Cues Evolve: Part 4

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

Consistency
In the previous post I shared with you some stories from Panda’s early training.  Panda’s manners developed over time because she lived in a world of total consistency.  Throughout the early part of her training I was the only one who handled her.  She didn’t have to figure out how the rules worked with different people setting different standards.

Ann’s first guide dog, Bailey, had been a great guide.  I learned a guide’s job in part by watching him.  The job description is pretty straight forward.  The real key to training a guide is consistency.  I knew that Ann would never be able to see the raised curb in front of her, so I knew that Panda and I always had to stop at each and every curb.

By the time Panda went to live full time with Ann, it was actually a relief sending her off.  Maintaining that level of consistency when you yourself don’t need it is a challenge.  There is always the temptation to cut across the parking lot because you’re in a hurry instead of following the edge the way a guide should.  I remember being at a conference where there where several guide dog trainers in attendance.  One of them spotted us and cut through several rows of empty chairs to come talk to us.  She had a dog with her who was about a week away from being placed.

I was horrified.  I would never have cut through those chairs with Panda.  We would have walked to the end of the aisle and gone through all the navigational checks that a blind handler would use to move to a different row of chairs.

There’s a great horse training expression that applies here:

“The horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count, so it always has to count” John Lyons

The more consistent I was, the more consistent Panda was going to be.

Over-eager Students
But what happens when you can’t maintain this standard of handling?  What happens when clicker training isn’t a consistent part of a horse’s life?  That’s often the case with the horses I work with.  I see them for short periods of time, and then they are back to handling as usual.

Pico head down 1One such horse was Pico, a wonderfully clever horse who right from the start adored clicker training.  I began with him, as I do all horses, with protective contact, but I quickly moved to a larger work space where he had more room to move.  We worked on basics – grown-ups, targeting, the beginnings of mat work, backing and head lowering.

On my first visit I spent four days with him during which time he had two short sessions per day plus some casual interactions over his stall door.

For four days his world was completely turned upside down.  He was singled out from a group of fifty horses for all this special attention.  Every morning I greeted him as I walked into the barn.  I gave him extra attention.  He got to play this very neat game out in the arena.  He had the goodies, all the social interaction, and then I left and there was nothing.  From his perspective I simply disappeared. What a topsy turvy world it must have seemed to him.  I was gone.  There was no morning greeting, no play time after coming in from the day’s turnout.  Nothing.

I was gone for about a month, and then I suddenly popped back into his life.  Pico was so excited he could barely think straight.  During my first visit he’d been a superstar, but now he was a mess.  He was in my space, mugging my pockets, forgetting the manners he’d been showing me so beautifully before.  He was truly like a small child the day before Christmas.  He was just so excited, he couldn’t do anything right.

I certainly didn’t want to punish this enthusiasm, so I turned it instead into a game.

The game was: “What’s the new cue?”

I thought of it for Pico because I truly enjoyed his company.  I wasn’t training him.  I wasn’t working him.  “Working” opens one set of files.  It gives you access to tried and true methods.  It doesn’t open the creative files that bring you to new solutions.  Those are opened only when you are playing.  Play and creativity are like two vines that have grown together and hold one another up.

Creating New Cues
So what is this “What is the new cue” game?

It is based on the process of creating a new cue for an established behavior.

Here’s the process:

Suppose you have taught a puppy to sit.  You’ve added a cue to the behavior.  When you say “sit”, your puppy sits readily.

But now you would like to change the cue.  There are many reasons you might want to do this.

Your puppy may at first have sat with his hips off to the side.  That’s how young dogs often sit.  Over time you’ve cleaned up the behavior for the show ring, and he now sits with his hips squarely under him.

By changing to a new cue, you are creating a performance cue that refers only to this tidied up version of sit – not the original sloppy sit.  If you kept the original cue, under the pressure of competition, your puppy might revert back to the first-learned version of the behavior.

Or perhaps you have been sloppy with your stimulus control.  “Sit” means sometimes, if you feel like it, when the spirit moves you.  It doesn’t mean now.  So you tidy up the behavior and give it a new cue that has none of the old sloppiness associated with it.

Or maybe your puppy sits just fine.  There’s nothing wrong with the original cue, but you’d like to do some freestyle with your dog, and you’d like to use some props.  When you knock over a suitcase, you’d like your puppy to sit.

You can come up with lots of different situations where changing to a new cue for an established behavior would be useful.  Whatever the reason for wanting a new cue, they all depend upon the same process:

1.) Build the behavior.

2.) Attach a cue to the behavior.

3.) When this first cue is solid, you can begin to transfer the behavior to a new cue.

You’re going to give the new cue first, followed immediately by the old cue.  This will trigger the behavior – click then treat.

Repeat this process several times.  You will begin to see the animal initiating the behavior before you can give the old cue.  So now you can give the new cue and get the behavior – click then treat.

So it’s:

transfer cue process

Sleight of Hand Magic Tricks
This is the underlying process I used for Pico to turn an unwanted behavior – mugging my pockets – into the cue for a desirable behavior – head lowering.

That’s straight forward enough.  What changed was turning this into play.  The end result was great manners taught without the frustration of extinction.  I didn’t want to just fold my arms and wait for Pico to stop trying to get past me into my pockets.  As excited and eager as he was, that would have spoiled his game.  From his perspective he’d be saying: “I put my quarter into the candy machine.  Why isn’t my carrot bar coming out?!”

What do we do when a vending machine isn’t working?  We get frustrated.  We jiggle the vending machine, and if that doesn’t work, we bang on it harder.

Eventually, we’ll give up and leave, but we’re not going to be very eager to try again.

This was not the downward emotional spiral I wanted for Pico.  I loved his enthusiasm.  I just needed to redirect it.

So I began with head lowering.  I used my hand as a target.  I invited him to drop his head by following my hand down.   Targeting made the behavior “hot”.  Follow my hand down – click and treat.  Easy.  The cue became the combination of my targeting gesture and a slight bend of my body.

Next I transferred the cue to a light touch on his poll.  I reached out towards him and rested my hand briefly on his poll.

By itself this is a very standard “horse training” way to ask for head lowering that can be easily adapted for clicker training.  You rest your hand lightly on your horse’s neck just behind his ears.  Your horse won’t at first know what you want.  The most normal reaction is he’ll lift his head up, or he’ll brace against you.  You’ll follow his head movement, keeping your hand in place with a steady, neutral pressure.  You aren’t trying to push his head down.  That’s his job – to drop his own head.  You’ll simply wait with your hand on his poll.  Eventually, he’ll drop his head, and you’ll remove your hand.  If you’re a clicker trainer, you’ll add a click followed by a treat.

This strategy is based on the following:

A little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change.

Understanding Pressure
If your cat is sitting on your lap while you read this text, eventually, no matter how much you love her, you will need her to move.  A little bit of pressure from her curled up on your lap has created a very great need for a change.  You’ll be squirming out from under her.  (Of course, she will then go to work training you.  She will turn into a boneless rag doll and very mysteriously manage to pin you down even more.  And she will charm you into providing even more of a lap to sit on by purring loudly.)

Your horse will eventually get tired of having your hand resting on his head.  Up doesn’t dislodge you, so he’ll try down.  At the slightest drop of his head, you’ll take your hand away. Click then treat.

This method works, but it can take a lot of patience on the part of the handler.  What usually happens is the person gets impatient and begins pushing down.  The horse pushes back, and suddenly you’re moving a long way away from play.

Play and the Transferred Cue
So instead of waiting for Pico to discover the answer, I used the transferred cue process.  I put my hand on Pico’s poll, but I didn’t linger there.  I wasn’t trying to trigger the behavior by leaving my hand there.

I rested my hand on his poll long enough for Pico to be aware that I had done so, then I offered him my hand as a target. He dropped his head.  Click then treat.

I repeated this process:

Hand on poll graphic

After the third or fourth repetition, I hesitated just fractionally after reaching out to his poll.  He dropped his head.  Click and treat.

After that, all I needed was my new hand-on-poll cue.  If he hesitated at all, I could offer a reminder by shifting to the hand targeting.  I only needed the reminder a couple of times before the new cue was solid.

So then I moved to the next transfer.  I used the simplest version of asking for head lowering from a lead.  I milked the line down.

This is a curious expression.  It means I slid my fingers along the line to create a slight downward suggestion.  My hand didn’t close around the lead.  I stroked down a couple of inches and then brought my hand back up to the snap and stroked down the lead again.  But remember this was a transfer-cue process.  I wasn’t waiting until the stroking of the lead triggered the head lowering response.  Instead I stroked the lead just a couple of times, and then I reached up and touched his poll.

He wasn’t expecting that, so I continued on back through my chain of cues and targeted him down with my hand.  He dropped his head, click then treat.

milked line transfer cue

On the next repetition I got as far as my hand on his poll before he dropped his head.

And then he had it.  As I milked the line down, he dropped his head.  Very neat.

The Transfer Continues
We practiced this for a few more reps, and then I made the next transfer.

Now the cue was a bump of my hand against his nose.

So here was the sequence of cues he knew:

transfer cue full sequence

I could go as far back into this sequence as I needed to trigger head lowering.

I thought of it like learning how to say “horse” in five different languages.  When I say “horse” as part of a children’s game, you’ll point to the picture of a horse – not the cow or the sheep.

Pferd is the German for horse.

If I say “pferd”, I want you to point to the picture of the horse.  At first, this odd word won’t mean anything to you, but if I say “pferd”, then “horse”, you’ll point to the picture I want.  Click and treat.  I’ll only need to repeat this a couple of times to have you pointing to the horse when I say “pferd”.

Okay, got that.  Before I need to remind you what pferd means, you’re pointing to the picture of the horse.

Caballo is the Spanish for pferd.

So now I say “caballo”, followed by “pferd” and you point to the picture of a horse.

“Caballo”. You don’t need the extra hint. You point right away to the horse.

Cavallo is the Italian for caballo.  So again I say “cavallo” followed by “caballo”.  The new word trips you up for a moment, so I continue on to “pferd”.  Now you have it.

“Cavallo.”  You point to the horse.

Cheval is the French for caballo.

So now I say “cheval” and you point to the horse.  This is an easy game – as long as I don’t mix in other farm animals.  That’s when it becomes a real test of memory.  Right now I am simply transferring the cue through a chain of words.

By the time I get to cheval, you’ll have no trouble making the switch.  You know the game.  Pointing to the horse is the hot behavior.  Played at this level of difficulty, this is a game you are guaranteed to win.

Pico was guaranteed to win.

I bumped his nose – he dropped his head, click and treat.

Sleight of Hand Magic – The Trick Revealed
Now if you are thinking all of this was built over a period of many sessions – think again.  These transfers happened in rapid fire succession, one after another.  It was like watching a magician’s trick.  Where’s the quarter that was just in my hand?  Oh look!  It’s on your shoulder.  How did it get there?  And how did your watch get on my wrist?  You weren’t watching.  Oh look!  When I bump his nostril, your horse is dropping his nose to the ground .  That’s a funny reaction!

So now I could fold my arms into “grown-ups”.  If Pico bumped me looking for treats, his own mugging behavior cued him to drop his head.  Magic!

But then it’s all just child’s play!

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9: You Can’t Not Cue

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

Cues Evolve: Part 3

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

The previous post introduced the concept of tap root behaviors.  You strengthen a base behavior by returning frequently to it.  Like a well-nourished tap root, it keeps getting stronger.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.  In this next section we’ll build on the solid foundation of good manners that approach creates.

Saying Please and Thank You  
Suppose a friend is visiting you with her four year old daughter.  The toddler sees some toys you have in a basket.  (We won’t tell her mother they’re dog toys you keep there for your other friends and their canine companions.)

The child asks to play with the toys.  Immediately, her mother is saying “What do you say?”

“Please,” the child answers.

You hand the child a toy to play with (a new one that hasn’t yet been chewed by your canine guests).

Again, the mother prompts, “What do you say?”

The child parrots out the answer: “Thank you.”

“Please” and “thank you” aren’t just for toddlers.  She isn’t learning to say these phrases just to satisfy her mother.  They are the glue that holds our social lives together.

We ask permission.  We don’t demand.

We say thank you in appreciation for all the little gestures of accommodation that make life easier.  It takes time for please and thank you to become habits, but once learned and understood, it becomes second nature to include them in conversations.

Good Manners are a Good Habit
Grown-ups is similar.  At first you have to keep reminding your horse that manners matter. He can’t just go straight to your pockets for goodies.  It takes a while for good manners to become a good habit.

I remember when I first started working with Panda, Ann was worried about her interest in my pockets.  Ann was struggling with her new guide dog.  He came to her with a total lack of basic living-with-humans manners.  Her previous dogs had always had the freedom of her house.  This dog had to live either crated or behind baby gates.  If he was given free access to the house, he would turn anything that wasn’t tied down into a chew toy.

This can be a problem for anyone living with a dog, but for someone who is blind it is especially so.  Every time you hear your dog chewing something, you have to check to see what he has. It could be your best dress shoes, a harmless dog toy, or a pill bottle filled with medicine that could kill him.

Manners matter.  This dog was supposed to be showing me the model to copy for training a super guide.  Instead he was showing me everything you didn’t want.  Ann didn’t need two problem animals.  When a very young Panda wanted to see what else we were hiding in our pockets, I could feel Ann tensing.  She had enough trouble with this dog.  She didn’t need a pushy horse, as well.

I’d only had Panda a week when we had our first long car trip.  I was teaching a clinic at a barn that was about an hour from my home.  We were quite the Noah’s Arc heading off that day. Panda was still learning how to ride in a car, so I sat in the back seat with her.  Ann sat in front with her guide dog wedged in between her feet.  And another client drove us.

Panda was essentially right in my lap so my pockets were at nose level for the entire trip.  I couldn’t be more vulnerable, and there was no putting her away and taking a break.  For the entire hour’s drive we worked on grown-ups.

Each time Panda took her nose away even for a second, click, she got a treat.  What Ann was hearing from the front seat was a rapid-fire barrage of clicks.  She’s an experienced clicker trainer so she knows how training works.  You begin with high rates of reinforcement for little things, and you gradually expand them out.  But I knew she was worried.  Her shepherd was supposed to be a “trained” dog, but everything was still in the “terrible twos” toddler stage with him. How was this going to work for Panda?

Panda was our true “toddler”.  She was only nine months old on that first car ride.  Just like a human child, she needed a lot of reminders to say “please” and “thank you”.  She was learning that mugging my pockets not only never got her treats, it wasn’t necessary.  There were so many other, great ways to get me to click.

The Grown-ups Really Are Talking
Panda was also learning that she didn’t need to bang the proverbial kitchen pots and pans to get attention.  She got plenty of attention, but sometimes my focus needed to shift away from her.  She was learning at those times it was okay to take a nap.

Panda asleep 5 photos

By the time she went to live full time with Ann, the grown-ups really could talk uninterrupted.  We could go out to dinner with Panda as Ann’s guide.  She had learned to stand next to Ann’s chair dozing while waiters set yummy smelling food on the table.  Panda would occasionally poke her nose above the table to check out what was on the menu, but she never interrupted – not until after the desert course, and then it was only to let Ann know she needed to go out.

(By the way – if you want great service, take a guide horse with you.  It was always great fun watching the waiters competing to see who got to serve the table with the mini horse.)

Great Service
This reminds me of a great Panda story.  The very first store we took Panda into was Lowes Hardware.  We quickly discovered that Panda loved to shop!  I don’t know what there is about the long cavernous aisles of the big box stores that she likes, but from the very beginning Panda has always enjoyed her trips to these stores.

She had trotted down several aisles before we found the PVC pipe we had come for.  Ann and I were discussing what size we needed for our project when I looked up.  Normally you have to hunt for someone to help you.  Not this time!  We were surrounded by twelve sales clerks.  One of them said, “We heard on the walkie-talkie there was a horse in bathroom fittings.”

I could just imagine what they were thinking – some idiot has brought a full sized horse into the store.  They had all come running.

Of course, we got great service!  And think of the conversations they must have had that night around the dinner table!

Coming Next: Consistency

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 3: The Mounting Block Lesson

In the previous section I described how I taught Peregrine to line himself up to a mounting block.  He was already an experienced riding horse who was familiar with mounting blocks so this was an easy lesson.  I used two targets to bring him into position.  The first brought him to the mounting block and the second took him forward a couple of steps so he ended up positioned exactly where I needed him to be in order to get on.

Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days.  The lesson is called: “Capture the Saddle”.  (Refer to Lesson 11 in The Click That Teaches DVD Series: “Capture the Saddle”.)  It begins with rope handling and directed learning and ends with targeting.  I teach it in this way because I regard the mounting block lesson as a final safety check before a rider gets on.  The lesson shows how well connected you and your horse are to one another.  BEFORE you get on and need to rely on them for your safety, it confirms that you BOTH know how to communication via the reins and are comfortable with their use.

A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work will breeze through this lesson.  The prerequisite is a lesson that I have named: The “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.  I will refer you to the DVD of that name for the details on how to teach this lesson.  (This is Lesson 5 in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series)

The “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
The overall description is this: the handler sets out a circle of cones and then leads her horse around the circle.  The basic question is: can the handler let go of the lead/rein and have her horse stay with her like a dog heeling at her side?  Or when she let’s go, does her horse wander off the circle, lag behind, rush ahead, or push into her to cut across her path?  Where is his attention – with her or elsewhere outside of the circle?

Robin wwylm far end collecting 1 at 11.59.50 AM

Robin has his attention on me as we walk around the “Why Would You Leave Me?” circle.

It doesn’t matter if the horse can do this perfectly at liberty, wearing nothing on his head.  Lots of things change when a horse is “dressed” for riding.  The horse that walks beautifully by your side when he’s wearing nothing, may become an anxious freight train when he’s wearing a bridle.

Bridling 2

Some people may jump to the conclusion that a horse who becomes anxious when he’s wearing a bridle dislikes having a bit in his mouth, but that may be a red herring.  If we went back to that horse’s first encounter with a bit, we might discover that he was one of those youngsters who always seemed to have something in his mouth.  His handlers were forever taking lead ropes, brushes, halters out of his reach.  If you left anything close enough to grab, he would have it in his mouth. So when he was offered a bit, there was nothing unpleasant about it.  It was something he could put in his mouth, and finally his people didn’t snatch it away from him!

But then the reality of riding set in.  Riders bounced uncomfortably on his back.  His saddle pinched his shoulders, and worst of all, when he guessed wrong or headed off in his own direction, his riders jerked on the rein so the bit hurt his mouth.  It wasn’t long before someone approaching him with a bridle became a predictor of unpleasant things to come.

Of course, this isn’t the only outcome for riding.  The sight of the bridle can mean a fun clicker game is about to begin.  But for a horse who has been ridden with corrections, the bridle often triggers unpleasant associations.

You could decide to work exclusively at liberty, or you could help this horse out by explaining away his anxiety about halters, leads, bridles, and saddles.  Every time you explain away a fear, you remove a potential source of stress for your horse.  That’s a process that’s worth doing.

Expectations
When I first get on a horse, I like to walk off from the mounting block on a loose rein. (And yes I do use mounting blocks.  I feel very strongly that they are a courtesy to the horse.  They save strain to his back.  You save strain to yours, and you protect your saddle from becoming twisted.)

Icky at mouting block 2 photos at 11.18.23 AM

I want the horse to stand patiently at the mounting block until I signal to him that I am ready for him to walk off.  I’ve watched too many horses who barely let the rider settle into the saddle before they take off.  The rider is snatching up the reins and blocking the horse before they’ve even gone two steps.  The horse protects himself by throwing his head up and tightening his jaw which then hollows his back.  The ride has barely begun, and already they are in a training hole.  It’s a long way from play for either horse or rider.

When I get on, I expect my horse to wait patiently while I get myself organized and settled into the saddle.  I appreciate these good manners, so I always click and treat the horse for standing well.  I’m sure there will be some who feel that the horse should not need to be be reinforced for behavior that he knows well, but I like to say “thank you” by marking good responses with a click and a treat.  It costs so little to maintain this ritual.  I ride with clicker treats at the ready.  Offering one as a thank you takes no real effort, and it means that my horses can be trusted to stand quietly at the mounting block.

When we are ready, I cue the horse to walk off.  I want him to walk off on a loose rein.  On a green horse, this may not be possible.  Two steps on from the mounting block I may be picking up the rein and sliding down asking for the hip, but the goal is to have a horse who leaves the mounting block in an energetic, but relaxed walk.  The reins are long.  I don’t want to be shortening them up and restricting the walk in any way.

This is important.  It gives me time to evaluate how my horse is feeling on that day.  Where is his back?  Does everything feel as it should, or is there a stiffness or an uneven feeling that I need to be aware of?  What is his energy level? How does everything compare to previous rides?  Can I feel the effect of the previous lesson in the start-up?  What is available to me?  What do I need to work on?  As Mia Segal (June 9, 2016 post)  would say, if you know the questions, you have the lesson.

Walking Off Casually and the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
Walking off casually gives us time to come together as a riding pair.  It gives me time to evaluate where my horse is on that particular day, both physically and emotionally.  But walking off casually is not a given.  It is something I have actively taught to my horses.  It begins on the ground with the very first leading lesson and is further expanded upon in the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.

This lesson is best taught on a circle.  Every time the horse takes his focus away from the handler and begins to leave the circle, the handler slides down the lead and brings the horse back onto the circle.  The handler is essentially asking the question: why would you leave me?

This is such an important question to ask.  Are you leaving because the environment is too distracting? In that case perhaps the best option is to move to a less distracting location.  And note the distractions could be from things the horse is afraid of and wants to get away from, such as a tarp that’s come loose over the shavings pile.  Or it could be things the horse wants to go towards, such as grass or his pasture buddies.

Are you leaving because you are so full of energy that you can’t walk at my pace?  Are you leaving because you aren’t balanced enough to stay on a circle?  Are you leaving because you’re afraid of me?

wwylm collage

Robin begins by being momentarily distracted by something out the back door, and ends with some lateral work and a beautifully balanced, connected trot.

These are all questions I want to ask and have answered before I put my bones up on the horse.  That’s the purpose of the “Why Would You Leave Me” game.  The end result will be a horse who walks with you without needing to be held there with a lead.

We begin on a circle so the loop keeps repeating itself.  If your horse tends to crowd into you as you pass by the gate, and you missed noticing until he was already pushing you off the circle, don’t worry.  You’ll come around to that point again, and you will be better prepared to ask for what you WANT him to do.  Eventually,  you’ll be able to leave the set pattern of the circle and walk complex patterns.

In this video Panda shows off her “heeling” skills.  She’s working with Sue Bennett, one of the coaches for my on-line course.  Sue and Panda have just met, but that doesn’t matter to Panda.   She’s happy to stay connected.  Why would you leave me? For no reason at all.

My thanks to my coaches: Michaela Hempen and Asfaloth for the bridling pictures; Monty Gwynne and Icaro for the mounting block; Sue Bennett and Panda for the heeling video (and Ann Edie for letting Sue play with her guide horse); and Robin for the “Why Would You Leave Me?” photos.

Also please note: I am not attempting to provide complete instructions for any of the lessons I have described in this post.  Nor have I detailed how to ride in a way that is clicker compatible.  That’s not the function of these posts.  You will find very thorough instructions in my books, DVDS, and on-line course.  Visit: theclickercenter.com    theclickercentercourse.com

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 4: Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

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.

JOYFull Horses: Using Environmental Cues

Using Environmental Cues

Spring is clinic season which means a lot of traveling for me.  I haven’t been able to post anything since the beginning of April which also means some of you may have lost track of where we are in the book.  At the end of Part One I asked the question: what are ten things you would want a novice trainer to know about cues?  In Part Two I began to answer that question.  So far my list includes:

1.) Cues are not Commands.

2.) Cues can be non-verbal.

3.) The environment can be a cue. 

In the first chapter of this section on environmental cues I shared some stories about Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide.  Her work illustrates well the many ways in which the environment can cue behavior.  

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

Now in this post I’ll be looking at ways we can all use environmental cues in our training.

Every Day Environmental Cues
Panda’s training shows how much inanimate objects can cue behavior.  You may never ask your horse for the kind of work that is expected of a guide, but you can still make effective use of environmental cues.  They can help turn a frustrating or even dangerous situation into play.

Here are a few examples:

For a horse who rushes out to turnout – even to the point of rearing if you try to slow him down – teach him to stand on a mat.  Then put out a series of mats on his way out to turnout.  Now instead of trying to keep things calm over the long stretch to turnout, all he has to do is walk a couple steps to the next mat – click and treat!  Turn each mat into a station where he can engage in some favorite game.  That takes the focus off the turnout.  In fact when you do finally get to the paddock, you may find your horse doesn’t want you to leave.

“Must I go eat grass?  This is so much more fun!”

Shannon mat series

For the barn-sour, herd-bound horse who doesn’t want to leave the comfort zone of his friends, hang targets at strategic points around the barnyard and along the driveway.  Click and reinforce him for walking to the target.

For the horse who worries out on trails, take his toys out with him so he can play familiar games.

Magic with ball
Combine mats with a circle of cones to teach a horse how to trot around a circle.  Lay out a small circle made up of cones and one mat.  Your horse will begin on the mat and end up back at the mat – click and treat.  As you gradually expand the circle, he’ll understand that his job is to stay out around the the outside of the cones.

 

For the horse who fidgets and fusses to be groomed, hang a stationary target or give him a mat to stand on.

Mounting blocks become wonderful environmental cues.  Teach your horse to bring himself over to your mounting block and line himself up so it is easy to get on.  It’s not only a fun behavior to “show off”, it’s also a great way to measure how ready – or not – he is to ride.

(Note: This video features Michaela Hempen, one of my coaches for the on-line course.  I almost didn’t use this video because she wasn’t wearing a hard hat. When I mentioned it to her, she said she normally wears a hard hat.  She just couldn’t resist getting on.  I decided to use the clip after all because it is a great example of the joy this training brings to both horses and handlers.  And it also gives me an opportunity to say safety always comes first.  Certainly good preparation contributes to safety, but hard hats are still important.)

These are just a few training suggestions.   The more creative you are, the more playful you can be with your horse.

When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props.  If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?

Maybe you have large cones or temporary fence posts that can be used like gates on a slalom course.  How could you use them to explain the patterns you want to your horse?

If forward is an issue, teach him to retrieve, and then toss a cone out in front of his path.

If stopping is the problem, set out lots of mats.  Give him a positive reason to stop.  That’s a lot better than the “horse training” solutions of harsher bits and running horses into fences.

If you want your horse to get more exercise, but for some reason you can’t ride, use targets to teach your horse to go from person to person.  This can easily be turned into a game Panda would say she invented and which we named after her: “Panda catch”.  She “taught” us this game when she was a yearling.  At thirteen she plays it with every bit as much gusto as she did then.

 

As you can see from this article, teaching your horse to stand quietly on a mat has many uses.  What I haven’t included here are the how-to instructions for introducing your horse to mats.  You can find detailed instructions for teaching this lesson in my books and DVDs and in my on-line course.  Visit my web sites to learn more:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

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

JOYFULL Horses: Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

Saying “No”
I ended the previous post by saying that intelligent disobedience shouldn’t just be limited to guide horses.  My wish would be that our big horses could have the same freedom to say “no” that Panda does.

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.  Choice is part of clicker training.  Real choice only comes when our horses know that it is safe to say “no”.

Saying “no” to cues that are well understood is part of the job description of a guide.  A guide says “no” to the cue to go forward when it would take the team into the path of an on-coming car.  Wouldn’t it be equally useful to have a riding horse say “no” to going forward down a trail his senses are telling him is unsafe?  Wouldn’t it be empowering – not to mention so much safer – to have a horse stop well before a jump he isn’t sure he can clear?

Instead of forcing a horse to go forward into something he perceives to be dangerous, we could become better at preparing him for the tasks we set. When our horses say “no”, there is a reason.  Taking the time to ask what that reason is would transform horse training.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that we can teach them an appropriate way to say “no”.

Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

This is one of my favorite photos of Ann and Panda.  Look at how relaxed they both are.  They have just passed through a construction zone, and they are back on an undisturbed section of sidewalk.  Panda is trained just like our riding horses.  We want connection not pull.  Panda is guiding Ann, providing her with all the information that is needed, but there is no strain in either of them.  They are both able to walk in balance, passing information back and forth through harness and lead as needed.  It looks like what it is: a relaxed, enjoyable outing.

Panda shows how much the environment cues behavior.  Ann can’t see when there’s a curb coming up. She can’t see the trash can that’s fallen across the sidewalk, or the overhead branch that’s been weighed down after a summer’s rain.  Panda’s training has taught her to respond to these environmental cues.

As I write this, Panda is fifteen.  She has been in work with Ann for thirteen years.  Well before this age most guide dogs would be retired, but Panda is still a relatively young horse.  She has a job, but to watch her guide, it would be hard to describe it as work.  Panda was trained exclusively through clicker training.  She was never punished for mistakes.

During her training with me, if she missed an obstacle – meaning I got bumped or I tripped over a tree root pushing up through the sidewalk, we would stop and rework the obstacle.  Normally that’s all she needed.  Once she saw the consequence to me, she would make the necessary adjustments and take me safely around not just this obstacle, but all others that resembled it.  She was wonderfully clever at being able to generalize from one example out to a whole class of similar obstacles.

But, But, You MUST Need to Correct Her
When Ann was first transitioning from her guide dogs who were traditionally trained with corrections to Panda who was clicker trained, she told me about a conversation that was occurring on one of the guide dog users on-line discussion groups.  Ann had been describing some of Panda’s training.  The question people had was how do you correct her?  Ann responded that she never needed to correct Panda.  She would then describe, yet again, how Panda was being trained.

“Yes, yes,” they answered back.  “We understand that’s how you taught her, but what happens when you’re out in the real world, and she makes a mistake?  How do you correct her?”

They were truly insistent.  They needed to know how Ann dealt with these transgressions.

Ann wrote back that Panda didn’t make mistakes.  That sounds very smug, but it happened to be true. That was right around the time the three of us went to the Equine Affaire, the big horse Expo that’s held every year in Springfield Massachusetts.  All day Panda guided Ann through the chaos of the trade show.  She navigated her through aisles crowded with people, and from building to building.  There were plenty of distractions, plenty of opportunities to bump Ann into a pole or miss a curb crossing, but Panda’s focus was on her job, not the other horses in the back parking lot, or the kids reaching out to pet her as she walked by.

She did all that plus she served as my demo horse in the presentations I was giving on clicker training.  In the evening we decided she had done enough.  We left her happily munching hay in her stall while we went out for dinner.  There were several us in the group, and at various points in the evening Ann used us to go sighted guide.  That means she took our elbow, and we served as her guide. Every one of us during the course of the evening either tripped her up at a curb or bumped her into a pole.

As Ann wrote later, she didn’t think punishing us for the mistakes would have helped us to be better guides.  Nor would it help Panda.  If a mistake is made, Panda is not reprimanded for it.  She is simply given another opportunity to try again.  As needed, we break the overall task down into smaller segments and teach her any missing skills.  Once she understands how to navigate through a particular type of obstacle, Panda doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Horses can live a very long time.  Hopefully, Panda and Ann will be partnered together for thirty years and more.  As our cities and towns become even more congested, the challenges a guide faces will grow increasingly complex.  Keeping it fun, keeping it more like play than work is an important part of maintaining this life-long partnership.

Panda Ann Scrabble

Panda gets plenty of opportunities to play as this video shows.  It was taken on New Year’s Day, 2016 during a holiday visit to the barn.

Coming Next: Chapter 2: Using Environmental Cues

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 written 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: 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