Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 4 of 12

Are You a Clicker Trainer?
I will say straight out – I am a clicker trainer.  But in 1993 when I first went out to the barn with treats and a clicker in my pocket, I was simply someone who was curious about clicker training.  I began, as we all do, by simply using clicker training.  Over time I became a clicker trainer.  What were the dots that had to connect up to turn me into a clicker trainer, and what does that mean?

There are a great many people who come across clicker training, take a quick look and never give it a try.  There are lots of reasons for this.  They may have been taught that you should never use treats in training; that the horses should work for you out of respect and because you have shown them that you are a good leader; that predators may work for rewards, but horses are grazing animals and it isn’t natural to hand feed them.

You may find yourself sputtering, wanting to say but, but, but this is all nonsense.  Save your breath.  If someone is deeply entrenched in these belief systems, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to change their mind.  You’ll only get yourself worked up into a not very clicker-compatible argument.

If someone takes a look and walks the other way, don’t worry about it.  Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s “cup of tea”.  Some people have to bump into clicker training a few times before it will attract their notice enough to give it a try.  Maybe the first horse they saw being clicker trained was still in the early stages and everything looked like a muddle.  But now they’ve seen a bit more, and they’re ready to give it a try.

What matters more than trying to argue someone into giving it a try is keeping the door open for those who get curious.

So what does finally begin to tip the balance?  What brings people to clicker training?

Why Clicker Train? The Science Foundation
For some the first attraction is that clicker training is science based.  It’s development can be traced back to B.F. Skinner’s work.  Now for some this is an instant turn off.  They’ve taken psych courses in school.  They equate Skinner with a cold and unfeeling approach to behavior.  I don’t want to get drawn into that argument.  What animal trainers took from his work can be simplified down into the ABCs of training.

That translates into this:

Antecedents are events and conditions that immediately precede Behavior.  The Behavior occurs, and it is followed by Consequences.  And it is the consequences which determine whether that behavior is more or less likely to occur again.

We tend to look at antecedents for causes.  We say “sit” and our dog sits.  It seems on the surface that it was the cue that caused the behavior.  But why did the dog respond to the cue?  Why did he sit?  Was it because he has learned that when he hears that word, if he plunks his rear end to the ground, good things happen?  You give him goodies and lots of desired attention.  That makes “sit” a true cue.

Or was it because he’s learned that if he doesn’t sit when he’s told to, he’s corrected?  You scold him as you jerk on his lead or push his rear end to the ground.  He sits the next time to avoid the negative consequences.  That makes “sit” a command.  Remember the difference?  Commands have a do it or else threat backing them up. Cues indicate opportunities for reinforcement. (Number 1: Cues Are Not Commands: Published Feb. 10, 2016: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/10/)

Reinforcers and punishers are the consequences that determine if a behavior is more or less likely to occur again.

The cues we use can be thought of as releasers.  Say “trot” to your horse and that tells him that changing gait into a trot is the fast track to reinforcement.

The cue triggers behavior.  What happens as a consequence of the behavior makes the animal more or less likely to repeat it in the future.

People often define clicker training as operant conditioning thinking they are differentiating clicker training from other forms of training.  Operant conditioning includes the study/use of punishment, as well as reinforcement.  Clicker trainers work hard to avoid the active use of punishment, but so do many good trainers.  What sets clicker training apart is the use of a marker signal paired with positive reinforcement.

Three Blind Men and the Elephant
When people talk about Skinner’s work, I am always reminded of the fable of the three blind men and the elephant.

Three blind men came upon an elephant.  The first felt the elephant’s tail.  “The elephant is like a rope,” he declared. The second blind man encountered the elephant’s leg.  “You are totally wrong.  The elephant is like a tree.”  The third blind man got a hold of the elephant’s trunk.  “What nonsense you are both talking.  The elephant is clearly like a snake!  Any fool can tell that.”

In the original fable the three blind men get into a fight because none of them could imagine that the others could be right, that depending upon their perspective they could each come to different conclusions.

What people take away from Skinner is very much like this.  Talk to some and you will hear that Skinner’s contributions to science are on a par with Darwin’s.  Others will say he held back progress in their field for decades.  For animal trainers Skinner’s work gave us the breakthrough we needed to communicate more clearly with our animals.  It gave us marker signals and with them the concept of shaping behavior.

skinner-with-dog-with-caption

The use of marker signals grew out of an unintended consequence.  When a rat pressed a lever, the automatic feeders made a clicking sound as food was released.  The click was originally just part of the apparatus, so you could say that all the innovations clicker training has brought us are the result of a happy accident.

Modern Animal Training
It is the norm to see something new, and at first to try to turn it back into something you are already familiar with.  So it is very understandable that people would come to very different conclusions about what Skinner was saying.  All of us who encounter his work bring our own perspective and biases to it.  What you take from it depends in part upon what you bring to it.

What animal trainers took from it was the power of the marker signal, and an understanding that it is consequences that drive behavior.

What has evolved is a modern science-based approach to training.  We aren’t just relying on anecdotal stories for choosing a particular training solution.  We can test our choices.  We can refer back to the studies being done by behavior analysts.  We can say, with data to back us up,  that punishment produces negative side effects

It’s the old joke – what’s the one thing three trainers can agree on?  That the fourth trainer is all wrong.  Everyone thinks their methods are the best.  With clicker training we can examine the statements we make about training.  We can design studies and produce data to help us understand why our animals respond in the way that they do.

We can look at different schedules of reinforcement, at reinforcement variability, at the effect of punishment on response, etc.  We aren’t following a particular system of training because someone tells us this is natural, or traditional, or the way it is always done.  As clicker trainers our “best practice” choices have evolved out of what research into behavior suggests really does work best.

Relationship
Science is what brought me to clicker training, but for many people that is not the principle draw.  Yes, it is reassuring that others have thought about schedules of reinforcement, etc. to develop current best practice, but what appeals to them is what grows out of this work – namely a great relationship.

Coming Next: Relationship

(And if you are wondering what happened to Poco, our ear-shy horse.  Don’t worry.  I am winding my way back to him.  When we get there, you will understand why I took this detour.)

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

What Is Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 3 of 12

Labels
In the previous section I introduced you to Poco, an extremely ear-shy horse.  I ended that section by saying: “Poco wasn’t going to be helped by following old recipes, but by coming up with solutions that were tailored to his needs.  To do that we had to look more broadly at all that clicker training means.”

I put my first JOYFULL horses post up on January 2, 2016.  This far into the book may seem like an odd time to be asking such a basic question: what is clicker training?  But this question refers to so much more than just the surface definition of clicker training.

The term clicker training was coined by Karen Pryor.  In it’s simplest form it refers to applied operant condition in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.  In other words, if you like what your animal is doing, you click and reinforce him.

For years at clinics I’ve had people say to me you really need to call your work something other than clicker training.  What you do is so much more than clicker training.

I always throw this right back to them.  What would you call it?

I get lots of suggestions but nothing so far has stuck.  So many of the words that describe my work have been used, abused, and over-used.  Or they are too specific to a narrow area of horse training.

Harmony, balance, partnership have all been used so many times by so many different approaches to training they have lost any meaning.  You can have two diametrically opposed training systems both talking about partnership.  They’ll end up with very different looking horses and each group will be convinced they have “true partnership” and the others don’t.  Sigh.  Labels can leave behind a huge and very controversial mine field to navigate.

When I first came across clicker training, it had no associations attached to it.  It was just a label, a way of referencing a particular approach to training.  I had not seen other clicker-trained horses because there weren’t any around.  I hadn’t yet experimented with it, so I brought no strong biases to the term – good or bad.  It was simply a label, a convenient way to reference a system of training in which a marker signal was paired with positive reinforcement.

For me the term “clicker training” is still a convenient way to refer to a system of training that uses a marker signal, but it has grown to have many more associations for me and for others.  If someone has seen clicker training applied badly, just the mention of the name may send them over the edge into a long diatribe against it.

I’ve seen plenty of clumsy, not well-thought-out clicker training sessions over the years, but that doesn’t make me want to run from the label.  It makes me want to find better ways to teach the work.

What Clicker Training Means To Me
I’ve experienced so much joy both in my own horses and in sharing the work with others that I don’t want to walk away from the label.  Instead I want to make it clearer what clicker training can be.  I don’t know what clicker training has come to mean to others, but to me, when I think of clicker-trained horses, I see happy, well mannered, beautifully balanced horses who are a joy to be around.
icky-what-is-clicker-training-3
My clicker-trained horses make me smile.  I hope how I handle them gives my horses the equine equivalent of those happy feelings.  That’s what I want to share with others.

In 1993 when I started experimenting with clicker training, I didn’t head out to the barn thinking – “I’m going to write a book about this.”  I just wanted to find a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was on stall rest.

There weren’t other people clicker training horses who I could turn to as role models or who could provide how-to instructions.  That meant I got to invent my own version of clicker training.

Defining Clicker Training
If you were to ask me to define clicker training, I would begin with Karen Pryor’s definition: clicker training is applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.

That gives us an operational definition, but clicker training is so much more than that.  I see it as a huge umbrella under which I can fit many different approaches to horse training.  For example, I studied for a time with Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM, so I fit her training under the umbrella.  I also put the work I learned from John Lyons under this same umbrella even though Lyons himself is not a clicker trainer.  These two training methods represent fundamentally different philosophies of horse training, but I was able to draw good things from both and adapt what I learned to fit under my clicker umbrella.

When I think of clicker training, I see a complete and very structured approach to training that results in well-mannered, happy horses.  I think of beautifully-balanced horses who are both having fun and are fun to be around.

Lucky with caption

That’s what I see.  But if all you’ve seen of clicker training is someone using it to teach simple tricks, you may see the fun – but not the balance.  Or maybe you’ve just seen someone who was fumbling around the edges of clicker training.  Your picture of clicker training may be a frustrated horse who is acting aggressively towards the handler.

Creating Stepping Stones
The more people who encounter clicker training the more different images of what it is there will be.  Clicker training will evolve and morph into something else.  That’s the nature of all creative work.  It is never static.  Clicker training, which seemed so revolutionary, so very much on the leading edge of training when I first encountered it, will become mainstream.  It will be the stepping stone to the next leading-edge idea.

We can’t yet know what that idea will be, not until it has had time to evolve.

This is the nature of the creative process.  Humans thrive on creativity.  This is part of play.  You are exploring two separate ideas and suddenly you see how you can put them together to create a completely original combination.  Both ideas by themselves were great.  Combined they are transforming.

So let’s look underneath the clicker training umbrella and see what’s really there.  Let’s also ask the question: are you a clicker trainer, or are you someone who just uses a clicker?  And what is the difference that that question is seeking to answer?

(And yes, I will get back to Poco and his ear-shy problem.)

Coming next: Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

An Accident Waiting To Happen

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 2 of 12

Use Your Cues
Cues evolve out of the shaping process.  That’s what we explored together in Unit Eight: “Cues Evolve”.  (Number 8: Cues Change and Can Be Changed: Published Aug. 31 – Sept. 3, 2016 https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/08/31/)  If cues evolve out of the shaping process, that means – even if you aren’t aware of the hints and clues you’re giving – your horse is.  That’s what I covered in the previous post.

I don’t want to fight these cues, or pretend that they aren’t there. I want to put them to work.  As soon as I recognize how fast cues emerge out of the shaping process, I can begin to use them to solve some very common behavior problems.

An Accident Waiting To Happen
One such problem was presented by Poco, a handsome buckskin who was great to work with in every way except one: he was ear shy to the extreme.  He was purchased knowing that he had this problem.  Usually this sort of issue works itself out very quickly.  A few sessions with the clicker and the problem is well behind you. That’s usually what happens – but not always.

Poco was being handled by a knowledgeable, skilled clicker trainer.  She made good progress with him in so many ways.  She could put a halter on him.  She could bridle him without completely taking the bridle apart to get it on.  She could work him in hand.  He was polite, light, eager.  But if you reached up towards his head, he would startle away.  This made him unsafe to ride.  He was basically good, but that ear shy/head shy reaction was an accident waiting to happen.

We suspect Poco was eared. Earing is a common practice in the horse world. This means that someone grabs hold of a horse’s ear and twists. The intent is to keep a horse from struggling against his handlers.  It is similar to twitching where the horse’s upper lip is held tight and twisted to keep him from struggling.

airport-poster-with-caption-3We suspect Poco was eared originally to treat a wound.  He has a large scar on his neck.  Later he was probably eared to get a bridle on.  We’re guessing the bridling based on his reaction to reins.  His handler could get a lead over his ears long before she could get anything resembling reins past his guard.

Whatever the history, we were left with a persistent problem.  His handler had done a good job using a standard classical desensitization approach that normally resolves these issues.  Every day she would take him into the arena for his work session.  They would chip away at a bit more of his worry, but the core, hard granite of fear remained.

All Work and No Play . . .
Working through this issue wasn’t what was needed.  Poco needed us to play.  It is in play that you come up with different answers.  It is in play that you open old files and find new combinations that fit your learner’s needs.  This is where you see the true flexibility and robustness of the clicker training process.  Poco wasn’t going to be helped by following old recipes, but by coming up with solutions that were tailored to his needs.  To do that we had to look more broadly at all that clicker training means.

Coming Next: Part 3: What Is Clicker Training?

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Cues Evolve: Part 4

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

Consistency
In the previous post I shared with you some stories from Panda’s early training.  Panda’s manners developed over time because she lived in a world of total consistency.  Throughout the early part of her training I was the only one who handled her.  She didn’t have to figure out how the rules worked with different people setting different standards.

Ann’s first guide dog, Bailey, had been a great guide.  I learned a guide’s job in part by watching him.  The job description is pretty straight forward.  The real key to training a guide is consistency.  I knew that Ann would never be able to see the raised curb in front of her, so I knew that Panda and I always had to stop at each and every curb.

By the time Panda went to live full time with Ann, it was actually a relief sending her off.  Maintaining that level of consistency when you yourself don’t need it is a challenge.  There is always the temptation to cut across the parking lot because you’re in a hurry instead of following the edge the way a guide should.  I remember being at a conference where there where several guide dog trainers in attendance.  One of them spotted us and cut through several rows of empty chairs to come talk to us.  She had a dog with her who was about a week away from being placed.

I was horrified.  I would never have cut through those chairs with Panda.  We would have walked to the end of the aisle and gone through all the navigational checks that a blind handler would use to move to a different row of chairs.

There’s a great horse training expression that applies here:

“The horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count, so it always has to count” John Lyons

The more consistent I was, the more consistent Panda was going to be.

Over-eager Students
But what happens when you can’t maintain this standard of handling?  What happens when clicker training isn’t a consistent part of a horse’s life?  That’s often the case with the horses I work with.  I see them for short periods of time, and then they are back to handling as usual.

Pico head down 1One such horse was Pico, a wonderfully clever horse who right from the start adored clicker training.  I began with him, as I do all horses, with protective contact, but I quickly moved to a larger work space where he had more room to move.  We worked on basics – grown-ups, targeting, the beginnings of mat work, backing and head lowering.

On my first visit I spent four days with him during which time he had two short sessions per day plus some casual interactions over his stall door.

For four days his world was completely turned upside down.  He was singled out from a group of fifty horses for all this special attention.  Every morning I greeted him as I walked into the barn.  I gave him extra attention.  He got to play this very neat game out in the arena.  He had the goodies, all the social interaction, and then I left and there was nothing.  From his perspective I simply disappeared. What a topsy turvy world it must have seemed to him.  I was gone.  There was no morning greeting, no play time after coming in from the day’s turnout.  Nothing.

I was gone for about a month, and then I suddenly popped back into his life.  Pico was so excited he could barely think straight.  During my first visit he’d been a superstar, but now he was a mess.  He was in my space, mugging my pockets, forgetting the manners he’d been showing me so beautifully before.  He was truly like a small child the day before Christmas.  He was just so excited, he couldn’t do anything right.

I certainly didn’t want to punish this enthusiasm, so I turned it instead into a game.

The game was: “What’s the new cue?”

I thought of it for Pico because I truly enjoyed his company.  I wasn’t training him.  I wasn’t working him.  “Working” opens one set of files.  It gives you access to tried and true methods.  It doesn’t open the creative files that bring you to new solutions.  Those are opened only when you are playing.  Play and creativity are like two vines that have grown together and hold one another up.

Creating New Cues
So what is this “What is the new cue” game?

It is based on the process of creating a new cue for an established behavior.

Here’s the process:

Suppose you have taught a puppy to sit.  You’ve added a cue to the behavior.  When you say “sit”, your puppy sits readily.

But now you would like to change the cue.  There are many reasons you might want to do this.

Your puppy may at first have sat with his hips off to the side.  That’s how young dogs often sit.  Over time you’ve cleaned up the behavior for the show ring, and he now sits with his hips squarely under him.

By changing to a new cue, you are creating a performance cue that refers only to this tidied up version of sit – not the original sloppy sit.  If you kept the original cue, under the pressure of competition, your puppy might revert back to the first-learned version of the behavior.

Or perhaps you have been sloppy with your stimulus control.  “Sit” means sometimes, if you feel like it, when the spirit moves you.  It doesn’t mean now.  So you tidy up the behavior and give it a new cue that has none of the old sloppiness associated with it.

Or maybe your puppy sits just fine.  There’s nothing wrong with the original cue, but you’d like to do some freestyle with your dog, and you’d like to use some props.  When you knock over a suitcase, you’d like your puppy to sit.

You can come up with lots of different situations where changing to a new cue for an established behavior would be useful.  Whatever the reason for wanting a new cue, they all depend upon the same process:

1.) Build the behavior.

2.) Attach a cue to the behavior.

3.) When this first cue is solid, you can begin to transfer the behavior to a new cue.

You’re going to give the new cue first, followed immediately by the old cue.  This will trigger the behavior – click then treat.

Repeat this process several times.  You will begin to see the animal initiating the behavior before you can give the old cue.  So now you can give the new cue and get the behavior – click then treat.

So it’s:

transfer cue process

Sleight of Hand Magic Tricks
This is the underlying process I used for Pico to turn an unwanted behavior – mugging my pockets – into the cue for a desirable behavior – head lowering.

That’s straight forward enough.  What changed was turning this into play.  The end result was great manners taught without the frustration of extinction.  I didn’t want to just fold my arms and wait for Pico to stop trying to get past me into my pockets.  As excited and eager as he was, that would have spoiled his game.  From his perspective he’d be saying: “I put my quarter into the candy machine.  Why isn’t my carrot bar coming out?!”

What do we do when a vending machine isn’t working?  We get frustrated.  We jiggle the vending machine, and if that doesn’t work, we bang on it harder.

Eventually, we’ll give up and leave, but we’re not going to be very eager to try again.

This was not the downward emotional spiral I wanted for Pico.  I loved his enthusiasm.  I just needed to redirect it.

So I began with head lowering.  I used my hand as a target.  I invited him to drop his head by following my hand down.   Targeting made the behavior “hot”.  Follow my hand down – click and treat.  Easy.  The cue became the combination of my targeting gesture and a slight bend of my body.

Next I transferred the cue to a light touch on his poll.  I reached out towards him and rested my hand briefly on his poll.

By itself this is a very standard “horse training” way to ask for head lowering that can be easily adapted for clicker training.  You rest your hand lightly on your horse’s neck just behind his ears.  Your horse won’t at first know what you want.  The most normal reaction is he’ll lift his head up, or he’ll brace against you.  You’ll follow his head movement, keeping your hand in place with a steady, neutral pressure.  You aren’t trying to push his head down.  That’s his job – to drop his own head.  You’ll simply wait with your hand on his poll.  Eventually, he’ll drop his head, and you’ll remove your hand.  If you’re a clicker trainer, you’ll add a click followed by a treat.

This strategy is based on the following:

A little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change.

Understanding Pressure
If your cat is sitting on your lap while you read this text, eventually, no matter how much you love her, you will need her to move.  A little bit of pressure from her curled up on your lap has created a very great need for a change.  You’ll be squirming out from under her.  (Of course, she will then go to work training you.  She will turn into a boneless rag doll and very mysteriously manage to pin you down even more.  And she will charm you into providing even more of a lap to sit on by purring loudly.)

Your horse will eventually get tired of having your hand resting on his head.  Up doesn’t dislodge you, so he’ll try down.  At the slightest drop of his head, you’ll take your hand away. Click then treat.

This method works, but it can take a lot of patience on the part of the handler.  What usually happens is the person gets impatient and begins pushing down.  The horse pushes back, and suddenly you’re moving a long way away from play.

Play and the Transferred Cue
So instead of waiting for Pico to discover the answer, I used the transferred cue process.  I put my hand on Pico’s poll, but I didn’t linger there.  I wasn’t trying to trigger the behavior by leaving my hand there.

I rested my hand on his poll long enough for Pico to be aware that I had done so, then I offered him my hand as a target. He dropped his head.  Click then treat.

I repeated this process:

Hand on poll graphic

After the third or fourth repetition, I hesitated just fractionally after reaching out to his poll.  He dropped his head.  Click and treat.

After that, all I needed was my new hand-on-poll cue.  If he hesitated at all, I could offer a reminder by shifting to the hand targeting.  I only needed the reminder a couple of times before the new cue was solid.

So then I moved to the next transfer.  I used the simplest version of asking for head lowering from a lead.  I milked the line down.

This is a curious expression.  It means I slid my fingers along the line to create a slight downward suggestion.  My hand didn’t close around the lead.  I stroked down a couple of inches and then brought my hand back up to the snap and stroked down the lead again.  But remember this was a transfer-cue process.  I wasn’t waiting until the stroking of the lead triggered the head lowering response.  Instead I stroked the lead just a couple of times, and then I reached up and touched his poll.

He wasn’t expecting that, so I continued on back through my chain of cues and targeted him down with my hand.  He dropped his head, click then treat.

milked line transfer cue

On the next repetition I got as far as my hand on his poll before he dropped his head.

And then he had it.  As I milked the line down, he dropped his head.  Very neat.

The Transfer Continues
We practiced this for a few more reps, and then I made the next transfer.

Now the cue was a bump of my hand against his nose.

So here was the sequence of cues he knew:

transfer cue full sequence

I could go as far back into this sequence as I needed to trigger head lowering.

I thought of it like learning how to say “horse” in five different languages.  When I say “horse” as part of a children’s game, you’ll point to the picture of a horse – not the cow or the sheep.

Pferd is the German for horse.

If I say “pferd”, I want you to point to the picture of the horse.  At first, this odd word won’t mean anything to you, but if I say “pferd”, then “horse”, you’ll point to the picture I want.  Click and treat.  I’ll only need to repeat this a couple of times to have you pointing to the horse when I say “pferd”.

Okay, got that.  Before I need to remind you what pferd means, you’re pointing to the picture of the horse.

Caballo is the Spanish for pferd.

So now I say “caballo”, followed by “pferd” and you point to the picture of a horse.

“Caballo”. You don’t need the extra hint. You point right away to the horse.

Cavallo is the Italian for caballo.  So again I say “cavallo” followed by “caballo”.  The new word trips you up for a moment, so I continue on to “pferd”.  Now you have it.

“Cavallo.”  You point to the horse.

Cheval is the French for caballo.

So now I say “cheval” and you point to the horse.  This is an easy game – as long as I don’t mix in other farm animals.  That’s when it becomes a real test of memory.  Right now I am simply transferring the cue through a chain of words.

By the time I get to cheval, you’ll have no trouble making the switch.  You know the game.  Pointing to the horse is the hot behavior.  Played at this level of difficulty, this is a game you are guaranteed to win.

Pico was guaranteed to win.

I bumped his nose – he dropped his head, click and treat.

Sleight of Hand Magic – The Trick Revealed
Now if you are thinking all of this was built over a period of many sessions – think again.  These transfers happened in rapid fire succession, one after another.  It was like watching a magician’s trick.  Where’s the quarter that was just in my hand?  Oh look!  It’s on your shoulder.  How did it get there?  And how did your watch get on my wrist?  You weren’t watching.  Oh look!  When I bump his nostril, your horse is dropping his nose to the ground .  That’s a funny reaction!

So now I could fold my arms into “grown-ups”.  If Pico bumped me looking for treats, his own mugging behavior cued him to drop his head.  Magic!

But then it’s all just child’s play!

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9: You Can’t Not Cue

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Cues Evolve: Part 3

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

The previous post introduced the concept of tap root behaviors.  You strengthen a base behavior by returning frequently to it.  Like a well-nourished tap root, it keeps getting stronger.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.  In this next section we’ll build on the solid foundation of good manners that approach creates.

Saying Please and Thank You  
Suppose a friend is visiting you with her four year old daughter.  The toddler sees some toys you have in a basket.  (We won’t tell her mother they’re dog toys you keep there for your other friends and their canine companions.)

The child asks to play with the toys.  Immediately, her mother is saying “What do you say?”

“Please,” the child answers.

You hand the child a toy to play with (a new one that hasn’t yet been chewed by your canine guests).

Again, the mother prompts, “What do you say?”

The child parrots out the answer: “Thank you.”

“Please” and “thank you” aren’t just for toddlers.  She isn’t learning to say these phrases just to satisfy her mother.  They are the glue that holds our social lives together.

We ask permission.  We don’t demand.

We say thank you in appreciation for all the little gestures of accommodation that make life easier.  It takes time for please and thank you to become habits, but once learned and understood, it becomes second nature to include them in conversations.

Good Manners are a Good Habit
Grown-ups is similar.  At first you have to keep reminding your horse that manners matter. He can’t just go straight to your pockets for goodies.  It takes a while for good manners to become a good habit.

I remember when I first started working with Panda, Ann was worried about her interest in my pockets.  Ann was struggling with her new guide dog.  He came to her with a total lack of basic living-with-humans manners.  Her previous dogs had always had the freedom of her house.  This dog had to live either crated or behind baby gates.  If he was given free access to the house, he would turn anything that wasn’t tied down into a chew toy.

This can be a problem for anyone living with a dog, but for someone who is blind it is especially so.  Every time you hear your dog chewing something, you have to check to see what he has. It could be your best dress shoes, a harmless dog toy, or a pill bottle filled with medicine that could kill him.

Manners matter.  This dog was supposed to be showing me the model to copy for training a super guide.  Instead he was showing me everything you didn’t want.  Ann didn’t need two problem animals.  When a very young Panda wanted to see what else we were hiding in our pockets, I could feel Ann tensing.  She had enough trouble with this dog.  She didn’t need a pushy horse, as well.

I’d only had Panda a week when we had our first long car trip.  I was teaching a clinic at a barn that was about an hour from my home.  We were quite the Noah’s Arc heading off that day. Panda was still learning how to ride in a car, so I sat in the back seat with her.  Ann sat in front with her guide dog wedged in between her feet.  And another client drove us.

Panda was essentially right in my lap so my pockets were at nose level for the entire trip.  I couldn’t be more vulnerable, and there was no putting her away and taking a break.  For the entire hour’s drive we worked on grown-ups.

Each time Panda took her nose away even for a second, click, she got a treat.  What Ann was hearing from the front seat was a rapid-fire barrage of clicks.  She’s an experienced clicker trainer so she knows how training works.  You begin with high rates of reinforcement for little things, and you gradually expand them out.  But I knew she was worried.  Her shepherd was supposed to be a “trained” dog, but everything was still in the “terrible twos” toddler stage with him. How was this going to work for Panda?

Panda was our true “toddler”.  She was only nine months old on that first car ride.  Just like a human child, she needed a lot of reminders to say “please” and “thank you”.  She was learning that mugging my pockets not only never got her treats, it wasn’t necessary.  There were so many other, great ways to get me to click.

The Grown-ups Really Are Talking
Panda was also learning that she didn’t need to bang the proverbial kitchen pots and pans to get attention.  She got plenty of attention, but sometimes my focus needed to shift away from her.  She was learning at those times it was okay to take a nap.

Panda asleep 5 photos

By the time she went to live full time with Ann, the grown-ups really could talk uninterrupted.  We could go out to dinner with Panda as Ann’s guide.  She had learned to stand next to Ann’s chair dozing while waiters set yummy smelling food on the table.  Panda would occasionally poke her nose above the table to check out what was on the menu, but she never interrupted – not until after the desert course, and then it was only to let Ann know she needed to go out.

(By the way – if you want great service, take a guide horse with you.  It was always great fun watching the waiters competing to see who got to serve the table with the mini horse.)

Great Service
This reminds me of a great Panda story.  The very first store we took Panda into was Lowes Hardware.  We quickly discovered that Panda loved to shop!  I don’t know what there is about the long cavernous aisles of the big box stores that she likes, but from the very beginning Panda has always enjoyed her trips to these stores.

She had trotted down several aisles before we found the PVC pipe we had come for.  Ann and I were discussing what size we needed for our project when I looked up.  Normally you have to hunt for someone to help you.  Not this time!  We were surrounded by twelve sales clerks.  One of them said, “We heard on the walkie-talkie there was a horse in bathroom fittings.”

I could just imagine what they were thinking – some idiot has brought a full sized horse into the store.  They had all come running.

Of course, we got great service!  And think of the conversations they must have had that night around the dinner table!

Coming Next: Consistency

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Cues Evolve: Part 2

Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed

Changing Cues
In the previous section you saw that cues evolve and change all the time.  You start out with one cue, and it quickly morphs and becomes more subtle.  You may think the cue is some large hand gesture you’re presenting, but really your horse is tuning in to much smaller signals.  All those hand gestures are just window dressing.  The real cue lies in some subtle shifts of balance.

These changes in the cues often happen without your even noticing.  It’s only after the fact that you realize your horse is changing gait when you breathe, not when you give him what you thought were the cues.

This is one way that cues can change.  Another, more deliberate, process involves changing an old cue to a brand new cue.  But before we get to the details of that process let’s review the basics of good clicker manners.

Basic Manners
With your pockets filled with treats, suppose you were to walk into the stall or home paddock of a horse who isn’t clicker trained. What’s likely to happen?  You’d be mugged.  That’s especially true if you gave him one of those treats.  He’d be sniffing around your pockets wondering how he can get to the rest of what you’re hiding.

Now walk into the paddock of a clicker-trained horse. What is likely to happen?  He’ll back up, or he’ll pose for you.  He’ll fetch the hat you dropped on the ground.  He’ll do anything but mug your pockets.  He’s learned that’s not how the game is played.

Mugging you, nudging your hands looking for goodies, biting at your sleeve, pawing in frustration – none of these behaviors will get you to reach into your pocket to hand him treats.  But moving out of your space and standing politely at your side will.

Robin pose on mat 2016-06-18 at 3.53.41 PM

Good manners are at the core of clicker training.

I call this base behavior “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.”  I gave it this name very deliberately.  I wanted to say to people we may be feeding lots of treats, but we aren’t permissive.  Our clicker horses have great manners.  They are first and foremost safe to be around.

We don’t have to be strict to teach these good manners.  We just have to be consistent.  Finding the right images helps to keep the whole process fun.

Tap Root Behaviors
“The grown-ups are talking” is at the core of all clicker ground manners.  Canine clicker trainer, Steve White, has a great image for teaching this.  He calls behaviors like grown-ups tap root behaviors.

tap root behavior - carrots with captionThink of the tap root a plant puts down.  It goes deep into the ground with many smaller roots branching off from it.  Pull up a young plant before it has time to develop, and the tap root will be very small.  But give that plant time to grow, and the tap root will grow thick and reach deep into the ground.  It will have a complex network of smaller roots branching off from it.

In training we want to grow strong tap root behaviors.  The idea is simple.  You have a core tap root behavior, such as grown-ups. Every time you work on some other behavior, you return to the tap root.

So you might start with grown-ups and then add in a little targeting.

Back to grown-ups.

Next it’s head lowering.

Back to grown ups.

Now for some leg lifts.

Back to grown ups.

By returning each time to grown ups, you are strengthening this core behavior.  Like a tap root, it will grow stronger each time you return to it.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.

Coming Next: Saying Please and Thank You 

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Cues Evolve

Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed: Part 1

Change Happens
So far we’ve looked at:
1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) You need to get what you want when you want it.  That is you need stimulus control.
7.) You can teach behavior in pairs to build stimulus control.

So now you have a cue attached to a behavior and the behavior is under some level of stimulus control.  But is that really the case?  Cues not only evolve out of the shaping process.  They keep on evolving.  The cue you started out with is probably not the cue you’ll end up with.

There are many reasons why cues change.  Some are deliberate.  We changed them.  And sometimes cues change because we weren’t paying attention.  Change happens.  Cues evolve out of the shaping process, and they keep on evolving. So number 8 becomes:

8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed.

What Comes Before What Comes Before

Panda Catch gallop with caption
Horses are very clever at figuring out what comes before the behavior that comes before the behavior that comes before the behavior you want.  Did you follow all of that?  Your horse will.

Suppose you’ve been sliding down a lead to ask your horse to go forward.  He responds.  Click and treat.

He’s eager to get his treat, so he’s watching you.  You start to slide down the lead.  He knows the answer.  He’s like the smart kid in class who has his hand up even before the teacher has finished asking the question.  “I know the answer!  Pick me! Pick me!”

Your horse knows the answer.  He’s walking off before you can get even half way down the lead.  You love the promptness and softness of his response.  Click and treat.

You ask again and your horse responds even sooner.  He’s noticing the slight rise of your shoulders just before you begin sliding down the lead.

And then he notices the little intake of breath that precedes the lift of your shoulders.

And now you just begin to think about asking him to walk off, and he’s already doing it!

Whoa! Stop!  This is a little too light!

How Light is Too Light?
At some point you have to set some boundaries around how far back in the chain you want him to go.  You need to establish where you want to position your “get ready, get set, go” cues.  Maybe you enjoy a horse who is so super light no one can see how you’re asking.  Or maybe you want your horse to wait until you give a more definite, concrete, visible cue.  In either case, you get to decide.

Learning to wait for a cue is part of stimulus control.  Again, you can be a “drill sergeant” or a “game master”.

Wait
“Wait” is a great cue to have.

So are “Get Ready” and “Get Set”.

These aren’t necessarily verbal cues.  “Get ready” may be a glance in his direction.  “Get set” might be a shift in your balance.  “Go” is your raised eyebrow.  That’s how sensitive and tuned in horses can become.

The problem is your horse will keep moving your “Get ready, get set, go!” cues.  He’ll be ready to go on the “Get set” of your shift of balance, and he’ll have found a new, even more subtle “Get ready” cue.  At some point you’re going to need to tell him to “Wait”.  When he starts to jump the gun, you’ll need to reset him back into your base position.

“Wait” stabilizes your cues at a level of response you can manage.  What does wait mean to your horse?  What are you waiting for?  Signs of relaxation.  Teach your horse to settle.  You don’t want him always on edge waiting for the next cue.  Can he relax, take a breath, stand quietly?

Now get ready.  Remember the effect of cues works in two directions so waiting will be reinforced by the cue to get ready.

Get set.

Go!

The game is on.  Have fun!

Coming next: Changing Cues and Tap Root Behaviors

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 6.) Getting What You Want When You Want It: Stimulus Control

I have a lot of new people joining this blog, so it’s probably a good idea to remind people that the articles you’re reading are an experiment in publishing. I am combining a 19th century idea, publishing my book, JOY FULL Horses, in installments, with 21st century technology to publish it here as a blog.

If you’ve been reading the blogs from my first posting on January 2, 2016, you’ve been reading them in order, but if you are new to this series you are encountering them back to front.  My recommendation would be to treat this like the book that it is.  You wouldn’t want to read a Dickens novel beginning in the middle.  This is very much the same.  You will get so much more from these articles if you read them in order.

Click on the JOYFULL Horses tab at the top of this page to go to the Contents.  That will give you the links to all the articles.  It also makes it very easy to go back and find individual posts that you want to reread.

Also, please let your friends know about these blogs.  The more we share, the more people can learn about clicker training.  This is a great opportunity to introduce people to the fabulous relationships that clicker training helps us create.

Now on to today’s article.  The previous section was a long one with lots of how-to instruction.  Today’s post is much shorter, though it deals with an important concept: stimulus control.  Without this you can easily end up with a clicker mess instead of a clicker super star.

Getting What You Want
Our novice clicker trainer is learning a lot about cues.

1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.

The list is simple, but we’ve covered some major training concepts. Now it’s time for another.

Number six on my list is how to get what you want, when you want it, and only when you want it.  In other words, I want my novice trainer to understand:

6.) Stimulus Control

Cues and Our Eager Clicker Horses
Cues are great, but they are just the beginning.  You could have a great back up cue for your horse.  Every time you ask him to back he does so right away.  There’s no hesitation.  It’s a completely reliable cue.  The only problem is he also backs up when you ask him to go forward.  And he backs up when you try to groom him and saddle him.  In fact just about every time he sees you, he’s backing.

fengur backing from saddle with caption

Your horse knows backing is a hot behavior.  You often pay well for it, so it’s worth a try.  And if backing doesn’t work, how about retrieving?  That usually gets a laugh and a treat.  How about handing you all the brushes out of your grooming bucket.  Will that work?

Clicker-trained horses can be great fun, and they can also be great pests!

When my clever clicker horse starts expanding on the games I’ve taught him, I keep reminding myself that I don’t want to make him wrong for offering the behaviors I’ve taught him.  I just need to understand that attaching a cue to a behavior is only half of the story.

I need to take the process a little further and establish some level of stimulus control over the behaviors I’ve been reinforcing. That means I get the behavior when I ask for it, but not at other times.  And I don’t get some other behavior in response to my cue.  If I ask for backing, I get backing – each and every time.  I don’t get head lowering or walking forward in response to my cue.  And I don’t get backing in response to some other cue.  Stimulus control takes me to precision and consistency.

Stimulus Control Version 1.0
When I was first learning about clicker training, stimulus control was taught using an extinction process.  Here’s how it was described:

You are teaching your horse to touch a target.  You would eventually like to say “touch” and have your horse orient to the target.  (Remember Number 2 of Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Not All Cues Are Verbal. We’re a verbal species so, of course, we would feel that we don’t have the behavior fully developed until we have a verbal cue attached to it! https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/14/)

We are reminded that saying “touch” before you have the behavior in place is not going to help you get the behavior.  If I held a target out in front of you and said “Rabish”, you wouldn’t know what to do.  Think of all the things you could do.  You could back up.  You could spin around. You could grab the target from me.  You could jump up and down, wave your arms, sing the “Star Spangled Banner”.

Who knows what the behavior is that the cue “Rabish” is supposed to elicit.  Based on your past history I could get all sorts of things besides simple targeting.  Before I add the verbal cue, I already want to be getting the behavior I’m after.

So the instructions tell you to wait for the horse to be consistently touching the target.  The way this was always described was this:

When you are so confident that your horse will touch the target that you would bet money on it, that’s when you add a verbal cue.

Now you say “touch” and you hold the target up.  Your clever horse touches the target, but of course he hasn’t suddenly learned English. He would have touched the target whether you had said anything or not.  You could have said “Rabish”, and he would have done the same thing.

You repeat this several times creating an association between the word “Touch” and the action of bumping the target.  Now when you say “Touch” your horse looks around for something to orient to.

The Four Criteria of Stimulus Control
The cue is becoming associated with the behavior, but that’s not enough.  You want stimulus control.  That means the cue meets the following criteria:

The horse touches the target promptly every time the cue is given.

The horse doesn’t touch the target in the absence of the cue.

The horse doesn’t offer some other behavior in response to the cue.

And the horse doesn’t offer the behavior in response to some other cue.

Speed Bump: Teaching with Extinction
So the next step in this process was to hold the target up without saying “Touch”.

Here’s where the snag occurred for me.  The horse had been consistently reinforced for touching the target up to this point, so, of course, he was going to touch it now.  But you didn’t give the cue.  From this point on the horse was only to be reinforced for touching the target when the cue was given.

The poor horse didn’t know about this rule change so he thought the system was broken.  What do you do when you can’t get your candy bar out of the vending machine?  You bang on the machine.  That’s what the horses would do.  They would bump the target really hard.  It’s as if they were saying to their human:

“I’m touching it!  Can’t you see.  I’m really touching it!”

As their frustration grew, they might grab the target, or bite at their handlers to get their attention.

This is all very typical of the behavior you see in an extinction process.  The animal gets frustrated.  He tries harder, and when that doesn’t work, he gets angry.

When I was first exploring clicker training and I followed these directions, I would see the best examples of targeting yet.  My horse was really bumping the target hard to get my attention.  In fact he was well on his way to picking it up and handing it to me. How could I not reinforce that?  A retrieve would be really fun to train!  But if I reinforced him at this point when I hadn’t given my cue, I would blow my stimulus control.

Now I was frustrated.  My horse was frustrated.  We didn’t like this way of doing things so we found a different way of building good stimulus control.

We taught behaviors in pairs.

Through “the Wardrobe”
The next unit will explain what this means. As you come to understand this process, you will be stepping “through the wardrobe” – not into Narnia – though it may seem that way given the clarity of communication that evolves – but certainly into a world of play.

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 7.) Stimulus Control and Play: Teaching Cues in Pairs

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: Cues Evolve Pt 4: Priming the Pump

pump 2.pngHeating Up a Behavior
In the previous section you learned how to teach your horse to back through a square.  There are many practical reasons why you would want this kind of maneuverability in your horse.  For starters it’s important that horses understand that they can swing their hips so they don’t feel trapped in tight spaces.  I’m sure you can see why this would be important.  What may not be as obvious is the link between backing in a square and head lowering.

To get to this lesson, you’re going to take a little detour.  You’re going to leave the stall for a few minutes while you make head lowering a “hot” behavior.

Training Detours
The reason for this detour is this way of teaching head lowering out of backing can be a hard lesson.  I learned it originally from John Lyons where essentially you were closing down all options but the one you wanted.  You were taking away choice.  It is often taught when horses are over threshold.  It’s a powerful lesson that can bring a horse back under control.

There have been times over the years working with horses at clinics where I have been very glad I knew how to make this lesson work.  When a horse is panicking because he is away from home, you need management tools that can safely and without undue force, bring him back under control.  If you ever find yourself on the other end of the lead from a horse who is having an emotional meltdown, you may be very grateful that you know how to make this lesson work.

But, and this is a big but, I want to be a constructional trainer.  I want to teach a skill before I need to use a skill.

That means I want to teach my horse how to solve the puzzle that this head lowering lesson presents BEFORE I need to use it.  I want to tease apart what can be a hard lesson into it’s underlying component parts.  Instead of taking away choice, I want to give it back.  Instead of this feeling like a hard lesson where doors are slammed shut, I am presenting it in a series of easily understood steps.  If my horse ever does have a moment of panic, he will know how to solve the puzzle.

Think about how this would feel for yourself.  When you’re afraid, if someone asked you what 27 divided by 3 is, you might momentarily struggle to find the answer, but you know basic math.  You’d be able to give the answer.  But suppose you’re asked for something you’ve never done.  Now you’re really in a panic.  You can’t solve this additional puzzle.  You feel even more trapped.   You’re afraid of the environment, and now you are struggling to figure out what your inquisitor is demanding of you.  That’s definitely not how I want my horses to experience training.  Controlling the environment and breaking training down into small steps transforms an inquisition into a reasonable lesson.

This is essentially showing you how you can take training you may have learned from a traditional, correction-based system and transform it into something that is very clicker compatible.  That’s why I have taken so much time to describe the step-by-step teaching process that is going to take us from backing in a square to head lowering.

Priming the Pump
To make the jump from backing into head lowering, I’m going to “prime the pump”.  I’m going to make head lowering a super “hot” behavior.

To show you how this works answer the following questions:

What colour is snow?

What colour is the house the US President lives in?

What colour is a sheet of typing paper?

What colour is the opposite of black?

What colour are clouds?

What colour is a bride’s gown?

What do cows drink?

Many people will say milk.  They’ve been primed to say milk because they are thinking about things that are white.  But, of course, cows drink water, not milk.

We’re going to prime the head lowering pump by asking lots of questions where head lowering is the answer.  It’s like having a stack of files on your desk.  At the moment the head lowering file may be buried at the bottom.  It’s in there somewhere, but you’ve forgotten it’s even there.  Bring it to the top of the stack, and now you’ll be thinking about it.  Make every file you open a head lowering file, and pretty soon that’s the only answer you’ll be expecting to give.

Priming The Head Lowering Pump
The easiest way to get head lowering is through targeting, so that’s how you’re going to begin. You’ll have your horse track the target down, click and treat.

head lowering follow cone 2 photos

Another easy way is to milk the line down as you bend down softly inviting your horse to join you. The expression milking the line refers to your fingers stroking down either side of the line.  You aren’t pulling down, and you aren’t fixing your hand firmly around the lead.  You are simply drawing your fingers along the rope in a soft invitation.

milking the line down Robin

Placing your hand on your horse’s poll is yet another way.  By now he may drop his head readily because he knows head lowering has been paying well recently so why not try it again.  Click and treat.

It’s no accident that head lowering is the go-to option.  When you put your hand on his poll, it’s clear you want something, but no clicks are coming for just standing still.  When you withhold your click, you’ll see a resurgence of the behavior that was just earning high rates of reinforcement – in this case, head lowering. For a discussion of resurgence and how to use it in training refer to the May 2015 articles on Resurgence and Regression: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/05/21/

head lowering from poll with caption

Head Lowering from Backing in a Square
The pump is now primed.  Head lowering is a super hot behavior.  It’s time to return to the backing in a square lesson.  You were asking your horse to back through a corner.  As he swings his hips to the inside, his head is going to drop ever so slightly.  This doesn’t happen because he’s relaxing.  It’s more matter of counter-balancing.  As his hips swing to the side, his head will counter balance that move by dropping slightly.

You’re going to be looking for this subtle balance shift.  At first, it may be very small, so you have to be on the lookout for it.  Instead of releasing the lead as soon as he’s backing, you’re going to wait for this tiny head drop.  Your hand will stay on the lead to say: “I want something”.   As soon as you get the response you’re after, you’ll release it.

This isn’t a change in the way you’re playing this game.  You haven’t suddenly switched from a starter button to a constant-on cue for the backing.  What has changed is the criterion you’re looking for.  Now it isn’t backing. It’s that slight drop in his head.  You’ve been getting it in different ways.  Now you’re simply triggering it out of backing.

Head lowering is a hot behavior, so your horse will catch on fast.  He’ll start to drop his head even before he’s stepping back.  This is golden.  You now have a super reliable way of asking for head lowering, one that will work even when he is feeling nervous and anxious.

Calm Down Now!
Why are you teaching head lowering in this way?  Why not simply stay with the easier, less technically-difficult-to-teach methods?  It’s a simple answer – even the most mellow horse can have a moment when his world is falling apart.  You never know when you might suddenly find yourself holding onto a horse who is becoming increasingly worried. Maybe your friend has just taken her horse out of the arena, or maybe his best buddy is being turned out without him.  Whatever the reason your horse has suddenly gone from working quietly to exploding into a freight train’s worth of energy.  You need to keep both you and your horse safe.  Putting him away, or turning him loose to work things out at liberty may not be an option, so what else can you do?

Again, it’s a simple answer.  Ask him to back in a square.  This moves his shoulders out of your space and keeps him from crashing over the top of you.  As he backs, you’ll be displacing his head up and to the outside. The more anxious he is, the higher his head will be as he takes a step back.  When he swings his hips to the inside, he’ll have a tendency to drop his head.  This isn’t because he’s calming down.  It’s a matter of counter-balancing.  The drop of his head tends to happen as he steps to the side.

Be ready for this. As soon as you feel even the first inkling of head lowering, be certain to release the lead.

Even if you don’t manage to get a click in, the release of the lead will jump start the process.  You’ll be ready the next time to reinforce the behavior not just with the release of the lead but with a click and a treat, as well.  Repeat this a few times, and you will very quickly have a horse who lowers his head not just a tiny amount, but all the way to the ground.

Priming the pump helps the horse make the connection.  When you activate the lead, he’s going to try head lowering because head lowering has been the go-to answer.  Click and treat.  When you need it the most, activating the lead will head straight to head lowering.  (In the next unit we’ll address stimulus control so head lowering isn’t the only behavior you get when you touch the lead.)

Heading Toward Lighter Than Light Cues
Cues for head lowering will definitely grow out of this shaping process.  When you slide down the lead asking for that slight displacement of his head to the outside, he’ll know you’re after head lowering.

Robin backing black background

How light can you be?  Will he lower his head from just a soft touch on the lead?  From a hand gesture?  How can you morph that head lowering trigger into ever more subtle cues?

Playing with Cues
You can play even more with this process.  Head lowering is hot.  So let’s see what else can trigger the head lowering response.  Stroke your hand along your horse’s back.  If he’s been a little anxious, the long brush strokes your arm makes over his back may feel soothing.  If you see him drop his head even a little, click and treat.  Resume stroking his back again.  He’s catching on to this new clicker game.  He’s beginning to make connections fast.  After just a couple of clicks, you’ll see that stroking his back cues him to drop his head.  Very neat!

You can install all kinds of fun “buttons” all over your horse.  And it’s not just head lowering that you can trigger.  If you understand the overall concept of how this priming process works, you can install “buttons” for ears forward, for the pilates pose, for forward motion, for backing, etc.

“How’d you do that?”
As you play with this game, the question you’ll be hearing from your friends will be:  “How’d you do that?”

“How did you get your horse to back up by pulling on his tail?”

“How did you get your horse to drop his head by tickling his belly?”

“How did you get your horse to run towards you by sitting in a chair?”

You don’t have to give away all your secrets (unless you want to). You can give them the best answer of all – playfully.

Author’s note: I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts.  I’ve included a lot of how-to instruction in this unit, but I have also left a great deal out.  I can’t fit everything that needs to be said about head lowering into the length of an article.  It was never my intent that these articles would give that kind of complete detailed, how-to instructions.  For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course.  In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering.  My on-line course will also provide you with very thorough how-to instructions.

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 6.) Getting What You Want When You Want It: Stimulus Control

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: Cues Evolve Out Of The Shaping Process – Pt. 3

In the previous post I used the process of teaching a horse to back in a square to illustrate several ways in which cues evolve out of the shaping process.  I showed you how you can use food delivery to move your horse through a particular motor pattern.  When you first teach a horse to come forward to touch a target, it’s easy to have him step back to get to his treat.  Body language cues evolve easily out of the food delivery.  Now if you turn into him to ask for backing, he’ll know what you want.  The cue for backing evolved out of the shaping process.

Horses are masters at reading subtle changes in body language.  They are good at seeing what comes before what comes before what you are asking for.  In the wild a horse needs to be good at predicting the future to stay out of trouble, both within the herd and when a predator is on the hunt. So horses are good at spotting the little clues that tell them what you’ll be asking for next.  After all, the better they learn to read you, the more successful they’ll be.  Those clues help them to get to their reinforcers faster.

Starter Button and Constant-On Cues
In Part one of this section, I focused on teaching your horse to back in a square.  That’s the precursor to teaching head lowering.  So let’s continue on to that part of the lesson.  Remember you’ve been asking your horse to back from the front of his stall a step or two toward the back wall.  The stall may be his actual stall, or just a square marked out with cones or ground poles.  Once these steps come easily, you can begin to build duration.  You’ll need to decide if your cue is a starter button or a constant-on cue.

A starter button cue is exactly what it sounds like.  Think about how you use your key to turn on your car’s ignition.  You turn the key and as soon as you hear the engine start, you let go.  You don’t keep turning the key.  You assume that once your car starts it’s going to keep going until you turn it off.  If it does stall out, you’ll restart it with the turn of the key.

Your backing cue can work in the same way.  When you slide down the lead, you expect your horse to begin to back.  But do you hold on to the lead the whole time he’s backing, or do you let go once he’s initiated the movement?  The later would be a starter button cue.

If you hold on, you’re using the lead as a constant-on signal.  You’re in effect saying: “As long as this signal is present, you’re to keep backing.  When it goes away, you’re to stop.”

In her book, Lads Before the Wind, Karen Pryor described how she taught her dolphins to spin and to keep spinning as long they could hear a certain signal.  It was an easy way to build duration in a behavior, especially working as she was with multiple animals.

The problem with using the lead as a constant-on signal is it can effect your horse’s balance.  You can experience this yourself.  You’re going to hold the snap end of the lead so you get the horse’s perspective of this lesson. Have a friend slide down the lead to ask for backing.  First, she’s going to hold on until you have given her the number of backing steps she wants.  That’s the constant-on cue.

Next have her slide down, but she’s to let go AS SOON AS you’re in motion.  If you stall out, not sure what she wants, she’s to slide down again and restart the behavior.  Once you are backing freely, she’s to let you back several steps before she clicks.  That will bring you to a stop.  Remember, as you are backing, she is NOT keeping an active hold of the lead.

So now you’ve sampled both constant-on and starter button cues.

Question:  Which way did you prefer?  If you are like most people, you’ll prefer the starter button.  The other will feel heavier and more demanding.  You’ll also notice that there was a difference in how you backed.   With the starter button your steps will be longer, more even, better balanced.

The Horse’s Perspective
There’s a lovely expression that I refer to often in clinics: Go to people for opinions and horses for answers.  In this case you were the horse.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  You can test out the two different versions of how you ask for backing and decide for yourself which one you prefer.

One of the things I like about clicker training is we can experience directly so many of the lessons we give to our horses.  Holding on to the lead with a constant-on cue comes much more easily to most people.  You have to make a conscious effort to let go. If there’s no difference, there’s no reason to change.  But once you’ve experienced for yourself from the horse’s perspective the difference in the feel and the impact it has on your balance, it becomes a lot easier to pay attention to the detail of letting go.

Years ago at one of the big horse expos I had a trade booth set up directly across the aisle from a company that sells electronic shock collars for horses.  All weekend long I got to watch their sales video.  It featured a mare who had a foal at her side.  The mare was a cribber.  They were using the shock collar to discourage the cribbing.

Each time she reached out to the fence, they would zap her with the collar.  Over and over again as the video played, I got to watch her jump back from the shock.  That was hard enough to watch.  What made this even worse, when they shocked her, her foal had just started to nurse.  Think of the associations that was creating!

As part of their sales pitch they were letting people feel the shock the collar produced.  Toward the end of the weekend when things were quieting down, I went over to have a feel.  They had the collar set at the lowest setting.  You didn’t get a jolt. Touching an electric fence is much worse, but even so it was exceedingly unpleasant.  That was the lowest setting.

I asked to feel the setting the mare was given.

“Oh on.  We don’t let people take that level of shock.”

Soap Box Time
It made me appreciate clicker training all the more.  To the best of our ability to simulate experiences, there’s nothing we do to the animals that we do not also let people experience.  I can slide down the lead and let you feel what the horse feels at his end of the lead.  I can set up training games and let you go through the same puzzle solving process.  I can click and feed – maybe not hay stretcher pellets, but something more to your liking.

We are confronted by so many different opinions about how best to train our horses.  We can’t always know how something feels to a horse.  I can’t wear a bit or carry a rider on my back, so I can’t replicate every experience, but here’s my standard.  Your horse should not have to go through any training procedure which you are uncomfortable watching.

Note, I do not say which you are uncomfortable doing to your horse.  You may not have the skill to take your horse through a particular lesson.  You may be using a trainer to help teach your horse something that requires more experience than you currently have.  But you should be able to watch everything that’s done to your horse.  If something makes you squirm, it’s okay to speak up for your horse.  There is always, ALWAYS another way to train everything you want to teach.

A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse, and a good trainer will find another way to teach the lesson.  A punitive trainer with a narrow tool box will tell you this way is for the good of the horse, and you have to let him finish.  He’ll tell you if you let the horse get away with being disrespectful, you’ll ruin him.

These are red flags.  Thank him very much for his opinion and take your horse home.  You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to know how to break a lesson down into small steps.  You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to be fair to a horse.  You just have to be a good trainer. So take your horse out of harm’s way, and find someone to help you who is a true teacher not a bully.

Backing with Starter Button Cues
That’s enough standing on a soap box.  Let me step down off of mine and get back to the backing in a square lesson.  Hopefully, you got a friend to help you, and you were able to feel the difference between a starter button and a constant-on cue.  You know for this lesson you want the lead to act as a starter button cue.  Once your horse initiates backing, you’ll release the lead and walk back with him.

Now note, this means that there is a constant-on cue in this process.  As he backs, you’re walking forward toward him. Walking toward him is your constant-on cue. You want him to keep backing out of your way as you walk into his space.  That cue is evolving out of the shaping process.

Again, if he stalls out too soon, you’ll restart the “engine” by sliding down the lead.

You’ll ask him to back a couple of steps, being mindful that you are still in a stall and there’s a wall behind him.

After the click, you’ll use your food delivery to reposition him forward.

This begins a new movement cycle.

As you ask him to repeat the cycle, you’ll see him backing with more confidence.  Not only does he understand what you want, he’s backing over ground he’s already stepped on.  He knows now that it doesn’t contain any hidden traps.  It’s safe to step back.  Each time you ask him, it becomes easier and more fluid.  That’s in part why you do this back and forth dance.  It is like bending a metal coat hanger.  At first the hanger is very stiff, but the more you bend it, the softer and easier it becomes.

A Change in the Game
Now that you have a horse backing easily, you’re going to change the game once again.  Instead of feeding forward after the click, now you’re going to feed right where you clicked.

Again, this can trip people up.  They spent so much mental energy figuring out how to feed forward, and now they have to change all that and keep their feet still.

Why the change?  You’re ready to tackle the puzzle that the back corner of the stall presents.  So many horses feel trapped in this kind of situation.  They forget that they can just swing their hindquarters over.  When they get in a corner, instead of simply stepping back and to the side, they panic and push forward into the handler.

You’re going to show your horse that he has another option.  You have him at a halt with his rear end close to the back wall.  You’re going to slide down the lead and ask him to turn his head away from you.  Your body orientation is still saying back, but you ARE NOT pushing into him AT ALL with the lead.  There is no backwards force on the lead.  There doesn’t need to be.

If you add a feel of pushing him back before he has figured out how, he’ll just feel trapped.  All the pressure will go down into his hocks.  Especially if he has any arthritis in his hocks, this will make him feel even more anxious, and it will be harder yet for him to figure out what he’s to do.

More “Being the Horse”
Instead you are simply going to ask him to turn his head away from you.  You can experience what this does simply by standing up for a moment.  Put your hands on your hips so you can really feel the effect.  Begin by looking straight ahead.  Now turn your head to one side and look over your shoulder.  What did your hips do?  They counter balanced the movement by swinging in the opposite direction.

As you ask your horse to bend his nose more and more to the outside, he’ll become aware of the answer to the puzzle.  All he has to do is follow the turn of his hips, and he can back up out of this corner.  Putting him in the corner makes it easier for him to figure out the answer.  The structure helps you.  I just don’t want to put him prematurely in the corner before he’s comfortable enough with backing to be able to find the answer in a relaxed manner.  That’s the reason for all the back and forth prep.

Robin back in square 3 photos

If your horse doesn’t understand your request to move his head away from you, there’s a simple way to prep this part of the lesson.  Use food delivery to set up the response.  Begin by asking him to stand next to you in the “grown-ups are talking” position.

Robin grown ups with caption

When you click, instead of presenting the food so he continues to keep his head in this position, you’ll extend your arm past where his nose is so he has to turn his head to get his treat.  As he moves, you’ll step forward, filling the space he’s vacating.  You’ll repeat this until the food delivery has created the weight shift you need to ask him to turn his hip so he can back through the corner.  This is an easy way to ask for what can be a very challenging maneuver for some horses.  The goal is to make this as easy and understandable as possible so your horse is very comfortable being asked to back through turns.  (For another view of how to use food delivery to set up the behavior you want refer to the May 6, 2016 post on Using Environmental Cues https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/05/06/)

Robin back thru square with food delivery - captions

Whichever approach you use, you now have him backing one step through the corner.  Click and treat.  You can ask for another step, or perhaps it is time to walk him forward again out of the stall to give him a break.

Once your horse is comfortably backing through all four the corners of the stall, it is time to change the game yet again.  Now you’re going after head lowering.

Heating Up a Behavior
To get to this lesson, you’re going to take a little detour.  You’re going to leave the stall for a few minutes while you make head lowering a “hot” behavior.

Coming Next: Priming the Pump

Author’s note: Once again, I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts.  These articles are not intended to give detailed, how-to instructions.  For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course.  In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering.  My on-line course will also provide you with a very thorough introduction to clicker training.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com