What is the Click?
What does the click mean?
I’ve told you many times throughout these diaries that I clicked and reinforced a particular action. Those are good words, but we have to question – is that what really happened?
Absolutely, I did click. But what, if any, effect did it have on the goats’ behavior? Did they even notice it?
In July I could make a good case for the click being just meaningless noise for the goats. At this stage in their training were they stopping and orienting back to me because they heard the click? Or were they stopping because I stopped?
There was one very consistent cue that they were responding to. When I reached into my pocket, they surged forward for the treat. It’s this behavior that I wanted to change. There are many strategies for doing this. The one I chose for these sessions was to turn the movement of my hand into a cue for backing.
Once they had this part of the sequence down, I expected that they would notice more what came before the movement of my hand – the click. Hear that sound, and you know treats are coming – get ready. I know some people drop the click out and let the movement of their hand become the marker signal. I prefer to keep the click in the sequence.
We all have biases in what we use for our marker signals. My strong preference is for tongue clicks so I don’t have to carry a clicker around with me. That leaves my hands free for other things.
We also have biases in how we use marker signals. Do we keep them in? Do we change them over time to verbal signals? Do we sometimes feed without using a marker signal? Do we click but not feed? (When you want your click to function as a cue, that’s a peculiar one. What are you cueing? It becomes like an unfinished sentence. Think how annoying and not very useful that is when people make a habit of never finishing their . . . .
There are lots of variations on the theme. I developed my approach to using the marker signal through working with horses. I decided early on I wanted the click to be a gate keeper. That means about the only time I give my horses treats is after I have clicked. I want the message to be: “If you didn’t hear a click, don’t bother looking for food.” The exceptions involve rituals I have created around greeting and leaving. I give treats as I enter the barn and say hello to my horses, and again as I am saying good-bye, but the context is consistent and creates its own control of expectations.
At all other times, if I am giving a treat, it is for something I have clicked. This creates very consistent rules around the food. In the absence of the click, I can reach into my pocket to get my gloves or a tissue. My horses won’t be expecting food because I didn’t click.
If you sometimes feed a “just because” treat, you can create a lot of frustration. Your horse is left wondering what he just did that got you to reach into your pocket. “Just because” treats usually aren’t very consistent. That lack of consistency can throw a learner into an extinction process complete with all the “shaking of the vending machine” that goes along with it.
You’re wanting to be kind, and instead the carrots you’re feeding are just turning your horse into a scary monster. The click helps to manage this. Now he knows there’s no food unless and until he hears the click.
If you are new to clicker training, this may sound very restricting. You want to feed treats. Don’t worry. Once you start clicker training, you will have lots of opportunities to click and give your horse a treat.
Initially, the click is barely noticed by the horse. He sees you reaching into your pocket. That’s what he focuses on. You can get the same kind of mugging behavior that the goats were showing. The only difference is all that eagerness for the treats comes in a much larger package.
Over time you will see your horse respond to the click. It has begun to function as a reliable cue. When he hears that sound, he will stop to get his treat.
How do I know this? I do a lot of liberty work. Often the horse is at a considerable distance from me. In fact, I may be completely out of his sight. When I click, he stops. He heard that sound, and he knows what he needs to do to get his treat. Usually that means waiting quietly while I walk (not run) to him with the treat.
When cues are linked with positive reinforcement, they become predictors of good things to come. The sound of the click leads to good things, so my learner will want to figure out what he can do to get me to click again.
Pushing forward into my space, nudging my hands, pawing at me, if none of these things lead to a click, but backing up does, I’ll begin to see my learner actively backing away from me and these other less useful behaviors (from his perspective) will drop away. My learner will be using the backing behavior to cue me to make that funny sound that predictably, reliably leads to treats.
Over time he will learn that there are many behaviors that can get me to click. So now the noticing of cues moves back another step. He begins to pay attention to the thing that comes before the thing that comes before the thing that . . . . In other words he begins to notice the cues I am giving that signal to him what is the hot behavior that will most reliably lead to a click and a treat.
In all of this click serves as a gatekeeper. On one side are the behaviors that I want. On the other are the treats that my learner wants. It’s a win-win situation for both of us.
That understanding of the click’s function isn’t there at the beginning. Horses can be just as eager for their treats as the goats. They can crowd every bit as much into your space. But at liberty, I can show you that the click is a cue an educated horse is definitely responding to.
Why do I want this? I know many dog trainers have a much looser system with the click. They will often toss treats without first marking a specific behavior. Instead I want to give my horses so much practice responding to the click that it becomes automatic. They don’t even think about it. They hear the click, and instantly they are stopping.
Again, why do I want this? Simple answer – because I ride. Under saddle when I click, my horses all stop. I don’t have to actively stop them in order to get a treat to them. They stop on their own, and they wait patiently while I fish around in my pocket to get their treat. There’s no fussing or fidgeting. They have learned how to be patient. That’s a wonderful safety net to have when you are sitting on the back of your learner.
These goats were a long way from that standard. Riding was obviously not where we were heading. Instead they were going to be around small children. When someone clicks, backing up away from the treat pocket is a great response for a goat to have. That’s what I was working on in this session.
E’s leading session
In the previous post I described P’s leading session and my focus on the treat delivery. Now it was E’s turn. I brought him out into the arena on a lead. He was also excellent. He’s so very gentle. He’s much easier to lead than P. That actually made this lesson a little harder for him. Because P can be very pushy, he’s had a lot more experience moving back from the treat. It was easier for him to make the connection and to understand that backing up is what got me to hand him a goody.
E was slower to catch on. When I clicked, I extended my closed hand out towards him. Instead of finding my open palm with the treats there for the taking, I had the back of my hand turned towards him. At first, he was confused. What was he supposed to do? I didn’t want this to turn into teasing, so I helped a little by lifting the lead up so it exerted a slight backwards pressure. It was a suggestion only. I was careful not to pull him back. The lead was there only to remind him about backing, to bring it further up in the “files” so he would give it a try.
In previous sessions I had introduced him to this collar cue. He had learned that backing led to a release of the pressure AND a click and a treat. I’d given the lift of the lead meaning. Now it was time to put it to use. The lead was acting as a prompt. He got it right away. I only had to use it three times, and then he was moving away from my closed hand on his own.
So now it was click, and he backed up to get his treat. When I extended my hand out where the perfect goat would be, he was exactly where he should be to get a treat.
You’ll need a password to watch this video. It’s: GoatDiariiesDay10E
I started to take E back, and then decided to let him have another go at the mounting block. E was a little uncertain at first but then he went across the mounting block all the way to the end. I had some foam mats at the far end. E jumped up on them. Contact points! Then he leapt high into the air for a twisting dismount. What fun!
We went back to the beginning, and he ran across the mounting block again. I loved the rat a tat tat sound of his hooves on the wood. At the far end he did another wild leap off the mounting block.
The two runs seemed to satisfy him. He followed me into the aisle and back to his stall. Getting him to go back in was easy. Dropping treats seems to be the incentive they need to turn going into the stall into a good thing. They could so easily become sticky at going back. They like to go exploring. And they definitely like the treats, the social attention, and the game. Planning ahead so returning to the stall is a good thing was paying off.
As always, I balanced the excitement of our training sessions with the quiet of cuddle time. P was particularly eager for attention. They are showing more and more enjoyment. Now when I scratch, they lean into my fingers. I can see their lips wiggling. None of this was there at the beginning. Now when I scratch them, I get a whole body response. Talk about reinforcing me!
The Goat Palace – Catching Up With Current Training
All this good prep has created more opportunities to give the goats adventures. Because they will now lead reliably, we can take the three youngsters into the indoor arena for playtime. I can lead Pellias and Elyan together without being dragged in opposite directions or pulled off my feet. On the rare days when the temperature is reasonable I’ve also been taking them out individually for walks.
Last summer Pellias was the bold one, but this winter oddly enough it is Elyan who has been up for longer adventures. We started out just walking a large circle immediately outside the lean-to. I would ask Elyan to go just a couple of steps – click and treat. When I walked off, I was always mindful of his response.
If he hesitated or stopped to look at his surroundings, I would wait for him. The slack was out of the lead, but I didn’t add any pull. When he oriented back to me, click, I gave him a treat.
If he rushed ahead of me, I would say “Wait” and stop my feet. As soon as he glanced back towards me, click, I gave him a treat. “Wait” became a reliable cue within one session.
I discovered this the next day when we took the three youngsters into the arena for a playtime. We turned then loose and let them do aerials off the mounting block. After a bit I headed towards the far end of the arena. Elyan was staying close to me. Pellias was a little further off. When they spotted a set of platforms, they started to run towards them. I said “Wait”, and Elyan immediately turned back to me. Click and treat. What fast learners these goats are! I hadn’t yet given Pellias the “Wait” lesson, but when he heard the click, he immediately turned away from the platform and came running back to me.
Walking out with them individually has confirmed even more for me that the click has taken on meaning. Pellias and Elyan have both become very good at staying by my side and keeping slack in the line. As we walk along, I’ll click, and they will immediately orient to me. This is happening now before I stop my feet or reach into my pocket. What began as just noise in the background has become a reliable and very clear signal – come get your treat!
I should mention that Thanzi has also gained walking out privileges. The first time I put a lead on her, she dragged me the length of the hallway to get back to the security of her pen. Now she stays glued to my side, and we can venture out for walks. That’s enormous progress. She was chosen to come here because she was such a strong puller. She’s so powerful, and now she is also so wonderfully light on a lead.
Trixie is another matter. The lead for her is definitely a cue – just not a positive one. If I am holding a lead in my hand, she shuts down completely. Never mind trying to put it on her. Just holding it creates this response. She is a work in slow progress. But I have written enough for today without going into the unwinding of her poisoned cues. That will have to wait for another day.
Coming Next: Day 10 Continued: Distractions!
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 current 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.