The Goat Diaries – Day 3: Arrange the Environment for Success

The Goat Palace – Journal Report for 11/19/17: You Never Know What You Have Taught

Galahad had the first session of the day.  He’s an eager, happy learner, and he very much chose to go into the far end to play.  I stayed for a few minutes down in the front section visiting with the other goats. Elyan and Pellias were up on the top platform of the jungle gym.  They were eager for head scratches. Surprisingly, so was Thanzi.

By the time I extracted myself from their appeal for more, Marla had already begun Galahad’s session.  She commented that what she thought she had taught him was not what he had learned.  Ah yes, that’s the clinic mantra: You never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.  Yesterday he had been going to his target, click, followed by Marla dropping a treat in one of the food buckets.  He went promptly to the bucket, got his treat, and then touched the target again. Marla would then drop his treat in a second bucket, so he was going back and forth between buckets with a quick stop in between to touch the target.

His takeaway from that was just to go from bucket to bucket – never mind touching the target.  It reminded me of the table games that we play to learn about training and to work out procedures for teaching concepts.

Training game

Playing the table game during the Five Go To Sea Caribbean conference cruise.  I’m hiding from the sun under the funny hat.  Kay Laurence is sitting behind us.

Kay Laurence is the originator of these games. Several years ago we were together at an airport, both with long waits for our flights home.  So we found a quiet corner and pulled out a table game kit.  I was the learner, something when I’m teaching I rarely get to be, so that was a treat.  Kay had a plan in mind for teaching me to use the pieces from the game to draw a pentagon.  Of course, I had no idea what she had in mind.  But I was a contented learner because I was making lots of correct choices and getting clicked and reinforced  at a high rate.  The only problem was the rules I was using to produce the actions she was reinforcing were not the same rules Kay was trying to teach.  So I was coming up with the right answer but for the wrong (from Kay’s perspective) reason.

Every time Kay presented me with a puzzle moment I got stuck.  Puzzle moments are small tests to check to see if what you think you are teaching is what your learner is learning.  It was a fascinating and fun experience, though it could easily have been a frustrating experience if either of us had brought a different mind set to the game.

My flight was coming up, so we had to end the game.  Kay explained what she wanted me to do.  My reaction to being told the “answer” was interesting.  I felt deflated.  I wanted to go on and work through the puzzle.  Being told the answer was far less satisfying than discovering the answer on my own.  I missed the puzzle solving, and I missed seeing what strategies Kay would have used to get things sorted out. But my plane wasn’t going to wait for us to finish the game, so we had to jump straight to the final answer.

Galahad had come up with a solution to the puzzle that made total sense to him.  Go from bucket to bucket and expect your person to drop a treat in when you get there.  He had completely by-passed the target.

Watching him, I also didn’t think he was noticing Marla’s tongue click. With horses I suggest that people begin with an actual clicker.  The sharp sound that a box clicker makes is very noticeable, and the horses seem to catch on fast to the significance of the sound.  After a couple of targeting sessions with the clicker, you can switch to a tongue click, and the horses are very aware of the new marker signal.

I suggested to Marla that she get an actual clicker.  At the stage where you’re using target sticks, clickers are easy to use. You can duct tape a box clicker onto the end of the target stick so you have easy access to the clicker.

Marla got a box clicker and continued on with the lesson.  Galahad quickly remembered that he was supposed to touch the target. Yesterday’s fluid pattern was back. Now it was: orient to the target, click, go to the indicated food bucket for a treat, look for the target. A clean loop was reappearing.

This experience highlights another part of the start-up process.  I like to begin with very short sessions.  With horses I have people count out twenty treats.  That means handlers who are new to this process have to stop frequently to reload their pockets. This also gives them time to think about what has just occurred and to consider what, if any, changes need to be made.

With five goats to juggle I was certainly finding I needed to do a lot of adjusting.  It wasn’t just what was happening with the individual I was focusing on.  What was going on with the other goats?  When I had Pellias out by himself, he was having a grand time, but how stressed was Elyan?  Was he being chased by Thanzi?  Yes.  When I took Thanzi out, was Trixie able to cope?  There was a lot to think about, a lot to keep shifting around to find the right training combinations.

Keeping your initial training sessions short lets you check in with your animals more frequently to see what they are actually learning. Each time you go back in and start up the session, you get to see what’s been processed from the previous session. If your learner has come up with a different answer, these short sessions mean it hasn’t become so entrenched that it is now hard to shift the pattern.

It is ironic that I am writing about short sessions, because I am known for using long training sessions. With an established learner I’ll fill my pockets with treats and keep going. That seems to suit the learning style of horses, but these long sessions are broken up into smaller units. I give breaks through the behaviors I’ve taught. For example, I might be working on lateral flexions. We’ll have a bit of success, then it’s off to find a mat. The mat acts both as a conditioned reinforcer and a way to give a break. The change in the rhythm of the training provides a break without having to stop the play.

At the heart of this is the training principle: for every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.

The balance that I thought was needed now for the other goats was a morning session of quiet visiting.  I was very pleased that Thanzi wanted to participate in some head scratching.  I had the two ladies in the back section so the three youngsters could relax and not worry about dodging out of Thanzi’s way.  She stayed by the gate while I scratched her head.  Normally, she’s been drawing away when I try to touch her, so I consider this real progress.  Trixie came up to me repeatedly through the morning, but she’s not yet ready for a proper scratch.  The boys, on the other hand, had a blissful time enjoying a prolonged cuddle session.

Afterwards, Marla and I worked some more on the Goat Palace.  We’re getting close to the finish line, but there always seem to be a few more things to do.  Years ago my family did some remodeling to the house.  The process dragged on and on.  Every day my father would make a list of things that the builders still needed to get done before he could sign off on the job.  He remarked that they always seemed to get done only half the remaining jobs.  You would think on a finite project like that, you would be able to check everything off the list, but it never seemed to happen.

At the moment we seem to be caught in that twilight zone of always completing just half the remaining tasks.  One of yesterday’s tasks was tidying up the section we’ve designated for storage.  I was very pleased to see how little we have left to store.  We have managed to use up an amazing amount of miscellaneous clutter.  So perhaps when we run out of stuff to find a use for, we will also run out of tasks that still need to be done. That will finish off phase one of the goat palace.  (I say phase one because phase two is obviously going to be expanding the goat jungle gym. That will be as much for our entertainment as it will be for theirs.)

One of the things that contributed to the tidying up of the storage area was the snow blower went out to be serviced for the winter.  That left a clear area that could be used for training.  So in the early evening I took advantage of this space to work with Elyan and Pellias.  It was a good time for training.  The goats were beginning to settle down for the night.  It was easy to close the middle gate so only Pellias and Elyan were in the front section.

I had everything set up for them out in the storage area.  I had my chair, a food bucket and a couple of platforms, including the very distinctive foam platform I had introduced them to in July.

Elyan came out first.  I brought him out on a lead, and then turned him loose.  He stayed nearby.  He was clearly interested in playing, but he wasn’t sure what to do.  I let him explore for a couple of minutes, then I brought out the baton and directed him towards the foam platform.  He hopped up onto it, click, I dropped the treat into the bucket.  He had to step down from the platform to get to the bucket.  So now the question was what would he do?  The answer was he backed up to get back on the platform. Click! Drop treats in the food bucket.

Elyan seemed to catch on fast.  The “rule” was get back to the platform, and you’ll get clicked.  At least that’s what was happening.  His “rule” might just as easily have been: back up, and you’ll get clicked. The platform was just in the path of the backing. I’ll need to have a puzzle moment to check whether he is going to the platform or simply backing up.

In any case, while he was getting his treat, I nudged the platform a little further away.  He continued to back himself onto the the platform.  We could have kept going all night, but this was a session that should be kept short.  I got up from my chair, and he followed me back in to the front section.

Pellias was eating hay.  He hadn’t been at all fussed having his brother outside the pen.  But now I wanted to do a swap, and they were both at the gate.  I got Pellias out and sat down in my chair.  He went straight to the platform.  Click.  I dropped treats in the bucket.  He stepped off the platform, got his treat and went straight back to the platform.  I repeated this a couple of times, and then I exclaimed; “Wait a minute.  You’re not Pellias!” In the fading light I hadn’t noticed that little Elyan had pushed past his brother for a second turn.  With his jacket on to keep his coat clean, it was harder to tell them apart. No wonder he was so good!

I got them switched around so now it truly was Pellias’ turn.  He’s always been a platform superstar.  He went straight to the foam platform.  Click.  But now the food delivery was different.  He’s used to getting the treat from my hand, not a food bucket.  I moved the bucket close to the platform and helped him find the hay stretcher pellet.  He got his treat and then stepped off the platform. He wandered away from the platform. I waited.  He began to eat the leaves that we hadn’t swept out of this area.  I got out my baton target and gave it a little shake.  That got his attention.  He followed it to the platform, click, drop the treat.

The hay stretchers make a very sharp noise as they fall into the bucket.  That helped draw Pellias’ attention, and he began to look in the bucket for his treat.  He only had to take his front feet off the platform to get to the bucket, so it was easy for him to step back onto it and get clicked.  My concern was the sound of the treat dropping into the bucket might become the functional marker signal, so I clicked, and began to wait to see him react to the click before I made any move to drop the treat into his bucket.  I got lucky several times with that.  He had turned on the platform so he could look down the driveway.  The sound of my tongue click turned him around, so it was clear, at least in this situation, that he was responding to the sound of the click.

Again, I kept the session short.  When I opened the gate to let him back in, I dropped treats on the floor to distract Elyan.  Pellias came in to get the treats, as well.  I’m not sure I want the others out in this area yet, but for these two their July visit prepared them well for going outside of their pen.

I filled their hay feeders, opened the middle gate and left the goats tucked in for the night.

Today’s July Goat Diary appropriately enough continues with the initial training of platforms.

The July Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 3: Arrange The Environment for Success

I described earlier the morning sessions of day three in which I introduced both goats to platforms.  This was an errand day so I wasn’t able to fit in as many sessions as usual. When I got back to the barn around 5, E and P were clearly hungry. They were standing on a bed of hay, but none of it was to their liking. I gave them fresh hay and left them to eat while I did barn chores.

7 pm session with P

P was very rambunctious – literally. He reared up several times. I managed to dodge him and get him on the platform, but the session didn’t feel very productive.

I wasn’t satisfied with the way he was orienting to the target. I thought a second platform might help. If a platform was the end destination, it might make more sense to him why he was following a target. I decided to consider this a data collecting session.  I knew where I needed to head, but I would wait until tomorrow to add the second platform.  Training success depends very much upon having a good set-up.  I suspected adding the second platform would help smooth things out.  Instead of continuing on with a session that wasn’t going well, I would wait until I had a better set up.

In contrast to P, E’s session was great. He was so very soft and sweet. I had him target the baton, click, treat. Then I scratched him around his ears. His eyes got soft, and he leaned into my hand, clearly enjoying the feel. I asked him to follow the target again, click, treat, scratch.  Who knows what E was learning.  I certainly found it very reinforcing!  I began his day with bliss, and that’s how I ended it.

The password to open this video is: GoatDiariesDay 3 E Learns

Note: When I was in town, I stopped at the new bird store that’s just opened.  I bought some black sunflower seeds which the goats really like. So now they are getting a mix of sunflower seeds, peanuts and hay stretcher pellets.

8 pm final session of the day.

We ended the evening with “cuddle time”.  While Ann groomed Fengur, I took my chair into the stall and enjoyed a few minutes of goat bliss.

Coming Next: Clicker Training Day 4

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: 

Goat Diaries – Day 1 Continued: Cups of Tea

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:

Collecting Data

tea cupI frequently tell people that it’s time to put their horse away and go have a cup of tea.  Yes, we want to spend time with our animals, but in these initial forays into clicker training less is often better.

When I’m coaching horse owners, I have them count out twenty treats.  When they begin their sessions, that’s all they have in their pockets. That forces them to step away from their horses to refill their pockets.  They can go right back to their horses after they have replenished their twenty treats, but that brief break in the training gives them time to think and adjust.  I was doing a lot of adjusting as I introduced myself and clicker training to these goats.

In all I did eight sessions on this first day.  That may sound like a lot, but they were each just a few minutes long, and they were spread out throughout the day.

Session 5: 1 pm

I tried working from the outside of the stall. The goats were interested in the target, but it was too hard to deliver the treat, so I kept this session short.  My stalls are perfect for starting horses with the clicker.  I designed them with that in mind.  I wasn’t thinking about goats.

Targeting over the stall wall was worth the experiment if only to show me that wasn’t going to work.  I would have preferred separating them and working them one at a time, but I thought that might really stress them.  The compromise was a less than ideal set up.

So many of the people who have their horses at home are in the same boat. They have a paddock with a run-in shed that’s shared by three horses. Chaos! At least the goats were little so we could all three tolerate a bit of chaos.

In this respect they were more like dogs than horses. Size does make a difference.  People are much more casual getting dogs started with clicker training than I am with horses.  Just imagine trying to work with goats that weighed in at a thousand pounds each! It’s challenging enough at times with horses, but remember goats have horns, and they can jump and wiggle in ways a horse simply can’t.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Just because I could manage two goats at once didn’t make it ideal.

I wanted to step away from the goats and think some more about how best to work with them. These short sessions let me test the waters. I was giving things a try, seeing what worked and what didn’t, and then I was stepping away to think about how to do it better.  Goat or horse, this would be the pattern.  Always it is the animals who show you what they need to work on and what you need to change to make things better for each individual.

Session 6: 3 pm:

In my previous sessions I had sat in a chair and let the goats come to me.  This gave them a sense of safety.  As long as I was sitting in the chair, it was clear I wasn’t going to try to corner them in the stall and grab them.  But now that they were eagerly coming up to me to get peanuts, it was time to make a change.  I wanted to be able to move around more, so this time I went in without the chair.  My plan was to see if they would begin to follow the target.

When I went in, they were both eating hay out of the bucket. I was struggling to remember their names  – Sir Elyan and Sir Peleus, so I simply referred to them as E (the little one with the long hair) and P.

E and P are easy to tell apart. P is the larger goat with short guard hairs (on the left).  E is much smaller, and he has long hair (on the right). I was quickly discovering that they were as different in their personalities as they were in their physical appearance.

goats in stall Day 1

“P” is on the left.  “E” on the right.

As soon as I stepped through the door, P left the hay and began to follow the target. He stayed in the game. E joined us when he realized P was getting treats. P seemed to be making connections fast. It was clear he was beginning to understand the game. Little E was too busy butting in (literally) to get his brother’s treats to notice what was going on.

I began testing the waters a bit more in this session. They were definitely eager for treats. If they had been horses, I most certainly would have wanted some kind of barrier between us. That much eagerness in a thousand pound body can quickly become overwhelming.

I didn’t want to punish them for being eager, but I did need them to understand that while treats might come from my pockets, I was not an open salad bar.  You have to wait for your “dinner plate” to be brought to you.  With horses I would begin delivering the treat so the horse had to take a step or two back to get to it.  The best set up for teaching this is to have the horse in a stall with a stall guard across the door.

Robin targeting in stall

A great set up for introducing a horse to clicker training.

The horse reaches forward to touch a target, and then the treat is delivered so he has to take a step back. It’s such an easy way to introduce a horse to the idea of backing out of your space. The mantra is feed where the perfect horse would be. In this case the perfect horse takes a step back to get his treat.

Robin backing for food delivery

Backing to get the treat

Backing is one of six foundation lessons that I teach in the initial set up of clicker training.  These foundation behaviors become the ones a horse will offer if he’s feeling unsure. If something frightens him, much better that he backs up out of your space than that he runs over the top of you.

I was pretty sure there would be times when I’d want the perfect goat to be moving out of my space. I certainly didn’t want them crowding into me, so after I clicked, I extended my arm well out away from my body.  This kept them from crowding into me for their treats.

Day 1 targeting 3 pm panel 1

E and P were wary of movement. When I shifted towards them, they backed right up. I didn’t want them backing because they were afraid, but at least I knew that feeding them out away from me was going to be easy to get. Data collected.

I also checked out what P’s response was to my holding him by his collar. The answer: head shaking and resistance.

I asked E the same question.  When he felt me take his collar, he dragged forward against the pressure.  I kept a soft but steady feel.  When he softened in response, click, I released his collar and gave him a treat.

Goat diaries Day 1 targeting 3 pm collar panel 1a.pngI knew from the way the goats had sled-dogged their way into the barn the day they arrived that leading was a high priority, but it was also going to need a lot of work. This just confirmed it. The goats were used to being grabbed, but they didn’t know how to release to pressure.  The data I collected told me this was a lesson that would have to wait.

Before we could work directly on leading, I needed to teach them the underlying skills that would make this a fair and successful lesson. Approaching the leading directly would result in a train wreck. A better way is to come at a training goal indirectly and with lots of small steps.

Big step stool, little step stools.png

Good training breaks new tasks down into many small steps.

Coming Next: The Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Begins – Day 1 – Session #7: Lessons From Panda

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: