Everything is Connected to Everything Else – Including Dolphins and Horses
I stumbled across clicker training in 1993. A friend who bred and trained Irish Wolf hounds told me about Karen Pryor’s book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”. I read it, loved it and wanted to learn more. What was this clicker training that she was talking about? How did it work?
I read her second training book, “Lads Before the Wind: Diary of a Dolphin Trainer” which described how she and her husband, Tap Pryor, developed Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Karen was given the task of figuring out how to train dolphins. It wasn’t anything she set out to do. The task fell to her because the people they had hired to train the dolphins weren’t getting anywhere. These trainers were trying without success to use old-style circus training methods. That didn’t work with an animal that could just swim away from them.
Karen was intrigued by the work that was coming out of B.F. Skinner’s labs. So armed with the lab notes from some of his graduate students, she set to work. She figured out how to use marker signals and positive reinforcement to train dolphins.
Her books were great. I loved both of them. I enjoyed “Lads” even more than “Don’t Shoot the Dog” because Karen shared the puzzle-solving aspect of training. But those books weren’t training manuals. They didn’t teach you HOW to train. They just teased you with the possibility that you could remove the threat of punishment that sits behind most horse training methods.
I was intrigued, but in 1993 other than Karen’s books, there weren’t any readily available resources for learning more about clicker training. Through a bit of luck, I did manage to find a VHS recording of a seminar that Karen produced. It included two short video clips showing animals being clicker trained. One was of an African bull elephant at the San Diego zoo being trained with protective contact to present his feet for trimming. The other was a 12 week old mastiff puppy who learned to sit and lie down in minutes without ever being touched.
The elephant was the most interesting. He had attacked his keepers on several occasions so the decision was made to that no one was allowed to go directly into his pen with him. That meant that for ten years he had not had any foot care. Clicker training was being used to see if they could teach him to orient to targets and present his feet through a small opening in the gate of his enclosure. During the video, you could hear Gary Priest, the director of training at that time, saying “I cannot impress upon you enough how aggressive this animal was, but he’s standing there cooperating for just the social attention and a bucket of food treats.” I watched that and thought – we in the horse world have a lot to learn. I was thinking of the twitches, the lip chains, the hobbles, etc. that I had seen people use to force horses to comply.
The other video showed the use of a treat held up above a puppy’s nose to get the puppy to sit. Within just a few clicks, the puppy was sitting, then lying down and staying down while the trainer walked around her. There was no pushing, no shoving, no use of force. It was simple, elegant training.
Those two videos were all I needed to be up and running. They gave me what I needed to go out to the barn to ask Peregrine what he thought about clicker training. He got the proverbial ball rolling, so it is fitting that the new book, Modern Horse Training, is coming out on the anniversary of his birthday, April 26.
A Perfect Fit
I could say that clicker training was a perfect fit for me. Or I could turn it around and say that I was a perfect fit for clicker training. There were no horse books out there to guide me, or even any other trainers I could visit to see how it was being used. I was on my own. But I was primed. To use the language of constructional training, I had the components that were needed to turn the idea of clicker training into a fully formed, detailed, soup to nuts training program.
So what were those components? What were the skills, the mindset, the repertoire that prepared me so well to embrace the idea of clicker training? I will say that I have met many others who shared similar components. For so many all that is missing is the understanding of marker signals. Give them that, and, like me, they are off and running. But for many others clicker training represents a huge shift in thinking. Can you really use food in training? Isn’t it a distraction? Won’t it teach your horse to bite? What do you do when your horse says: “No”? The old style of thinking dictates that you must punish unwanted behavior or your horse will become dangerous. “Fear of and fear for” becomes an underlying motivator even if it is not spoken of in that way.
We can begin with that same underlying motivator and end up with a very different result. That’s what I wrote about in yesterday’s post. You can also use treats in training and still stay wedded to the belief that unwanted behavior needs to be corrected.
Using positive reinforcement describes a procedure. What I’m addressing now is the question of what motivates your training decisions? Even kind people can end up choosing punishment because they are motivated by “fear for” risks. You’re afraid that your dog might rush out the front door and be hit by a car, so you use punishment to teach him to stay back when you open the door. That’s one example of how this plays out.
You don’t have to use punishment to solve this problem. There are other options. You begin by acknowledging that you are concerned for your dog’s safety, and then you search out solutions that are a match with your core ethics and the type of relationship you want with your dog.
The same applies to horses. Wanting to keep bad things from happening is a powerful motivator that can take us to some wonderful learner-friendly procedures.
Sometimes it’s okay to start out by running away from something. Clicker training teaches us how to reframe that so you begin to run TOWARDS the good things that you want. You stop focusing on the unpleasant outcomes that you don’t want and you teach instead all the good things you do want.
You don’t want your horse crowding into you, stepping on your toes, mugging your pockets, biting at your hands. You can certainly suppress these behaviors through the use of punishment. Or you can look at what you do want. When your horse is standing next to you, what does that look like? Can you describe what the “perfect version” of your horse would be doing? He’d be standing four on the floor, in his own space, with his head between his shoulders so his nose is well away from your pockets. The more detailed your description is, the easier it is to train what you want. Each element you describe becomes a lesson you can teach. What are his ears doing? Where is his head – level with his chest, down on the ground? You can shape all of this using a marker signal that is linked to positive reinforcement.
Those are nice sounding words, but again how do you make this work? What were some of the component skills that helped me transform clicker training from an interesting concept into a workable training program?
That’s tomorrow’s post. I’m splitting what was originally a much longer single post into two installments so it’s not too much to read in one sitting.
“Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” will be available April 26. It will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. You’ll be able to oder it through my web site and also through Amazon and other booksellers.
This is a great article about the benefits of clicker training and how it can be applied to horses. It shows how positive reinforcement can be used effectively in training, and the author’s personal experience adds an authentic touch to the piece.
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