This is going to be a fairly long post because at long last we have come to leading. We lead many of our animals, horses, dogs, even cats and rabbits. Always the question is what has the animal learned? Has he simply given in to avoid being dragged? Or have we worked in a fair and systematic way to teach him how to respond to the tactile information a lead presents?
E in particular is a tiny animal. I could so easily MAKE him follow me on a lead. Making isn’t teaching. Too many of our animals – both small and large – learn that they MUST. At it’s core, the lead communicates do-it-or-else. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am hoping that as I describe the teaching process with these small animals, it will help people understand how leads can be used in a very clicker-compatible way with our horses.
Lots of Roads
There is always more than one way to teach every behavior. That’s definitely the theme both of what I’m writing about today and what I’m working on with the goats. This is good news because it means you can very much tailor your training to the individual needs of your learner, to the constraints of your training environment, to your own personal ethics, to your training skills and physical abilities, and to the ways in which a particular behavior is going to be used in the future. The beauty of clicker training is it is wonderfully creative and flexible.
That’s also why we sometimes get “camps”, with each group convinced that they have the “best”, “right”, “only” way to train. Sigh. I want to understand and be good at using lots of different training strategies.
In clinics we tend to focus a lot of our time on learning good rope handling skills. There are many reasons for this. Personally, I like work in-hand. I enjoy the connection, the communication, the lightness of feel that you experience via a lead rope. Liberty work, riding, ground work, they all connect through an understanding of shaping via a lead. I love using targets and freeshaping. That kind of training is loads of fun, but the tactile sensation of a horse connecting with you via a light lead is a delight.
Rope handling is also the hardest of all the training techniques to get right. It’s so much easier to use a target. You can’t pull, push, or drag an animal around on a target. (That doesn’t mean you can’t get an animal into some very contorted positions using targeting. You just can’t drag him into them.)
The challenge with a lead is to slide to a point of contact and then to wait for the animal to respond by moving his own body. That takes practice, focus, and attention to details. And for many it also means changing some old habits. So in clinics the spotlight is often turned towards rope handling. That’s not because other teaching strategies such as targeting aren’t equally valid, but because rope handling is the one that gains the most from direct coaching.
I recognize that there are many ways to train every behavior. We have broad categories of teaching strategies, and then within each of those we have so many different training options. Look at how many different ways I can use something as basic as a target to teach the same behavior. How creative and inventive can you be? One of the most creative trainers that I’ve had the privilege to watch is Kay Laurence (learningaboutdogs.com). With Thanzi and Trixie my current version of being creative is to explore (and probably totally corrupt) her version of using a target stick with a cup on the end. I described the beginnings of that training in the previous post.
Another very creative trainer is Michele Pouliot. Michele is well known both in the world of guide dog training and canine musical freestyle. As the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, (the largest school for guide dogs in the US), Michele was able to convert their entire training program to clicker training. She’s now consulting widely helping other schools transition their programs to clicker training. Talk about training skill! It is one thing to train an animal. It is something else again to change the entire training culture within an organization.
Michele’s most recent training hobby has been canine musical freestyle. That’s choreographed dance routines with your dog. As a member of the Clicker Expo faculty, she has shared her technique of using platforms to teach basic positioning. It’s a very clever use of environmental prompts.
So with the goats I am making use of all of these techniques. In July I re-introduced the lead via shaping on a point of contact (my work). Now that I have the luxury of more time to experiment, I am using Kay’s targeting techniques with Thanzi and Trixie, and Michele’s platform training with Elyan and Pellias. No technique is more “right” than the others. It is just fun to explore different ways of teaching. Every method will produce it’s own good results and it’s own wonderful surprises. And the more ways I present an idea, the stronger it becomes.
The July Goat Diaries
E’s morning Session
We warmed up with a review of what E already knows. I had two platforms set up in his stall. I worked on having him stay on a platform while I stepped back away from him. Click and treat. I didn’t want him to get stuck on a platform so after a few clicks and treats on one platform, I used my target to move him to the other platform. E was his usual sweet self. I was setting the stage for leading, putting into repertoire the components that would make leading easier for him to learn.
Part way through his session, I put one of the platforms away and put a lead on him for the first time. E ignored the presence of the lead and went straight to the platform. That’s not a surprise since that was what we had just been doing.
“Don’t make them wrong for something you’ve taught them.”
That’s a good training mantra to follow. I didn’t want to create a conflict between the lead and the platform, so I let the lead go slack as he headed to the platform. I reinforced him, as before, for staying on the platform. Now it was time to step down off the platform.
He was stuck. Following the lead didn’t make sense. I added in the target, but he was still stuck.
Okay, that was a trial balloon. The platform wasn’t going to help me with leading. It was just going to overshadow the prompts from the lead and create confusion. I needed to think about how best to proceed, so I ended the session.
In our next session I didn’t set up any platforms. I wanted E to be able to focus on the information coming from the lead. It was an advantage that we were working in a small space. There was nowhere that E particularly wanted to go. The lead could become what I wanted it to be – a communication tool not a restraint device.
E is tiny. It would be very easy to drag him with the lead. That’s not what I wanted. With the horses I refer to the way in which I use pressure and release of pressure as “shaping on a point of contact”. I take the slack out of the lead. That’s my signal that I want something to change. If E’s feet stick, my rule is I can’t pull him or make the pressure more intense to scare him into moving. Instead I wait for him to move his own body. When he shifts in the direction I want, click, I release the lead, and I reinforce him with a treat.
Initially when he moves in response to the lead, I only ask him to go a step or two before I click and treat. I want us both to be successful so I’m only looking for little steps in the right direction. I know these small steps will accumulate fast.
We ended the session with a back scratch. I let him go out to the outside run, and let P in for a leading session.
P’s Leading Session
E is so soft. He readily moves when I move so teaching leading flows easily from that. P also follows me, but he’s a much stronger goat. Both goats came to me with a history of begin led. My understanding was leads were introduced when the goats were small enough to handle. Typically the goats resist, fight the constraint of the lead and then finally give in and follow the pull of the lead. I knew both goats could pull like freight trains so it was not a given that P was just going to follow the suggestions I was offering from the lead.
I needed to be attentive to this. If he didn’t come with me, I needed to pause as soon as I felt the slack going out of the lead. This is where I would wait. I’m shaping on a point of contact. I don’t want to add more pressure to drag him forward. That’s something people tend to do with any animal they have on a lead whether it is something small like a goat (or dog), or large like a horse. We pull. And when the animal digs in it’s heels, we add even more pressure until the animal complies.
The learning here for the animal is to move or be dragged. After a while a handler can feel very kind and gentle because now you just begin to move off and the animal follows. But trace the history of this response back to the way it was originally taught, and what you’ll see is the escalating pressure. This animal appears to be soft, but really he has just agreed to be dragged. The threat is always there. If he doesn’t follow the next time, the escalating pressure will return.
This is NOT what I am teaching. I begin to walk off. If my learner follows, great. We can continue on – click and treat. But if he doesn’t respond to the lead cue, I pause. It’s as though we’re in a freeze frame of a video.
I always feel as though I am in a film strip where someone has just stopped the projector. I wait. I’m not passive. The intent is clear, but I don’t escalate. I wait for my learner to move his own body. That’s what distinguishes shaping on a point of contact from molding. In molding the handler moves the learner’s body. The animal learns to comply and follows rather than being dragged forward.
In shaping on a point of contact the animal moves his own body in response to cues from the lead. This can seem like semantics. In both you are using a lead. You are taking the slack out, so there’s pressure either way, but figuring out the puzzle and moving your own body is a completely different kind of puzzle solving compared with just giving in to an increase of pressure. It produces a very different outcome both emotionally and physically.
Emotionally it creates confident puzzle solvers who WANT to participate. They aren’t looking for a way out of the “game”. They want to keep playing. And physically, it produces lighter, better balanced steps. You can hear the difference when you listen to animals that have been taught via escalating pressure versus shaping on a point of contact.
As soon as my learner finds the direction I want and puts slack back into the lead, click, he gets reinforced. This is such an important point. I want the animals I work with to be comfortable with the lead. I don’t want them to fear it. Instead I want the lead to be a predictor of good things.
P’s initial response to having a lead attached told me that was not how he thought about leads. We were starting out in a training hole of past history which meant I had to be all the more careful in how I handled the lead.
I’m showing the following two photos as a teaching aid. It’s a case of learning from example, non-example. I don’t mean to pick on the handler’s in these photos. I could just as easily have taken pictures of the dogs being walked in my neighborhood, or young horses learning how to lead. We are very good at adding pressure. In the case of goats and other farm animal this is just standard livestock handling. It needs to be expedient. When you are managing a lot of animals, you don’t have time to teach the niceties of leading. You just need to get the animals moved. With clicker training we can add another criterion to this process. We can move them thoughtfully. We can move them with kindness.
If you were on the animal’s end of the lead, it’s pretty obvious which style of leading you’d want your handler to be using. Molding is easy which is why it is so prevalent. Shaping on a point of contact takes much more deliberate focus.
One of the best ways to appreciate shaping on a point of contact is to experience it from the animal’s end of the lead. Whether you work with small animals such as these goats or dogs, or big animals such as horses, you will appreciate the difference.
Hold the snap end of the lead while a friend asks you to take a step forward or back. Try out the different versions. Don’t step forward as she walks off, but have her continue to walk. What does it feel like to be dragged? How balanced are you?
Now have her wait on a point of contact. When you give to the lead and step forward, what does that feel like? If you’ve never handled a lead in this way, the differences may not yet be very clear, but once you begin to understand how to use a lead in this way, there’s no going back. You will always be looking for the conversation that shaping on a point of contact creates.
Shaping on a point of contact is such an important concept to understand I’ll let it stand on it’s own in this post. I’ll wait to catch you up with the fun sessions I’ve been having over the last couple of days with the goats.
Please Note: If you want to learn more about rope handling and shaping on a point of contact, please refer to my books, DVDs and on-line course, or come join me at a clinic. Visit theclickercenter.com for more information. I’ll also be teaching a lab on rope handling at this year’s Clicker Expos.
Coming next: Don’t Take Score Too Soon
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/ Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July. The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period. In November these two goats, plus three others returned. They will be with me through the winter. The “Goat Palace” reports track their training. I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.