Goat Diaries – Day 11: A Walk In The Park

Our brains love habits.  Predictable routines let our brains go on auto-pilot.  We don’t have to make decisions about every little thing.  Think how exhausted you’d feel before you even got as far as deciding what to have for breakfast if you didn’t have these micro-habits helping you get through the day.

I was establishing routines with the goats that were definitely helping with the smooth running of the day.  The morning of this their eleventh day of training began with a long cuddle/groom session.  E was particularly interested in being scratched.  I had the grooming mitt with me.  He stood perfectly while I used it all over his back and sides.  He seemed to be enjoying the feel.  P was not interested.

These goats need to be combed to get their beautiful cashmere fiber.  Combing was on the priority list, but they were both very clear that they weren’t ready for that step.  The grooming mitt was enough of a stretch for now.

Cuddle time was followed by leading sessions for each of them.  I was pleased by how good they both were.  I worked on grown-ups and took care that they stayed back during food delivery.  They were becoming very good at maintaining space between us.  I was also feeling that they were definitely responding to the click and not just my body language.  Their “wheels” were turning.

Little things were now evolving.  They knew the routine.  They knew they came out one at a time.  They knew they got treats on the floor when they went back to the stall so returning was not an issue.  They had become eager backers.  That meant I had to be careful to keep backing in balance with all the other things I was teaching them.  Backing is good, but in all things – moderation.

Our learners always tell us what we need to work on next.  Their eagerness to throw backing into everything suggested that I might want to put some mats out in the arena so they would have stations to go to.  That would help build solid standing still so I didn’t get hung up in some unintended chains.

E’s Session: “A Walk in the Park”

E was a delight.  He’s a charmer.  The way his long coat ripples as he walks, I can’t help but think I’m leading an overgrown Yorkshire terrier.  He’s a very elegant walking partner.  His good manners were beginning to match his good looks!

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E has become a very elegant walking partner.

P’s Session

P came out full of energy.  I thought he might need a bit of a run across the mounting block, so I let him loose.  He stayed with me.  We did a little bit at liberty and then I put him back on the lead.  He fussed a bit as I clipped the lead to his collar.  If he had been staying with me through the summer, cleaning that up would have been high on my to-do list.

He had much more go in him than E.  When I walked off, he trotted by my side.  He didn’t pull.  There was no feeling of the original sled-dogging.  He was staying with me.  He just had a lot of joyful energy that needed to be expressed.  I clicked, fed and went into grown-ups.

He was reminding me of an Icelandic stallion I had met at one of the spring clinics.  The stallion was in a new environment.  What an adventure!  He was a jumble of emotions.  He was excited – new horses, new sights and smells, so much to explore!  He was worried – new horses, new sights and smells, so much to take in.

He could have been a handful, but he came with a superb foundation in grown-ups.  Any time he started to get excited and to rush forward, his person stopped his feet and folded his arms together.  That was his cue for grown-ups.  That’s all he had to do.  His stallion instantly stopped his own feet and stood quietly.  It was a master class in the value of these foundation lessons.

P was on the first rung of the ladder that leads to grown-ups having that kind of stabilizing effect.  It doesn’t matter that he’s a fraction of the size of this horse.  Having these good manners in place will make him a much more enjoyable companion.  He made me think of the many dogs I have watched with their owners.  Some are over-controlled.  In an effort to manage them in human environments all their dogginess has been suppressed.  Don’t jump, don’t bark, don’t chew the furniture.  Don’t be a dog.

The other side of the pendulum looks at all that control in horror and lets the dogs do whatever they want.  Somewhere in the middle is a place where our animals can live comfortably and safely in our environments and still be themselves.

P is so very smart, and so full of joyful energy, that’s something I value and very much want to preserve.  I want to encourage his energy, not suppress it.  A very wise training mantra is: never get mad at energy.  You need it to train.

P’s energy can be channeled into so many fun activities.  I want to celebrate his quick learning.  His eagerness is a plus, something I want us both to enjoy.  He was learning to stay with me, to stand by my side, to move away from my treat pockets – not by being punished, but by being told over and over again how right he was.

Goat Diaries Day 11 Visitors

In the afternoon a friend I hadn’t see in quite a while came for a visit.  Ann joined us, as well.  We started by taking three chairs into the stall.  The goats visited a bit with Julie even though they hadn’t met her before.  That’s progress!  We talked for a while, then I took both goats in to play on the mounting block – except they didn’t want to!  After telling them how much fun it was watching the goats racing up and down the mounting block, they were total fuddy-duddies.  Oh well.  Perhaps Mount Everest loses it’s appeal after you’ve scaled it a few times.

Instead they stayed with me as I walked around the arena.  They were working together beautifully as a pair.  When I clicked, they both stayed well back away from my pockets.  All that was a plus.  What they didn’t do was put on an acrobatic show.  Oh well.

I took them back to their stall and then brought P out by himself on a lead.  I had Julie introduce herself via targeting.  She offered a target, in this case her hand.  When we clicked, I gave P his treat.

This is such a very safe way for him to meet new people.  I’ve used it many times with horses.  In clinics I’ll station people around the perimeter of a large circle.  For safety I’ll keep the horse on a lead.  One person will hold out a target, and I’ll walk with the horse as he moves towards the target.  Click.  I usually begin by handling the food.  The treats initially come from me.

After he gets his treat, we’ll back up to a mat that’s in the center of the circle.  Click, he gets reinforced for landing on the mat.  We do a couple of rounds of grown-ups and then the next person offers a target.  We use the mat in the middle so the horse’s hind end is never turned towards a person he doesn’t know.  I don’t want him to be frightened and suddenly kick out at someone.  Instead we back up away from the ring of people.

Remember, this lesson is most often used with horses who are worried by people. If something else in the environment suddenly startles him, I may be stacking one worry on top of another, creating a bigger spook than he would have to either one by itself.  So I structure this lesson with lots of layers of added caution, including backing up away from the people, but towards a mat.

All these little steps mean that this is not a beginning lesson.  I must first build all these components to make sure the lesson stays safe.  Look at all the skills this horse needs to understand and do well: targeting, taking food politely, backing, going to a mat, and even harder backing up with enough directional control that he lands on the mat, and finally grown-ups.

It’s a great pattern.  Every element gets stronger the more you play with it.  The horse gets more comfortable approaching people he doesn’t know.  His targeting skills become more generalized.  Backing becomes better.  The mat becomes an even stronger conditioned reinforcer.  Duration in grown-ups expands.  Treat manners get better.  Cues get stronger.  The behaviors overall become more solid.  Each element serves as a reinforcer for whatever preceded it.  You get all these benefits, and the animal thinks he’s just playing a game.

With P I wasn’t concerned about him kicking out so I didn’t worry about moving him away from Julie.  We just ping pinged back and forth between going to her to touch her offered target, and coming back to me for a treat.

I had just one more day with the goats and then they would be going back to their home farm.  Giving them this lesson would make it easier to transition new people into the games they had been learning with me.

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Goat Joy

Before we left the arena, I took P back over the mounting block.  The first time I kept the lead on and had him follow me up.  On the top step, I unhooked him, and he delighted us all with a wild leap into the air.  Such fun!

There’s more to this than just letting P entertain us with his acrobatic prowess.  P gets to practice getting excited, and then I ask for grown-ups and he practices calming down.  That’s a useful life skill no matter the species.

On the next run I unhooked him on the first step of the mounting block and let him go the rest of the way on his own.  He rewarded us all with another joyful leap off the mounting block.  I loved how he always came running straight to me.  Without really trying, I was building a great recall.

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Who knows.  I may be triggering some form of goat to goat aggressive display.  All the goat experts reading this may be shaking their heads, thinking oh the trouble she is going to get into encouraging this kind of behavior.  Perhaps they are right.  Or perhaps, balancing his antics with grown-ups will mean I can allow this behavior without it tripping over the edge into emotional states I don’t want.

E’s Turn

E is much more people shy than his brother.  Again, I took advantage of the opportunity to have two experienced clicker trainers in the barn to help build his confidence.

We began by having him target to Julie’s outstretched hand.  He approached her very directly.  Click, he had to leave her to come to me for the food.  I do like this process.  It begins to build some duration between the click and the actual arrival of the treat.

With the horses there can eventually be a considerable time lag between these two events.  When I click, there are times when the horse I’m working with may be eighty feet or more away from me.  He’ll stop and wait patiently while I bring him his treat.

All the behavior that he is presenting between the moment he hears the click and the moment I get to him and stretch my hand out to deliver the treat are things that I like.  This kind of duration didn’t happen over night.  It is built in small increments through a long series of lessons.  The horses wait patiently because they know the treat is coming.  All that good, quiet waiting is reinforced over and over again through the ritual of the food delivery.

We moved from Julie to Ann.  I had Ann hold out a cloth frisbee.  E touched it, got a treat from me, but then was reluctant to go to Ann again.  I wanted him to be successful, so I had Julie step forward and offer her hand as a target.  He went to her directly, click, the treat came again from me.

We went back to Ann.  This time I had her hold her hand out.  Again, E was reluctant to approach her.  After a couple of failed attempts, I offered him the frisbee.  He touched it directly.  I handed Ann the treats.  E took them from her without hesitation.

So we used this pattern a couple of times.  Flexibility was the name of the game.  Training is not like baking a cake where you need to stick to the recipe or you end up with a mess.  In fact sticking rigidly to a recipe is a good way to guarantee a mess.   Always it is a study of one.  And always you are adjusting to the needs of your learner.  That was the major takeaway from this lesson.  We were asking E what level of interaction he was comfortable with and then making changes as needed to help him succeed.

Goals – Short or Long Term

When we were all done playing, I was really pleased with the return to the stall.  Both goats tend to rush ahead on the way back to the stall.  I could have simply released them.  The immediate goal was to get them back to the stall.  That’s where they were heading.  Letting them go on their own would have avoided any pulling they were doing on the lead.

It would also have missed an opportunity to teach them to stay with me in distracting environments.  There were going to be times when letting them off the lead wouldn’t be an option.  The walk back to the stall created an opportunity for me to show them that staying with me was worth the added effort.  I was taking them back to the stall.  But on the way there were lots more opportunities for treats.  Walking beside me had value.

E was figuring this out.  He was walking with me down the aisle.  There was less rushing ahead, less pulling to get back.  Out in the arena he had been listening to P calling.  He had clearly been wanting to get back to his brother.  I had kept the session short because I didn’t want him feeling too anxious.  So I was especially pleased that he walked back with me to his stall.

8 pm

At the end of the evening I had another cuddle session.  E in particular wanted to be close to me and to be scratched.  He’s so very sweet.  I’ve discovered he really likes having his chest and belly rubbed.  In fact, I haven’t found anywhere that doesn’t turn into a “please scratch” spot.  I can think of few better ways to end an evening than with goat bliss.  This was their last evening in the barn.  I was going to miss what had quickly become part of the day’s routine.

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Coming next: The July Goat Diaries: Day 12 – E and P’s Last Day at the Barn

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.

The Goat Diaries Day 10: You Can Never Do One Thing

The July Goat Diaries

I don’t know which label to give this session:

The longer you stay with an exercise the more good things you see that it gives you.

You can never do one thing.

These both work.

E was very cautious around people.  He had shown me that many times over.  When Panda first arrived at eight months of age, she was more than cautious.  She was afraid to the point of charging anyone who leaned over her.  She hadn’t shown this behavior when we first met her in July, but it’s what she arrived with in September.  Panda was a Florida girl.  That’s where she was born.  We had to wait the extra two months for it to be cool enough to transport her North.  She arrived sporting the most gorgeous show clip.  Because she is little, I suspect the clipping was imposed not trained.  She was probably the victim of the “three men and a boy” school of horse handling, meaning she was wrestled into submission and made to stand still while someone towered over her with a pair of clippers.

So the horse we received in September pinned her ears and snaked her neck out whenever someone came near.  If I had seen any sign of this behavior when we looked at her, I would have passed on her as a potential guide.  But here she was.  Florida was a long way away, so this was the horse I was going to train.  I had enormous confidence that clicker training would get this sorted – and of course it did.  Not only did Panda become a super guide, these lessons led to her favorite game – Panda catch.

So now with E I had a goat who was afraid of people.  I found myself using many of the lessons that had worked so well with Panda.  Who knows how many good things these simple lessons would bring us.

E’s 7 pm session
I brought E out on a lead into the arena.  He was very good.  He showed me that he was understanding the morning lesson.  When I clicked, he was moving away from my treat pocket to get the treat.

Ann joined us in the arena.  I led him up to her.  He reached out cautiously to sniff her.  Click, treat.  I repeated this a couple of times, then he decided he wasn’t interested in going towards her again.

If his caution had been only that, discovering that approaching Ann produced treats might have been enough to break the ice.  But his caution was a reflection of real fear.  I have to be careful under these conditions.  If I am afraid of cats, but I really need the fifty dollars you are offering me if I touch the hissing kitten, I might do it.  I’m still afraid of all things feline.  Take away the fifty dollars, and I won’t go anywhere near the kitten.  That’s always a question when you are using positive reinforcement to get an individual “over” their fear.  Are you really changing the underlying concern, or are you just masking that worry?  And is it really fair to ask someone to make that choice?

It is possible that when I touch the kitten, it turns into a soft ball of purring contentment.  Instead of being afraid, now I’m enchanted.  Being clicked and reinforced for approaching the kitten has shown me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

Being clicked and reinforced for approaching Ann, was not enough to convince E that she was harmless.  I changed the game.

I clicked E as he walked beside me keeping slack in the lead, but instead of giving him the treat directly, I walked over to Ann and put the treat into her outstretched hand.  She was now the “food bowl.”  The first time I had to hold my hand over hers to get him to approach and take a treat.  After that he was willing to eat directly from her hand.

I wanted E to discover that people can be the source of good things.  I did a lot of this with Panda.  It began just as I was doing here.  Gradually, as Panda became more comfortable approaching people, we added in more people and changed the game to a targeting lesson.  At clinics I would have people form a large circle.  Each person would have a target, but only one person at a time would hold out the target.  When Panda approached and oriented to the target, click, that person gave her a treat.  Then that target disappeared, and someone else would hold out a target.

This game gradually morphed into its current form.  Panda gallops from one person to the next.  As she approaches, she runs around behind the chosen person and comes to a halt neatly at their side.  Very fun!  They click, give her a treat, and then off she goes – galloping to the next person.  If you asked her, she would say she invented the game, and in many ways she would be right.

I was borrowing from the beginnings of Panda catch to help E make several important discoveries.  I was hoping this lesson would help him to become more comfortable approaching people other than myself.  I also thought it might direct him away from my treat pocket.  When I clicked, I immediately headed over to Ann.  This took the focus off my pocket.  It wasn’t click and then zero in on my hand reaching towards my pocket.  Now it was click and follow me to the “food bucket”.

After he got his treat, he had to decide what to do next.  Should he stay where he just got fed, or he should follow me?  Decisions, decisions.  The choice he made was to follow me.  Excellent!

So now we had a new game.  I used the lead to direct E away from Ann.  I was careful not to drag him.  If he didn’t follow right away, I waited.  The contact from the lead told him I wanted something.  It was up to him to figure out what – and to be willing to do it.  As soon as he moved towards me and away from Ann, click, I walked the treat back to her outstretched hand.

Once he had his treats, I used the lead to ask him to move away from her hand and to come to me.  I know many dog trainers use versions of this game.  They’ll toss the treats so the dog has to move away from them to get them.  Or they’ll have the treats stashed in a bowl.  When they click, they’ll take the dog with them to get the treat.  These are all good strategies for keeping our animal learners from becoming locked onto our pockets.

The photos below show a wonderful progression. E gets a treat from Ann and then walks off with me.  Click!  (Fig. 1 – 4)  We return to Ann.  (Fig. 5-8)  But now when I ask E to leave, he’s conflicted.  Ann has the treats!  Here again the rope handling becomes important.  It would be so easy to pull him into motion.  The learning for him in that case would be follow or be dragged.  That’s not what I want him to learn.

Instead I wait for him to make his own choice. (Fig. 9-13)  E walks off with me. Click. (Fig. 14)  E watches me hand the treat to Ann and walks with me so he can get to her. (Fig. 15-17)  This time when I ask E to follow me, he backs with me away from Ann.  (Fig. 18-19)  We walk back to Ann.

Walking back to Ann gives E more practice walking with me.  That’s one of the great benefits of this process. (Fig. 20-22).  E is becoming comfortable enough with Ann for her to be able to stroke him.  (Fig. 23) This time when I ask him to walk off with me, he leaves readily and we walk a large circle past Ann.  Click!  (Fig. 24-27)  We return to Ann for a treat. (Fig. 28-30)  That’s a lot of progress from sequence to sequence

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When we left the arena, E was in a hurry to get back to the stall. I did a lot of stopping and asking him to come back to me.  As he came off the pressure of the lead, click, I gave him a treat and we continued on.  We hadn’t gone half way down the aisle before he was walking beside me keeping slack in the lead.  These goats are such fast learners.  He was becoming a pleasure to lead.  Gone was the sled dog impersonation we had started with.

The Goat Palace – Current Training

In my previous post I shared a story about Thanzi and Trixie dating back to the end of December. https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/02/14/   January was a brutally cold month here in the Northeast.  The temperatures stayed in the single digits often dipping well below zero (Fahrenheit).  Training sessions shrunk down to the bare minimum.  It’s so easy to think that you aren’t getting anything done during these long stretches when the weather is against you, but the reality is good things emerge out of little steps.

So I described in the previous post how I reinforced Thanzi and Trixie for staying on their platforms and waiting patiently for their treats.  Every time I fed them, I would open their gate and let them out into the hallway.  While I was filling their hay feeders, they were waiting for me on their platforms.  It was bitter cold, but how could I resist?  So I would spend a couple of minutes clicking and reinforcing first one, then the other.  I wanted them to learn to take turns.

We are now in February, and it is shedding season.  This is very relevant because these are cashmere goats.  Their fleece has to be combed out of their coat and collected.  I was not looking forward to this, especially for Trixie who has been so body shy.

Sister Mary Elizabeth came out last week to check on their coats.  They weren’t yet starting to shed, so we sat and visited with them instead.  As she told me about Trixie’s background, she remembered that she had been one of three goats who were attacked by a dog last summer.  She wondered if this contributed to the fear Trixie often showed.  It is certainly possible.

A couple of days later Trixie started to let go of her coat.  She and Thanzi were on their platforms.  I started to comb across her back.  She stayed on her platform!

Thanzi has just started to shed as well.  Yesterday both goats took turns.  I would comb Thanzi while Trixie waited on her platform.  Then I would comb Trixie while Thanzi waited.

This was a huge step for both of these goats – to let me comb them without any restraint was an enormous gift.  To have it completely volunteered turned what could have been a horrible struggle into something all three of us can look forward to.  Instead of destroying the good work I had been doing with them, the combing was building trust.

This is what I love about positive reinforcement training.  You ALWAYS get more good things than just the one thing you are focused on.

These two photos tell the story.  I love how patiently each goat waits while the other is groomed.  And I am delighted that I can lean over them to comb out their fleece.  All that patient prep was paying off!

And by the way, not only do I not want to stress them.  I don’t want to stress their babies.  Both goats are due in March.  It won’t be long now before we have baby goats in the barn!

Coming Next: The Goat Diaries: Day 11 – A Walk in the Park

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.

 

Goat Diaries Day 10: Distractions!

Distractions

I’ve been distracted by several projects this week so I am a bit behind getting these Goat Diary reports posted.  That seems very appropriate somehow because today’s post is about distractions!

In one of his Clicker Expo presentations Ken Ramirez talks about the importance of introducing distractions into the environment.  When he was the Director of Training at the Shedd Aquarium, he instructed his trainers to make changes every day to the training environment.  He wanted the dolphins and belugas that were used in the public demos to be so comfortable with change that if a tornado ripped the roof off the Aquarium, they would just think – “Oh look what our trainers have done for us today”.

I have always loved that image.  It creates a high standard of creativity and  consistent good training that is worth aspiring to.  With the goats at this point in their training it was easy to introduce change – essentially everything I did with them was new.  I wasn’t yet thinking about adding distractions as an active strategy.  I was starting with fearful animals so I knew I had a long way to go before they would be comfortable in a changing environment.  In their evening session I was about to discover just how easily something that I didn’t consider a distraction at all could completely derail their eagerness for training.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! – And People, Too!  The July Goat Diaries: 7/14/17 7 pm session

In a previous post I shared with you what a happy goat looks like (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/01/26/).  I had taken E and P into the arena and watched with delight as they turned the mounting block into a playground.  I wanted to share the fun with Ann.  She can’t see their antics, but she can certainly hear the laughter in their feet as they run across the mounting block.

Ann came in the evening to visit with Fengur.  While she was playing with him, I sat with the goats.  When the arena was free, I set up the camera and brought them in.  Ann stationed herself beside the camera well away from them.  After my big build up about how much fun they had running over the mounting block, they were total fuddy-duddies.  There was no energy, no joy, no laughter, no interest in the mounting block at all – just a cautious inspection from a distance of Ann.  What was she doing out in the middle of the arena?  Having a new person in the arena was clearly a concern.

After a few minutes of non-performance, I decided to put them back.  They followed me into the barn aisle and went eagerly into their stall, knowing that I would be dropping treats on the floor.  It turns out that I neglected to turn on my camera, so none of their non-interest was recorded.

I let the goats settle back into the comfortable familiarity of their stall, then I took them out again individually for another leading session.  The main focus of the session was on treat delivery and their behavior around food.  I was continuing with the work I described in the previous two goat diary posts. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/01/29/  and https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/02/02/

A Panda Story

This focus on treat delivery and the time it takes to establish good manners was reminding me of Panda’s early training.  Cold winter days are a good time for stories, so I’m going to indulge in a couple, beginning with a favorite Panda story.  Panda is the miniature horse I trained to be Ann’s guide.  I remember when I first started working with Panda, she was as eager as the goats were to get into my pockets.

A week into her training – at about the stage I was now with the goats – I took Panda with me to a clinic I was giving at a barn that was about an hour away.  Ann rode in the front seat with her new guide dog curled between her feet.  Another of my clients was driving.  I was in the backseat with Panda essentially in my lap.  I was definitely a captive audience.  Doing a short session and then putting her back in her stall to process was an impossibility.  I had an hour’s drive with a horse in my lap!  What’s more I had a horse who knew I had treats in my pocket.

For the duration of the drive I clicked and treated anytime Panda’s nose moved even fractionally away from my pocket.  The idea was to keep her on such a high rate of reinforcement that she didn’t have a chance to mug me.  Over and over again, through the food placement I was saying to her – this is where the treats are delivered.  Going to my pocket gains you nothing.  Out here away from me, this is where you will find treats.  You might as well keep your nose here and not waste your energy going to my pockets.

Ann was in the front seat listening to the constant barrage of clicks.  I know they were making her anxious.  She had only recently taken on a new guide dog.  Everything about this dog was a struggle.  He should never have been placed.  The school was hoping that because Ann was such an experienced guide dog user, she would be able to make him work.

“Make the dog work” was truly the philosophy behind this dog’s training.  The result was a dog who showed extreme avoidance behavior.  Ann had one problem animal.  She didn’t want another.  How could she have a guide who needed to be clicked and treated every couple of seconds?  Ann knows how training works.  She knows that we would be building duration, but in that stage where the mugging is still such a strong reaction, the future good manners can seem impossibly far away.

Good manners emerge over time.  They are the result of consistent handling and a growing confidence in the learner.  By the time I handed Panda over to Ann, the guide dog had gone back to the school to be re-trained for a different job.  He went into search and rescue work, a job that suited his temperament much better.  And Panda became Ann’s full time guide much sooner than we had originally planned.

We celebrated the transfer by going out to dinner.  Panda kept her nose to herself and stayed quietly by Ann’s side throughout the evening.  Even when the salad course arrived, all she did was have a curious sniff before ducking her head back under the table to continue her nap. That’s great duration in a behavior that had begun with barely seconds between clicks.

Good manners emerged for Panda, and I was confident that they would also become the norm for the goats.  Time and consistency would create the behavior I wanted.

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Dining out with Panda

(If you want to learn more about Panda and her training, read the Panda Reports on my web site: theclickercenter.com.  Some of her early training is also featured in my DVDs: An Introduction to Clicker Training and Lesson 4: Stimulus Control.

Treats: Whatever Is Logical Do The Opposite

At some point in the distant future, it might be fun to travel with the goats in my car.  But at this point the thought of spending an hour trapped in the backseat of a car with an eager, greedy goat sounded exhausting.  We had a long way to go before they would be as settled about treats as Panda.

You meet your learner where he is not where you want him to be.  When I took P back into the arena, the session was very much focused around food delivery.  The children in the 4-H program may have giggled and let him snatch pretzels from their mouths.  With me P was learning that we played a very different game.

I brought P back out on a lead.  He continued to show good progress. He backed away from my closed hand.  He did a bit of head flinging which means he was feeling frustrated by having to back up.  I’m sure it did conflict with how he thought things should be done.  He wanted to push forward to get to the treats.  That’s what he had always done, but now he had to remember to back up instead.

Whatever is logical, do the opposite.  I could sympathize with his frustration.  From his point of view it made no sense that backing should work.  Going forward was how you get children to spill treats all over the ground.  Why should backing work?!!  We have all been given directions that make no sense.  Why should turning left instead of right get us to our destination?

And how many of us turn right because we’re convinced that should be the correct answer.  Even when we do turn left, it feels wrong.  Surely we’re heading in the wrong direction.  This can’t be right.  We’ll never get there.  Oh look, there’s our destination just ahead. How did that happen!?

It can take a while to relax and trust the directions.  That’s the stage I was in with P.  With a little more reinforcement history behind us, he would relax into the confidence that treats were coming.  There was no need to rush to get them.

The Goat Palace written Dec. 27 – Our Animals Always Tell Us

Meeting your learner where he is, not where you want him to be makes me want to share this story.  It was prompted by the goat’s current training.  If E and P’s treat taking manners were reminding me of Panda, a session I did with Trixie and Thanzi at the end of December made me think of Robin.  There are several of training mantras that apply to this session:

Our animals will always tell us what they need to work on next.

You get what you reinforce. 

My favorite, though, is this one:

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

Before I describe the goat’s training, here is Robin’s story:

Over the winter when Robin was still very new to clicker training, he started to snatch his treat from my hand.  I’d click, he’d grab, and then he’d eagerly be offering me the next clickable behavior.  I ignored the snatching.  He was eager.  It was cold.  He was offering lots of great work.

The snatching increased.  You get what you reinforce.  I didn’t like the snatching, but if it was getting worse, something in our interactions was reinforcing it.

I ignored it.  Robin was eager.  It was cold.  We were having fun – until I wasn’t.  The snatching was becoming more than annoying.  I was starting to count fingers after I gave him a treat.  It was time to do something about the way he took treats.

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

I’ve told the story many times about the way I solved this particular problem.  It’s detailed in both my Riding book and The Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures.  I went back to basics.  I put Robin in his stall with a stall guard across the door.  I stood across the aisle from him and held out the biggest carrot from a bag of big carrots.  Robin stretched his neck out to try and reach it.

I immediately turned my back, removing the carrot from sight and counted to three.  Then I turned back and held the carrot out again.  Robin stretched out his nose.  I turned my back and counted to three.

I again offered the carrot.  This time Robin hesitated ever so slightly.  I clicked, reached into my pocket and handed him a piece of carrot. I was using negative punishment.  I was taking away something Robin wanted – the carrot – to decrease a behavior I didn’t like – the reaching out towards me to get a treat.

(When an activity decreases – it is being punished, either by adding something unpleasant or by taking away something the individual enjoys (positive punishment and negative punishment – it’s just math adding or subtracting).  When an activity increases, it is being reinforced, either by adding something the individual wants or taking away something he doesn’t like. So again there is positive and negative reinforcement.  When the behavior increases it is being strengthened, i.e. reinforced.  When it decreases, it is being punished.  In both – the positive and negative refer to adding or subtracting, not value judgements.)

I offered the carrot again.  Robin hesitated.  Click, I handed him a piece of carrot from my pocket.  Robin is a super fast learner.  He had the dots connected.  If he drew back away from my hand, he got treats.  I could hold the carrot directly under his nose and instead of snatching it off my hand, he arched his neck and drew up away from it.  Click and treat.

I was enchanted.  He looked like a beautiful dressage horse.  Robin being Robin, he quickly made the connection.  If he arched his neck, click, I would give him a treat.  He wasn’t snatching anymore.  Instead he scooped the carrot slice gently off my hand with his enormous soft lips.

He started to offer what I have since called “the pose”.  When I walked by his stall, Robin would draw himself up and arch his neck.  Click.  I’d pause in my barn chores and give him a piece of carrot.  Through the winter I reinforced him a lot for this behavior.  I might have begun with negative punishment as I tried to stop an unwanted behavior – snatching treats off my hand.  Now I was actively reinforcing him for something I wanted – “the pose”.

I should add that this is not the way I teach the pose today.  It popped out when I was working on something else.  Now that I know this behavior is worth going after, I shape it more directly, most often with the aid of targeting.  And in general, when I find myself reaching towards a negative punishment strategy to solve a problem, I go have a cup of tea instead. I think about what I want and look for reinforcement-based teaching strategies instead.

The “pose” is not the best name that I could have come up with for this behavior.  For many people, a pose is a fixed, rigid, stilted posture.  It’s that awful grimace so many of us have when we’re forced to have our picture taken.

Instead, for me, the pose is a very dynamic behavior.  For Robin it has become a default behavior.  I was the cue.  In the absence of any active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him.  It meant that if he wanted attention from me, he could get me to engage with him using a behavior I actively liked.

Horses are always doing something.  A horse in a stall has a long laundry list of behaviors to choose from.  Some are behaviors that I like, some are behaviors that I can ignore, and some are behaviors that I never want to see.  The laundry list includes taking a nap, eating hay, having a drink, watching the activities in the barn aisle – all perfectly acceptable and easy to ignore.

A horse could also be fighting with his neighbor, kicking the stall door to get attention, cribbing, raking his teeth up and down the wall, pacing, weaving.  These are behaviors I definitely do not want.  But if I fuss at a horse when I see him engaging in them, I could easily be reinforcing them through my attention.  Think of the small child who bangs the kitchen pots and pans while mother is on the phone.   Even negative attention is attention, and that can be better than no attention at all.

Robin doesn’t have to kick the wall to get me to notice him.  All he has to do is pose.  Click and treat.  I love having behaviors which my horses can use to ask for my attention. They know I will always acknowledge their request for connection.

Think of all the ways people interact with one another:  “Good morning.”  “How are you?” “Never better.”  These quick exchanges connect us.  Think how chilling and unpleasant an environment becomes when these social pleasantries are absent.  We need them to tell us things are okay between us.

Robin says good morning by posing.  I respond with a click and a treat.  All is well between us.  Our social bond is strong and getting stronger with each click and treat.

I reinforced Robin for the pose because he looked pretty.  I wasn’t heading for anything in particular beyond that.  This is what makes training so much fun.  Sometimes the next unexpected piece just pops out.

Here’s what happened to the pose.  One evening I had Robin in the arena.  I was asking him to trot around me on a circle.  He was giving me a nothing of a trot.  He looked like an old plow horse.  There was no energy, no pizzazz, nothing I wanted to reinforce.

Robin was expecting me to click.  He went once around the circle.  Nothing.  The way I tell the story was you could all but see the cartoon bubble appearing above his head.  “I’m not being reinforced.”

He went around again.

“What can I do to get reinforced?”

On the third time around he had the answer: “I know! I’ll try the pose!”

The way Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz tells this story is this: by withholding the click I was putting Robin into an extinction process.  He began to regress back through behaviors that had been successful in the past.  The pose had been highly reinforced, so it was the first thing that he tried.

Whichever version of the story you prefer, Robin had to add energy to the trot in order to get into the pose.  Suddenly, his trot looked as though it belonged on a magazine cover.  He was gorgeous!  I clicked and gave him a treat, all the while gushing over how pretty he was.  I sent him back out around me.  It took him a few strides to find his balance, but he once again added the pose to the trot.  It was just one stride that I was clicking – but wow! What a gorgeous stride it was!  The rest is history.  Robin led the way.  He showed us that we could shape the beautiful, suspended balance of a classical dressage horse just through well timed clicks and treats.

Why am I telling this story? Because this morning’s session with Thanzi and Trixie made me think of Robin and the pose.  It reminded me of the expression:

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

In December I had been trying to work them individually.  We had snow Christmas eve and then the temperatures dropped and the wind rose.  Trixie was nervous about being out in the hallway by herself, so I let Thanzi join her.  Suddenly with two goats I had lots of crowding.  Hmm.  You get what you reinforce.  I knew at night when I was tucking them in, I was in a hurry.  It was cold.  It was late.  I just wanted to get done with the final chores and get back inside where it’s warm.  Had I been letting them crowd me and hurry the treat deliver?  Apparently the answer was yes.

I needed to sort out the crowding so in this session I set two mats out face too face.  Trixie hopped on one, Thanzi on the other.  I stood in the middle with both goats crowding into me begging for treats.  I waited.

“Oh right.  Crowding doesn’t get treats.”  They took their noses away from me.  Click. I reached into my pockets.

They were right back, pushing against my hands.  I got the treats out of my pockets and then drew my hands together.  I stood as though in calm meditation, waiting.  First one then the other took her nose away.  I waited until they were both good, then held out the treats to them.

They got their treats, and then they were right back crowding me, pushing against me with their muzzles.  I waited.  They took their noses away.  Click.  Get the treat.  Wait again with hands held together in quiet meditation.  They both drew away from me.  I held out my hands and let them take the treat.

It only took a couple of repetitions. They were both working so hard to stay away from my pockets.  Click, pause, feed.  They were both so good.

I left them in the hallway while I filled their hay feeders.  I was just finishing up when I looked out into the aisle.  They were standing each on her own platform waiting for me.  How can you resist?  I went out and did another round of paying attention to their good manners.

Your animals always tell you what they need to work on.  I don’t know where this will lead me, but I know it is what they need.  If it makes me think of Robin’s pose, I must be on the right track.

Staying Consistent

It’s easy to be focused and consistent through one training session.  It’s much harder to maintain that consistency over time.  When we transferred Panda full time to Ann, it was actually a relief to hand her over.  I missed her constant presence by my side, but maintaining the level of consistency that is needed for a guide was demanding.  When you can see, you don’t need a guide to tell you that you’ve come to a curb. If I started cutting corners in Panda’s training because I didn’t need all the things I had taught her to do, it would undermine her performance as a guide.  Ann would never be able to enjoy the luxury of seeing the curb that’s in front of her.  She would be relying on Panda to point this out to her.  A horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count so it always has to count.  I followed that mantra throughout Panda’s training.

The same thing applies to the goats.  The same thing applies to the goats.  If sometimes I let them push into me to get treats, I will never get to the consistent good behavior that I want.  But it’s been cold!  It is so easy to get in a hurry and let standards drop.  So their training has been a bit like a yo yo.  I let things slip in my hurry to get chores done and my gloves back on.  They begin to crowd me, but now I am catching it sooner.  The manners pendulum keeps swinging back and forth.  Over time the cumulative effect shows me that the balance is tipping towards good manners.

Just for Fun!

I told you the story of Robin’s pose.  Here’s one of my favorite videos of Robin.  He was only three when this was filmed.  He had not yet been started under saddle.  So he’d never had a rider on his back, and I had never lunged him in side reins or any other type of mechanical device.  This beautiful balance and cadence had been shaped entirely with the clicker.  You’ll see I am holding two dressage whips.  You can call them anything you want, but they are functioning as targets.  They give him points of reference to balance between.  I know the lighting is not good in this video, but this was a long time ago, and this was the best the video camera could do.  Enjoy!

 

Coming Next: The Goat Diaries Day 10: You Can Never Do One Thing

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.

 

 

 

Thank YOU!

I’m taking a brief detour from the Goat Diaries.  2018 is the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  To celebrate every month this year I will be writing an article about one of the many people who have helped me bring positive reinforcement training into the horse world.

Last month I told you about Bob Viviano and Crackers.  Bob was there literally at the beginning of my exploration of clicker training.  Ann Edie joined us a short time later when she started taking lessons from me at the barn where I boarded my horses.  This month I want to turn the spotlight in her direction to thank her for the enormous contribution she has made to the development of clicker training and for 25 years of friendship.

Most of you know Ann through her guide horse, Panda.  Ann has big horses as well.  We seem to share our equine family – at least that’s how it feels.  Ann’s first horse, Magnat, is our one in ten thousand horse.  That’s how I think of him.  He was originally my school horse, but he was such a great match for Ann, in 1996 I gave him to her.  In 1999 he was joined by our two Icelandics, Sindri and Fengur.  Panda joined the “herd” in 2001.

I’ve written so much about Panda, I’m going to shine the spotlight instead on Magnat.  He played such an important role in the early development of clicker training it is right that he should get the attention as I celebrate twenty years of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.   There is so much I could write.  I’ll just share a couple of favorite Magnat stories.

Remembering Magnat

Magnat is an Arabian.  He came to me through clients of mine who wanted a weekend trail horse for their guests.  Several months and several disastrous rides after they got him, they discovered that he had a severe heart murmur.  My clients were in a dilemma.  They didn’t want to keep him as a pasture ornament, but they couldn’t ethically sell a horse with such a severe heart condition.  Who would want such a horse?  The answer was I would.

So Magnat became mine.  One of my favorite training mantras is:

The walk is the mother of all gaits.

I didn’t need to ride fast to enjoy a horse.  Magnat and I were a perfect fit.  I would love to have reserved him just for myself, but he was such a great school horse.  I began to use him to give lessons at the barn where I boarded.  I could not have asked for a better co-teacher.  This was in 1994.  I had just begun the year before to explore clicker training with Peregrine.  I was having such good success with it, I had started to share it with all my clients.

Pretty soon the only horse who wasn’t clicker trained was my own school horse.  I was reluctant to introduce it to him.  I had all the questions that everybody else has when you first start introducing food into your training.  What if he got mouthy?  He was so polite now.  I didn’t want to risk messing up my one and only school horse by teaching him clicker training!

When someone is hesitant to give clicker training a try, I get it.  I had the same questions and concerns that most people have when they first encounter this work.  But I really couldn’t go on encouraging all my clients to give it a try and not follow my own advice with Magnat.

I needn’t have worried.  For Magnat it barely caused a blip on the landscape.  He was polite before I introduced food, and he remained so even when my pockets were bulging with treats.  He was never muggy.

There are lots of horses who go through a very rocky transition stage.  The food does get them excited.  They frustrate easily and often older behaviors that have been suppressed through punishment resurface to create problems.  Magnat showed none of this.  That isn’t to say there weren’t changes.  My solid, reliable lesson horse truly began to shine.  If he had been good before, now he was outstanding.

Throughout that first winter he helped me teach people the basics of single-rein riding.  There’s a great expression:

The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you’ll see that it gives you.

One of the good things the basics of single-rein riding produced for Magnat was collection.  The beginnings of two favorite behaviors popped out: piaffe and canter in-hand.  This later is a gorgeous behavior to have in repertoire.  Magnat became so balanced and collected, he could canter while I walked beside him.

It was around this time that Ann came to the barn wanting to take lessons.  Ann was not a beginner.  She had ridden as a teenager, but then like so many others she gave up riding when she went off to college and never got back to it once she started raising a family.  The challenge for me was Ann is blind.  I had never worked with a blind rider before.  This was a new frontier for me.  But I assumed my job was teaching her to ride.  Ann would take care of the rest.  If I taught her the way I taught everyone else, we’d come out okay.  It turned out I was right.

I started Ann the way I start all riders who come to me.   It doesn’t matter how many years you have ridden or how experienced a trainer you are, if you are going to ride one of my horses, you start with a pony ride.  I guide the horse from the ground.  All you have to do is sit and enjoy.

As the rider becomes familiar with the horse’s communication system, and understands how to cue the horse, I gradually turn over more and more of the control.  So at first I have the reins, and I’m working the horse in-hand with a rider up.  Then I hand the reins over to the rider, but I stay close so my body language continues to support the rider’s cues.  Then I gradually fade out and the rider takes over completely from me.

This worked perfectly for Ann.  Having Magnat as my co-teacher made all the difference, especially since he could canter in-hand.  For teaching that made him worth his weight in gold.  I wish I had learned how to ride on a horse like Magnat.  Ann has such a relaxed canter seat because she learned the rhythm of the canter from him.  Starting out she never rode a bad canter.  All she had to do was relax and enjoy.  There was no struggle trying to get him into the canter, no trotting faster, faster, faster like a plane taking off.  There was no leaning sideways through unbalanced turns.

Magnat canter

Instead there was just the relaxed rhythm of a collected, glorious canter.  And then there was the piaffe and the passage.  It was Ann who was riding the first time Magnat succeeded in mobilizing into piaffe.  I was working him from the ground while she helped manage his weight shifts.

We were figuring out how to teach riding with the clicker.  I gave Ann the lesson, and she taught Magnat.  They were such a good match, I decided after their first winter together to give him to her.  It gave me so much more pleasure watching them develop as a team than I ever would have had riding him for myself.  And I had Peregrine.  He and Magnat became riding partners.  For the next sixteen years while we kept the horses at the boarding barn, Ann and I shared our evening rides together.

They were an unlikely pair, my thoroughbred, her Arab.  But it turned out that each horse gave their best to the other.  Magnat gave Peregrine the confidence to move forward again after a long, hard recovery from the aftershocks of Potomac horse fever.  And Peregrine taught Magnat about collection.

Magnat lived in a small paddock with two other horses.  I’m sure you can picture what he looked like during mud season.  Every night Ann would spend an hour or so grooming him and by the time he was ready to go into the arena, he was snowy white.  I don’t know how she did it!  When I brush my horses, the dirt moves from one spot to another.  When Ann grooms, the dirt leaves!  And a horse isn’t clean until her fingers tell her he’s clean.

Early on we taught Magnat to retrieve.  There’s a picture of him with a wooden dumbbell in his mouth on the cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  When Ann brought him into the arena, he would ask to be turned loose.  She’d let go of his reins, and he’d go out in the arena and bring back to her all the things the previous riders had dropped.

We boarded in a barn where there was a very active after school lesson program so there were always dropped riding crops, gloves, hats, kleenex.  Ann never knew what she was going to be handed.  Magnat was very diligent in making sure that he had found anything and everything that might get in their way.  In so many ways he was Ann’s first guide horse.

When the arena was clean, he would walk with her to the mounting block and line himself up.  Now the real glory of Magnat shone through.

Ann understood that clicker training means so much more than just using a marker signal and treats.  Clicker training for us is synonymous with good balance.  It was a joy to explore with her what that meant for our horses.

When Ann first started riding Magnat, she couldn’t manage his trot at all.  He bounced her out of the saddle.  It was the most jarring, bone rattling, uncomfortable trot imaginable.  That was because for her Magnat wasn’t yet balanced.  She didn’t yet understand how to use lateral flexions.  When she asked for the trot, she got the hollow-back, high-headed, stiff-legged trot that is all too often associated with Arabs.

As she learned how to use lateral flexions, Magnat relaxed and lifted himself up into a magic carpet ride.  The transformation was so black and white.  Ride him without asking for the lift that comes through the lateral work, and he would jar you right out of the saddle.  Ask for collection, and you were in heaven.

I taught Magnat lateral flexions before I began to explore clicker training.  He understood what I wanted and was a willing student.  Often people seek out clicker training because they are struggling with a horse.  That wasn’t the case with Magnat.  He could have gone through his whole life without ever needing to be clicker trained.

Before clicker training he was a good, solid-citizen riding horse, but that’s all he was.  Without clicker training he would have remained a nice, but ordinary horse.  With clicker training he shone.  I used to say he was a one in a million horse, but as the years went by and he just became more and more wonderful, not just to ride but to be around, I changed this to a one in ten million horse.

But I really shouldn’t be the one to describe what it was like to ride Magnat.  He was Ann’s horse.  Here is how Ann described him in a piece she wrote for my riding book:

“It’s always a dilemma to describe the experience of riding a truly extraordinary horse who has had the benefit of several years of clicker training.  Although many technical components go into the production of a really memorable ride, the irrepressible smile, the feeling of wonder, and expression of “WOW!!” that arises so regularly these days when I ride Magnat simply cannot be described in anything but poetic terms.

Yes, athletic talent and neuromuscular conditioning are part of what makes the ride so special; and yes, many hours of repetition over many months have gone into it; and yes, there is extraordinary lightness and balance.  But this is still far from the sum total of the experience.

Musicians have described a great melody as “ a journey which has many familiar passages, and which also contains some wonderful surprises which cause you to look at the world in a completely fresh way and gives new meaning to life.”  This is the best description I can find of what it is like to ride Magnat.

Magnat comes out into the arena every night feeling relaxed and eager to work.  He knows he will be appreciated and reinforced for his performance.  He knows that he is a respected dance partner and member of the team, not a mere subject of training.  This awareness and active participation on the part of the horse is one of the benefits bestowed by clicker training.

Our rides begin with warm-up exercises.  In the course of executing figures or doing simple softening and balancing work, I will pick up on the reins and suddenly feel the most indescribable lightness!!!

We may be in a super-buoyant, floating trot, a deliberate, balanced, ballet-like piaffe, or a heavenly rocking-horse canter.  Whatever it is, it will feel as though I am floating on a magic carpet.  He is so responsive in these moments.  It’s as if there are clear filaments of two-way communication from my finger tips to each of Magnat’s feet.  The slightest breath of a touch on one of those lines will be answered by an immediate floating response.

The musicians described music as a journey which “contains some wonderful surprises.”  That’s how I feel about riding Magnat.  Each ride contains surprises and special pleasures we have not experienced before.  It is like coming around a bend in the road and seeing a spectacular sunset, or a grove of awe-inspiring redwood trees, or the grandeur of an ancient castle, or the peace and cool of a Buddhist temple.  It truly takes the breath away!  It creates the deepest joy and aliveness in my heart!

These moments have totally changed the way I think about riding.  I feel such awe for Magnat and for what we create together.  In this moment I know, without the slightest doubt, exactly what I ride for – it is just this amazing feeling of total balance, effortlessness, lightness, and energy.  Magnat seems to feel the same excitement and joy, for he literally beams with pride, and recently he has begun uttering deep chortles in his throat at these moments.

I let the magic moment go on for as long as I dare, wanting it to continue forever, but knowing I must capture it with a click, before it disappears like a soap bubble or a delicious dream.

The click creates a pause in the music.  Magnat comes to a halt; I throw my arms around his neck in a huge hug, shower him with lavish praise, and empty my pockets of the most desirable treats!

The “WOW” feeling is definitely addictive.  The glow of the experience lingers and stays with me long after the ride.  Our whole horse-human relationship is one of appreciation, respect, and awe.

This is, for me, the great gift of clicker training.  When taken to the high-performance level, it creates transcendent moments of great joy”

Ann Edie – written in 2005 for “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker

Ann’s words express so perfectly why we have both worked to bring clicker training into the horse world.  If clicker training had just been about teaching tricks, and finding kinder way to get horses onto trailers or to stand for grooming, I would have moved on years ago.  Instead clicker training takes us on a journey to Joy.  It connects us deeply to our horses.

This is what Ann and I wanted to share when we wrote about our horses.  It is what I am celebrating in this twentieth year of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It is what we hope others will find as they explore clicker training: the great love and wisdom of horses.

Sadly we lost Magnat in 2011 not long after we moved to our new barn.  He had reached the grand age of 33, but it wasn’t enough.  We were both hoping he would be one of those Arabs who live to be forty.  Sadly he had cancer, and we had to say good-bye.

Ann has shared so generously her horses.  Magnat and the Icelandics have served as my school horses.  I’ve written about them, and they have appeared in the books and DVDs.  Sindri, our Icelandic stallion, was my riding horses.  Thank you Ann for that great pleasure and honor.

And then of course there is Panda, Ann’s guide horse.  Ann is a very private person, but she has shared Panda literally with the world.  We’ve had journalists from as far away as Japan and Australia come and do stories on her.  Ann has always been a good sport, and so has Panda!

What many people don’t know is Ann is one of the partners in The Clicker Center Barn. Without her help, the barn would never have been built.  Thank you Ann for this.  And thank you also for teaching me how to play scrabble and for occasionally letting me win.

Alex Panda scrabble 0038

Goat Diaries Day 10: Expectations

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Happy Birthday Panda!

I’m going to take a quick break from the Goat Diaries to wish Panda a Happy Birthday.  Yesterday was her birthday.  Unbelievably she is 17 this year.  How does that happen!

Normally, I keep “family” birthdays private.  I don’t expect people to celebrate with us as we mark another year with our horses.  But so many people helped us out when Panda got sick in 2016 that I thought this was a good time for an update.  Panda is 17 this year!  She came so very close to not making it that is a real cause for celebrating.

She is doing so much better.  The diarrhea is under control – finally.  She is back in normal work as Ann’s guide.  Hooray!  Though in this brutally cold weather neither one of them has wanted to venture out.

Yesterday the temperatures had climbed to what felt like a tropical thirty degrees.  Ann took Panda out for a long and much enjoyed birthday walk.  When I visited with them afterwards, I asked Ann how Panda did.  She had been cooped up for so many days would she be a wild thing bouncy around on the end of her lead?  No, she was her usual focused, careful, eager self, making good decisions about avoiding the melting puddles that concealed ice underneath.

Back in her house I watched her retrieving her lead, one of her many favorite games.  Ann drops the lead on the floor and Panda picks it up and hands it back to her.  I had to laugh.  She is as full of play as she was when I had her in training as a weanling.  As I write that, I realize that’s not really true.  She is, if anything, even more full of play than she was when she was little.  Isn’t that a great thing to be able to write about somebody – horse or human.

Ann made a similar observation.  She said Panda becomes more like herself all the time.  I asked what she meant by that?  What does being Panda mean?

Ann should really be the one writing this, but it means she is so very confident.  She’s bold and she’s eager, and she’s comfortable in what she knows.  Ann always smiles when she talks about Panda.  I know a little about what she means.  I got a hint of it all those years ago when I had her in training.  I remember so clearly during one of our walks around the neighborhood thinking how nuanced the communication between us was becoming.  I remember thinking that when Ann has been working with Panda for a few years they will be like one of those couples who complete each other’s thoughts.  That’s definitely part of what being Panda means.  It means being the other half of a partnership that brings you great joy.

Happy Birthday Panda!

I didn’t take any birthday photos yesterday.  I should have.  But here are three favorites:

Ann Panda 3 photos scrabble, great walk, winter walk

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Everyone!  I know you’re expecting the next installment of the Goat Diaries.  I’ll get back to those in my next post, but first I am going to do something a little different.

2018 is the 20th anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for Your Horse.”  Before 1998 clicker training was not part of the general horse world.  I’ve always said that first book was like my space beacon: “I’m here!  Is anyone else out there?”  The answer is yes.  Here you are, reading this post.  We are people who love the animals in our care and who want the training methods we use to support the relationship we want.

I’m one of those people who ignores most anniversaries, but twenty years is something to pay attention to.  It represents a huge commitment of time, energy, and love for our horses.  I’m not talking just about my contribution.  I’m thinking about all the many thousands of people who have helped pioneer clicker training and whose efforts have helped to spread it around the planet.

I would love to thank each and every one of you by name – but I don’t know all of you personally.  Even if I did, I would be bound to leave someone out.  I don’t want anyone to feel like the fairy in the children’s stories who wasn’t invited to the party, so instead I’m going to single out just a few people.  Every month this year I’ll be publishing an article commemorating the contribution of one of the many people who helped me bring clicker training into the horse world.

The first article features my long time client and friend, Bob Viviano.  For many years we boarded our horses in the same barn.  Bob’s appaloosa, Crackers, lived in the stall opposite Peregrine.  Soon after I moved Peregrine to the barn, Bob asked me to help him with a jumping problem he was having.  That was in 1993. Little did he know what he was getting himself in for!

When I watched Crackers go under saddle, it was clear the jumping problem was balance related.  That meant peeling back some layers and introducing them both to lateral work.  One of Bob’s hobbies was country line dancing.  Line dancing used a lot of the steps we were teaching Crackers.  Why not teach him an actual dance?  Forward – back – side – side: Bob taught Crackers the Electric Slide.

It didn’t matter what you called it – dressage or line dancing – the changes of bend and the weight shifts forward and back were exactly what Crackers needed.  Once Crackers had the dance figured out, Bob got others to join in.  The kids from the local 4-H group formed a line dance with Crackers in the middle.  That was just the beginning.  Eventually Bob and Crackers joined a group that was trying out for a Guinness Record of most people ever to perform in a line dance.  They got close with over a thousand people.  They certainly should have gotten the record for most people plus one horse!

In those early pioneer days we had no idea what you could do with clicker training.  We were just having fun.  We started out teaching our horses to touch targets.  That was step one in introducing a horse to clicker training.  Our horses all caught on fast to the targeting, and then we were confronted with the question everyone faces: now what?  What do you do with targeting?

Well, one answer is you teach your horse to retrieve.  My young horse, Robin was our first retriever.  Once he showed the way, the rest followed.  We very quickly had a barn full of eager retrievers.  And then what?  If a horse can retrieve, could he open a mail box?  Bob built Crackers his own mailbox so we could find out.  The answer, of course, was yes.  And not only can he open the mail box, he can also reach in, get the mail and hand it out to you.

He can also retrieve a basketball and dunk it through a hoop, kick a football, swing a hula hoop over his head, answer the telephone, play a piano and paint you a picture, to name just a few of the many tricks Bob taught Crackers.

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Lots of people teach their horses tricks.  What set Bob apart was the way in which he shared them.  He started taking Crackers to outdoor fairs and festivals.  Bob loved seeing people’s faces light up as they watched Crackers perform.  “He’s so smart!” they’d exclaim as Crackers opened his mailbox and handed people the presents Bob had stashed inside.

I visited them at one festival where Crackers’ pen was right beside an area where people were flying enormous kites.  It didn’t matter that brightly colored dragons were swooping over his head, Crackers went right on performing for the people who had come to see him.

At Christmas Bob would take Crackers to local shopping malls to raise money for the Salvation Army.  I remember watching them outside a busy supermarket one snowy December evening.  People gave so generously because it was Crackers ringing the bell.  Bob took him to nursing homes and to the Hole in the Wall camp for children with cancer.  One of the many stories Bob shared was of a little girl who decorated her hospital room with pictures of Crackers.

It was always Bob and Crackers.  They were a team.  If you knew Bob, you knew Crackers.  And Crackers was always up for anything.  From tricks to line dancing, he would perform for hours.  As long as there were people who wanted to see him, Crackers was always willing.  At the barn whenever someone came to visit, they were always treated to a show.  Crackers loved it.  Bring out his mailbox, and he was always eager to perform.  Bob not only made Crackers’ life better through clicker training, together they enriched the lives of the thousands of people they met.

Bob and Crackers helped us discover what you could do with clicker training.  It wasn’t just that Crackers could open a mail box or ring a bell.  It was that he could perform wherever Bob took him whether it was at a crowded festival or in a snowy parking lot.  Clicker training had given Crackers a confidence Bob could rely on.

Bob played another very important role in the development of clicker training, one that not as many people know about.  He was my horse sitter.  There aren’t many people I would entrust my horses to.  I always knew I could rely on Bob.

In those early days, there were just occasional trips away.  Most of my teaching was done locally, but word of mouth was beginning to bring requests for clinics.  The people who signed up for my clinics didn’t yet know I was experimenting with clicker training.  They were coming because they had heard I was good at solving training problems.  During our time together, I would introduce them to clicker training, but it wasn’t yet the primary focus of the clinics.

In 1996 I launched my web site: theclickercenter.com.  That was also the year Karen Pryor asked me to write a book for her new company, Sunshine Books.  At clinics I still kept clicker training “under my hat”.  I waited until my book was published in 1998 to announce that I was giving clinics that were specifically about clicker training.  That’s when my travel schedule exploded.  For many years after that I was away teaching almost more than I was home.

Whenever I was out of town, it was Bob who came every day to look after my horses.  Without him I would never have been able to give those clinics.  And without the clinics I would never have been able to connect to all the other clicker pioneers who helped me spread clicker training around the planet.  So I owe Bob and Crackers a huge debt of thanks for joining me in this amazing adventure we call clicker training.

Crackers sadly is no longer with us.  He died in 2012 at the grand age of 30.  He is buried, as he should be, at the Clicker Center Barn where he will always be remembered with much love.  At 80 Bob is still going strong.  He may not have Crackers at his side, but he’s still sharing clicker training.  He continues to pass on Crackers’ legacy by volunteering at a local horse rescue.  So the ripples we started over twenty years ago are still going out into the horse world.  Thank you, Bob and Crackers!  It has been a great pleasure and honor to share clicker training with you.

Crackers and Bob are featured in all three of my books: “Clicker Training for your Horse”, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker”.  They also appears in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson series.

Visit theclickercenter.com to learn more. (Crackers is the first horse featured on the page celebrating some of our clicker-trained horses. https://www.theclickercenter.com/clicker-horses-1)

Next month I’ll be celebrating this 20th Anniversary year with another story featuring one of our clicker-training pioneers.

Happy 2018 Everyone!

Coming next: The Goat Diaries returns.