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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.) Stimulus Control

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

fengur backing from saddle with caption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We taught behaviors in pairs.

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

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

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

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 5.) Cues Evolve – Part 1

Cues Evolve Out Of The Shaping Process

Review
It’s time again to add to our list of things I would want a beginner to know about cues.  So far we have:

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.

Here’s number 5: Cues evolve out of the shaping process.

The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play.  That makes this a very important concept to understand.

A common question people ask when they are teaching a new behavior is: when do I get to add a cue?  This is really the wrong question.  At least when you are working with horses, the cues are already there.  In fact you really can’t NOT cue.

If you are reinforcing your horse for putting his ears forward, where are you looking?  At his ears, of course.  When you want him to take a step back, your eyes shift down to his feet.  Your horse is going to notice these difference.  For him these are clues that will morph into cues. Even if you aren’t aware of them, they are still functioning to let him know what to do next to earn reinforcement.  So it isn’t a question of when you do you get to introduce a cue, but how do you transfer from the cue that is currently working to a new cue?  But before we can get to that question, we need to look in more detail at how those cues evolve in the first place  That’s what we’ll be exploring in this section.

Bear with me.  I’m going to be traveling through several different lessons, connecting up the dots of evolving cues as we go.

Head Lowering

Robin head lowering 1
To understand how cues evolve, let’s begin with this example: suppose I want to teach my horse to drop his head.  There are a number of reasons why I might want this behavior.

The first begins with safety.  A horse cannot simultaneously rear and drop his nose to the dirt.  If I can ask for head lowering, I can interrupt a potentially dangerous behavior.

Head lowering is also practical.  Even a short horse can become very tall when you’re trying to get a bridle or a halter on.  Asking him first to lower his head makes the task easier for you and more comfortable for him.

Head lowering leads to calmness.  This is not automatic.  The first time you ask a horse to drop his head, he’s not going to magically and instantaneously calm down.  In fact, a nervous horse can actually be made more nervous by being asked to lower his head.  With his head up he can scan the horizon line for predators more effectively.  So when you ask this anxious, on-guard horse to lower his head, he’s going to want to pop it right back up again.

Should you quit and ask for something else?  No. The answer is to keep working on head lowering, but, if you can, change the environment so he feels more at ease. Ask for it again and again over many training sessions.  As you begin to build some duration into the behavior, you will begin to see a different emotional state linking up with it.

Horses living in the wild spend twelve plus hours every day grazing.  Even horses living in stalls spend several hours a day eating.  That means they are spending a huge amount of time every day feeling relaxed enough to drop their heads and eat. The classically conditioned link between head lowering while grazing and an emotional state of calm relaxation is huge.  If we can tap into that same state by asking for head lowering, we’ve just created a powerful link between clicker training and a calm emotional state. That will serve us well as we progress forward in training.

Linking head lowering to calmness is something most people are familiar with.  Something you might not think about as much is this: head lowering is the counter balance to collection.  This is perhaps one of the most important reasons to teach head lowering because it takes you into riding excellence.

Keeping Things in Balance
One of the training mantras you want to always keep in mind is:

For every exercise you teach, there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.

If you ask a horse to engage and collect, you also need to ask him to lengthen and stretch out.  If you focus too much attention on collection, you may not have a way to tell him he can just relax and lengthen.  As a rider is learning about collecting, if she ends up compressing her horse, she will need a way to lengthen him back out so she can try again.  Asking a horse to stretch out in head lowering provides a powerful, and very important counter-balance both physically and emotionally to collection.

Robin pose and head lowering

On the left Robin is offering beautiful collection.  On the right head lowering balances his pose.

There’s Always More Than One Way To Teach A Behavior
I teach head lowering in many different ways.  The first, easiest way is through targeting.  I will simply have the horse follow a target down to the ground.  Click and treat.

robin head lowering green cone down

The easiest way to teach head lowering is through targeting.

That’s a good start, but just because you can get head lowering one way doesn’t mean your job is done.  The more different ways I can trigger the behavior, the better.

In the next installment I’ll look at one of the most powerful ways you can teach head lowering: via backing in a square.

Robin back in square

Head lowering is taught out of backing in a square.

 

Coming next: Backing in a square

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

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication Continued: Part 6 – Just Tell me How You Feel

Listen to Your Horse
I’ve been describing a lesson I call “Capture the Saddle”.  It’s used to teach horses to line themselves up next to a mounting block.  In the previous section I talked about how you can turn this ordinary, everyday behavior into extraordinary “Grand Prix” level excellence.

Even before you have built the behavior to this point, you can use the mounting block as a measure of how your horse is feeling.  If your horse normally lines up well, but today he is swinging out or he’s walking off before you can get on, don’t assume that he’s “testing” you.  Instead ask him what’s wrong?  He knows standing at the mounting block leads to riding.  Why doesn’t he want to be ridden today?

Our horses work so hard to communicate with us.  We need to learn to be better listeners.  When we train them with play in our hearts, they will want to work with us.  If today they are saying “No” to riding, there’s a good reason.  It may not always be obvious, but we need to become good detectives and find the answer.

Detective Work
Ask most horse owners about the ancestral background of the horse, and they can tell you that horses are a prey species that evolved in open grasslands.  What they may not be as clear about are some of the consequences of that background.

Horses are herd animals because there is safety in numbers.  The flip side of this is there is danger in appearing to be vulnerable.  A lame or sick horse draws attention to itself and to the herd as a whole.  Show weakness, and you’ll be drawing in predators, so horses are very good at hiding their injuries.  They are protecting not just themselves, but their whole family.  It takes something acutely painful such as an abscess or a torn tendon to bring a horse hobbling to a stand still.  If they can hide an injury, they will.

So we have to be good detectives.  It may not be immediately obvious what is wrong, but if you keep looking, if you keep collecting data, you may be able to piece together enough clues to discover that the reason your horse fidgets at the mounting block has nothing to do with training and everything to do with the poorly fitting saddle that is hurting his back.

“Just Tell Me How You Feel”
Normally an angry or frightened horse gives lots of warning signals that he is about to explode.  If you punish those early warning signals in an attempt to stop a horse from biting, you can create that most dangerous of animals – a horse that gives no warning signals and goes straight to attacking when he has been pushed over threshold.

Just as horses can learn to withhold these signs of stress, they can learn the opposite.  Instead of punishing them for fidgeting and refusing to step up to the mounting block, if you show them instead that you will listen to them, they will become more comfortable about expressing how they feel.

Just as we can actively teach a process that leads to intelligent disobedience, we can teach our horses to express more openly how they are feeling.  When we listen to them in a context such as the mounting block, they begin to generalize the concept and offer us a truer picture of how they feel both physically and emotionally.

Peregrine for years bounced from one health crisis to another.  The  aftermath of a bout of Potomac Horse fever sent him on a downward health spiral that took several years to sort out.  During that time I was grateful for his grumpy faces.  I needed to know from one day to the next how he was feeling.

He was never punished for making faces.  The rule was he could make faces.  He just couldn’t act out on them.  Because I was listening, he never needed to.

Saying “No”
Sometimes the reason a horse says “No” to us, is not because there is something wrong with him, but because there is something that isn’t right with us.

This was driven home to me by a horse I met in a clinic many years ago.  The horse was on loan to one of the course participants.  She was a very clicker-experienced horse who was used to being handled by a skilled and very tactful owner.

Some horses are incredibly generous teachers.   They seem to enjoy working with beginners.  They are truly worth their weight in gold as they make up the heart of a good lesson string.  Round-bellied ponies who take care of their young riders are treasures.  Solid citizen campaigners who will take you over your first jump no matter how out of balance or how scared you are are the salt of the earth.

This mare was none of those things.  She was a finely-trained artist who expected a high level of expertise and delicate feel from all her human partners.  Unfortunately the woman who was working with her wasn’t able to live up to this mare’s exacting standards.

They started out well enough.  I had them walking around a “why would you leave me” circle of cones.  The mare started out by offering what she knew – beautifully balanced steps of shoulder-in on the circle.  The handler clicked, gave her a treat and then slid down the lead.  The mare wasn’t happy.  Something was wrong, but it wasn’t clear yet what it was.

They went through a couple more cycles.  The handler slid up the rope, and the mare walked off in shoulder-in, click and treat. Only now she was beginning to grab the lead before the handler could get more than a few inches down the rope.

“That’s as far as you’re going, little miss,” she was effectively saying.

We stopped, put the mare away and worked with the handler.  We had her slide down the lead while someone else held the snap end.  She felt soft enough to us.  There was nothing especially harsh or abrupt in the way she handled the lead.  We made a few adjustments to the details we did notice, and then we brought the mare back out.  Things were not much better.  Hmm.  We put her away again and went back to rope handling basics.

Our handler told us she had the same sort of issues with her own horse.  Clearly both horses were trying to tell her something.  This was a puzzle we needed to solve.

We brought the mare back out, but now we let her be the teacher.  The instructions were to wait until she showed her handler that she was ready to begin a new cycle.  Not until her horse cued her was she to slide down the lead.

They stood side by side.  The handler had her hands folded together about waist height.  That’s the cue for a behavior which I call “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. It is one of the very first lessons which I teach a horse.  The horse is clicked and reinforced when he keeps his nose pointing forward, away from the handler’s treat pouch.  Over time it evolves and branches off into many different behaviors.

 

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Robin shows us a beautiful baseline for “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” behavior.

The grown-ups are talking:

  • is the formation of ground tying which means, among others things, you can groom a horse while he stands at ease.
  •  transforms from a simple at-ease posture into the pilates pose.  This is a “grand prix” behavior.  The horse engages the same muscles he uses under saddle to collect himself for advanced performance. Only instead of doing this in motion, he is collecting at the halt.  It is wonderfully good for a horse’s overall muscle tone and can help maintain a horse’s back strength for riding.

The Conversation
This mare had a beautiful pilates pose which she normally was perfectly happy to offer.  Now she just stood next to this handler in a flat, at-ease stance.

The handler was waiting in grown-ups for she wasn’t sure what.  She let out her breath, and the mare posed.

“Slide down the lead,” I quietly instructed her.  The handler did as she was told.  There was no biting at her hand. Instead the mare flowed into a beautifully balanced shoulder-in.  Click and treat.

The handler waited again.  Again, she let out her breath, and again the horse posed.  “She’s telling you she’s ready for you to go on,” I told her handler.  “Let the pose be the cue to you that she’s ready for you to slide down the lead.”

The mare had been trying her best to tell us what was wrong.  When this handler slid down the rope, she held her breath.  That made her feel tighter, heavier.  It made her feel as though she was shouting at this very light horse.

Either we humans weren’t as sensitive as this mare, or the handler hadn’t been holding her breath when she practiced the rope handling with us.  But at least with this horse she was definitely holding her breath. Without meaning to she was applying too much pressure.  This horse didn’t like it and neither, apparently, did her own horse.  When we gave the mare a way to signal to us when things were more to her liking, we could not only see what was going on, we could solve the problem.

Fixing the “Fixers”
As I watched this handler more closely throughout the weekend, I saw lots of little ways in which she was keeping the pressure on.  It was so subtle, it was easy to miss.  The pressure wasn’t coming from her hand on the lead, it was coming from her expectations and to be blunt – her neediness.  She was a rescuer.  She wanted to “fix” this mare. But this mare didn’t see herself as broken.

When we gave the mare permission to lead the dance, she was able to show us all that she wasn’t broken.  Her handler needed to breath, smile and set aside the “poor horse” energy that was clogging up the relationship she brought to all the horses she worked with.  She saw horses as sad little infants in need of rescuing and fixing.

If you don’t see yourself as either a baby or broken, you don’t want someone mother henning you and trying to “fix” you.  There are definitely times when my horses aren’t feeling well, and they want to be cuddled.  And there are horses who have fallen on hard times and really do need to be rescued.  But that’s not forever.  At some point that event sits in their distant past, and they are no longer “broken”.  When we surround them with “fix it” energy, some of these horses can begin to feel restricted and annoyed.

It’s very much like a toddler who squirms out of his mother’s protective arms.  “I can do it myself!”  He’s beginning to exert his own independence.  “I can tie my own shoes!”  At some point you have to let him try.

At some point we have to stop treating our horses like infants in need of our constant care and supervision.  They are our partners in the best and truest sense of that word, and sometimes our partners get to take the lead.

This handler needed to play more.  She wanted to be a nurturer, and for some horses that is exactly what is needed.  But every good mother knows there is a place for play, as well.

When my horses wrap themselves around me in beautiful lateral work, they make me smile.  I laugh with them.  We are dancing together, and for both horses and humans there is no better of expression of Joy than that.

 

This article ends this section on “Cue Communication”. 

Coming Next in our list of “Ten Things You Should Know About Cues” is: Number 5: Cues Evolve. 

The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play.  That makes this a very important concept to explore.  

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

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: Unit 4: Cue Communication

Everything  You Need to Know About Cues
At the end of Part 1 I asked: What are ten things you would want a beginner to know about cues?  That seemed like a simple enough question, but look where it has taken us – to neuroscience and the affective emotional systems, to habits and what maintains them, to TAGteaching and the focus funnel, to guide training for horses, to Feldenkrais work and asking questions, to the Premack principle and the creative use of imagery in training.

All that and we still have only three things on our list:

1.) Cues and commands are not synonyms.
2.) Cues are not just verbal signals.  They can include weight shifts, hand gestures and other body language signals.  
3.) Cues can come from the environment.

And now here’s number 4.) Cue Communication

Icky mounting block - hands up

Cue Communication
We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals.  The behaviors we teach them can be turned around and used by them to communicate back to us.

When we recognize that cues are a two way street, we become much more aware of what are animals are trying to communicate to us.

Panda was the poster child for environmental cues.  She can serve the same function for cue communication.  Guide work is dependent upon the back and forth exchange of cues.  I described earlier Panda’s traffic checks.  That’s a great example both of environmental cues and cue communication.  The moving car is the signal for Panda to stop and back up.  Her actions cue Ann.  Ann must interpret Panda’s sudden change of behavior correctly and allow her to move her out of harm’s way.

 

Everyday Conversations
Good training is about cue communication.  It’s a two way street.

When novice trainers first encounter cues, they often think that they are something only they give.  Most of us have spent time around dogs, either our own or a friend’s.  We’re used to telling dogs to sit, to lie down, to come, to leave it!  These are all cues (or possibly commands – depending upon how they were taught) that we’re giving to the dog.

But what about that sad-eyed look the dog is giving you that gets you to stop working on the computer, get up, walk to the coat closet, put on your jacket and your outside shoes, take the leash off the hook where it’s hanging, attach it to your dog’s collar, open the back door and take him out for a walk.  That was quite the complex chain the dog set in motion just by raising his eyebrows and giving you “that look”.

He probably further cued the internal components of the chain by jumping up, wagging his tail, running to the back door, sitting quietly while you put on shoes and jacket and attached the lead.

Back and forth throughout this sequence there was a dance of cues.  Some were given by you, some by the dog.  It is so like talking on the phone.  You have a long story to tell.  What maintains the conversation?  The little interjections your listener gives you that tell you she’s still on the line, still listening to you.  The call hasn’t been dropped by your cell phone network, nor has she gone off to feed her horses.  Without those little sounds cueing you that the connection is still active, and she’s still on the other end of the line, your story would stutter to a stop.

“Are you still there?” You may find yourself asking this as you talk on the cell phone.

“Are you still walking to the door?”  Your dog wags  his tail, or goes into a play bow.  Yes!  That just redirected the human from the kitchen back on track to the door.

We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals. When you live with animals, you become as much cued by their behavior as they are cued by you.  We know the look our cats give us when they want to be picked up for a cuddle, when they want to be set down again, or let out, or fed.  We become well-trained humans.

Animal Trainers – The Ones to Really Learn From!
I have always known how much my behavior is being cued by my animals.  I know those “looks”.  I have learned to interpret them and respond appropriately to them.  It’s no good picking your cat up for a cuddle when what she wants is to go out.  She’ll simply squirm out of your arms to repeat – louder – her cue.  She knows what many people who travel in foreign countries also believe.  If the foreigner doesn’t understand your language, repeat what you just said, only louder.  In the cat’s case, this often works!

Cats are superb trainers.  They are experts at arranging their households to their liking.  If you want to learn about training – watch your cats.  You don’t need to go any further to find a master trainer!

A Well-Trained Human
Cats are very good at taking the behaviors we have taught them, and turning them around to cue us.  I became very aware of this when one of my cats was a small kitten.  She wanted to see what I was having for breakfast and perhaps share it with me.  I didn’t want to encourage this behavior, so I took advantage of her interest to teach her to sit.  I followed the same procedure I had seen dog trainers use.  I held a small tidbit over her head.  As she looked up to see what was in my fingers, her hindquarters sank towards the floor.  Click!  I gave her a tiny bit of the buttered toast she was so interested in.

Two or three reps were usually enough to satisfy her curiosity. She would go off and leave me alone to enjoy my breakfast without the constant interruption of a too inquisitive paw pushing its way onto my plate.

Over the course of several days the sit began to evolve.  Now we had a proper down on your rump sit.  Click and treat.

One morning she added a slight paw lift.  I grew that from a slight lift of her front foot into a “high five” wave.   It was very cute.

And that’s when she turned the tables on me.  I was in the kitchen not far from the refrigerator.  She very deliberately sat down, lifted her paw and gave me my cue.  It was so like the dog handlers who cue “sit” and “down” with a hand signal, only in my case the cue set in motion a much more complex chain.  I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in, lifted out the tub of margarine, took off the lid, put a small dollop on the tip of my finger, reached down and let her lick it off my finger.

I had to laugh.  I knew exactly what had just happened.  She had turned everything around, and she was cueing me!

I also understood more clearly than I ever had before that the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to cue us.

JOY Full Horses: Intelligent Disobedience

Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

My Cue Trumps Your Cue
In the previous section Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues.  Among them were curbs marking a street crossing.  Moving cars are one of the many dangerous obstacles a guide has to deal with.  People who aren’t familiar with guides often ask how the animal knows when a light has turned green and it’s okay to cross.

The answer is that’s not the guide’s job.  The guide finds the curb and stops the handler before they get to the edge.  Then the handler listens to the traffic patterns.  When the handler thinks it is safe to cross, she will tell the guide to go forward.  But these days with cars turning on red, and so many people riding bikes, and the new, very quiet electric cars, there are many opportunities for mistakes.

Moving cars trump go forward cues.  If Ann tells Panda to go forward, but Panda sees something coming that will cut across their path, she will stand her ground and refuse to move until the vehicle has passed.  If they are already crossing and a car suddenly comes towards them, she will stop quickly and back up, taking Ann out of the path of the on-coming car.

 

Intelligent Disobedience
When Ann asks Panda to go forward off a curb, Panda knows perfectly well what she is supposed to do.  When she refuses to move, she isn’t being bad.  She’s doing her job.  There’s a name for this kind of response: intelligent disobedience.

When I took on the project of training Panda, this was one of the areas I was most interested in   There were so many myths floating around about intelligent disobedience.  Ann told me that many people believed guide dogs were especially intelligent and could do a job that ordinary dogs just wouldn’t be able to handle.

There were certainly people in the horse community who huffed and puffed when they heard about Panda.  “If I were blind,” they declared, “I would never trust a horse to guide me.”

I always thought – how sad.  Is that really what they think about the horses that they get on and ride?  How little do they understand the amazing abilities of the horses they say they love.  I would much rather think that I am entrusting my safety to an intelligent animal than one I regard as stupid.

Horses as Guides
As a herd animal, guiding made perfect sense to Panda.  It was easy to teach her the basic elements.  A dog might want to explore the hedgerow.  That’s where the rabbits live.  To a horse it makes sense to go around.  By extension going around other obstacles also makes sense.  And because horses do live in herds, they understand that they need to make room for the person walking next to them.

A dog is nimble and can easily handle rough footing.  So can a horse, but they are very aware of where they put their feet.  Looking out for rough ground makes sense to them.  A broken leg from a fall is a death sentence for a horse.

Dogs are distracted by squirrels, other dogs, pigeons and lots of other things that can run or fly away.  Panda has never chased a squirrel in her life.  She can be distracted by grass, but as Ann has said, the grass isn’t likely to run away.  It’s a much easier distraction to deal with.

Some horses are very spooky and nervous in unfamiliar settings.  Panda seems to thrive on the puzzles they present.  I live not far from Albany, the Capital of New York State. During the time Panda and Ann were first learning to work together, there were a lot of street repairs going on in Albany.  We used to take field trips into the downtown sections where we knew the sidewalks were under construction.  Every visit presented monster-sized challenges.  Sometimes the entire sidewalk would be torn up, and Panda and Ann would have to work together to find a safe way through the construction zone.  I never saw Panda even hesitate.  She would size up the task in front of them and proceed forward. (You can see an example of one of these sidewalk hazards in the video at the top of this page.)

IMG_1991 Panda Ann construction

Panda guiding Ann safely through a construction zone.

Ambulances blasting their sirens just a few feet away, people on bicycles, busy traffic, nothing seemed to surprise or frighten her.  Whatever was in front of her was just another puzzle, another opportunity to earn clicker treats, another part of the game.

Teaching Panda to guide a handler over and around obstacles was easy.  It was really just a matter of supporting the good decisions she was already making.  The outstanding question was would she be able to understand intelligent disobedience?  Could a horse understand this concept?

Evidence in Support of Intelligent Disobedience
Before I ever started training Panda, I already had the answer to this question.  Anyone who rides out has experienced some form of intelligent disobedience.  There are so many stories of horses who have refused to go forward on a trail.  The horse stops, feet firmly planted, his whole body clearly saying “No!”. The rider gets after him, kicking him, maybe even hitting him with a crop or the long end of the reins.  The horse just plants himself even more.  And then a friend’s horse catches up to them and passes them on the trail, only to find itself mired up to its belly in deep mud.  Horse and rider are lucky to escape uninjured.

Of course, the first rider always feels about two inches tall.  Her horse was trying to tell her the trail wasn’t safe.  This is a horse who grew up free to roam over large tracks of land.  He understood the signs that were in front of him.  The second horse may have grown up in a small field and had never seen this kind of boggy ground before.  But the first horse was trying in every way he knew how to say that it wasn’t safe to go forward, and his rider didn’t know enough to listen.

Trusting Intelligent Disobedience
Intelligent disobedience is a wonderful response to build into our horses.  Panda’s training shows us we can do so deliberately.  If I know that I have taught a behavior well and my horse doesn’t respond to my cues, I need to look for a reason.

Suppose I have taught my horse to come to me from the middle of the arena over to a mounting block. If he comes every time, and then suddenly one day, he hangs back, I need to look for a reason.  It may be that he isn’t feeling well, and his reluctance to ride is his way of telling me. It may be that I’m in a grump of a mood, and again, he is letting me know that riding isn’t the best choice for the day.  Whatever the reason, I need to listen and not simply assume that my horse is “testing me” with his disobedience.  That “disobedience” could one day save my life.

Teaching Traffic Checks
Let me describe briefly how Panda’s traffic checks were taught.  The lesson that I followed was given to me by Michele Pouliot.  Michele has thirty plus years of experience working with guide dogs.  She is currently the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind where she has played a primary role in transitioning the training of their dogs to clicker training.

I don’t know if this is still how she teaches traffic checks, but these are the instructions she gave me in 2002 when I was teaching Panda this lesson.

Step 1: We began with a parked car.  We walked directly toward the car.  When Panda stopped in front of it, I clicked and reinforced her.

Step 2: I enlisted the help of one of my experienced clicker friends.  As we approached the car, she began to drive it very, very slowly forward towards us.  Panda stopped on her own, and I cued her to back up.  Click and treat.

Step 3: Panda stopped and backed up without needing to be cued by me when the car went into motion.  Click and treat.

Step 4: We now moved to simulated traffic checks.  Still using my experienced driver, we had her wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway.  (You do wonder what people looking out their windows must have thought!)  I walked Panda along her familiar route.  As we began to cross the driveway, my driver would pull out slowly across our path. Panda backed us up out of harm’s way.

We were essentially teaching Panda that moving cars trumped the go forward cue.  If I asked her to go forward, and there were no cars or bicycles coming, she was to take me across the intersection.  But if there was a vehicle in motion, she was to stop.  She wouldn’t be punished for refusing to respond to a known cue.   Keeping us out of the path of a car produced clicker treats.

Step 5: The traffic checks continued.  We used different cars and different locations.  They became increasingly more like real world situations.

Step 6: Once Panda was paired up with Ann, we went through the whole process again, making sure that the behavior was solid now that the possibility of real traffic checks existed.

Testing the Training – How Strong are your Habits?
Panda was so good at these checks I wanted to get them on film.  Our usual driver wasn’t available so we enlisted the help of Ann’s husband.  We gave him the instructions.  He was to wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway and, as Ann approached with Panda, he was to pull out in front of them.

That was fine.  He knew how traffic checks worked.   The one part of the instructions we forgot to tell him was we only needed one or two traffic checks.  After that he could go home, and we’d keep walking.  Since we left that part out, at every driveway and parking lot intersection along our route – there he was.

Later when we watched the video, we thought we should have the sound track from Jaws playing in the background.  There was the gold van stalking Ann and Panda yet again!  Ann was taking her usual route heading for the barn.  It’s a long walk, and that day we all learned just how many driveways there are between her house and the barn!  (You can see one of the many of these traffic checks in the video at the top of this page.)

All of these traffic checks served them well.  Prior to pairing up with Panda, Ann had had two guide dogs who both failed to stay in work.  They were both very distracted by other dogs, squirrels, really anything that moved.

Crossing streets was always a white-knuckled affair.  Ann would get to the barn with horror stories about missed curbs and missed traffic checks.  Neither of these dogs should ever have been passed by the school that trained them, but they were hoping that an experienced handler like Ann would be able to manage them.  In both cases they had to be returned to the school and re-homed into other careers.   I think both went on to be police dogs, work they were much more temperamentally suited to.

Ann’s experience with Panda was completely different.  Dogs were something you ignored.  And traffic checks – for Panda they were like playing a video game where you’ve reached master level.  Ann would get to the barn laughing, telling me about that day’s adventures.  For well over a year the high school she walked past on her way to the barn had been under construction.  Every day there was some new challenge for them.  One day there would be a sidewalk for them to navigate along.  The next day it would be gone.  All that was left would be a gaping hole and piles of rubble.

IMG_1990 Panda Ann construction

This once familiar landscape has been transformed by construction, but Panda still manages to find a safe route.

Traffic checks didn’t just mean avoiding cars, school buses and the high school track team out for the day’s run.  It now included encounters with heavy construction vehicles and bulldozers. Panda had to watch out for traffic and figure out how to find a route across a parking lot that was completely transformed.  This was nothing like the tidy sidewalks and suburban side streets she had trained over.  All those trips into Albany paid off here.

Saying “No”
I’m writing about intelligent disobedience because this is something we need to be more aware of in our training.  I wish our big horses could have the same freedom to say no that Panda does.  If we’re going to ride a horse, he should be able to say no, not today.  If we’re going to jump a horse, or ride him over uncertain ground, we need to trust those times when he slams on the brakes and says not there. You may not see the slick ground or smell the grizzly bear, but I can.

If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want.  If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask.  If he says no, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed.  Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training.  It makes sense to use their senses to help keep us both safe.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that it is okay for a horse to say no.

Coming next: What About Mistakes?  When is it okay for us to say no?  Panda has some things to teach us about that, as well.

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Visit: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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 “Joyful 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: Part 2 Playing with Cues

Ten Things You Should Know About Cues
Part 2 collage
In the previous post I asked what are ten key concepts you would want a beginner to know about cues.  I hope you have made your own list to compare with the one that I will be sharing over the next couple of weeks.  I said I was going to treat them like Christmas presents under the tree.  I’ll be sharing them with you one at a time.  So Part 2 of this book is divided into ten sections, each with it’s own chapters.  Each Section focuses on just one of these key elements.

So today’s “present” begins with Section 1.) Cues are not Commands

Section 1.) Cues are not Commands 

Natalie with Harrison
Chapter 1: Asking Versus Telling

Commands
Cues and commands are not synonyms. A command has a do it or else threat behind it.  For a dog it’s: sit or else.  For a horse it’s trot – or else.  There’s always that threat sitting behind the request.  Think of all the riders who have discovered that their stuck-in-cement horse suddenly moves off with energy as soon as they pick up a crop.

“I don’t have to use it.  All I have to do is carry it.” they will say.  It’s easy to think you are being soft when a light tap is all you need, but from the horse’s perspective there is always the threat of something more painful backing up that tap.

The dictionary defines commands as:

command defined

“Authority over”, “control”: these words sound so jarring when used in conjunction with clicker training.  No matter how you sugar coat them, commands don’t belong under the clicker training umbrella.

Cues

Harrison backing off mat

Backing off the mat on cue.

Cues are different.  They are different in the way in which they are taught, and they are different in the way they are responded to.

The dictionary defines a cue as:

cues defined

“A prompt or reminder”, and “a signal for action” is a good way to think of cues.  This is a word that fits well into clicker training.

green light traffic signalOne of the best metaphors for cues comes from Karen Pryor, author of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “Reaching the Animal Mind”.  A cue is a green light that tells the animal that it can now perform a given behavior and it is likely to be reinforced for it.  Cues are taught via positive reinforcement.  If an animal fails to respond to a cue, it isn’t punished.  The handler will set up the scenario that leads to the cue so the animal can try again.  If the animal continues to fail to respond, the worst that may happen is the handler puts the animal away while she goes off to have a proverbial cup of tea and a think.

Paradigm Shifts
This represents a huge paradigm shift for many animal handlers.  If you have come to clicker training from a more traditional background, commands will be the norm for you.  If you ask your horse to trot and he doesn’t, you will have been told: “Get after him. Make him do it!  If you don’t, he won’t respect you.  He’ll take advantage of you.  You aren’t being a good leader.  You need to show him who is boss.”

I’ll get people who are new to clicker training asking what they should do if a horse bites them.

“Keep yourself safe, but be non-reactive,” I tell them.

“No, no,” they respond.  “He bit me.  I need to do something.”

“Okay.  Put him away and go have a cup of tea.”

I know that’s not what they expect to hear, but it is often the best advice.  Go have a think away from your horse.  You need to be in a non-reactive state of mind to come up with a plan that keeps you both safe while at the same time setting your horse up for success.  You want a plan that minimizes the unwanted biting behavior and avoids the unwanted consequences that punishment can create.

These are nice sounding words, but for so many people this can be hard to do.  They are so used to the notion that if a request is made, it MUST be followed through with a response – or else.  If the horse bites, crowds, spooks, or drags you into the grass, etc. you MUST do something to punish that unwanted behavior.

Clicker training takes a very different course.  This is why I started out the conversation about cues by differentiating them from commands.  In our common vernacular people often use the two terms interchangeably.  Making the distinction begins the journey away from force-based training.  This can be an easy process for some, and a very difficult one for others.  When a horse bites at you or pushes into you, it is such a natural knee-jerk reaction to want to DO something about it.

Instead we need to step back and take the time to describe what we WANT our horses to do.  Then we need to figure out how to arrange the environment so that’s the behavior we get.  Cues are the green lights that ask for those desired behaviors.

Playing with Cues
If you’re an experienced clicker trainer, this is all review.  You know this, but here is something you may not have thought about.

You can’t play with commands.  Or if you are, only one of you is having fun.  Your horse is working hard to stay out of trouble.  That’s not play.  There are other words to describe this kind of interaction, and they aren’t very nice.

That’s why this distinction is so important.  It’s not just that we want to be nice.  PLAY is important for healthy brain function.  If you have people around you urging you to be tougher, now you have a great reason to ignore them.  Force-based training with it’s use of commands will get results, but it will have a very different emotional outcome than the one that is generated from the PLAY-based training use of cues.

Coming next: Part 2: Playing with Cues: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues
Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues

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 “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com  (kurlanda@verizon.net)

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: Pt 1: Ch. 8: Cues and Their Connection to Play

What are Cues?
To begin the conversation about cues I’m going to ask a simple question.  If you were explaining cues to a beginner, what are some of the fundamental things you would want that person to know?  (If you are that beginner, you won’t yet be able to answer this question, but the answers others give will be of interest.  They will help you wrap your mind around cues and all that they do. So ask your dog-owning friends, ask your fellow horse owners this question:  what are some of the fundamental things you should know about cues and how they work?  What are the answers they come up with?)

I have a list of 10 key things I would want to share about cues. Before we get to my list, I want you to write down your own ten things.  Today’s post is a short one to give you time to think about this.

Once we’ve reached the end of the next section, you can look back and compare our two lists.  What did we both include?  What was on your list that wasn’t on mine?  And what did I include that you left off?

At a clinic this would be the launching point for the kind of discussion that often goes on for several PLAY FULL hours and leads to great discoveries.  Hopefully it will do the same for you.

Explaining Cues to a Beginner – Your List

1.) _____________________________________

2.) _____________________________________

3.) _____________________________________

4.) _____________________________________

5.) _____________________________________

6.) _____________________________________

7.) _____________________________________

8.) _____________________________________

9.) _____________________________________

10.) _____________________________________

Explaining Cues to a Beginner – My List

I could write out my list of ten key concepts here, but instead I am going to treat them more like Christmas presents under the tree.  I’m going to give them to you one at a time. That way you can “unwrap” them slowly and take the time to explore each one before adding the next.  You’ll find my list in Part 2: Playing with Cues: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues.