We began at Ann’s house so they could meet Panda and see her work. Panda is such a solid guide. What better way is there to say clicker training works! Apart from the fact that Panda is always amazing to watch, I thought beginning with a horse who isn’t much bigger than their goats might help them see connections and possibilities.
We followed along while Ann and Panda went for a walk around the neighborhood. As usual it didn’t bother Panda in the slightest to have a herd of people trailing along behind her. When we finished at Ann’s, we headed off to the barn to see the goats.
At the barn I started out with a goat cuddle session. I wanted to emphasize the importance of building a relationship. I took a couple of chairs into the stall. Sister Mary Elizabeth and one of the 4-H-ers went into the stall with me. The goats slowly approached Sister Mary Elizabeth. She was someone they knew, but they stayed well away from the teenager. Hmm. Time to regroup. This wasn’t going to keep the attention of these youngsters. It was time to show off some training.
I set up the mats as platforms in the aisle and brought P out first. He went politely from one platform to the next. While he was out, E taught himself a new trick. He wanted to be with everyone, so he jumped – all four feet – up onto the automatic waterer that’s in his stall. Who knew he could be that acrobatic! With a little bit of wiggling he could have found a way out of the stall. He repeated this “trick” later. Once discovered, nothing is ever unlearned. I quickly installed a piece of plywood over the waterer to block his access. Goat proofing! What a challenge.
E got his turn in the aisle. He did a great job going from platform to platform and waiting on the platform to be clicked and reinforced. I talked briefly about how he had been afraid at first. I didn’t force him. We moved further away from the security of his stall only when he showed me he was ready. I talked about you never know what they have learned, you only know what you have presented. But in the case of E we know what he learned about getting up on the waterer!
After the platform work, I asked Marla to show them what she’s been doing to help her horse become more comfortable with medical procedures. She had Maggie stand on a mat. That helped make the connection to the work I had just shown them with the goats. Marla started Maggie out in a halter, but quickly took it off once she saw that having an audience was not a distraction. In addition to asking Maggie to lift up each foot to be cleaned, Marla presented her with a dose syringe. She didn’t push it into Maggie’s mouth. Instead Maggie opened her mouth around the syringe. Sister Mary Elizabeth remarked that for the goats giving medicine with a dose syringe was always a struggle.
Maggie also stood on the mat while Marla presented her with a dental float. Maggie let her rasp gently across her molars – no halter, no restraints, no tranquilizers, just calm acceptance.
The horses were making a good case for clicker training!
We finished by letting Sister Mary Elizabeth try a little targeting with one of the goats. We started as usual by having her practice with me. When she sort of had the hang of it, I let P out. I was intending to use E since he is easier, but P was first at the door.
He was good in spite of having to figure out the difference between handlers. At first he was confused. Sister Mary Elizabeth’s body language didn’t match mine. That’s why using platforms can be so powerful. They provide a cue that doesn’t vary from one person to the next. As soon as P realized that Sister Mary Elizabeth just wanted him to move from platform to platform, he was in the game. He suddenly became the teacher, leading the dance.
It was a brief introduction to clicker training, but between the horses and the goats they were showing the possibilities – from the basic handling that I had started with E and P, to Maggie’s cooperative participation in the husbandry tasks, to Panda’s advanced performance as a guide for the blind, they had all been great ambassadors for clicker training.
The Goat Palace Updates: The Education Continues
Sister Mary Elizabeth has been coming to the barn as often as she can during our arctic freeze to learn about clicker training. During a recent visit Trixie showed us how much progress she is making by being able to participate in a food delivery lesson.
It is so the norm that once we click, we want to get the treat to our animals as fast as possible. The quicker the animal, the more it seems we rush. In the rush the handler ends up feeding in too close to her body. That’s especially true with horses.
Rushing means you are being sucked into the drama of your anxious or overly excited learner, and it just encourages more mugging. You can help calm the anxious ones, and settle the excited ones by slowing yourself down. Being able to alter the rhythm of your movement intentionally and deliberately is a skill that takes practice. This control over your own actions gives you more influence over the emotional state of your training partner.
Very early on the horses taught me that we need to present the food well out away from our bodies. The mantra is: “Feed where the perfect horse would be.” This doesn’t imply a fixed orientation. Sometimes the perfect horse will be backing up out of your space to get the treat. Other times he might be stepping forward, or standing still with his head in a particular orientation.
The overall idea is that you want the horse to stay far enough out of your space to keep things safe. You don’t want to feel as though the horse is crowding in on top of you. These goats really drove home this point. They were good at crowding in and pushing to get at the food. Through a series of lessons I had taught Trixie and Thanzi to back up out of my space – click.
That part was good. The question was what happened next? Left to their own devices they would surge forward again and press in close to get the treats.
Here another great training truth surfaces. If you don’t notice an unwanted behavior, don’t worry about it.
It will get bigger.
Eventually it will get big enough that you will notice. And finally it will get so big that you will want to do something about it.
A little nuzzling up against my hand could be tolerated and ignored. At the point where the nuzzling shifted into a push I began to pay attention, and that’s when I changed my behavior. I began to take extra time to get the treat out of my pocket. I would fish around. I was clearly getting the treat. My fingers just hadn’t yet found the perfect hay stretcher pellet. The goats waited expectantly, sometimes pushing their muzzles up against my hand.
I continued to fish around in my pocket. They were clearly trying to puzzle out what to do. Why not try backing? Suddenly, like magic, my fingers found the perfect treat, and I was offering them a goody. I had taught this through a series of steps so I was not “lying” with my click. I was going to give them their treat, but I was building some “table manners” around the food delivery.
So now with Sister Mary Elizabeth the challenge was getting her to wait. It’s very reinforcing to have the goats coming right up to you. That is especially true of Trixie since she tends to be so timid, even with people she knows well. I want them to orient to the handler, but then to step back so there is space between handler and goat. That’s the first waiting.
The second waiting is to take your time getting the food. If they are pushing into your hand, you can pause. I stressed that she wouldn’t be doing this with the goats at home who were new to clicker training, but Thanzi and Trixie understood this form of treat delivery. They knew they had to step back to get the treats. We had gone through a teaching process to make this part of “the dance”.
I was pleased to see how resilient both goats were. They could handle the inconsistencies. And when Sister Mary Elizabeth waited and got the timing right, they were right.
This is one of the many things I value about clicker training. If you show an animal that you “speak the language”, they will work with you. It isn’t just that you’re now the one with the goodies. When you click, and offer a treat, you are saying I understand this form of communication. You are saying that I know you have a voice, and I am beginning to hear you. Tell me what you have to say, and I will listen. That’s the pact we are making with our animals when we fill our pockets with goodies and begin this journey into clicker training. It’s a voyage of discovery, and what a voyage it is!
Happy travels everyone!
Please note: I am about to head off to the Clicker Expo, so I will not be posting again until next week.
Also 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.