Summer Pleasures – Watermelon Parties and The Two Sides of Freedom

Watermelon Parties

watermelon

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

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

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

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

Robin asleep lip drooping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Scilla grown ups.png

“Grown-ups”

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

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

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

Signal from human leads to response from animal

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

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

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

Let’s parse this some more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of interventions

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

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

My Changes To Procedural Changes slide

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

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

Live in a World of Yes.png

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

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

JOY Full Horses: Part 1 Ch. 4: Inside The Trainer’s Brain

Recognizing Play

sindri fengur playing 3 photos

When they’re turned out together, our two Icelandics engage in mock battles. How do I know they are playing and not fighting for real?  Their drama is intense.  Both rear up and crash into one another.  One will come down over the neck of the other seemingly trying to bite the other horse through his thick mane.   They’ll spin apart and kick out, then race off at a gallop shouldering one another for an advantage in the turn.

To a causal observer it looks both very dramatic and very real, but these Iceys are good actors.  Their battles are all make believe.  They leave the “battle field” without a mark on them.  The kicks are all pulled punches and the bites nothing but pretend.  One moment they are body slamming into one another, the next they are standing side by side in their other favorite activity – social grooming.

After a good play session they come into the barn relaxed, refreshed, and always ready for more.  At twenty they play with the same vigor and intensity that they did when they were four.

When you watch your dogs or your cats wrestling together, you have no trouble recognizing this behavior as play.  You see the bites that aren’t bites, and the claws that don’t draw blood.  You see them taking turns.  First, one is on top pinning the other down, and then they’ll flip roles.  The stronger animal has learned that if he dominates the play, the other animal will quit.  I don’t know which of the Icelandics is the faster horse.  They always run together.  If Fengur has his nose out in front, it is only because Sindri, our stallion has let him, not because Sindri has fallen behind.

When Peregrine, my senior horse, was a two year old, he was chased by another horse through a fence.  I’ve seen what it looks like when these clashes are not play. It is terrifying to watch.  There is no mistaking the real thing for play.  When I see my cats confronting the neighborhood stray, it does not look in any way like the play they engage in together.  But that play between friends has prepared them well for the negotiations they are about to have.  All of us – cats, horses, people – know when the play has stopped, and we are now engaged in the real thing – a struggle for survival.

Part 1: Chapter 5: What is Play?

Defining Play
So we can recognize play.  But what is it?  Stuart Brown wrestled with this question in his book. He opened by saying he resisted giving play a definition for a number of reasons.  Play is so varied.  As he points out, an activity such as writing this chapter might seem like play to me, but it might be work to somebody else.  So we cannot define play simply through the activities we engage in.

For Brown play may be hard to pin down with a rigid definition, but at least in people, it does have very recognizable properties.  He would say:

* Play is done for it’s own sake.  Play has no direct survival value.
* It is voluntary.  You don’t “have to” play.
* Play is inherently reinforcing.  Play is fun so you want to play more.
* Play provides freedom from time.

This is the characteristic that most resonates with me.  I am constantly losing track of time.  I’ll be working with the horses, or working on this book, and suddenly realize that several hours have passed and I’m about to be late for an appointment.  I have been so absorbed in what I was doing, so in “the zone” in a PLAY state, that I have completely lost track of time.

At clinics I am constantly surprised that the hands on my watch have moved forward by several hours. “How can it be four o’clock?”, I’ll exclaim.  “It was just 12:30 the last time I looked.”  It is as though I’m surprised by the notion that time passes.  I know the hands on my watch will be progressing around the clock face, but in my PLAY state it truly does seem as though no time has passed.

* Play produces a diminished consciousness of self.

pool noodle GermanyWe stop worrying so much about how we look to others.  In imaginative play we may even become a different “self”.  When you’re trying to learn to ride and you have an instructor barking commands at you treating your lesson more like military boot camp than something you’ve chosen to do for fun, you’ll be a long way from a PLAY state.  Barked commands create FEAR and make the learner more self-conscious – not less.  To promote the best mental state for learning and retaining information, we want to be PLAY full.

When people are first learning clicker-compatible rope handling skills, I start them out without their horses.  At first, people may be thinking how silly they look practicing their technique with a rope tied to a door handle.  They’ll be terribly self-conscious.  Once I get them in a PLAY state, this kind of thinking disappears. They forget what it might look like to an outsider as they become fully engaged in the process.

* Play has improvisational potential.

When you play, you aren’t locked into a set way of doing things.  You can experiment and invent.  Many of the details that we now know make a huge difference to the horses were discovered during play sessions without any horses being involved.

People took turns being the handler and the “human horse”. They stepped outside of themselves and left behind their usual, I’m-an-adult-and-I don’t-play-silly-make-believe-games.  They let go of their self-conscious rigidity and let the act of playing take over.  The result was they saw things in a different way and with fresh insights.

Canine clicker trainer, Kay Laurence, often refers to a quote from Proust:

A journey of discovery comes not from a voyage into new landscapes but seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Over and over again, our animals show us the truth of this expression.  As each new layer of training is explored, we see our animals and all their brilliance with fresh eyes.

* Play provides a continuation desire.  You want to keep doing it.  Once the play stops, you want to do it again.  As Brown puts it: “Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.”++

++ The Properties of Play are from: “Play: How it Sharpens the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul”    Stuart Brown M.D. and Christopher Vaughan, The Penguin Group, NY New York 2009.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 6:  Being PLAY FULL

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