The Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 2 – Different Learners

The Goat Palace

It seems very appropriate that today’s Goat Diary entry is titled different learners because that’s certainly what I have in the five goats.  Yesterday we began the formal introduction to clicker training for our new arrivals.  Thanzi, not surprisingly, was first because she pushed her way through the gate ahead of all the others.  They stayed in the smaller front area with the hay feeders, and Thanzi worked in the back section.

She was brilliant.  I held out my coloured baton as her target.  She touched it, I clicked and gave her a treat so she was well away from me.  I held the target out again.  She touched it.  Click – treat.  There was no mugging, just consistent target touches.  It was as though she already knew the game.  I’ve met horses who were like this.  Robin was one of them.  He caught on instantly to the connections, faster than any horse I had ever met.  Thanzi was Robin smart.

She did decide after a few consistent touches that my pockets needed investigating.  I stayed quiet while she sniffed for treats.  Nothing.  She touched the red ball, click, a treat appeared.  These puzzle moments are golden.  Our animals have to test, to experiment.  What works?  What doesn’t? This is why it is so important to create a good environment for learning.  I don’t want the other goats trying to push their way in distracting her and creating more “noise” in the system.  I want the simplicity of the process to be clear.  Mug my pockets, nothing happens.  Touch the target, click, you can get me to hand you treats.  Simple.

Thanzi reached over and touched the target.  Click, I gave her a piece of squash rind. She was standing still.  Click – treat, click – treat, click – treat in rapid succession for standing still.

I kept her session short, in part because these early sessions should be short, and in part because we still had four more goats to play with.  I opened gate.  Thanzi charged back in scattering the other goats.  I had no preference for order.  Whoever came next would be next.  I had thought P would be first out, but it was little E who rushed through the gate.  He was clearly eager for a turn.

I had set out stacks of plywood to serve as platforms, something I had introduced E and P to during their July visit.  E followed the target, but he was so excited he kept overshooting the platforms.  He clearly remembered the game.  I had no mugging, just lots of eager enthusiasm. I’ve known horses who were like this. After an absence from clicker training, they are so excited to be back in the game, it’s like watching a small child waiting for Christmas.

E is so very sweet.  I could have played with him all morning, but there were others waiting.  We opened the gate again and everyone swarmed into the back area.  Galahad was last.  I managed to close the gate before he could go through, so now it was Marla’s turn to play, this time in the front section.

I was getting the camera set up, when little E squirmed his way through the fence and joined us.  We had planned on putting a hay feeder in the section he got through and then changed the plan, but forgot to change the fence, so now we had two goats eager for attention.

Galahad was having his formal introduction to clicker training.  We knew already that he is very sweet.  We also had discovered that he is a terrible mugger.  So I suggested to Marla that she drop his treats into a feed bucket to make a clear separation between the treats and her pockets.  I wasn’t able to watch because I needed to keep E entertained.

This session was an interesting one for E.  There was a huge pull towards the feed bucket, especially when he heard Marla click.  But I was able to draw him away with the target. He was clearly remembering all the good things he had learned in July.

In the next swap we got everyone back into the front section.  Now I wanted P to have a turn, but first we had to move two hay feeders onto the dividing fence so little E couldn’t join us again.  The juggling of feeders and eager goats was not elegant.  In fact, I would say that described all the swaps.  Teaching each of the goats to go to a station is definitely going to be a high priority.  Today’s chaos was data collecting.  I don’t like the chaos at the gate, but I haven’t yet decided what to do about it.

We got P into the back section where I had all the platforms set out.  He was brilliant.  He followed the target to the indicated platform and stood rock solid on it while I stepped away.  It was as though no time at all had passed since his last clicker training session.  He picked up right where we had left off.  You’ve already seen in the Goat Diary reports that he is a quick learner.  His performance today just confirmed it.

The only problem with this session was little E wanted to join us. He tried several times to come over to the fence, but Thanzi drove him away.  Hmm.  I didn’t like this.  P was having a great time, but E was stressed.  I kept P’s session fairly short in large part for E’s sake.

So now it was Trixie’s turn.  We managed somehow to get everyone but her into the back area.  She’s so much more cautious.  I had a target for her, but she wasn’t ready for that.  Instead I held my left hand out to her.  She was able to come forward to sniff my fingers.  Click. I took my hand down and fed her with my right hand.  For her I was using sunflower seeds, a premium treat.

Thanzi was hovering by the gate.  I moved a feed tub to her side of the fence and offered her the target to touch.  She reached over and touched it.  I dropped some sunflower seeds down into the feed tub.  It took her a few moments to find all the seeds so I had time to return to Trixie.

I thought it might help her confidence to have Thanzi nearby. With the fence between them, Thanzi couldn’t drive her away.  Trixie could have the comfort of her presence without the worry. I also knew I didn’t need to worry about the three boys pushing their way into the game.  They knew better than to go anywhere near Thanzi and the feed tub.

So I offered my hand again to Trixie, and she was able very cautiously to touch it.  Click and treat.  I loved how gently she licked the sunflower seeds off my hand.  I could see her looking at my target stick, so I held it out for her, and she nosed the target. Click and treat.

Thanzi had finished her sunflower seeds, so I offered her the target again.  Click, I dropped more treats into her bucket.  I worked back and forth like this, easing Trixie gently into the game, and keeping Thanzi nearby with opportunities to touch the target.

Again, I kept this session short. We left to work on the construction.  We still had a very important outer gate to build in case a goat slipped past us while we were going in and out of their enclosure.  I do like “air locks” so even if someone gets out, they are still contained in a fenced area.

I’ve detailed these introductions to highlight how much you have to tailor the training to the individuals you are working with.  I like to begin with targeting.  It’s such an easy way for an animal to begin to make the connection between the behavior he’s offering and the treats I’m handing him.  Going directly to the treat pocket doesn’t work, but you can get me to hand you goodies just by touching this target.  From an animal’s perspective it must seem like magic.  And then there’s that funny clicking sound which begins to take on significance.  When you hear that, you know this person is about to hand you a treat.  Get ready.

It’s very black and white, both for the animal and for the handler.  And it’s also normally a very clean slate.  There’s no prior experience with targeting.  That’s especially important with horses.  They often have had such negative training experiences.  If I put a lead on, I’m often instantly into poisoned cue territory because the lead has been used to correct the horse.  Make a mistake and you’ll be punished.  That’s been the message.

So now I have a lead on, and maybe I want the horse to take his nose away from my pockets to earn a click and a treat.  He has no way of knowing what the “right” answer is.  But he knows if he guesses wrong, he’s in trouble.  I don’t want that kind of expectation weaving it’s way around these first clicker training sessions, so I try to begin with something that has no previous training history.  Normally that’s targeting.

A short targeting session can tell me a lot about the animal I’m working with.  That was certainly true with the goats.  The morning session showed me that I have five very different learners.  Normally I would say it was time to have the proverbial cup of tea while I thought about what to do with all the data I had collected.  In this case the “cup of tea” meant go work on the construction while I thought about what to adjust.

Marla and I built the outer gates and then I had to head off for the afternoon so there wasn’t time for another round of training.  In the evening after the horses were settled in, I went out to the goatery to check on everyone and to spend a few minutes just hanging out.  I left my vest outside so no treats were on offer.  Thanzi and Trixie came up to sniff my hands, but they weren’t ready to stay for a scratch.  E and P would have liked to come up to me, but Thanzi drove them into the back area.  Gallahad slipped past her and jumped up onto the top platform of the jungle gym.  I don’t know if he is just bolder than the other two, or she is more tolerant of him.  In either case, he was allowed to stay.

He loved the attention.  I scratched his face and his eyes became dreamy.  There was no more mugging, no more pushy behavior, just total bliss.  He has the softest teddy bear fur, so he wasn’t the only one enjoying the attention.  I did feel bad for E and P though who made several attempts to come forward, but each time Thanzi drove them away.  I have to think how best to deal with this.  It was certainly much easier when it was just the two of them.  And speaking of just the two of them, today I will include a Goat Diary report.  If I don’t, I’ll never get back to E and P’s introduction to clicker training.


The July Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 2: Two Different Learners

In the last Goat Diary report I shared with you how P was picking up the nuances of the clicker game at lighting speed. He reminded me of my horse, Robin.  Robin is so very good at seeing connections. He’s like the child in math class who gets to the correct answer without having to write out all the steps. When the teacher tells him to show his work, he gets annoyed. Why do I have to go back through all those little steps when I already have the answer?

With P I recognized the quick brain I was working with. The question was had I learned enough working with Robin and all the other smart horses I’ve met so I could stay at least a couple of steps ahead of this clever goat? And what new twists and turns (literal ones in the case of these very agile goats) would P throw into the mix?

E was a very different learner. He was very sweet, much more timid around people and in new environments, and not nearly as quick at making connections. I started with some simple targeting. He was a much more gentle mugger than P, but he was a mugger nonetheless. So I asked him step back to get his treat, as well.

Target PracticeGoat Diaries Day 2 E learns about food delivery 6 panels

It was clear the connections were not yet being made. He knew that I had treats. He just didn’t know the best way to get them from me. In his frustration he tried pawing and jumping up, two behaviors that definitely were not going to get him what he wanted.

If you don’t know what else to do to get what you want, of course you’re going to try things that have worked in the past.  I had seen E use pawing to pull the hay bucket away from P.  Pawing was a behavior that worked to get him things he wanted.  Why shouldn’t he try it with me?  I needed to expand his behavioral repertoire to give him other possibilities.

Goats E What not To Do pawing

Goats E What not to do jumping

What not to do.

Instead of punishing the unwanted behavior, I used the food delivery to set up an opportunity to click and reinforce him while he was still in his own space.  I hoped he would figure out that staying away from my pockets got him more treats than crowding me.

E wasn’t making the connections. He came forward to check out my pockets. I tried waiting to see what he would do. One of the functions of training is to broaden an animal’s repertoire, to show him more alternatives. By waiting to see what he does you are in effect saying: In this situation where you are feeling frustrated, you could do what feels natural – jump up or paw at my leg – or you could back up away from the treats.

Instead of punishing E for jumping, I want to give him alternatives that work even better to get him what he wants – the treats. As I build a reinforcement history around these more desirable behaviors (from my perspective), I will make it increasingly unlikely that he will choose to jump up.

E hadn’t been doing the intense mugging that P had, so in previous sessions there had been less of a need to use the food delivery to move him out of my space.  After he got his treat, I wanted him to look away from my pockets.  He was struggling to come up with the answer.  I didn’t want to frustrate him so I gave him something he could do. I presented him with the target.

He stretched out his neck to touch it with his nose. Click treat, and then click again for standing still. He was showing me he could keep his nose away from my pockets.  Since the behavior was now occurring fairly frequently, it was fair game to make that the clickable criterion.  I began to wait for him to move his head away from my pockets.  In other words, I began to teach him “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.”

Goats day 2 learning to wait E -12 photos
Learning To Wait
E was very sweet, very gentle to work with, but I wasn’t sure he was understanding what I wanted. I was getting the behavior I wanted, but I’m not sure he was really making the connection yet between his behavior and the click/treat. We’ll see what the next session brings.

You can watch a brief excerpt from E’s training session. You’ll need a password to watch the video.   Use: “GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns”

(Just a quick word about why I have these videos password protected.  They are intended to accompany these diary accounts.  If they are public videos, they could be passed around the internet and taken out of this context.  I’m delighted if you share the links to these blogs with your friends.  In fact I hope that you do.  I wrote them to share, but please do not share the videos outside the context of these blogs.)

Video Goat Diaries Day 2 E Learning to wait

It’s interesting to look at the contrast between the two learners. P picked up really fast that backing away from me for some peculiar reason got me to hand him treats. E didn’t make this leap. He was very sweet, very gentle to work with, but he was not the quick thinker that his brother was proving to be.

He was, however, beginning to stay out of my space which meant I could reinforce him. for standing still. I didn’t want to build in a head turn with the standing. I wasn’t looking for perfection, but I was trying to pick and choose a good moment to click. The challenge was to get a click in before he moved, but not to click on head positions that would work against me in the long run.  I was not always successful.  I had to take his head turning away from me.  That’s what I could get.  I would have preferred to have him looking straight ahead but that wasn’t really there yet.  I would need to build the orientation I wanted  in other ways before I could make it a consistent criterion to go after.  Waiting would only intensify the mugging behavior.

It’s easy to feel frustrated at this stage.  I knew what I didn’t want – the nose stretched up to the treat pocket, or turned too far away to the side, but there didn’t seem to be much in between. What I didn’t want was to lose the standing back out of my space while I waited for something that wasn’t yet there. I was looking for the beginning kernel of a good loop. Find a loop that is tight and clean, and then let it expand. When the behavior you are looking for is already happening, you can make that the next clickable criterion. I was looking for that clean loop. From the beginning to the end of the session we were definitely making progress, just not at the lightning speed of his brother.

Total session time: 8 min.
Coming Next: Day 2 4th Session: Keeping Things in Balance
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: 

The Goats Are Coming Back!

I’m interrupting the Goat Diaries to bring you an exciting message.  The Goats are coming back!  E and P were with me for just twelve days in July.  During that time, they generated enough material to fill a book.  As you know, I’ve turned that into the Goat Diary posts.  The goats brought good learning and lots of laughter.  I’ve missed having them in the barn, so I asked to have them back.

E and P are coming.  They are going to be joined by two pregnant nanny goats so next March I will have the pleasure of intorducing their babies to the world via clicker training.  What fun!

One of my coaches, Marla Foreman has been staying with me this past year.  Her mare, Maggie, is now one of the residents in the barn.  The two of us have been putting in long days building the “goat palace”.  There’s a seventy foot overhang down one side of the barn.  It’s been a fairly useless space.  Originally, I intended to use it for guest horses, but in the summer it gets too hot.  And in the winter, the snow coming off the roof blocks access to it.  We store the lawn mower and the snow blower out there, plus the left overs from the original construction, but beyond that it isn’t used.  So there were two main goals for the building project.  The first was to use up all of the construction left overs, and the other was to create living quarters for the goats.

We’ve turned the lean-to into a glorious space by extending the roof out another nine feet.  It’s been a fun project.  I never imagined that I would be up on scaffolding building rafters, or as we were yesterday, putting on metal roofing panels.

IMG_3871 AK on scaffolding of goat palaceSince it is one of my projects, there are many creative twists to the construction.  If you can put aside “the book” whether its for training or building, to look for alternative solutions, you can be pretty certain that’s what I’ll do.  We have lots of very expensive and very necessary drainage running under what is now the goatery.  I didn’t want to risk damaging the the drainage by digging post holes.  That’s always been the stumbling block to finishing this section of the barn.  How could I extend the roof without digging holes for the supporting posts?  With the goats acting as an incentive, I finally came up with a solution.  This is what I love best about building things. Whether it is a construction project or a training program, the problem solving is the most fun.

Marla and I did a lot of creative problem solving as we figured out how to build a roof. We had the existing lean-to to follow as a guide, but then there were the Kurland creative twists to figure out.  The goats are coming tomorrow, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do.  There are several more puzzles to solve before we’ll be ready to welcome them, and then there will be all the puzzles they present.  It’s going to be a fun winter!

Summer Pleasures – Watermelon Parties and The Two Sides of Freedom

Watermelon Parties


Summer means watermelon parties for the horses.  They are always a surprise.  As I walk through the barn, bowl in hand, I’ll announce: “It’s party time!”

Watermelon parties are held outside. That was quick learning on my part. It’s astounding the amount of happy drool even a few pieces of watermelon can produce.

Robin and Fengur follow me outside.  While I pass out chunks of watermelon, they stand waiting, one on either side of me.  There’s no pushing, no trying to jump the queue, no grumbling at the other horse. We have a happy time together. The horses get to enjoy one of their favorite treats, and I get to enjoy their obvious pleasure.

Summer also means sharing an afternoon nap with Robin. I’ve just come in from mowing the lower pasture. It’s time for a cool down. I’m sitting in a chair in the barn aisle, cold drink by my side, computer on my lap, and Robin dozing beside me. Fengur has wandered off to the hay box to snack. He’ll join us in a little while.

Robin asleep lip drooping

The view from my chair – Robin’s lower lip droops while he naps beside me.

Why am I writing about these simple summer pleasures? My horses live in a world of yes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this means. Living in a world of yes gives me the freedom to enjoy these simple pleasures. But the freedom isn’t one-sided. Living in a world of yes gives my horses just as much freedom.

We often think of training in terms of what we need from our animals. When I walk down the barn aisle, I need you, horse, to move out of my space. When the door bell rings, I need you, dog, to go sit on your mat. I’ll teach these things using clicks and treats, but the behaviors are for my benefit more than my animal companions. The freedom to ask is all on my side.

That’s not how things are in my barn. It’s set up to maximize choice for the horses. Doors are left open so they are free to go where they want. Right now what Robin wants is to nap in the barn aisle. I couldn’t give Robin this luxury of choice if I hadn’t also given him behaviors that let us share space amiably.

When I walk down the barn aisle, Robin will often pose. It’s a simple gesture, a slight arch of the neck is all that’s needed. If he thinks I’m not paying attention, he’ll give a low rumble of a nicker. I’ll click, and give him a treat. Often I’ll get a hug in return.  That’s good reinforcement for me.

The pose is a guaranteed way to get attention from me. If Robin wants to interact, he knows how to cue me. And I am under excellent stimulus control! That’s how cues should work. They create a give and take, a back and forth dialog. They erase hierarchy and create instead the three C’s of clicker training. Those three C’s lead in turn to the freedom my horses and I enjoy sharing the barn together.

Before I can tell you what the three C’s are, we have to go back a few steps to commands.  It’s not just in horse training that commands rule. They control most of our interactions from early childhood on.  Commands have a “do it or else” threat backing them up. Parents tell children what to do.  In school it is obey your teachers or face the penalties. In our communities it’s stop at red lights or get a ticket. Pay your taxes or go to jail. We all know the underlying threat is there. Stay within the rules and stay safe. Stray too far over the line and you risk punishment.

This is how we govern ourselves, so it is little wonder that it is also how we interact with our animals. With both horses and dogs – commands have been the norm. We tell our dogs to “sit”. When it is a true command, it is expected that the dog will obey – or else! The command is hierarchical which means it is also unidirectional. A sergeant gives a command to a private. The private does what he’s told.  He doesn’t turn things around give a command back to the sergeant.

We give commands to our horses, to our dogs – never the reverse. We expect our commands to be obeyed. We say “sit”, and the dog sits. I tell. You obey. Because they are hierarchical, commands exclude dialog. The conversation is all one-sided. Commands put us in a frame that keeps us from seeing deep into the intelligence and personality of the individual we’re directing.

Cues are different. Cues are taught with positive reinforcement. At first, this sounds like a huge difference, but for many handlers it represents a change in procedure, but not yet of mind set. The handler may be using treats as reinforcement, but the cues are still taught with an element of coercion.  How can this be? It’s not until you scratch below the surface, that you’ll begin to understand the ever widening gulf that the use of cues versus commands creates.

dog touching a targetTo help you see the coercive element, let’s look at how twenty plus years ago we were originally instructed how to teach cues.  You used your shaping skills to get a behavior to happen. It might be something as simple as touching a target. Cues evolve out of the shaping process. The appearance of the target quickly becomes the cue to orient to it.  But this cue is often not fully recognized by a novice handler.  We’re such a verbal species, this handler wants her animal to wait until she says “touch”.  As she understand it, that’s the cue.  So what does she do? She begins by saying “touch” and clicking and reinforcing her learner for orienting to the target.

This part is easy. Whether she had said anything or not, her learner was going to touch the target. She’s ready to make a discrimination. Now she presents the target, but she says nothing. What does her learner do? He orients to the target, just as he’s been doing in all the previous trials. He expects to hear the click and be given a treat, but nothing happens. His person just changed the rules which has plunged him into a frustrating puzzle.

He’s in an extinction process. He’s no longer being reinforced for a behavior that has worked for him in the past. He’ll go through the normal trajectory of an extinction process. That means he’ll try harder. He’ll try behaviors that worked in the past, and he’ll become frustrated, anxious, even angry, before he’ll give up for a moment. In that moment of giving up, his person will say “touch” and present the target again.

She wants him to learn the distinction. In the presence of the cue perform the behavior – click and treat. In the absence do nothing.

The problem with this approach is she never taught her learner what “do nothing” looks like. She stepped from the world of commands into what she thinks of as a kinder world of cues, but she didn’t entirely shed the mantle of “do it or else”. With cues the threat of punishment may not be there, but extinction is still an unpleasant and frustrating experience. Why isn’t this key on my computer which was just working now locked up and frozen?!! Until you can find your way out of the puzzle, you can feel very trapped and helpless. A good trainer doesn’t leave her learner there very long. She’s looking for any hesitation that let’s her explain to her learner the on-off nature of cues.

There’s another way to teach this that doesn’t put the learner into this extinction bind.  This other way recognizes that cues create a dialog, a back and forth conversation.  I want my learner to wait for a specific signal before moving towards the target.  Let’s begin by creating a base behavior, a starting point.  For my horses this is the behavior I refer to as: “the grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt”.  I will reinforce my horse for standing beside me with his head looking forward.  He’ll earn lots of clicks and treats for this behavior.  And he’ll begin to associate a very specific stance that I’m in with this behavior.  When I am standing with my hands folded in front of me, it’s a good bet to try looking straight ahead – click and treat.

Ruth Scilla grown ups.png


In separate sessions he’ll also be reinforced for orienting to a target.  When both behaviors are well established, I’ll combine them.  Now I’ll look for grown-ups.  I’ll fold my hands in front of me, knowing I’ll get the response I’m looking for.  Only now, instead of clicking and reinforcing him, I’ll hold out the target to touch.  Click the quick response and treat.

The message is so much more interesting than the one created by using an extinction procedure to introduce cues.  Cues have just become reinforcers which means they have become part of a conversation.  If you want to interact with the target, here’s an easy way to get me to produce it – just shift into grown-ups.  That will cue me to lift the target up.  A conversation has begun.  We’re at the very elementary stage of “See spot run”.  I’m teaching my horses the behaviors they can use to communicate with me, and I am showing them how the process works.  You can be heard.  You WILL be heard.  Let’s talk!

The conversation that emerges over time comes from looking more deeply at what cues really are. We can think of them as a softer form of commands, but that doesn’t oblige us to step out of our hierarchical mindset. It is still I give a signal. You – my animal companion – respond. Click and treat. Diagram this out. The arrows all point in one direction.

Signal from human leads to response from animal

Peel another layer of understanding about how cues work and you come to this:

It isn’t just that cues are taught with positive reinforcement. Cues can be given by anyone or anything. A curtain going up cues an actor to begin speaking his lines. We would never say the curtain commanded the actor.

If cues can be given by anyone or anything, that means they are not hierarchical. We cue our animals, and they cue us. Cues create a back and forth exchange. They lead to conversation – to a real listening to our animals. We adjust our behavior based on their response. Cues lead to the three C’s of clicker training which I can now say are: communication, choice, and connection. And in my barn that in turn creates opportunities for more freedom. It means doors can be left open. It means I can have watermelon parties and sit with my horses while we both enjoy the afternoon breeze through the barn aisle.

Let’s parse this some more.

The mindset that commands create is very much centered around stopping behavior. Other training options won’t make sense. They won’t work.

Cue-based training makes it easier for you to see your horse’s behavior as communication, as a bid for attention. That makes it easier for you to look for solutions that satisfy his needs.

Let’s see how these differences play out in a typical boarding barn scenario. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker has been ignored. In frustration he’s escalated into banging on his stall door. His human caretakers see this as “demanding” hay. In a command-based frame demanding hay equal rebellious behavior which can’t be tolerated. The behavior must be stopped.

Within this frame the only training options you can think of are those centered around stopping the unwanted behavior. Other options don’t make sense and won’t work. The command-based frame narrows your field of view. It’s as though you have a tight beam focused on the problem behavior. Everything within that beam is crystal clear, but everything outside the beam might as well not exist. You can’t even begin to think about other solutions. You are targeted on the unwanted behavior.  Banging on the stall door must be addressed and addressed directly.

Now let’s look at the contrast that a cue-based frame creates. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker to you is noticed and responded to. You appreciate his alerting you to the lack of hay. You have read how important gut fill is in preventing ulcers. You attend to your horse’s needs. Within this frame many options become available including hanging a slow feeder in his stall so he doesn’t have to become anxious about his hay.

Which training options make sense will depend upon which frame you are in. If you are a teacher and you want your instructions to be effective, you need to help your students open a frame that matches what you are trying to teach.

In her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman uses a graphic showing a hierarchy of behavior change procedures beginning with the most positive, least intrusive procedures.

Dr. Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of interventions

You begin by looking at health and nutritional considerations and then move to antecedent arrangements. Hanging a hay net for our hungry horse would fit in here. Her graphic pictures a car moving along a highway. As you begin to approach more invasive procedures, there are speed bumps blocking the way. They are there to slow you down, to make you think about other approaches before you bring in the heavy guns of positive punishment. The hierarchy doesn’t exclude positive punishment as a possible solution, but it does say you would use this only when everything else has first been tried.

This hierarchy makes sense when you are looking at behavior from a cue-based perspective. From a command-based frame, the car enters not at the bottom of the roadway, but at the top.

My Changes To Procedural Changes slide

The first intervention is positive punishment. The barriers are still there, but now they act to keep you from seeing other options. It is only when punishment fails, that you are dragged, kicking and screaming, to consider other ways of changing behavior.  I’ve heard these stories so many times from people who are attending their first clicker training clinic. They’ve been brought there by “that horse” – the one who challenges everything they thought they knew about training. Nothing else worked, but then they tried, as a last resort, a bit of clicker training and everything changed! So here they are, ready to learn more.

They don’t yet know what an exciting world they are entering. Everything they have thought about training is about to be turned truly upside down and inside out. That’s all right. They have the fun of watermelon parties ahead of them.

Live in a World of Yes.png

If you want to learn more about living in a world of yes and the freedom that creates for both you and your animal companions, come join us in Milwaukee for the Training Thoughtfully conference.

JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 13

Puzzle Solving
In the previous post I gave several examples of how a complex behavior could be taught through the imaginative use of resurgence.  Training is not a random process where you hope your learners will offer you something you can reinforce before the intense emotions associated with extinction shuts them down.

Instead you teach your learners a whole range of behaviors.  You are in effect planting the seeds for what you want to grow.  With this rich repertoire of behaviors to draw on, your learners may come up with some new or unlikely combinations.  We have a procedure for setting up the creative process.  You give your animals the repertoire, the components that form more complex behaviors, and then you set up a puzzle and let extinction be the catalyst for solving it.  Sometimes what pops out of this process is something that wasn’t even on your training radar.

The “Pose”
Robin’s pose is the perfect example of this.  I’ve told the story of how this behavior evolved many times.  I’ll keep it brief here.

Robin first learned a stationary “pose”.  It originally was a by-product of cleaning up his treat taking manners when he was two years old.  He was such an eager learner.  I loved his enthusiasm.  He would grab the treat from my hand and immediately be offering me something even more brilliant than whatever brilliant thing he had just done.  I was enchanted.  The food delivery was a little problematic, but so what.  He was brilliant.

Robin drove home the importance of one of my favorite training mantras.  “If you don’t notice an unwanted behavior when it is just a little thing, don’t worry about it.”  That’s not normally the kind of training advice you expect to get, but here’s where this takes you:  “If you don’t do anything about the behavior when it’s just a little thing, don’t worry. It will get bigger.  Eventually, it will be too big to ignore and then you will do something about it.”

I ignored his all too hasty treat taking for a while, and then I decided I really did need to do something about it.  This was a long time ago. I probably would choose a different method today.  Robin, and all the other horses I’ve worked with have been good teachers.  They have shown me many more options to replace the one I used.  At the time the strategy I chose was to stop the behavior I didn’t want by taking away something Robin wanted.  In other words, I was using negative punishment.

Here was the set up: I put Robin in his stall with a stall guard across the door.  I picked out the biggest carrot from a bag of big carrots and stood across the aisle from him holding it out.  Of course, he reached out for the carrot.  Immediately, I snatched it away and turned my back to him.  I counted to three and offered the carrot again.

Again he reached for it, and again I snatched it away.

I offered it a third time.  This time he hesitated ever so slightly. Click.  I reached into my pocket and handed him a piece of carrot.

A couple of clicks later I could hold the carrot directly under his chin, and he was drawing up away from it.  He wasn’t going to reach for that carrot!  He had learned that drawing back from it generated what he wanted.  If he reached for it, it disappeared, and I handed him nothing.  But if he drew back from it, click, he got exactly what he wanted – a piece of carrot and my laughter.

Robin being Robin made a quick leap from the carrot cueing this behavior to offering it to me without this prompt.  Of course, I clicked him.  He was looking so handsome.  I wasn’t expecting this added bonus, but I was certainly liking it.  As always, when I worked with him, I was enchanted.

He made the leap so fast to offering “the pose” without needing the prompt,  I was blown away by his brilliance.  He started “posing” more often, arching his neck and looking for all the world like a well-trained dressage horse.  I liked the look so much I continued to reinforce it.  It became a default behavior. In the absence of any other active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him.  In other words I became the cue for the behavior.

It meant that if Robin wanted to interact with me and engage in the clicker game, he had a sure-fire way of doing so.  Even if I was busy doing barn chores, if I saw him posing, I would click, interrupt what I was doing, and reinforce him.

At the time I was keeping my horses at a boarding barn where a good portion of their day was spent in their stalls.  I didn’t want them to become like the proverbial four year old child banging the kitchen pots and pans trying to get mother’s attention.

Robin wasn’t ignored when I was busy with other things.  If he wanted attention, he had a polite way of asking for it.   He never had to become that frustrated “toddler with the kitchen pans” banging on the stall door or raking his teeth up and down the stall walls.

I didn’t create a regression into these unwanted behaviors.  Instead I was able to reinforce a behavior I liked, one that was a useful warm-up for our formal training sessions.  When he asked for attention, Robin was always confident that I would engage with him. He lived secure in a world filled with clicker-training interactions.

Reinforcing him for the pose went on through that winter.  I didn’t have any plans for developing the behavior.  It was simply something I liked. It was Robin who was the creative one.

It must have been late March.  I was lunging him in the arena one evening.  He was giving me a ho hum trot.  There was nothing there I could reinforce.  Robin went once around the circle, twice, three times without reinforcement. Normally I would have been clicking and reinforcing him at a much higher rate, but given the plow-horse trot I was presented with, there was nothing there I wanted to say yes to.

At the time I would not have described it in this way, but I was putting him into an extinction process.  I could see him searching, trying to decide what to do.  On the third time round he had the answer.  He would try his pose.  But in order to pose and still stay in the trot, he had to add energy.

Within one stride he transformed his trot into magazine-cover magnificence.  I captured the moment with a click, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. That single stride has evolved into horses all over the world moving in magnificent self-carriage.  The “pose” has evolved into a major component of my work.  Robin showed us that we could indeed shape self carriage.  What began as a happy accident has become a deliberate and very systematically-trained behavior.

I don’t introduce the pose to other horses the way I taught Robin.  I needed him to show me what was possible, but today I use other shaping methods.  I originally called it “the pose”, admittedly not a good name.  Since then I’ve expanded the name to the “pilates pose”.  Others have called it crunches, rock backs, “look pretty”, etc.  It really doesn’t matter the name it is given.  What is important is our understanding that horses can become very active partners in maintaining their own good balance and long-term soundness.  It was Robin who first showed us just how possible this is.

Seeing Familiar Landscapes with Fresh Eyes
When I first told this story to Jesús, he commented that the pose came out because of resurgence.  I remember the comment well, though I didn’t understand the significance of it at the time.  Jesús told me later that Robin’s story got him thinking more about resurgence.   It prompted him to use PORTL to look at the different extinction processes. I described the results of those experiments in the earlier sections of this chapter on “Understanding Extinction”.

So here is one further result of Robin’s brilliance.  We now we have a much more systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors.  Because we understand the process better, we can be more deliberate in it’s use. The end result may look like magic, but there is good science behind it.

This is one of my favorite videos.  It was taken a long time ago when Robin was three.  He is lunging around me at liberty.  You’ll see I have two dressage whips in my hands.  I am using them as targets, giving him reference points to balance around.  When this video was made, he had never been in side reins or any other type of mechanical device.  He had not yet had a rider on his back, and yet he is presenting me with this beautiful balance.  I know the lighting is terrible.  The indoor we worked in was poorly lit, but to me it is a shining example of the connections that form when we mix together science, clear communication, and a lot of love.

Coming Next: The Creative Process

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

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:          


JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 11

Being Emotional Is Being Alive
In the previous section we looked at degrees of freedom.  We often assume that someone who is at the top of their chosen profession must also be emotionally at the top of the world.  How can this successful actor or professional sports hero be anything but happy?  And yet we hear over and over again how miserably unhappy these people often are.

Degrees of freedom help us understand this paradox.  If you have become “The Expert” because that’s all you can do, you may well feel trapped and isolated.  Emotional  labels become attached to these extreme conditions.  You’ll describe yourself as being depressed, frustrated, anxious, unhappy.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz offered us another gem, a reminder, from his discussion of regression and resurgence.  Often when people talk about “emotional behavior” such as aggression, they are forgetting that we are always emotional. It isn’t that now we are happy, and then a switch turns off and we feel nothing.

“Living is being emotional.”

The nature and intensity of the emotions fluctuates.  We experience different degrees depending upon conditions and our reinforcement history.  But thinking in terms of “emotional behavior” is too simplistic. Emotion is part of all behavior. It is not separate from it.

Traveling helps you to understand how much our emotions are a product of the habit patterns that have formed within our familiar environments and how true it is that emotions are always present. Perhaps you are one of the huge number of people who have more to do than you could possibly accomplish in one day. You have a family to care for, a house and barn to maintain, horses to feed and clean up after – not to mention ride.  All that and then there’s also an overfull schedule at work.  You’re always under stress, but it’s become so the norm, you don’t pay much attention to how you’re feeling.  A mildly stressed state is just the normal emotional background “noise”.

And then you treat yourself to the Five Go To Sea cruise where everything is different.  You still have a full day, with more to do and see than any one person could possibly squeeze into a day, but your normal triggers aren’t there.  The phone isn’t ringing.  You aren’t on the internet with the constant influx of work-related emails.  Your co-worker’s voice coming through the office wall isn’t annoying you.  All those triggers are gone and now you get to experience who you are and how you feel without them.  You become acutely aware of just how stressed you’ve been now that you’ve stepped out of your normal habit patterns. You’re still emotional, but now the environment is set up to trigger the kinds of supportive, pleasant emotions you want to experience.

So the next time you find yourself saying that your horse, your dog, your fellow human is being emotional, remind yourself that that’s an ever present condition.  “Living is being emotional.”  The question is, how can you influence conditions so the emotions that support a JOY FULL experience are the ones coming to the fore?

Coming Next: Building Unlikely Behaviors with Resurgence

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

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:          

JOY Full Horses: Understanding Extinction- Part 3

Extinction Reveals the Past
Reinforcement builds your future. Regression and resurgence reveal the past.  And it’s extinction that produces resurgence and regression.

To understand this we must first define extinction.  Jesús gave us this definition in his Five Go To Sea conference presentation:

“When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, when a response becomes less and less frequent, you get operant extinction.”

How does this play out?  What do you see in your animals?

In the classic rat study the rat is reinforced consistently for pressing a lever. When lever pressing fails to pay off, the rat shows a sudden flurry of lever pressing behavior.  When this fails, the rat becomes aggressive.  This is the rat version of the classic kicking the vending machine when the coke can doesn’t drop out.

This is followed by a period of the rat giving up.  Then the rat tries again with a flurry of activity, trying to see if the original behavior will work again. The cycle repeats, but the bursts get smaller and smaller and the pauses in between longer.

The Equine Version
Throughout all of this process the rat is clearly experiencing emotions we would not want to see in our horses.  For example, this is where you see displacement aggression.  The horse is frustrated.  If other horses are nearby, you may see the horse pin his ears and snake his neck out to warn the others away.  Or he may grab at his lead rope or the handler’s sleeve.

You are seeing behavior that has been modeled for this horse. You are seeing his training history.  And perhaps you are also seeing his herd background.  If he’s lived in crowded/confined conditions that promote more horse to horse aggression, it’s possible that’s what you’ll see acted out.

It would be interesting to look at two groups of horses – one containing horses that grew up in stable herds living in large open spaces.  The other would have horses that were raised in much more confined spaces where competition for resources created more horse to horse aggressive interactions.  What difference, if any, would you see when these horses are exposed to a mild extinction process?  What behaviors would regression reveal?  What does your knowledge of your own horse’s background predict?

That seems like a good place to pause for today.

Coming Next: Extinction: Big, Small and Accidental

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

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:          

JOY FULL Horses: Resurgence and Regression

Reverting to Past Behaviors
Imagine you have joined us for the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  You have just come from breakfast which you enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the open waters of the Carribbean.  You have now settled yourself comfortably in the Reflection’s conference room to listen to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on resurgence and regression.

Jesús began by sharing the story of a professor who was attending a conference in Mexico.  She got trapped in an elevator.  At first she tried pushing all the buttons, calling out for help, things we would all think to do.  Two hours later, when they finally got the elevator working again and the doors open, they found her huddled in the corner of the elevator calling for her mother – and her mother had been dead for years.

What does this story tell us?  We regress in predictable patterns that reveals our history.

When a behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you enter an extinction process in which you regress back to previously learned behavior.  When the first behaviors you try don’t work, you go back another step and then another.

As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled for us in our childhood.  If you want to learn about someone’s early family dynamics, watch what happens to them when they are under stress.  If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me.  Blame your parents.  You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.”

So extinction can reveal history.  That’s definitely a gem to take away from our Caribbean treasure trove and carry back to our horses.

Extinction Reveals Your Horse’s Past
When a horse is first learning about clicker training, much of what he knows no longer applies.  You’re holding a target up for him to touch.  A lot of horses figure out quickly how the game is played, but some get confused.  Suppose you’re working with a horse you recently adopted from a horse rescue.  He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. Consider the dilemma he finds himself in.  You only mean well, but he doesn’t know that.  Past experience has told him wrong answers get punished, but the few things he knows how to do aren’t working.   He is plunging head long into an extinction process.

The extinction process can reveal a horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?

In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing.  The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups.  You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat.  Easy.  Unless he’s one of those horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.

If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous.  The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do.

This is why I put well-behaved in quotes. Is he well mannered in the way a clicker-trained horse can be? Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior? There’s a huge difference.  In the first, the personality is expressed. In the later, it is suppressed.

When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers.  He doesn’t know what you want.  The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation.  This horse finds himself in a difficult position.  He knows he’s supposed to do something, but past experience tells him if he guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.  He’s not sure what the answer is so he’s plunged into an extinction process.

Extinction follows a predictable pattern.  At first he may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation.  When those don’t work, he’ll shift rapidly from feeling frustrated and worried to being aggressive. That’s the next, predictable stage in the extinction process.  Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly coming at you with teeth bared.

It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently. I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed.  Jesús’ presentation on resurgence and regression confirmed this.  It helped me understand even more clearly this dynamic. Sadly, there are all too many horses who have been at the receiving end of excessive punishment.  Often you don’t know which is the horse who really is sweet and well behaved, and which is shut down through punishment.  This is one of the reasons I put so much structure around the beginning steps of clicker training.  The support of these lessons helps insulate the punished horses from their history.

Well Behaved or Shut Down?
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses (and people) are really individuals whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections. They have learned to wait to be told what to do.  Offering behavior, and expressing their personality has been punished.  Give them a command, and they will respond promptly.  They can seem like such perfect horses.  Safe, easy to direct. But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in fact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see things unravel.  As the extinction process unfolds, they will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.

Clicker training did not cause these outbursts.  When these horses are not sure of the “safe” answer, they’ll began to regress back through their training history. You are seeing the behavior that others “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with punishment.

When you are brand new to clicker training, and, especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand.  What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it.  So you give it a try.  But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart.  Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth.

You’ve been promised a dream horse and all you have is a nightmare. How could you not blame clicker training?  But just as equally, how can you go back? How can you return to the use of punishment to suppress the behavior you’re now dealing with?

You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process.  That can seem like a hard choice, especially when you don’t really understand what the process is, but what other choice is there?  You don’t want to go back to your correction-based training, so you plunge ahead, clicker in hand.

Coming Next: Leaving History Behind

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

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: