The Fluid Nature of Language

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 5 of 5

The Fluid Nature of Language
We began this discussion of negative reinforcement by eavesdropping on a late night gathering of the Clicker Expo faculty.  It is now twelve o’clock and the conversation in the faculty lounge is still going strong.  We have shed Kay and several of the others.  I had promised myself that I would leave at 11:30, and yet here I am.  Another ten minutes and then I really will leave.  That’s what I say to myself, but I have been saying it all evening.

Eva has asked another question.  I am loving the twists and turns the conversation is taking, but really I do have presentations to give.  I find an opening in the conversation and stand up, bringing the discussion to a natural close.  The others all stand up, as well.  Good.  I won’t miss anything.  But as I am leaving, I hear Susan Friedman asking Ken Ramirez a question.  I want to stay, but I know if I do, I will be good for nothing tomorrow.  I leave, but the following day, I hear from Ken that he and Susan remained locked in a discussion over terminology until 1:30 in the morning.

Language is not fixed.  We add words.  We change words.  We think we understand the intended meaning when we hear words used in context, but do we?  We are so accustomed to the fluid nature of language we don’t even notice how the language has evolved until we run into someone who uses the same words but in a different way.

In behavior analysis precision matters, and the use of language is very structured and controlled. It is like that puppy in yesterday’s post who stays in the base position of lying down while he learns to move just his paw.  Lying down keeps the number of things that are moving to a minimum.  Change too many variables at once, and it becomes harder to notice the one thing that you’re doing.  Scientists attempt to constrain the language to make themselves clearer.  Terms such as positive punishment and negative reinforcement have very precise meanings.  Unfortunately, when you bring that language back into the realm of common usage, confusion is often the result.

As I thought about our wonderful late night conversation, I found myself straddling both sides of the fence.  I agree that we need to understand the technical definitions of the terms we use.  But along with that understanding is the consideration of how the terms have been used, interpreted, and misinterpreted over the years.  Are the definitions are still valid in light of additional research and development?  Do we need to modernize/change the definitions to bring them more in line with modern usage?  Is it time to develop new language that reflects more accurately our current understanding of the systems we’re studying.  Archaic language can keep us stuck in archaic belief systems.

How Words Are Used
Are there some terms that we need to snatch back from the scientists?  Are there some that are simply so useful and so easily understood that we need to say to the scientists you can’t have this one?  I think chains may well fall into this category.

A chain of behaviors is such a descriptive term.  It doesn’t take a lot of explaining for a novice to understand that you are asking for a series of behaviors, each one linked to the next.  It’s a good term, one that suggests it’s meaning almost without the need for a formal definition – except . . . the scientists have given this term a very specific meaning that excludes much of what many animal trainers mean when they refer to chains.

The scientists have their technical chains: you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

A sequence is something very different.  It’s a series of behaviors in which you cue one after the other after the other.

Hmm.  But are they really all that different.  Why does it matter if the cue comes from the green cone the horse sees after the jump or from a handler calling out “green”.  Both are cues.  And both link behaviors together.

The kind of chain that you wear around your neck is made up of links.  You can open up one of the links to take a section of the chain out or to add in more links. That’s why it is such a good image.  It provides such a clear visual image of one behavior connected to another.  You begin with one link.  You make that consistent, then you add the next link in the chain.  Link by link you can imagine growing your chain into longer and longer sections.  You can also imagine how links can be opened and a section of a longer chain taken out to be worked on separately or used in a different context.

It’s such a great image, I’m reluctant to give it over to the scientists.  We can certainly refer to technical chains, but I am also going to use the term chain to mean any series of behaviors which are deliberately linked together by cues.

poco-hug-3

 

With Poco I was using these links to build a two way conversation.  Touch could be highly aversive for him.  I wanted to show him that it didn’t need to be.  He could let down his guard and let me in.

 

The Power of Play
Play brought us step by step to this point.  It kept me laughing.  It kept me from treating him like something broken that needed to be fixed.  It kept me from becoming so fixated on his ears that I simply convinced him all the more to keep me at arm’s length.  Remaining PLAY FULL opened up creative possibilities.  It brought back old training memories, memories of Linda-Tellington-Jones in the mid 1980’s working with a fearful llama by doing TTEAM circles with her forehead, not her hands.  It let me take familiar lessons and combine them in novel ways.  It kept me listening to Poco and letting him lead me through the process.  It kept the training fun.

If you had walked into the arena in the middle of this session, you might not have said – “oh they’re playing.”

You would certainly recognize as play the rough and tumble of two young horses rearing up together in a field, or two dogs playing keep away with a stick.  You would see play when a handler clicks and throws a tennis ball to her dog or engages with him in a game of tug.  But this subtle exchange with Poco probably would not look like anything you would call play behavior.

With dogs you can use natural play behaviors very effectively to build bonds between you.  That’s not so much the case with horses.  Given their size, a horse’s natural play behavior means you are “playing” with dynamite.  So Poco and I developed our own form of play.  It evolved out of my approach to the session more than the specific behaviors I used.  If I am full of play, the horses respond by doing what Poco did – letting down their guard and inviting me in.

*  *  *  *

With this tenth characteristic of cues well in place we’ve moved from the realm of macro-responses to micro-shaping.  You’ve had a taste of what this means in the descriptions of Pocos sessions.  We’ll be covering it in even more detail in Part Three of JOY FULL Horses.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro

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: Unit 10 – Part 2 of 5: What We Say

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing With Chains – Cues Evolve into Chains

What We Say
It’s ten p.m., an hour at which I should be heading off to bed, but I can’t leave yet.  I’m sitting in the faculty lounge at the Clicker Expo.  We’ve just come from dinner and a presentation by this year’s guest speaker.  After a full day of presentations you would think we would all be ready to call it a night, but instead we’re just getting warmed up.

Around the table with me are Dr. Susan Friedman, Ken Ramirez,  Eva Bertilsson, Kay Laurence, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, and Laura Monico Torelli.

We are discussing terminology.  Eva got the ball rolling with a question about chains. We are wrestling with the different definitions of chains that are in use.

chain-2

Dr. Friedman is defining a chain from the perspective of a behavior analyst.  A chain has a very narrow and very specific meaning.  For a true chain, you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

This type of chain can be very elegant to watch.  Imagine a series of agility obstacles set out in your arena.  You give your horse a cue that sends him out to the first obstacle, a small jump.  Just beyond the jump is a cone.  Your horse spots the cone as he clears the jump.  The cone itself serves as the cue for him to trot over to it, and pick it up.  Nearby is a large bucket.  He walks over to the bucket, drops the cone into the bucket.  A few feet past the bucket is a large platform.  Your horse now walks over to the platform, steps up onto it with all four feet, and lifts one foot high into the air while you click and run over with his treat.

That’s a technical chain.

Now imagine a different scenario.  You send your horse out over the first jump.  Just beyond the jump are two cones, a green one and a red one.  As your horse jumps, you shout “green”.  You’ve added a cue to tell your horse which cone he’s to pick up.  He heads straight over to the green cone, but now there are more choices.  Instead of one bucket, there are two identical ones, except one has a symbol of a circle painted on it, and the other a triangle.  As he picks up the green cone, you shout “circle”.  He walks over to the correct bucket and drops the cone in.

After this he again has more choices.  There are two platforms, one to the right and one to the left of the buckets.

You shout “Left”, and he walks over to the platform that’s off his left shoulder and steps up on it.

If you are using scientific terminology, this very sophisticated series of behaviors is not a chain because you are cueing each one.  It would be considered a sequence.

Our discussion rolled on around these two terms.  We all understood the distinctions.  The question was how fluid and flexible should we be with the language we use.

The Meaning of Words
In the field of learning theory scientists took for their own use many terms which already had a common-usage meaning.  Punishment is a great example.  When someone says we need to punish a child, a criminal, a terrorist, another country, the meaning is clear.  There is a moral element to it.  You don’t simply want to stop the behavior.  You want to impose a penalty.  You want the person to suffer in some way, to “pay” for his offense.  You are punishing the individual, not the behavior.

When a behavioral analyst uses the term, the meaning is very different.  There are no moral overtones of retribution.  If you smack a horse for biting, and the behavior decreases, you can say that the smack punished the biting behavior.  If the biting continues, the smack did not punish the behavior.  It may have annoyed or even frightened the horse, but if the behavior of biting didn’t decrease, the smack wasn’t a punisher.

When scientists take words that are already in common usage and redefine them, we can get a muddled result.  We also have confusion when scientists use words that we’re sort of familiar with, but not really.

A great example is operant conditioning.

That’s the big umbrella under which clicker training sits.  Operant sounds like operator.  And conditioning we understand from fitness programs.  But what do those two words put together really mean?

Look at what else happens when scientists start combining words we thought we understood.

Consider the four quadrants of operant conditioning: there’s positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment.

Positive punishment!?  Really.

Okay, the scientists explain.  The positive means simply that something has been added.  You’re adding something the horse doesn’t want and that stops the behavior, at least for the moment.  You add the smack of your hand when your horse bites you.

That’s clear enough, except it’s hard not to feel the harsh “take that” edge when you even just think about smacking your horse.  We can say we understand the plus and minus of the terms, but we still experience emotions we’ve come to associate with the words: positive equals good, negative equals bad.  Of course people get confused by these terms!  They understand them intellectually, but they experience them emotionally.  The only term that matches up and creates no conflict in meaning is “positive reinforcement”.  The rest get us into a real “knickers in a twist” state of confusion.

Negative Reinforcement
I was listening to the conversation, but I was also keeping an eye on my watch.  Eleven o’clock.  I had presentations to give the following day.  I should be calling it a night.  I decided to stay just a few more minutes.

Eva was asking more questions.  Now we were talking about negative reinforcement, a subject that always gets my attention given it’s connection to horse training.

When horses are handled with conventional training methods, rope handling is a very clear example of negative reinforcement.  The horse can avoid/escape the threat of escalating pressure by moving in the direction the handler wants.  As the horse learns to obey, the pressure diminishes to a subtle command.  The work looks soft, but the threat of escalation remains.  The soft command tells the horse how to avoid the escalating pressure.

Often people watch the finished result and think the trainer is very soft and kind.  This is very much a case of don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The handler can look gentle because the horse understands the threat of escalating pressure that’s hidden inside every soft request.

That’s very straight forward.  If the handler is skilled, many horses thrive in this kind of system.  They know what they need to do to stay out of trouble. There’s no guess work. The commands are clear, the consequences are swiftly applied. Respond well, the pressure goes away. Fail to respond, and it escalates.  If you can figure out what is wanted – and if you can physically do it – you can stay out of trouble.

It’s easy to understand this kind of handling.  It’s textbook negative reinforcement.  And it’s also standard-issue horse training.

So what do we call it when the pressure doesn’t increase? When there is no threat of escalation, what is it?

I’ve always kept the use of the term negative reinforcement when I write about clicker-compatible rope handling.  I do this in part because I want to remember our history.  I want to remember where so many of the techniques that we use evolved from.  I want to remember so I won’t ever be tempted to go back there.

I have always combined pressure and release of pressure with the clicker.  You could say that I am simply piggy backing the clicker onto existing training systems, and that’s not really clicker training.

Perhaps, but it is a bridge.  If I am working with a rider who has spent years perfecting her horse-handling skills, I don’t want to say: “Throw all that away.  You won’t be using leads, or reins, or anything else you’re familiar with.”  That’s a great way to lose someone before they’re even out of the starting gate.

But if I say the communication system you know still works, we’re just going to teach it very differently, that makes more sense.  There’s still a huge learning curve, but I’m not going to begin by “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

By the way do you know the derivation of that expression?  Before the modern era of indoor plumbing, baths were a rarity.  You brought water in and heated it for one bath.  The patriarch of the household took his bath first, followed in rank by everyone else.  The children would be the last ones to bathe.  By the time it was the turn of the youngest babies, the water would be murky brown.  You literally had to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

This derivation comes courtesy of the historian, Lucy Worsley and her wonderful book, “If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home”.

Just as we still take baths – but my how they’ve changed – we still use lead ropes and other pressure cues in clicker training. But again – how things change when you take the threat away and make them clicker compatible!

Coming Next: Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

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

You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

Using the Cues Your Horse Discovers

Collecting Gems
I began with the intent of introducing a beginner clicker trainer to the concept of cues.  Look where it’s taken us!  The first post in this unit was put up on Feb. 10, 2016.  Look at all the things I’ve covered since then.  I may have started out really simple, but as I’ve marched through the list, I’ve covered some very complex concepts.

That’s very much like training in general.  Focus on one particular exercise over a period of time, and you’ll ALWAYS get many more good things emerging from it than that one simple beginning point.

The more we look at cues, the more good things we see that are connected to this “green light” concept.

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.) Having a cue attached to a behavior isn’t enough.  We need stimulus control – a fancy term for saying you get the behavior you want when you want it and only when you want it.
7.) We can use cues to counter balance one another to create stimulus control.
8.) Cues change and evolve. You can use this to create the degree of lightness you want.  You can also create new cues for existing behaviors.

Now for number nine I would say to my novice clicker trainer:

9.) You can’t not cue.

Your horse is a grandmaster at reading humans.  And he’s also great at predicting the future.  He knows your patterns even if you don’t.  He knows when you’re about to ask him for head lowering, for backing, etc..  Before you can give what you think is the cue, he’s already worked out what you want.  It’s time to notice those cues so you can play with them and have some fun as you solve some common training problems.

Clever Hans
I wrote about Clever Hans earlier.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/14/) Clever Hans was a horse who gained fame in Germany in the early years of the 20th century.  It was said he could do basic arithmetic, including multiplying and dividing.  He could tell time; he could keep track of the days in a week and solve other puzzles that were asked of him.  Ask him how much 3 times 9 was, and Clever Hans would tap out the right answer.  Of course, it had to be a trick. Horses couldn’t do math or know the answers to these other questions.  But how was he doing it?  Even when they took his owner away, Clever Hans would still tap out the correct answers.

A panel of experts examined him, but couldn’t solve the puzzle.  And then in 1907 a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst cracked the code.  Clever Hans didn’t need his owner to be present.  As long as the other people watching knew the answer, Clever Hans would stop tapping at the correct moment.  It wasn’t magic or a hoax, just a horse who was extremely good at reading body language.

He couldn’t do arithmetic and all of those other intellectual feats. People could go right back to their firmly held belief that horses were indeed stupid animals.

How sad.  There is another conclusion they could have drawn – and celebrated. Horses are brilliant at reading body language.

We are training the species that is represented by Clever Hans.  You can fight your horse’s ability to read even the subtlest of cues, or you can put it to good use.

Working WITH Your Own Clever Hans
If I were setting up a scientific study to test a horse’s ability to differentiate colours, I might want to be very rigid in my experimental design.  I would want to know that I wasn’t giving away the answer through some subtle hints I might not even be aware of.  I would have to work hard to take my body language out of the picture.  I might wear dark glasses so my horses couldn’t see where I was looking, but even that wouldn’t be enough. Horses are such masters at reading subtle signals, any tilt of my head would be a giveaway.

Fighting against my horse’s ability to read me is NOT how I train. I’m not training my horses so I can pass the scrutiny of some scientific standard.  Instead of fighting my horse’s ability to read body language, I’m going to make use of it.  I WANT my horses to read me.  And I want my horses to be successful.

So I’m going to embrace a very basic understanding of cues which is: you can’t not cue.

Canine Teachers
Several years back at the Clicker Expo Morten and Cecilia Egverdt did a series of presentations on teaching canine obedience using backchaining.  They want high energy, enthusiastic dogs who can perform with great accuracy and precision.  When a signal is given in competition, they expect an immediate response.

They taught their dogs via clicker training.  The end result was sharp, accurate performance at the highest levels of competition.  In a competition if you were comparing one of Morten’s clicker-trained dogs with other dogs that were more conventionally trained, you would see all the dogs working with extreme accuracy and precision.  They would all respond immediately to the signals they were given. They would all work at speed.  They would all work accurately.  Stimulus control would create in all the dogs very polished performances.

But Morten stressed that he didn’t want to end up with a dog that was indistinguishable from the more conventionally-trained dogs.  He wanted his clicker-trained dogs to retain the enthusiasm for their work that they displayed when they were first learning new skills.  He wanted to keep the creativity and joy even as he developed the unwavering precision in response.  He wanted his dogs to know that offering behavior was still okay.

At the start of a work session his dogs could offer behaviors that were appropriate to that particular environment.  If they were out in their training arena, they could sit, lie down, spin, run in a big circle, leap over a jump, etc..  Any and all of these behaviors would be reinforced.

It was as if the dogs had a menu from which to choose.  In this environment barking, digging holes in the footing, biting the handler – these are NOT behaviors which will ever be reinforced.  But sitting, lying down, running backwards, jumping over the jump, retrieving the dumbbell, these are all behaviors which will earn clicks and treats – until . . .

Until the handler gives the first definite cue.  After that ONLY the behaviors which are cued will be reinforced.  No off-cue behaviors will earn a click and treat.

Selecting from the Menu
I loved the concept of the menu.  In this context, these are the behaviors that have a high probability of being reinforced.  This is something I very much want my horses to understand.  It is the basis for what I refer to as default behaviors.

A horse can’t do nothing – not unless he is dead.  Your horse is always doing something.  When I’m in the barn doing chores and my horses are in their stalls, there are lots of possible “somethings” they could be doing.  Some of the “somethings” would be behaviors that I wouldn’t want – banging on the stall door or raking their teeth across the metal bars to get my attention.  I also wouldn’t want them pacing, attacking their neighbors, rearing up, etc..

I wouldn’t mind if they took a nap, ate their hay, drank from their water bucket.  Those are all perfectly acceptable behaviors.  If they want me to interact with them, they could pose, or put their ears forward.  They don’t have to wait for a specific cue from me.  I am the cue.  If I walk past my horse’s stall and he wants to initiate a conversation, all he has to do is arch his neck in what I consider to be a pretty pose.  Click – he has my attention.

I’m not under perfect stimulus control. Sometimes I’m carrying two water buckets which makes stopping to give a treat difficult.  But I think my horses would tell you, they have me pretty well trained.

What Morton and Cecilie’s work suggests is that the dogs (and horses) are learning the concept of putting individual behaviors into categories.  Under these conditions these behaviors are acceptable.  If you want reinforcement, offer me behaviors from within this class.  Cantering is a wonderful behavior to offer out here in the arena, but I don’t want to see it in the barn aisle or in your stall!

Use Your Cues
The only place where I parted company with what they were saying was their comment that they weren’t cueing these behaviors.  I watched a video clip showing one of their dogs offering behavior after behavior while Cecilie stood in a rigid position, arms at her side, feet together.  Of course she was cueing!  That body position was the cue for her dogs to offer behavior.

I don’t want to fight these cues, or pretend that they aren’t there.  The previous section looked at how cues evolve out of the shaping process.  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.

Coming Next: An Accident Waiting To Happen

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