Our brains love habits. Predictable routines let our brains go on auto-pilot. We don’t have to make decisions about every little thing. Think how exhausted you’d feel before you even got as far as deciding what to have for breakfast if you didn’t have these micro-habits helping you get through the day.
I was establishing routines with the goats that were definitely helping with the smooth running of the day. The morning of this their eleventh day of training began with a long cuddle/groom session. E was particularly interested in being scratched. I had the grooming mitt with me. He stood perfectly while I used it all over his back and sides. He seemed to be enjoying the feel. P was not interested.
These goats need to be combed to get their beautiful cashmere fiber. Combing was on the priority list, but they were both very clear that they weren’t ready for that step. The grooming mitt was enough of a stretch for now.
Cuddle time was followed by leading sessions for each of them. I was pleased by how good they both were. I worked on grown-ups and took care that they stayed back during food delivery. They were becoming very good at maintaining space between us. I was also feeling that they were definitely responding to the click and not just my body language. Their “wheels” were turning.
Little things were now evolving. They knew the routine. They knew they came out one at a time. They knew they got treats on the floor when they went back to the stall so returning was not an issue. They had become eager backers. That meant I had to be careful to keep backing in balance with all the other things I was teaching them. Backing is good, but in all things – moderation.
Our learners always tell us what we need to work on next. Their eagerness to throw backing into everything suggested that I might want to put some mats out in the arena so they would have stations to go to. That would help build solid standing still so I didn’t get hung up in some unintended chains.
E’s Session: “A Walk in the Park”
E was a delight. He’s a charmer. The way his long coat ripples as he walks, I can’t help but think I’m leading an overgrown Yorkshire terrier. He’s a very elegant walking partner. His good manners were beginning to match his good looks!
P came out full of energy. I thought he might need a bit of a run across the mounting block, so I let him loose. He stayed with me. We did a little bit at liberty and then I put him back on the lead. He fussed a bit as I clipped the lead to his collar. If he had been staying with me through the summer, cleaning that up would have been high on my to-do list.
He had much more go in him than E. When I walked off, he trotted by my side. He didn’t pull. There was no feeling of the original sled-dogging. He was staying with me. He just had a lot of joyful energy that needed to be expressed. I clicked, fed and went into grown-ups.
He was reminding me of an Icelandic stallion I had met at one of the spring clinics. The stallion was in a new environment. What an adventure! He was a jumble of emotions. He was excited – new horses, new sights and smells, so much to explore! He was worried – new horses, new sights and smells, so much to take in.
He could have been a handful, but he came with a superb foundation in grown-ups. Any time he started to get excited and to rush forward, his person stopped his feet and folded his arms together. That was his cue for grown-ups. That’s all he had to do. His stallion instantly stopped his own feet and stood quietly. It was a master class in the value of these foundation lessons.
P was on the first rung of the ladder that leads to grown-ups having that kind of stabilizing effect. It doesn’t matter that he’s a fraction of the size of this horse. Having these good manners in place will make him a much more enjoyable companion. He made me think of the many dogs I have watched with their owners. Some are over-controlled. In an effort to manage them in human environments all their dogginess has been suppressed. Don’t jump, don’t bark, don’t chew the furniture. Don’t be a dog.
The other side of the pendulum looks at all that control in horror and lets the dogs do whatever they want. Somewhere in the middle is a place where our animals can live comfortably and safely in our environments and still be themselves.
P is so very smart, and so full of joyful energy, that’s something I value and very much want to preserve. I want to encourage his energy, not suppress it. A very wise training mantra is: never get mad at energy. You need it to train.
P’s energy can be channeled into so many fun activities. I want to celebrate his quick learning. His eagerness is a plus, something I want us both to enjoy. He was learning to stay with me, to stand by my side, to move away from my treat pockets – not by being punished, but by being told over and over again how right he was.
Goat Diaries Day 11 Visitors
In the afternoon a friend I hadn’t see in quite a while came for a visit. Ann joined us, as well. We started by taking three chairs into the stall. The goats visited a bit with Julie even though they hadn’t met her before. That’s progress! We talked for a while, then I took both goats in to play on the mounting block – except they didn’t want to! After telling them how much fun it was watching the goats racing up and down the mounting block, they were total fuddy-duddies. Oh well. Perhaps Mount Everest loses it’s appeal after you’ve scaled it a few times.
Instead they stayed with me as I walked around the arena. They were working together beautifully as a pair. When I clicked, they both stayed well back away from my pockets. All that was a plus. What they didn’t do was put on an acrobatic show. Oh well.
I took them back to their stall and then brought P out by himself on a lead. I had Julie introduce herself via targeting. She offered a target, in this case her hand. When we clicked, I gave P his treat.
This is such a very safe way for him to meet new people. I’ve used it many times with horses. In clinics I’ll station people around the perimeter of a large circle. For safety I’ll keep the horse on a lead. One person will hold out a target, and I’ll walk with the horse as he moves towards the target. Click. I usually begin by handling the food. The treats initially come from me.
After he gets his treat, we’ll back up to a mat that’s in the center of the circle. Click, he gets reinforced for landing on the mat. We do a couple of rounds of grown-ups and then the next person offers a target. We use the mat in the middle so the horse’s hind end is never turned towards a person he doesn’t know. I don’t want him to be frightened and suddenly kick out at someone. Instead we back up away from the ring of people.
Remember, this lesson is most often used with horses who are worried by people. If something else in the environment suddenly startles him, I may be stacking one worry on top of another, creating a bigger spook than he would have to either one by itself. So I structure this lesson with lots of layers of added caution, including backing up away from the people, but towards a mat.
All these little steps mean that this is not a beginning lesson. I must first build all these components to make sure the lesson stays safe. Look at all the skills this horse needs to understand and do well: targeting, taking food politely, backing, going to a mat, and even harder backing up with enough directional control that he lands on the mat, and finally grown-ups.
It’s a great pattern. Every element gets stronger the more you play with it. The horse gets more comfortable approaching people he doesn’t know. His targeting skills become more generalized. Backing becomes better. The mat becomes an even stronger conditioned reinforcer. Duration in grown-ups expands. Treat manners get better. Cues get stronger. The behaviors overall become more solid. Each element serves as a reinforcer for whatever preceded it. You get all these benefits, and the animal thinks he’s just playing a game.
With P I wasn’t concerned about him kicking out so I didn’t worry about moving him away from Julie. We just ping pinged back and forth between going to her to touch her offered target, and coming back to me for a treat.
I had just one more day with the goats and then they would be going back to their home farm. Giving them this lesson would make it easier to transition new people into the games they had been learning with me.
Before we left the arena, I took P back over the mounting block. The first time I kept the lead on and had him follow me up. On the top step, I unhooked him, and he delighted us all with a wild leap into the air. Such fun!
There’s more to this than just letting P entertain us with his acrobatic prowess. P gets to practice getting excited, and then I ask for grown-ups and he practices calming down. That’s a useful life skill no matter the species.
On the next run I unhooked him on the first step of the mounting block and let him go the rest of the way on his own. He rewarded us all with another joyful leap off the mounting block. I loved how he always came running straight to me. Without really trying, I was building a great recall.
Who knows. I may be triggering some form of goat to goat aggressive display. All the goat experts reading this may be shaking their heads, thinking oh the trouble she is going to get into encouraging this kind of behavior. Perhaps they are right. Or perhaps, balancing his antics with grown-ups will mean I can allow this behavior without it tripping over the edge into emotional states I don’t want.
E is much more people shy than his brother. Again, I took advantage of the opportunity to have two experienced clicker trainers in the barn to help build his confidence.
We began by having him target to Julie’s outstretched hand. He approached her very directly. Click, he had to leave her to come to me for the food. I do like this process. It begins to build some duration between the click and the actual arrival of the treat.
With the horses there can eventually be a considerable time lag between these two events. When I click, there are times when the horse I’m working with may be eighty feet or more away from me. He’ll stop and wait patiently while I bring him his treat.
All the behavior that he is presenting between the moment he hears the click and the moment I get to him and stretch my hand out to deliver the treat are things that I like. This kind of duration didn’t happen over night. It is built in small increments through a long series of lessons. The horses wait patiently because they know the treat is coming. All that good, quiet waiting is reinforced over and over again through the ritual of the food delivery.
We moved from Julie to Ann. I had Ann hold out a cloth frisbee. E touched it, got a treat from me, but then was reluctant to go to Ann again. I wanted him to be successful, so I had Julie step forward and offer her hand as a target. He went to her directly, click, the treat came again from me.
We went back to Ann. This time I had her hold her hand out. Again, E was reluctant to approach her. After a couple of failed attempts, I offered him the frisbee. He touched it directly. I handed Ann the treats. E took them from her without hesitation.
So we used this pattern a couple of times. Flexibility was the name of the game. Training is not like baking a cake where you need to stick to the recipe or you end up with a mess. In fact sticking rigidly to a recipe is a good way to guarantee a mess. Always it is a study of one. And always you are adjusting to the needs of your learner. That was the major takeaway from this lesson. We were asking E what level of interaction he was comfortable with and then making changes as needed to help him succeed.
Goals – Short or Long Term
When we were all done playing, I was really pleased with the return to the stall. Both goats tend to rush ahead on the way back to the stall. I could have simply released them. The immediate goal was to get them back to the stall. That’s where they were heading. Letting them go on their own would have avoided any pulling they were doing on the lead.
It would also have missed an opportunity to teach them to stay with me in distracting environments. There were going to be times when letting them off the lead wouldn’t be an option. The walk back to the stall created an opportunity for me to show them that staying with me was worth the added effort. I was taking them back to the stall. But on the way there were lots more opportunities for treats. Walking beside me had value.
E was figuring this out. He was walking with me down the aisle. There was less rushing ahead, less pulling to get back. Out in the arena he had been listening to P calling. He had clearly been wanting to get back to his brother. I had kept the session short because I didn’t want him feeling too anxious. So I was especially pleased that he walked back with me to his stall.
At the end of the evening I had another cuddle session. E in particular wanted to be close to me and to be scratched. He’s so very sweet. I’ve discovered he really likes having his chest and belly rubbed. In fact, I haven’t found anywhere that doesn’t turn into a “please scratch” spot. I can think of few better ways to end an evening than with goat bliss. This was their last evening in the barn. I was going to miss what had quickly become part of the day’s routine.
Coming next: The July Goat Diaries: Day 12 – E and P’s Last Day at the Barn
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 current 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.