The Goat Palace: Structure Matters – Nov. 14, 2017
When I first started teaching, I often traveled to people’s home barn to help them with their horses. If you board your horse in a big barn, there’s usually plenty of help around, but the people who keep their horses at home are often stuck. They might have a trailer, but they have a horse who won’t load, so getting help can be a problem. I was willing to travel, and I was also willing to make do with whatever training environment (or lack thereof) they had.
I learned fast that structure really does make a difference. The right size space, good footing, good fencing, these really do make things so much easier. I also learned to be creative with what I had. In my first book, “Clicker Training for your Horse” I described a situation with a very aggressive thoroughbred mare. There was no suitable outdoor space where we could work safely. No matter. Her stall was built into the structure of an old dairy barn, and it provided us with the perfect “theater in the round” where we could begin with protective contact. That horse really taught me how useful a starting point this can be.
Our first training day with the goats showed me that structure was going to matter with them, as well. We began our day by closing off the gaps in the fence that separated the two areas. That eliminated one problem. We didn’t have to deal with little E squeezing through the boards to join in the game. All the goats were together in the front section while we put up the boards. That made it easy to open the gate and let the first goat through. No surprise, Thanzi was first at the gate.
She started out by ignoring the target and checking out my pocket. She’d looked like such a ringer the day before going so consistently to the target. It was interesting to see what she had processed from that experience. It was clearly, when there’s food involved, head straight to the pockets.
When she got too focused on my pockets, I would shift position so the target was more in view. She would sniff at my pockets and then notice the target, touch it, get reinforced, then it was back to my pockets for another hopeful investigation. This went on for a few minutes before she abruptly switched and went consistently straight to the target, click, treat, back to the target.
I used what the horses have taught me about food delivery. As I got the treat from my pocket (winter squash rind), I moved into her space so she had to back up to get the treat. She would take a step back without any fuss. This is a very pushy, domineering goat. Moving her away from the treats right from the start seemed to be nipping in the bud any tendency to crowd into me demanding treats. Yes, she was sniffing at my pockets, but it never escalated beyond that.
I know some goat enthusiasts have worried that moving goats back might trigger a head butting response, but so far, there has been no sign of this. When I back her, I am stepping into her chest, just as I would a taller horse. And it is having the same good effect on reducing crowding that stepping into a horse’s space to deliver the treat does.
We let Trixie through the gate next. My idea was that I would work with one goat and Marla could work with the other, but the goats didn’t cooperate. Thanzi wanted whatever Trixie was getting so she hovered too close. She wasn’t yet strong enough on the targeting to be drawn away. We may have to work with her for a few days, and then catch Trixie up once Thanzi is able to stay solidly engaged with one person without being distracted by what other goats are doing.
We left the two ladies in the large area and then tried the boys. I engaged E and P down at one end. I had two platforms set up. I was trying to reinforce them for staying each on his own station. I glanced over to the other end of the pen. Marla was working Galahad using the protective contact of the fenceline. The only problem was she had Thanzi trying to be part of the session as well. I didn’t want Thanzi practicing behaviors that would create problems down the road so I suggested that Marla move Galahad away from the fence. But Marla said she needed the protective contact. Galahad was so focused on the food he couldn’t think about anything else.
Fair enough. That’s very much what you would expect at this early stage. It was interesting to compare E and P with Galahad. They had started out in exactly the same way. Peanuts meant two things: mug your person for treats and butt at your brother to drive him away. They could think of nothing else. But now they could work together in close quarters. Instead of mugging, I had the beginnings of taking turns. I was sure Galahad would catch up fast, but again structure matters.
If he needed protective contact, rather than muddle through making do, we needed to create a space that would work for him. So we withdrew to think about how best to construct what we needed.
I didn’t think we needed to build a permanent second fence in our training space. What we needed were panels that we could put up on a temporary basis. I had just the right solution. I had some lightweight training panels that could be made goat proof with a few simple additions. We pulled them out of storage and began to weave a spider’s web of baling twine through the gaps. When we were finished, it looked as though several very drunk spiders had been at work!
We set the panels across the width of the front training area using the jungle gym on one side to help hold them in place.
Little E was first into our new training area. Now that he and his brother have become long-term residents, it’s time to call them by their proper names, Elyan and Pellias (though I’ll still refer to them as E and P in the July Goat Diaries). Elyan had a super session. He followed a new target – a green target on the end of a long stick) as I moved it around on a circle. I had fun taking him up onto part of the jungle gym, and the down again to continue our circle.
Periodically, I stopped and held the target straight down to the ground in a neutral position. Elyan paused by my side, and even backed up a little away from me. Click and treat, then click and treat again to reinforce the stillness. The title of today’s Goat Diary report is: Keeping Things In Balance. That’s what we were working on here.
Galahad was next. Marla and I both moved outside the goat enclosure and worked with him through the outer fence. There was a post in the way, so we ended up working as a team. I held the target out to him and Marla fed. He was surprisingly fast at catching on to the game. He went consistently to the target, click, and then moved back to Marla as she reached for the treat. The barrier made a huge difference for him. And separating the target from the person who was feeding probably also helped.
Pellias was next. We were just getting started, when little Elyan squeezed his way through the one gap in our fence. I had thought the jungle gym would be enough to block it off, but I was wrong. So again, I did a double session with them. I got away with it, but my preference for now is to work them individually to strengthen their stationing behavior on platforms before asking them to work as a pair. We will need to fortify our panels for the next session in order to do that.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on construction. We finished the outer gates and further goat proofed the outer fencing. There’s still a lot to do before we can declare the Goat Palace finished.
Again, in the evening after the horses were tucked in, I went out to sit with the goats. This time it was Elyan who stayed for a visit. He was on the top platform of the jungle gym. I set my chair beside him and reached up to scratch his chin. He closed his eyes in blissful enjoyment.
Galahad came over a time or two but didn’t stay. Pellias watched from the back area. He would have had to run the gauntlet of the ladies to join us. If they hadn’t been there, I don’t know if he would have come over or not. It was nice to have a few minutes just with Elyan. Every time I took my hand away, he leaned down to invite me to continue. Back in July when I began this project, I had no idea how cat like goats are. It’s one of their greatest charms.
So now it’s on to the double feature of today’s installment of the July Goat Diaries. I hope this isn’t confusing you going back and forth between these two time lines.
The Goat Diaries: Day Two Session 4: Keeping Things in Balance
In an earlier Goat Diary blog I described how P had discovered that backing up got him treats. Surprise, surprise! This discovery was clearly messing with his head. Why did this work? This evening session was confirming for him that he was right. Backing did work! But why? That was clearly still perplexing him.
One of the core principles I follow in my training is this:
For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.
Backing away is great, especially when you are working with an animal that comes equipped with horns! But coming forward to me is also useful. I didn’t want to lose one behavior while I worked on the other. So I also offered him the target to touch.
This is such an important stage in an animal’s introduction to clicker training. It’s easy to be right when there is only one answer. Touch a target – get clicked. That’s easy. But if the only way to get reinforced is when there’s a target around, that’s really limiting. I want my learners to understand that there are many ways to get reinforced. Touching a target is only one option. But adding in other behaviors complicates the game. Now you have to figure out what is going to work. Is it backing? Is it targeting? What’s the right answer? If you are guessing, it is easy to become frustrated.
This is when clues begin to morph into cues and a whole new dimension is added to the game.
4th Session 5 pm
P’s Session: Backing Confirmed
You never know what you have taught. You only know what you have presented.
In this session I asked P what he was learning. What would he do when he came forward into my space? The answer: back up away from me. Wow! Was he ever a fast learner! What fun! Now my challenge was to stay a step or two ahead of him.
With E I continued with some target practice in his stall. His session showed that he was still unclear what to do with the target. He hesitated between moving to the target and staying attached to my pockets.
It is never a race to see which goat learns the fastest. E was experimenting, learning what worked and what didn’t. This is such an important part of clicker training. One of the main things E was learning was that mistakes were not punished. It was safe to be close to me, and it was safe to guess wrong. It was safe to experiment.
With many horses their training history has taught them not to experiment. In command-based training you wait to be told what to do. Anything else can get you punished. The first steps into clicker training can feel very unsafe for these individuals. Instead of enthusiasm, you get worry and caution. It can be a slow process unraveling the fear that comes wrapped up in their training expectations. I was glad with these goats we could go straight to enthusiasm.
Video: Goat Diaries Day 2 E following a target Note:You will need a password to open this video. Use: “GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns”
Coming Next: Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 2
Goats are Like Horses Except That They’re Not – Platform Training Begins
Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order. The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd. I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/