Giving The Ball A Push

2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  I am celebrating by writing thank yous each month to people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Are you trying to guess who it’s going to be this month?  Anyone who has followed my work knows the stories.  You’ve met the horses through my books and DVDs. Who will I single out this time?

I could turn it into a guessing game.  This person has appeared in the game show: “What’s my line?”.  Does that help?  Maybe not.  But if I tell you that the panelists correctly guessed that she was a dolphin trainer, now some of you will know who I’m talking about.  July’s tribute belongs to Karen Pryor.

So many of us were first introduced to clicker training through Karen’s book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  I discovered her book through a friend who bred and trained Irish wolf hounds.  We were having lunch together (with one of her wolf hounds literally looking over my shoulder).  Needless to say, we were talking about training.  I’ve forgotten the exact subject, but I do remember my friend saying, “But of course, you’ve read “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.

Don't Shoot the Dog

She said it in a tone that implied that of course I had.  How could I not?  But in 1993 I had never even heard of “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  Perhaps if Karen’s publishers had called it “Don’t Shoot the Horse”, the horse world would have been exploring clicker training ahead of the dog world.  We’ll never know.  But in any event, I tracked down a copy of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and read it with great interest.

Those of you are familiar with Karen’s book know that it is not a training book per se.  Karen was writing about learning theory, a subject which can sound very dry and off-putting.  “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is anything but.  You read it, nodding your head in agreement.  “That’s why that horse, that dog, that person responded in that way.  It all makes so much sense!  How could they do anything else.”

When I read the chapter on punishment, I remember thinking, “The horse world needs to know about this.”  The horse world needs to understand that when you use punishment, there is ALWAYS fallout.  You always get other unintended, unwanted consequences.  Punishment doesn’t work with laser-fine precision.  You may shut down the behavior you’re after, but the effect spreads out and creates negative consequences and a general dampening down of behavior.

Use it often, and you will get what in the horse world is often called a “well behaved” horse, meaning a shut down horse.  Punishment stops behavior.  That’s the definition of punishment (versus reinforcement).  When you use reinforcement (plus or minus), the behavior you’re focusing on increases.

When you use punishment, the behavior decreases.  So you may punish biting.  Strike hard enough, fast enough, the biting may indeed stop – for the moment.  But punishment isn’t a teaching tool.  It doesn’t tell the horse what TO DO to avoid the unwanted consequence.  However, it is reinforcing for the punisher.  That’s what makes it such a slippery slope.  It may not get the results that you’re after, but in the moment, oh it can feel so good.

When skilled positive reinforcement trainers talk about the four quadrants meaning positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment, they don’t take the use of punishment completely off the table.  They recognize that under the right conditions punishment – applied well – may be a necessary and correct choice.

In many of her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman talks about the hierarchy of behavior-change procedures.

 

Susan Friedman's hierarchy

You begin with the least intrusive interventions.  You begin by exploring medical reasons for the behavior, then you move to changing the environment, and positive reinforcement procedures.  Only after many steps and pausing always to consider if there might be other alternatives, would you consider the more intrusive methods and sitting last as a possibility would be punishment.  And before people puff themselves up and say – I would never use punishment, remember Dr Friedman spent much of her career working with children with major behavioral problems that included self-injurious behavior.  So what would you do with a child who is trying to gouge her eyes out?  Is punishment of that behavior always off the table?

Punishment is certainly not where you begin, but there may be extreme situations where it is where you end up.  If a fire were fast approaching, and you needed to load a reluctant horse on a trailer NOW or leave him behind, would you resort to punishment?  Until you’re faced with that situation, it’s an open question.

Ken Ramirez, another trainer I greatly admire, doesn’t take punishment off the table either.  However, when he was overseeing the training program at the Shedd Aquarium, the novice trainers were only allowed to use positive reinforcement.  They could reinforce behaviors that they liked, but they had to be non-reactive to behaviors they didn’t like.  Only when they were more skilled could they begin to use more advanced techniques.  In his talks on this subject Ken explains why he puts these limits on his young trainers.  At some point early in their career they will come to him, asking for permission to move up the hierarchy.

“Ken,” they will say, “I could so easily solve this problem we’re having with this animal if only you would let me use this procedure that I’ve read about.”  Ken won’t let them.  He wants them to become very experienced with the basics.  If you let them begin to add in other techniques too soon, they really never learn how to be skilled and creative with the basic tools.  They jump the queue too fast and head for more intrusive techniques.

As they become more skilled, he lets them expand into the rest of the hierarchy.  His senior trainers can use any technique, including punishment, that they deem to be appropriate.  But he knows that these trainers have the experience and the skill to apply punishment well, meaning with good timing and at the right intensity to create the desired effect and minimize the fallout.  He also knows that they are so skilled and experienced that they don’t need to use punishment.  They will find other alternatives.

The odd thing in the horse world is we flip things upside down.  We reach first for punishment.  The horse bites – we strike.  It’s the horse’s fault.  And if he bites again, we’ll hit him harder.  We don’t look first for medical conditions.  Maybe that horse is full of ulcers.  Treat the ulcers and his reason for biting will go away.  We don’t rearrange the environment.  Use protective contact – put a barrier between you and the horse so he can’t bite you, and then use positive reinforcement to teach him alternatives to biting.

Instead we give six year old children riding crops (often pink riding crops with pretty sparkles), and we tell her to hit her pony harder.  We give punishment to the least experienced, most novice riders.  That’s completely upside down.  No wonder what we get back are so many sad stories, so many bad endings for both people and horses.

When I said the horse world needs to understand what Karen was saying about punishment in “Don’t Shoot The Dog”, I’ve always though some genie of the universe heard that.  “Got one! She’ll do.”  I was sent the clicker training bug.  More than that, that genie sat on my shoulder and kept urging me to write about what I was experiencing with my horses.  Lots of people, including Karen Pryor, had used clicker training with their horses before I ever went out to the barn with clicker in hand.  I was by no means the first person who ever used it with a horse.  But they didn’t disappear into their computers to write about it.  That good genie on my shoulder made sure that I did.

“Don’t Shoot the Dog” sparked my interest.  I wanted to know more about clicker training.  I read “Lads Before The Wind”,  Karen’s chronicle of the founding of Sea Life Park and the development of the first dolphin shows.  She shared with us the many training puzzles that had to be solved in order to figure out how to train dolphins.  Old-style circus training wasn’t the answer.  She turned to science and the work that was coming out of B.F. Skinner’s lab.

“Lads Before The Wind” took me a step closer.  I wanted to know more about training with a marker signal.

My friend brought me a copy of a magazine article she thought I’d find interesting.  I have no idea what the article was about.  I’m not even sure that I read it, but down in the left hand corner, in very small print, was a tiny ad for two of Karen Pryor’s early VHS videos.  I sent away for both.

The first one was recorded at a seminar that Karen gave with Gary Wilkes to a group of dog trainers.  Gary was the canine trainer who approached Karen with the question: “Do you think clicker training would work with dogs?”

In a conversation I had years ago with Karen, she said she had always had dogs, but they weren’t really trained, not like she had trained the dolphins.  They were just around.  But when Gary wondered if clicker training would work with them, Karen thought, of course!  Why not!  So she and Gary teamed up to give a series of seminars to dog trainers, and we all know what grew out of that for the dog world.

The clip from that seminar that intrigued me and sent me out to the barn to try clicker training my horse showed Gary training a twelve week old mastiff puppy to sit and then to lie down – all without touching the puppy.  These days that’s become so the norm, it wouldn’t get a second look, but in 1993 the dog training I had seen involved leash pops and pushing on the puppy to make it sit.  I was intrigued by the ease with which Gary got this puppy to lie down and stay down.

I was even more intrigued by a clip that was on the second video.  It featured Gary Priest, the Director of Training at the San Diego Zoo.  Gary talking about an African bull elephant named Chico.  Chico had tried to attack his keepers on several occasions so the decision had been made that no one could go into his enclosure with him.  So for ten years Chico had gone without foot care.  At that time the farrier literally got underneath the elephant to trim the front feet.  Gary showed a video of a farrier standing under the elephants belly to trim a foot.  “One wrong move from the elephant,” Gary says in the background – point taken.

So they had to come up with a different approach for Chico.  Gary decided to try clicker training.  They built several small openings in the gate to Chico’s enclosure.  Then they used targeting to bring him up to the enclosure gate.  It took many months, but they finally taught him to put his foot through the opening and to rest it on a metal stirrup bar for cleaning.

The video showed the keepers using targeting to guide Chico to turn around so his hindquarters were to the gate.  Then following a smaller target, Chico lifted his hind foot through the opening for his first trim in ten years.

Gary says in the voice over:  “I can’t impress upon you enough how aggressive this elephant was, but he’s standing here quietly all for the social attention and the bucket of food treats.”

I know how all too many horses even today get handled when they refuse to pick up their feet.  With some trainers, sadly, out come the lip chains, the hobbles, and three men and a boy to hold the horse down, all to force compliance.  We in the horse world do indeed have a lot to learn.

Those two videos gave me what I needed to get started.  I’ve told this part of the story many times.  My thoroughbred, Peregrine, was laid up with hoof abscesses in both front feet.  I wanted to keep him mentally engaged during what was likely to be a long recovery.  What a perfect time to give clicker training a try.  I went out to the barn with treats and a clicker.

In “Lads Before the Wind” Karen had talked about charging the clicker.  With the dolphins you blew a whistle then tossed a fish, blew a whistle then tossed a fish – until you saw the dolphins begin to look for the fish when they heard the whistle.   Now you could begin to make the blowing of the whistle contingent on a specific behavior.  For example, now the dolphin has to swim in the direction of a hoop suspended in the water.  Swim towards the hoop, and wonders of wonders, you can make the humans blow the whistle and throw you a fish.  That’s a powerful discovery.  Suddenly the animal feels in control.

I tried charging the clicker.  I clicked and treated, clicked and treated.  Peregrine showed no signs that he was connecting the click to the treat.  I remember thinking: “If this is going to take a long time, I’m not interested.”

I decided to try targeting.  There was an old dressage whip propped against the corner of the barn.  That would do.  I held it out. Peregrine sniffed it.  Click, treat.  I held it out again, same thing.  The ball was rolling.

I couldn’t do much more than ask him to target.  His feet hurt too much to take more than a step or two, but as he began to recover, I could ask for more.  I started to reshape all the things I had taught him over the years, everything from basic husbandry skills to the classical work in-hand I was learning.  When I started riding him seven weeks later, he was further along in his training than he had been before he was laid up.

Hmm.  Long lay-ups aren’t supposed to work that way, especially not with a thoroughbred.  Normally, as they recover, you go through a rough patch where they’re feeling very cooped up and your job is to convince them to walk not rear during hand walking.  With Peregrine there was no rough patch.  And he was understanding what I was asking of him so much better that he did before the lay-up.

The good genie that sat on my shoulder had picked well.  It was no accident that clicker training gained such a strong toe hold with me.  I’ve known so many people who gave clicker training a try, loved their horse’s response to the initial targeting, and then got stuck.  What do you do with it?  For them ground work meant lunging – and often lunging badly.  Ugh.  We just want to ride!

I wanted to ride as well, but I also loved ground work.  I had raised all my horses, so ground work to me meant so much more than lunging.   It meant teaching a young horse all the skills it would need to get along with people.  It meant learning how to stand quietly for haltering, grooming, foot care, medical procedures, saddling, etc..  It meant learning to lead and from that core foundation, learning about balance through the classical work in-hand and all the performance doors that opened up.  It meant expanding their world by introducing distractions and new environments.   The list went on and on.  And finally it meant connecting the ground work into riding.  Riding truly is just ground work where you get to sit down.

So as Peregrine began to recover from his abscesses, I had a lot to play with.  My training was already structured around systematic small steps.  It was easy to add in the click and a treat.  At first, you could say that all I was doing was just sugar coating same-old same old.  I would ask in the way I knew and then click and treat correct responses.  But even just that first step into clicker training was producing great results.  And when I explored targeting and free shaping – WOW! – was that ever fun!

I was liking this clicker training!  So I began to share it with my clients.  Together we figured out how to apply it to horses.  So fast forward three years to July of 1996.  I had written a series of articles that I wanted to put up on the internet.  I had built a web site, but I wasn’t sure if I could use the term clicker training.  Gary Wilkes had trademarked “Click and Treat” and the llama trainer, Jim Logan, had trademarked “Click and Reward”.  It was frustrating.  If people kept trademarking all these phrases, pretty soon there would be no way to refer to the training.

So I emailed Karen.  I introduced myself and sent her the articles I wanted to publish on my web site.  I needed to know if she had trademarked clicker training.  Could I use the term in my articles?

Twenty-four hours later I received an email back from Karen.  She had read my articles.  Would I like to write a book about clicker training horses for her publishing company?

You know the answer.  Karen gave the “ball” a huge push down the hill.  So thank you Karen.  Thank you for that initial support.  For me personally it was a great pleasure working with you on the editing of that book.  And over the past twenty years I have treasured our continued friendship.

At one of the early Clicker Expos when you were introducing the faculty, when you got to me, you began by talking about conventional horse training.  You described it as what it is – organized horse abuse.  Wow.  To be brave enough, bold enough to say it out loud.  It was shocking to hear, but so true.  You understood the horse world.  You knew about the wide-spread use of punishment.  You knew the importance of bringing positive reinforcement into this community.

You couldn’t be everywhere, doing everything yourself, but when you asked if I wanted to write a book, you gave the clicker training ball a huge push.  Twenty years later, the book we created together is still helping horse people to find alternatives.  And the horse world is changing!

Thank you Karen.

My Horse Is So Smart!!!

CTFYHbookcover

The cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse” – published 20 years ago this year.

This post is another in the series I have been writing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  Each month I have been giving special recognition to individuals who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Today clicker training is firmly rooted in the horse world.  There are people all around the planet who know two things about it: 1.) clicker training is fun and 2.) it’s good for horses.

But twenty years ago any time I mentioned clicker training very few people knew what I was talking about.  I always had to add a lengthy description of what it was, followed by detailed instructions for how to introduce it to your horse.  When I sent these posts out to the very limited number of horse groups that existed twenty years ago, here’s the response I would get back:

My Horse is so SMART!!!!!

That’s how the replies would begin.  They always made me smile.  Someone else was discovering clicker training.  More than that, that individual was seeing her horse in a completely new light.

The 1990s don’t seem that long ago to me, but they were truly pioneer days on the internet.  The entire community of clicker trainers was so small there was only one list – the Click-L list.  That’s where everyone posted.   And I mean everyone – dog trainers, parrot specialists, horse owners, exotic animal trainers, we were all on the same list.  I loved that.  You didn’t have to monitor dozens of separate forums to know what was going on. Everyone was in the same forum talking to one another.  You could read a post from Karen Pryor followed by one from Bob Bailey.  You could read about different species, dogs, parrots, and yes, even horses.

Any time I sent a post to the Click-L list I was reaching the entire clicker training community.  But I wanted to reach out into the broader horse community as well, so I also posted on one of the early horsemanship lists.  I was always careful how I used that list.  I didn’t want to intrude where I wasn’t wanted.  The list was a general one, but even so, clicker training didn’t always fit in to the discussions.

I chose carefully both which posts I responded to and what I said.  I knew if I came in like a steam roller telling people that my way was the best and everything they were doing was wrong, I’d get nothing but resentment and push back – and rightfully so.  If you push against what somebody else is doing, of course they are going to push back even harder against you.  That wasn’t the way to get people to try clicker training.

Instead I would wait until someone asked a question in a way that indicated that they might be open to the use of treats.

I’d respond with a lengthy description of clicker training and a detailed lesson plan that would help them with their specific training issue.  I don’t think I ever failed to get back an enthusiastic response.  It was always filled with caps and exclamation marks.  And it almost always began with:

“My Horse Is So SMART!!!”

Why was this such a surprise?  Traditional command-based training is built on a belief that horses are stupid animals.  This is not subtly implied.  It is stated as fact.  The corollary of this is: because horses are stupid animals, we need to use force to train them. But don’t worry dear, (and it was always said in this patronizing tone), they don’t feel pain the way we do.

Clicker training puts the lie to that core belief.  We can see how smart our horses are. When you remove the threat of punishment and instead train with positive reinforcement, horse or human, you see a blossoming of personality and enthusiasm.  It isn’t just our horses who suddenly seem so much smarter.  It is every individual who is training in this way.

Not everyone responded with such enthusiasm to those early posts.  Clicker training was both wonderfully well received and strongly pushed against.

There was one individual in particular, an Australian, who felt it was his moral duty to stamp out clicker training before it could spread.   He wrote angry posts declaring how wrong all this hand feeding was!!  His posts were also filled with caps and exclamation marks.  The difference was there was no joy in his posts.  There was no laughter – just angry sputtering.

I never responded to his posts – at least not directly.  Clicker training was truly the new kid on the block.  I knew if I pushed against what others were doing, they would push back even harder against me.  That’s only human nature.  There was a lot of horrible training going on at that time, but I was careful not to say anything negative.  I wrote about what I was doing and why.  I worked hard to avoid saying why I thought some other method was wrong.

I also knew that if someone posted something I didn’t like on the internet the best way to guarantee that that post would stay alive and gain traction was to comment on it.  As fast as things move on the internet, if you don’t respond to something, it disappears in an instant to be replaced by the next puff of an idea.  But as soon as you respond to a post, you give it legs.  You can think you’re helping out by offering a rebuttal to someone’s huffing and puffing, but all that does is guarantee that their comments will gain more traction.

I am always mindful of the oft repeated line in Lewis Carol’s “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true.”

We’ve seen the power of that in American politics, but I don’t want to disappear down that rabbit hole!  Instead I’ll just say I want to be careful how I post so that I don’t give added life to ideas that need to go away.

So I would never respond to this man’s nasty remarks.  It must have frustrated him no end that I never took the bait.  You could see the extinction burst he was in as he tried harder and harder to draw me into his rants.  Instead I would make note of his comments, and in my next long post I would address each of his concerns, but never directly.  If he stated that hand feeding treats would teach horses to bite, I would give detailed instructions for the teaching polite manners around food.  If he said clicker trained horses would become pushy and always be demanding treats, I would describe in detail the teaching of the foundation lessons and show how they create horses that move readily out of your space.

Whatever arguments he had, I countered them with detailed descriptions of the training – never pushing against him, never even mentioning him.  I just addressed point by point each blustering statement by providing people with good instruction for introducing their horses to the clicker.  The contrast in tone was startling.  I’m sure many of the people who were brave enough and curious enough to go out to the barn to it a try were in part attracted to clicker training because of the contrast in tone.

What people wrote back were posts filled with excitement.  The delight in their horses was crystal clear.  You could see it in every exclamation mark and underlined phrase.  We weren’t using emojis back then, but they found other ways to express their excitement.

Their enthusiastic posts encouraged others to give it a try and the snowball effect began. The angry, blustering posts sent by this one detractor had the opposite effect from the one he intended.  If he meant to stamp out clicker training before it could spread like wild fire from horse barn to horse barn, he was too late.  Clicker training spread even faster than a wild fire.  It’s an infectious idea.  It brings with it great joy and that’s certainly something we all want to share.

In 1998 when I published my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, I gave the “snowball” a big push.  I was quickly joined by many other people who got the ball rolling ever faster into the horse community.

Each month I’ve been writing thank you posts to the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  I’ve been singling out individuals to thank by highlighting their training.  This month is different.  I want to thank all those early adapters and their exclamation marks.  Your horses are indeed smart!!

I want to thank all those brave people who were curious enough to take treats and a clicker out to their barns and to ask their horses: “What do you think?”.  Your exclamations of delight helped spread clicker training around the planet!

exclamation points 3

Celebrate!

Years ago at a clinic I gave in Florida one of the attendees brought a horse she had only recently bought.  She was a novice, first-time owner.  She had done many things right.  She bought a horse she had been riding at a local lesson barn.  She was still boarding the horse with her instructor, but this was about to change.  She was going to be taking her mare home and caring for her herself.  That’s where the worry began.  Her mare was one of those horses who makes really ugly faces whenever anyone approaches her in a stall.  Her new owner was afraid to go into a stall with her.  That had been okay as long as she was boarding her and there were people around to help her, but once she took her home, she would be on her own.

So that weekend we focused on “happy faces”.  That’s all we worked on with her mare. Whenever anyone went past her stall, if even one ear perked forward, click, she would get a treat.  It was very opportunistic training.

We covered a lot of training topics that weekend – as we always do, but for that horse the focus remained squarely on “happy faces”.

The following year I gave another clinic in that area, and this team were back.  This time they were the clicker superstars.  She was our demo horse for exploring lateral work and introducing people to single-rein riding.  That was a huge jump from our first clinic together.

At the end of the three days we did a wrap up.  Each person talked about a highlight of the weekend.  When it was her turn, she started out by saying that at the end of the previous clinic she had been so mad at me because all I had let her do was reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  But when she took her horse home she began to understand why I had made that the central focus.  She continued to reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  It wasn’t all she worked on, but it continued to be an important element in every training session.  We could all see the results.

There’s a lovely training principle – The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things that you see that it gives you.  When you focus in on what can seem like a very small and seemingly insignificant detail, it begins to collect other good things around it.

So this was her comment after this second clinic.  She said: she had always known her horse was beautiful, but now everyone could see it.

As more and more people are clicker training their horses, that statement takes on even more meaning.   We always knew our horses are beautiful.  Now we also know they are very smart, and because of clicker training more and more people can see it.

Thank you to all my exclamation mark posters!  Twenty years on you are still bringing good things into the horse world.

Keep it positive!!!!

Share the JOY!!!

What Is Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 3 of 12

Labels
In the previous section I introduced you to Poco, an extremely ear-shy horse.  I ended that section by saying: “Poco wasn’t going to be helped by following old recipes, but by coming up with solutions that were tailored to his needs.  To do that we had to look more broadly at all that clicker training means.”

I put my first JOYFULL horses post up on January 2, 2016.  This far into the book may seem like an odd time to be asking such a basic question: what is clicker training?  But this question refers to so much more than just the surface definition of clicker training.

The term clicker training was coined by Karen Pryor.  In it’s simplest form it refers to applied operant condition in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.  In other words, if you like what your animal is doing, you click and reinforce him.

For years at clinics I’ve had people say to me you really need to call your work something other than clicker training.  What you do is so much more than clicker training.

I always throw this right back to them.  What would you call it?

I get lots of suggestions but nothing so far has stuck.  So many of the words that describe my work have been used, abused, and over-used.  Or they are too specific to a narrow area of horse training.

Harmony, balance, partnership have all been used so many times by so many different approaches to training they have lost any meaning.  You can have two diametrically opposed training systems both talking about partnership.  They’ll end up with very different looking horses and each group will be convinced they have “true partnership” and the others don’t.  Sigh.  Labels can leave behind a huge and very controversial mine field to navigate.

When I first came across clicker training, it had no associations attached to it.  It was just a label, a way of referencing a particular approach to training.  I had not seen other clicker-trained horses because there weren’t any around.  I hadn’t yet experimented with it, so I brought no strong biases to the term – good or bad.  It was simply a label, a convenient way to reference a system of training in which a marker signal was paired with positive reinforcement.

For me the term “clicker training” is still a convenient way to refer to a system of training that uses a marker signal, but it has grown to have many more associations for me and for others.  If someone has seen clicker training applied badly, just the mention of the name may send them over the edge into a long diatribe against it.

I’ve seen plenty of clumsy, not well-thought-out clicker training sessions over the years, but that doesn’t make me want to run from the label.  It makes me want to find better ways to teach the work.

What Clicker Training Means To Me
I’ve experienced so much joy both in my own horses and in sharing the work with others that I don’t want to walk away from the label.  Instead I want to make it clearer what clicker training can be.  I don’t know what clicker training has come to mean to others, but to me, when I think of clicker-trained horses, I see happy, well mannered, beautifully balanced horses who are a joy to be around.
icky-what-is-clicker-training-3
My clicker-trained horses make me smile.  I hope how I handle them gives my horses the equine equivalent of those happy feelings.  That’s what I want to share with others.

In 1993 when I started experimenting with clicker training, I didn’t head out to the barn thinking – “I’m going to write a book about this.”  I just wanted to find a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was on stall rest.

There weren’t other people clicker training horses who I could turn to as role models or who could provide how-to instructions.  That meant I got to invent my own version of clicker training.

Defining Clicker Training
If you were to ask me to define clicker training, I would begin with Karen Pryor’s definition: clicker training is applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.

That gives us an operational definition, but clicker training is so much more than that.  I see it as a huge umbrella under which I can fit many different approaches to horse training.  For example, I studied for a time with Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM, so I fit her training under the umbrella.  I also put the work I learned from John Lyons under this same umbrella even though Lyons himself is not a clicker trainer.  These two training methods represent fundamentally different philosophies of horse training, but I was able to draw good things from both and adapt what I learned to fit under my clicker umbrella.

When I think of clicker training, I see a complete and very structured approach to training that results in well-mannered, happy horses.  I think of beautifully-balanced horses who are both having fun and are fun to be around.

Lucky with caption

That’s what I see.  But if all you’ve seen of clicker training is someone using it to teach simple tricks, you may see the fun – but not the balance.  Or maybe you’ve just seen someone who was fumbling around the edges of clicker training.  Your picture of clicker training may be a frustrated horse who is acting aggressively towards the handler.

Creating Stepping Stones
The more people who encounter clicker training the more different images of what it is there will be.  Clicker training will evolve and morph into something else.  That’s the nature of all creative work.  It is never static.  Clicker training, which seemed so revolutionary, so very much on the leading edge of training when I first encountered it, will become mainstream.  It will be the stepping stone to the next leading-edge idea.

We can’t yet know what that idea will be, not until it has had time to evolve.

This is the nature of the creative process.  Humans thrive on creativity.  This is part of play.  You are exploring two separate ideas and suddenly you see how you can put them together to create a completely original combination.  Both ideas by themselves were great.  Combined they are transforming.

So let’s look underneath the clicker training umbrella and see what’s really there.  Let’s also ask the question: are you a clicker trainer, or are you someone who just uses a clicker?  And what is the difference that that question is seeking to answer?

(And yes, I will get back to Poco and his ear-shy problem.)

Coming next: Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

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: Cues Evolve Out Of The Shaping Process – Pt. 3

In the previous post I used the process of teaching a horse to back in a square to illustrate several ways in which cues evolve out of the shaping process.  I showed you how you can use food delivery to move your horse through a particular motor pattern.  When you first teach a horse to come forward to touch a target, it’s easy to have him step back to get to his treat.  Body language cues evolve easily out of the food delivery.  Now if you turn into him to ask for backing, he’ll know what you want.  The cue for backing evolved out of the shaping process.

Horses are masters at reading subtle changes in body language.  They are good at seeing what comes before what comes before what you are asking for.  In the wild a horse needs to be good at predicting the future to stay out of trouble, both within the herd and when a predator is on the hunt. So horses are good at spotting the little clues that tell them what you’ll be asking for next.  After all, the better they learn to read you, the more successful they’ll be.  Those clues help them to get to their reinforcers faster.

Starter Button and Constant-On Cues
In Part one of this section, I focused on teaching your horse to back in a square.  That’s the precursor to teaching head lowering.  So let’s continue on to that part of the lesson.  Remember you’ve been asking your horse to back from the front of his stall a step or two toward the back wall.  The stall may be his actual stall, or just a square marked out with cones or ground poles.  Once these steps come easily, you can begin to build duration.  You’ll need to decide if your cue is a starter button or a constant-on cue.

A starter button cue is exactly what it sounds like.  Think about how you use your key to turn on your car’s ignition.  You turn the key and as soon as you hear the engine start, you let go.  You don’t keep turning the key.  You assume that once your car starts it’s going to keep going until you turn it off.  If it does stall out, you’ll restart it with the turn of the key.

Your backing cue can work in the same way.  When you slide down the lead, you expect your horse to begin to back.  But do you hold on to the lead the whole time he’s backing, or do you let go once he’s initiated the movement?  The later would be a starter button cue.

If you hold on, you’re using the lead as a constant-on signal.  You’re in effect saying: “As long as this signal is present, you’re to keep backing.  When it goes away, you’re to stop.”

In her book, Lads Before the Wind, Karen Pryor described how she taught her dolphins to spin and to keep spinning as long they could hear a certain signal.  It was an easy way to build duration in a behavior, especially working as she was with multiple animals.

The problem with using the lead as a constant-on signal is it can effect your horse’s balance.  You can experience this yourself.  You’re going to hold the snap end of the lead so you get the horse’s perspective of this lesson. Have a friend slide down the lead to ask for backing.  First, she’s going to hold on until you have given her the number of backing steps she wants.  That’s the constant-on cue.

Next have her slide down, but she’s to let go AS SOON AS you’re in motion.  If you stall out, not sure what she wants, she’s to slide down again and restart the behavior.  Once you are backing freely, she’s to let you back several steps before she clicks.  That will bring you to a stop.  Remember, as you are backing, she is NOT keeping an active hold of the lead.

So now you’ve sampled both constant-on and starter button cues.

Question:  Which way did you prefer?  If you are like most people, you’ll prefer the starter button.  The other will feel heavier and more demanding.  You’ll also notice that there was a difference in how you backed.   With the starter button your steps will be longer, more even, better balanced.

The Horse’s Perspective
There’s a lovely expression that I refer to often in clinics: Go to people for opinions and horses for answers.  In this case you were the horse.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  You can test out the two different versions of how you ask for backing and decide for yourself which one you prefer.

One of the things I like about clicker training is we can experience directly so many of the lessons we give to our horses.  Holding on to the lead with a constant-on cue comes much more easily to most people.  You have to make a conscious effort to let go. If there’s no difference, there’s no reason to change.  But once you’ve experienced for yourself from the horse’s perspective the difference in the feel and the impact it has on your balance, it becomes a lot easier to pay attention to the detail of letting go.

Years ago at one of the big horse expos I had a trade booth set up directly across the aisle from a company that sells electronic shock collars for horses.  All weekend long I got to watch their sales video.  It featured a mare who had a foal at her side.  The mare was a cribber.  They were using the shock collar to discourage the cribbing.

Each time she reached out to the fence, they would zap her with the collar.  Over and over again as the video played, I got to watch her jump back from the shock.  That was hard enough to watch.  What made this even worse, when they shocked her, her foal had just started to nurse.  Think of the associations that was creating!

As part of their sales pitch they were letting people feel the shock the collar produced.  Toward the end of the weekend when things were quieting down, I went over to have a feel.  They had the collar set at the lowest setting.  You didn’t get a jolt. Touching an electric fence is much worse, but even so it was exceedingly unpleasant.  That was the lowest setting.

I asked to feel the setting the mare was given.

“Oh on.  We don’t let people take that level of shock.”

Soap Box Time
It made me appreciate clicker training all the more.  To the best of our ability to simulate experiences, there’s nothing we do to the animals that we do not also let people experience.  I can slide down the lead and let you feel what the horse feels at his end of the lead.  I can set up training games and let you go through the same puzzle solving process.  I can click and feed – maybe not hay stretcher pellets, but something more to your liking.

We are confronted by so many different opinions about how best to train our horses.  We can’t always know how something feels to a horse.  I can’t wear a bit or carry a rider on my back, so I can’t replicate every experience, but here’s my standard.  Your horse should not have to go through any training procedure which you are uncomfortable watching.

Note, I do not say which you are uncomfortable doing to your horse.  You may not have the skill to take your horse through a particular lesson.  You may be using a trainer to help teach your horse something that requires more experience than you currently have.  But you should be able to watch everything that’s done to your horse.  If something makes you squirm, it’s okay to speak up for your horse.  There is always, ALWAYS another way to train everything you want to teach.

A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse, and a good trainer will find another way to teach the lesson.  A punitive trainer with a narrow tool box will tell you this way is for the good of the horse, and you have to let him finish.  He’ll tell you if you let the horse get away with being disrespectful, you’ll ruin him.

These are red flags.  Thank him very much for his opinion and take your horse home.  You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to know how to break a lesson down into small steps.  You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to be fair to a horse.  You just have to be a good trainer. So take your horse out of harm’s way, and find someone to help you who is a true teacher not a bully.

Backing with Starter Button Cues
That’s enough standing on a soap box.  Let me step down off of mine and get back to the backing in a square lesson.  Hopefully, you got a friend to help you, and you were able to feel the difference between a starter button and a constant-on cue.  You know for this lesson you want the lead to act as a starter button cue.  Once your horse initiates backing, you’ll release the lead and walk back with him.

Now note, this means that there is a constant-on cue in this process.  As he backs, you’re walking forward toward him. Walking toward him is your constant-on cue. You want him to keep backing out of your way as you walk into his space.  That cue is evolving out of the shaping process.

Again, if he stalls out too soon, you’ll restart the “engine” by sliding down the lead.

You’ll ask him to back a couple of steps, being mindful that you are still in a stall and there’s a wall behind him.

After the click, you’ll use your food delivery to reposition him forward.

This begins a new movement cycle.

As you ask him to repeat the cycle, you’ll see him backing with more confidence.  Not only does he understand what you want, he’s backing over ground he’s already stepped on.  He knows now that it doesn’t contain any hidden traps.  It’s safe to step back.  Each time you ask him, it becomes easier and more fluid.  That’s in part why you do this back and forth dance.  It is like bending a metal coat hanger.  At first the hanger is very stiff, but the more you bend it, the softer and easier it becomes.

A Change in the Game
Now that you have a horse backing easily, you’re going to change the game once again.  Instead of feeding forward after the click, now you’re going to feed right where you clicked.

Again, this can trip people up.  They spent so much mental energy figuring out how to feed forward, and now they have to change all that and keep their feet still.

Why the change?  You’re ready to tackle the puzzle that the back corner of the stall presents.  So many horses feel trapped in this kind of situation.  They forget that they can just swing their hindquarters over.  When they get in a corner, instead of simply stepping back and to the side, they panic and push forward into the handler.

You’re going to show your horse that he has another option.  You have him at a halt with his rear end close to the back wall.  You’re going to slide down the lead and ask him to turn his head away from you.  Your body orientation is still saying back, but you ARE NOT pushing into him AT ALL with the lead.  There is no backwards force on the lead.  There doesn’t need to be.

If you add a feel of pushing him back before he has figured out how, he’ll just feel trapped.  All the pressure will go down into his hocks.  Especially if he has any arthritis in his hocks, this will make him feel even more anxious, and it will be harder yet for him to figure out what he’s to do.

More “Being the Horse”
Instead you are simply going to ask him to turn his head away from you.  You can experience what this does simply by standing up for a moment.  Put your hands on your hips so you can really feel the effect.  Begin by looking straight ahead.  Now turn your head to one side and look over your shoulder.  What did your hips do?  They counter balanced the movement by swinging in the opposite direction.

As you ask your horse to bend his nose more and more to the outside, he’ll become aware of the answer to the puzzle.  All he has to do is follow the turn of his hips, and he can back up out of this corner.  Putting him in the corner makes it easier for him to figure out the answer.  The structure helps you.  I just don’t want to put him prematurely in the corner before he’s comfortable enough with backing to be able to find the answer in a relaxed manner.  That’s the reason for all the back and forth prep.

Robin back in square 3 photos

If your horse doesn’t understand your request to move his head away from you, there’s a simple way to prep this part of the lesson.  Use food delivery to set up the response.  Begin by asking him to stand next to you in the “grown-ups are talking” position.

Robin grown ups with caption

When you click, instead of presenting the food so he continues to keep his head in this position, you’ll extend your arm past where his nose is so he has to turn his head to get his treat.  As he moves, you’ll step forward, filling the space he’s vacating.  You’ll repeat this until the food delivery has created the weight shift you need to ask him to turn his hip so he can back through the corner.  This is an easy way to ask for what can be a very challenging maneuver for some horses.  The goal is to make this as easy and understandable as possible so your horse is very comfortable being asked to back through turns.  (For another view of how to use food delivery to set up the behavior you want refer to the May 6, 2016 post on Using Environmental Cues https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/05/06/)

Robin back thru square with food delivery - captions

Whichever approach you use, you now have him backing one step through the corner.  Click and treat.  You can ask for another step, or perhaps it is time to walk him forward again out of the stall to give him a break.

Once your horse is comfortably backing through all four the corners of the stall, it is time to change the game yet again.  Now you’re going after head lowering.

Heating Up a Behavior
To get to this lesson, you’re going to take a little detour.  You’re going to leave the stall for a few minutes while you make head lowering a “hot” behavior.

Coming Next: Priming the Pump

Author’s note: Once again, I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts.  These articles are not intended to give detailed, how-to instructions.  For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course.  In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering.  My on-line course will also provide you with a very thorough introduction to clicker training.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

JOY Full Horses: Part 2 Playing with Cues

Ten Things You Should Know About Cues
Part 2 collage
In the previous post I asked what are ten key concepts you would want a beginner to know about cues.  I hope you have made your own list to compare with the one that I will be sharing over the next couple of weeks.  I said I was going to treat them like Christmas presents under the tree.  I’ll be sharing them with you one at a time.  So Part 2 of this book is divided into ten sections, each with it’s own chapters.  Each Section focuses on just one of these key elements.

So today’s “present” begins with Section 1.) Cues are not Commands

Section 1.) Cues are not Commands 

Natalie with Harrison
Chapter 1: Asking Versus Telling

Commands
Cues and commands are not synonyms. A command has a do it or else threat behind it.  For a dog it’s: sit or else.  For a horse it’s trot – or else.  There’s always that threat sitting behind the request.  Think of all the riders who have discovered that their stuck-in-cement horse suddenly moves off with energy as soon as they pick up a crop.

“I don’t have to use it.  All I have to do is carry it.” they will say.  It’s easy to think you are being soft when a light tap is all you need, but from the horse’s perspective there is always the threat of something more painful backing up that tap.

The dictionary defines commands as:

command defined

“Authority over”, “control”: these words sound so jarring when used in conjunction with clicker training.  No matter how you sugar coat them, commands don’t belong under the clicker training umbrella.

Cues

Harrison backing off mat

Backing off the mat on cue.

Cues are different.  They are different in the way in which they are taught, and they are different in the way they are responded to.

The dictionary defines a cue as:

cues defined

“A prompt or reminder”, and “a signal for action” is a good way to think of cues.  This is a word that fits well into clicker training.

green light traffic signalOne of the best metaphors for cues comes from Karen Pryor, author of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “Reaching the Animal Mind”.  A cue is a green light that tells the animal that it can now perform a given behavior and it is likely to be reinforced for it.  Cues are taught via positive reinforcement.  If an animal fails to respond to a cue, it isn’t punished.  The handler will set up the scenario that leads to the cue so the animal can try again.  If the animal continues to fail to respond, the worst that may happen is the handler puts the animal away while she goes off to have a proverbial cup of tea and a think.

Paradigm Shifts
This represents a huge paradigm shift for many animal handlers.  If you have come to clicker training from a more traditional background, commands will be the norm for you.  If you ask your horse to trot and he doesn’t, you will have been told: “Get after him. Make him do it!  If you don’t, he won’t respect you.  He’ll take advantage of you.  You aren’t being a good leader.  You need to show him who is boss.”

I’ll get people who are new to clicker training asking what they should do if a horse bites them.

“Keep yourself safe, but be non-reactive,” I tell them.

“No, no,” they respond.  “He bit me.  I need to do something.”

“Okay.  Put him away and go have a cup of tea.”

I know that’s not what they expect to hear, but it is often the best advice.  Go have a think away from your horse.  You need to be in a non-reactive state of mind to come up with a plan that keeps you both safe while at the same time setting your horse up for success.  You want a plan that minimizes the unwanted biting behavior and avoids the unwanted consequences that punishment can create.

These are nice sounding words, but for so many people this can be hard to do.  They are so used to the notion that if a request is made, it MUST be followed through with a response – or else.  If the horse bites, crowds, spooks, or drags you into the grass, etc. you MUST do something to punish that unwanted behavior.

Clicker training takes a very different course.  This is why I started out the conversation about cues by differentiating them from commands.  In our common vernacular people often use the two terms interchangeably.  Making the distinction begins the journey away from force-based training.  This can be an easy process for some, and a very difficult one for others.  When a horse bites at you or pushes into you, it is such a natural knee-jerk reaction to want to DO something about it.

Instead we need to step back and take the time to describe what we WANT our horses to do.  Then we need to figure out how to arrange the environment so that’s the behavior we get.  Cues are the green lights that ask for those desired behaviors.

Playing with Cues
If you’re an experienced clicker trainer, this is all review.  You know this, but here is something you may not have thought about.

You can’t play with commands.  Or if you are, only one of you is having fun.  Your horse is working hard to stay out of trouble.  That’s not play.  There are other words to describe this kind of interaction, and they aren’t very nice.

That’s why this distinction is so important.  It’s not just that we want to be nice.  PLAY is important for healthy brain function.  If you have people around you urging you to be tougher, now you have a great reason to ignore them.  Force-based training with it’s use of commands will get results, but it will have a very different emotional outcome than the one that is generated from the PLAY-based training use of cues.

Coming next: Part 2: Playing with Cues: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues
Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues

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  (kurlanda@verizon.net)

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: Pt. 1: Ch 2 Animal Emotions – Affective Neuroscience

Joy Full Horses title page cover

If you are new to this series, this article is part of a book which I am publishing here on this site.  I suggest you begin with the first article published on January 2, 2016 https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/01/02/

 

Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions continued

In the previous section I introduced you to Virginia Morrel’s book “Animal Wise”.  In her book Morrell shares the work of scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition.  That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

ratAffective Neuroscience
Virginia Morrell gives a wonderful summary of Panksepp’s work in a chapter entitled “The Laughter of Rats”.  It’s a great primer to prepare you for Panksepp’s own books on Affective Neuroscience.  For those of you for whom this is a new term, Morrell supplies us with a simple definition: that’s the zone where neurons, emotions and cognition meet.  The question here is how does the brain generate emotional feelings and what impact (affect) do these feelings have on behavior?

Panksepp sees emotions as evolutionary skills that help animals survive and reproduce.  Evolution is a conservative process meaning structures tend to be preserved and reused rather than discarded.  We can use mice and rats in medical studies because their biochemistry is so similar to our own.  So why should we think the nervous system is any different when it comes to recycling existing structures?

Panksepp titled his second book “The Archaeology of the Mind”.  It’s a great title.  Just as an archaeologist can study past cultures by digging down through layers of sediment, the neuroscientist can study the evolution of cognition by going down through the layers of the brain.  We share the same ancient structures with all other species of mammals.  We are not separate from other animals.  We share a common heritage, and Panksepp now has evidence to support the idea that that means we also share common emotional experiences.

By electrically stimulating the brains of rats and guinea pigs Panksepp has identified seven emotional systems found in the mammalian subcortex.  These seven systems serve similar functions in the animals he has studied.  When he talks about these systems he writes them in capital letters to differentiate them from our vernacular use of these terms.  I will follow this practice here.

The Seven Affective Emotional Systems
The SEEKER System is the most primitive and extensive of the seven systems. The SEEKER circuit is activated when a healthy animal explores it’s environment.  It needs to know where it’s resources are, where to look for food and water, shelter and mates.  When people talk about the SEEKER circuit, they often use someone’s love of shopping as a modern example of this system in action.

Karen Pryor has speculated that the SEEKER system is activated by clicker training.  That’s why we see such enthusiasm and eagerness to engage in the training.  It isn’t so much about the food that comes after the click, as it is the hunt for the right solution.

It’s easy to see how the SEEKER system applies to dogs and other predators.  They have to hunt for their prey, so it’s no wonder dogs love clicker training.  But horses?  They live on a carpet of grass.  How does this relate to them?

Even horses need a strong SEEKER System.  They may live on a carpet of grass, but they still need to find the bits that haven’t been recently grazed.  They need to know where the water holes are, especially in a dry climate.  They need to know where to find shelter in a storm, and what the best routes are out of a canyon should they be chased by predators.

I came to appreciate the SEEKER system in a rather odd way.  I don’t know about you, but I am a mouse rescuer.  When one of my cats comes parading past me with a mouse or baby rabbit dangling out of her mouth, another of Panksepp’s primary systems sends me into action.  The nurturing CARE system makes it impossible for me to see an animal in distress without wanting to do something about it.  Yes, I know mice are considered pests and all that, but mice also have emotional lives.  They are amazing creatures.

A Courageous Mouse

aa composter

I’m going to digress for a moment.  At the new barn we use an O2 composting system for the manure.  Instead of creating a  large manure pile somewhere – hopefully out of sight – and leaving it over a period of a year or more to rot down, manure goes into a cement bay.  When the bay is filled, a pump forces air through the pile.   You can see how this is done by looking at the photo.  The empty bay in the middle shows two rows of wooden slats. These cover a trough in the floor.  Air is pumped into this trough and up into the pile through holes drilled in the slats.   This not only speeds up the composting process, the intense heat from the rotting manure kills weed seeds, insects and parasites.  In three months it can produce a high quality compost that can go directly back onto the fields as fertilizer or into the garden.  And because the manure is contained throughout the process in the cement bays, there’s no unsightly muck heap in the barn yard.

aa flowers and composter.png

Some of the flowers produced by the compost

We don’t have a tractor so when a bay is ready to be emptied, I do that by hand – wheel barrow by wheel barrow.  It’s a time consuming process but well worth the effort.  As I shovel in yet another wheel barrow full of compost, I think of the flowers that will be growing out of it later.

One cool fall day I was emptying the composter, digging in with my pitch fork when I disturbed a mother mouse and her nest filled with babies.  She scurried out from under my pitch fork with seven almost-grown babies clinging to her belly.   She ran up what was for her a mountain of manure to the top of the composter.

There she was confronted with a sheer cliff many times higher aa composter pilethan herself.  One of her babies had lost it’s grip.  She paused just long enough to give it time to reattach itself to her belly, and then she scaled the cement wall, ran across the wooden planks of the walkway at the back of the composter, and disappeared into the safety of the mouse tunnels she must have known she would find on the other side.

I was in awe.  What courage. Am I projecting human emotions onto a mouse?  Maybe. But I will still call it heroic what she did, especially pausing long enough to carry all of her babies to safety.  She could so easily have left that one behind to save the others.  She could have kept herself safe and simply abandoned them all.  We have much to learn from the dedication of that little mouse to all of her offspring.

The Cat Dilemma
So when one of my cats come meowing proudly through the house showing off some little mouse that she has brought back for me, I turn into a rescuer. But I am always in a quandary.  I hate the way a cat will play with a mouse before she kills it.  I want to rescue the mouse and set it free.  But am I really doing it a favor?  Who knows how far the cat has come.  When I release the mouse, will it be able to find it’s way back to the safety of its nest, or am I condemning it to a slow death by starvation?

I always do rescue the mouse, but for years I worried if this was really the best thing to do.  And then at one of my clinics I got the answer.  During our Friday evening introductions, one of the participants said he was a field biologist.  He looked the part.  I could easily see him tromping through the woods of northern Minnesota, radio tracking equipment on his back, following a pack of wolves.  I’m sure you can conjure up your own picture based on all the nature programs you’ve watched on TV.  I asked him what species he studied.  His answer: mice.

“Oh,” piped up another attendee, “Are you an exterminator?”

Hardly.  It turns out he loves mice.  He was studying an endangered species that lives in the coastal sand dunes of North Carolina.  Here was the perfect person to ask about my dilemma.  Was I doing the mice I rescued any favor.  I was very much delighted to hear that, yes absolutely, the mice would know how to orient back to their nests and stored food supplies.

It turns out mice can travel huge distances over the course of a single night.  They are updating the map of their territories.  They need to know where their resources are.  Where is the grass that is about to seed, the berries that are about to ripen?  Hearing this gave me a much deeper understanding of the SEEKER system and the primary role it plays in an animal’s life.

To be continued . . .

In the next installment I’ll continue to explore the Seven Affective Emotional Systems identified by Jaak Panksepp.  Next up is RAGE.

JOY Full Horses: Part 1: Why Play?

Joy Full Horses title page coverI’ve teased you with an introduction to this book, and with the Table of Contents.  Now finally here is Part 1: Why Play!

This is a short section – just to get your feet wet.  Enjoy!

 

 

blue bar

Part One: Why Play?

Panda scrabble - leaning against me

When science and art come together,
they become indistinguishable from play.

blue bar

Chapter 1: Mammals Play

Fengur Sindri rearing 5:19:13

 

Airplane Reading
When you travel by plane as often as I do, you begin to know all the major airports in the country.  I can tell you which ones have free internet access and electrical outlets at your seat, and which ones force you to sit on the floor to recharge your computer.  I can tell you which airports have decent food and which ones assume that the entire traveling public wants to eat junk food.  I can also tell you where all the good bookstores are.  I enjoy browsing through airport bookstores.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed by an overabundance of choice in the mega bookstores, the airport bookstores are confined to cubbyhole spaces.  They give you just a small sampling of what is current and popular.

What I want for traveling is what I call airplane reading – nothing too heavy.  I mean that both physically – I may have a long walk between gates and my backpack is already weighed down with my computer and camera equipment.  And I also want something that’s light enough reading to let me dip in and out as I nap on the plane.

I often check out the business and science sections where I’ll find titles that might not otherwise have crossed my radar.  That’s how I spotted a book on play, called appropriately enough “Play”.  For a long time, whenever I referred to this book, I could never remember the author’s name.  I finally tracked down my copy for the express purpose of being able to reference the author in a talk I was preparing.  It was written by Stuart Brown.

Stuart Brown. How was I going to remember that?

Stuart is easy.  Stuart is Stuart Little from E.B. White’s charming children’s book.  And if we are thinking about children’s books, then, of course, we have Paddington Bear, and that gives you the author’s name. Not sure of the connection?  Paddington Bear lived with the Browns.  Hence Stuart Brown.

That’s a playful way to remember the author of a book on Play.

Stuart Brown book covers

Why Do Animals Play?
Stuart Brown is an M.D. who has studied play.  In his book he posed an interesting question.  Play carries with it enormous metabolic costs and genetic risks.  Two horses playing mock stallion battles are not only expending a great deal of energy, they are exposing themselves to possible injury.  In the wild if they miscalculate and one of them is injured, that horse could very quickly be out of the gene pool.  So given this, why is play so prevalent?  It’s not just people and puppies who play.  You’ll find play behavior across all species of mammals.

aa Iceys play in snow 3 pictures caption

It’s not my intention here to give a detailed review of Brown’s book.  The main point he was making is that regardless of the evolutionary forces that led to the prevalence of play, what we are left with is this conclusion: play is important for the development of healthy brains.

When you compare brain scans of individuals who have been play deprived with those who are living in enriched environments with many opportunities for play, you see a marked difference.  Should you wish to, I’ll leave it to you to explore this in more detail.  You can begin with the lighter read of Brown’s book and then move on to the work of neuroscientist and play specialist, Jaak Panksepp.  And if you want even more, their books will give you plenty of additional references to explore.

The launching point for what I’ll be covering is this basic premise: play is important for healthy brains.  That means it is important for our horses, and, equally, it is important for us.  As I explore what play means in the context of training, I will be focusing my attention on both ends of the lead rope. I’ll be looking at what it means for both the horse and the handler to be engaging in play.

aa crackers basketball

blue bar

Part 1: Chapter 2:  Animal Emotions

aa crackers hit ball

Bob Viviano and Crackers – Great partners who knew how to play and to share their connection with others.

Is Your Training Fun?
When we think about clicker training, we often think about play.  After all, we’re often using clicker training to teach some very playful behaviors.  But just because you are having your horse kick a beach ball, doesn’t necessarily mean either one of you is having fun.  If you’re so caught up in the science behind the training, if you’re thinking about what the discriminative stimulus is for kicking the ball and whether you should be using a least reinforcing stimulus after that last miss, your brain may be processing the interaction in a way that’s a long way away from play.

If you’re concentrating on your handling skills, if you’re thinking about the timing of your click, and whether your hand is staying out of the treat pouch between clicks, again you may be a long way away from play.  It’s easy to get so caught up in “getting things right” that play drops out of the equation.  The function of these articles is to remind you that we need to keep bringing play back to the forefront of our training.

I mentioned Jaak Panksepp earlier.  His work is getting a great deal of attention at the moment within the clicker community.  Karen Pryor gets the credit for this.  Karen Pryor is one of the very early pioneers in clicker training.  Her book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog” has introduced thousands of people to this modern form of animal training.  Karen wanted to know what the neuroscientists could tell us about how the click is processed in the brain. In her book, “Reaching the Animal Mind” she talked about the SEEKER system, one of the seven primary emotional states Panksepp has identified.  It is the SEEKER system that Pryor attributes to the enthusiasm and – dare I say it – joy we see in our clicker-trained animals.

Animal Wise
Panksepp has been studying what was once a forbidden area in science – emotions in animals.  Here’s another “airplane” book I’ll recommend, Animal Wise by Virginia Morell.  Morrell begins her book with the following:

“Animals have minds.  They have brains, and use them, as we do: for experiencing the world, for thinking and feeling, and for solving the problems of life every creature faces.  Like us, they have personalities, moods, and emotions; they laugh and they play.  Some show grief and empathy and are self-aware and very likely conscious of their actions and intents.

Not so long ago, I would have hedged these statement, because the prevailing notion held that animals are more like robotic machines, capable of responding with only simple, reflexive behaviors.  And indeed there are still researchers who insist that animals are moving through life like the half dead, but those researchers are so 1950s. They’ve been left behind as a flood of new research from biologists, animal behaviorists, evolutionary and ecological biologists, comparative psychologists, cognitive ethologists, and neuroscientists sweeps away old ideas that block the exploration of animal minds.  The question is now not “Do animals think?”  It’s “How and what do they think?”

Hurray!  Finally people are coming around to my view of animals as intelligent, very aware beings with rich emotional lives.  I know this goes against strong cultural biases.  But where did this notion that animals do not think come from?  Why do scientists have such a horror of being accused of being anthropomorphic (attributing human mental abilities to an animal)? How can we deny the evidence we see in every interaction we have with our horses, with our cats and dogs?

Outdated Belief Systems
Morrell points out in her introduction that this idea that animals do not think or have emotions as we know them is an old one. Aristotle did not believe that animals could think rationally, but he did at least grant that they experienced physical sensations such as hunger and pain, and they could be angry.

It turns out that Aristotle represented an “enlightened” view of animals – even with all of it’s limitations.   Later philosophers denied that “animals had any thoughts, emotions, or sensations and therefore we did not need to extend any moral consideration to them.” (Morrell)

Belief systems are a curious thing.  There’s that wonderful line that crops up during political discussions: you wouldn’t want a little thing like facts to get in the way of a good argument.  It applies here, as well. Belief systems become self supporting.  We tend to attract experiences that support our belief systems.  I find it beyond comprehension that anyone could deny the emotionally rich life that animals have.  You have only to sit on a panicked horse who has been separated from his herd to know very directly the emotions he’s feeling!

But I suppose there will be those who would say I’m just delusional.  I’m the one attracting evidence to support a faulty belief system.  Perhaps.  But I am no longer alone.  If you want a good read, add Animal Wise to your list.  Morrell has been visiting with scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition.  That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions: Affective Neuroscience

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