Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 2 Goats are Like Horses Except That They’re Not

The Goat Palace – Nov. 16, 2017

Yesterday I wrote that structure matters.  The day’s training sessions confirmed it.  Things went so much more smoothly with the panels in place.  Thanzi has figured out our system.  She is now first at the gate ready to shift into the back area.  She’s becoming much more consistent orienting to and following a target.  She also has no interest in shifting back to the front area after her session, so we let Trixie join her. I’d like to work them one after the other, but Thanzi disagrees with that system. So yesterday she got a second targeting session with Marla while I worked with Trixie.

We were more successful than we had been the day before. Thanzi stayed better with Marla which let me focus on Trixie. I’m using my hand as a target with her.  I target with one hand, feed with the other. She’s becoming increasingly comfortable approaching me and staying with me rather than running to Thanzi for security.

We left them and set the panels up for the boys.  We have three different goats so they got three very different sessions.  Pellias was reinforced for staying on a platform, something he excels at.  Galahad had another protective contact session orienting to the target while we stayed outside the enclosure.  He did great.  He went consistently to the target, moved several steps to get his treat and then returned to his target.

We’ll see how he progresses, but I suspect starting this way will give him a very strong targeting skill.  When you reduce the noise in the system, the behavior you’re after can really stand out.  Our presence in the pen adds a lot of extra noise.

For Elyan, I built on yesterday’s session where I had him follow a target around me in a circle.  If he had been a horse, I would have said he was lunging around me.  Towards the end of his session I hooked his lead to his collar.  We were picking up on lessons I had started in July.  He continued to follow his target, and he kept slack in the lead.  I remarked that it is so much easier to teach leading when there is no where to go.

So yes, structure matters.  In the case of these five goats structure lets us work them individually without the chaos and competition that having them all together creates.  I had originally thought we would be able to have all the goats together in the back area while we let them one at a time into the front training area, but I hadn’t factored in Thanzi’s influence.  She is too aggressive to the younger goats for this to work.  So structure matters because it lets us adjust our training to include considerations of the social structure of the group, as well as the needs of each individual.

In the evening this time it was Pellias who stayed on the platform for a cuddle and Elyan who watched from the back training area.  The ladies were at the hay feeders.  Galahad scooted past them but then discovered that Pellias didn’t want to share his top spot on the platform.  He wanted all the scritching to himself.  I stayed for quite a while, then left via the back gate so I could give Elyan a few minutes of attention as well.  The ladies so far want nothing from me except food.  They will approach to sniff my hands, but they scoot away if I try to touch them.

Onto the July Goat Diaries:

Clicker Training Day 2: Goats Are Like Horses Except That They’re Not

Platform Training Begins

I use mats a lot when I work with horses.  In fact mats are such a useful tool, learning to stand on a mat is one of the six foundation lessons I use to introduce a horse to clicker training.  The more you play with mats the more uses you find for them. Many horses begin by being wary of the strange surface. So the first step in using mats is to convince the horse that they are safe to stand on.

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Think door mat size for mats.  You can use plywood, rubber mats, carpet squares.  You want something that contrasts with the underlying surface.

Standing on a mat highlights one of those places where goats are like horses – except they’re not. They are like horses in that mats are also an incredibly useful tool for them. They are unlike horses in that they are mountain animals. They like being up on things. They had already demonstrated that they were more than happy to jump up on the platform I provided for them in their stall.  They didn’t need any special training to begin exploring that bit of environmental enrichment.

Normally with horses it would take multiple training sessions before they would be comfortable stepping up onto an elevated platforms. These goats might have been afraid of me on that first day they were in the stall, but they were very willing to jump up and play king of the mountain on the platform.

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The goats were very willing to jump up on the platform I built for them.

Normally, for the horses I use pieces of plywood, or rubber mats, but I wasn’t sure the goats would even notice these.  Given their lack of concern over changes in footing, I thought my usual mats might not be very effective.  Would they even notice that there was something different underfoot?

I decided that their mats should be platforms.  If one foot slipped off, they were much more likely to be aware of it and to self-correct.  That would be less frustrating for them than asking them to care about whether or not their nimble feet were all four on a regular mat.

5th Session 7 pm: King of the Hill – Platforms

Horses were again my guide as I thought about what to do next. P had so many good traits. He was a quick learner. He was eager for attention. He was greedy for treats. He was full of energy.  That makes him a fun candidate to train. But all that eagerness can get in the way.  He reminded me of some of the clicker-trained dogs that I see.  They share these same good characteristics that make them fun to train.  They are quick, eager, agile, and very food motivated.  It’s easy to get them so excited during training, they can’t think. They become so fixated on the food they are unable to settle. It’s go, go, go, with anxious tight movement and emotions to match.

These goats could easily become like one of those over-excited dogs. They were in the game. They wanted the food. They were quick, agile, eager to play. It’s easy to get carried away and reinforce all this playful, full-of-life behavior. But the training mantra is:

For every behavior you teach, there is an opposite behavior you must teach to keep things in balance.

With these goats it was clear emotional balance was going to be important. I needed a way to let them know that standing still was a good thing. It would bring them more treats than anything else they tried.

With horses I have always used mats to help teach “stay put”. The mat gives the horse a clear criterion to follow. Keep your feet planted on the mat and you will get clicked and reinforced.

As busy as the goats were, I wasn’t sure they would notice a simple mat. I thought platforms might work better for them, and I already knew that they liked being up on things. Unlike horses who tend to be wary about stepping onto unfamiliar surfaces, I didn’t think getting them up on a platform would be a challenge for them.

I began with P in the outside run. He was ready before I was!  He went right to his platform and got clicked and reinforced for staying on it. This was so unlike horses who would have needed a lengthy introduction to mats and platforms. There are some advantages to working with a mountain climber!

Goat Diaries Day 2 P on Platform 7 panels

I used targeting to get P off the platform. I didn’t want to keep him up there so long it became the one and only thing he was willing to do. I wanted him to understand that there are many ways to get reinforced, including leaving the platform to go to a target.

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He threw in a little backing as he returned to the platform. After being reinforced so much for backing in the previous sessions, this was not a surprise.

Goat diaries Day 2 backing up.pngHe came up forward again to go onto the platform.  Once up there, I reinforced him several times for staying on it.

Goat diaries Day 2 Platforms -  2 photos return to platform.pngAgain, I targeted him off. Click and treat. He wanted to back up. So he backed up then came forward with tons of energy to the platform. Hmm. I need to think about that.

“Don’t make your animal wrong for something you have taught him.”

That’s another of my training mantras. The backing was clearly a lesson well learned. In the previous sessions backing had produced treats. But backing wasn’t always going to be what I was looking for.

Too much of a good thing can get in the way of learning new lessons. I didn’t want to frustrate him and send him into the downward spiral of an extinction burst, but I also didn’t want backing to be inserted into everything that I trained. I needed to expand his repertoire so I could keep the backing in balance with all the other things I wanted him to do. Teaching him to stand on a platform was an important next step in this process.

Video: Goat Diaries Day 2 Platforms (The password to open this video is: GoatDiariesDay 2 P Platforms)

If these photos and the short video clip were all I showed you of this session, you would think all was smooth sailing. This goat training is easy!

But immediately after all this good work, P backed off the platform. I invited him forward with the target. He trotted back to the platform. The added energy tipped the balance.  He jumped up several times. I’ve seen behavior like this before, but it’s usually coming from an overly excited dog.  With dogs it can be entertaining, even flattering when your family pet jumps up on you with such enthusiasm.  But with horses this kind of behavior will just get you hurt.  It’s not a behavior I want to encourage in horse or goat.

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Video Goat Diaries Day 2/ Excitement  (The password that opens this video is: GoatDiariesDay 2 P Platforms)

I got myself clear, got us reorganized, and P went back to being able to stay four feet on the floor.  I restored his good manners by keeping my rates of reinforcement high.  It was click for staying still on the platform – feed.  Click for staying still on the platform – feed.  I wanted to emphasize that four feet on the floor worked much better than jumping up.

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We were doing a fair bit of sorting/experimenting when the neighbors two dogs came out along the top fence line. One is a great Dane cross and the other is a dachshund. The little dog was moving about in a very odd way that caught everyone’s attention. One of the horses went on the alert. P tried to jump back into the stall and didn’t make it. I opened the door and tried to let him back in, but E came out instead. They both stood transfixed staring up at the dogs. Then the neighbor started weed whacking. That was too much.

The goats stared, tuning me out completely.  They needed to work this out on their own.  The environment is always changing.  They needed to decide what was a threat and what was just normal background noise.   I sat in the chair with them for a while, then went to get some hay to entice them back into the stall. P finally went in. I tried a little targeting, but he was having none of it. They went back and forth, in and out before I finally got them both in and closed the door. This time I closed the top as well as the bottom. I wasn’t going to have any more unwanted escapes.

Once in the stall, they settled right away. I gave them fresh hay which helped them forget the scare they had just had. While they were eating, I stood next to them and stroked their backs. They stopped eating and didn’t move. That seemed like such an odd reaction. Couldn’t they walk and chew gum? When they were touched, why did they stop eating? I read it as worry. It almost looked as though they were freezing.

With horses when you scritch them, you look for their lips to twitch. You look for a softening of the eyes, an arch of the neck as they move into your hand. With the goats I saw none of this. I couldn’t find any good places to scratch or any this-feels-great-don’t-stop spots. They accepted the stroking, but they weren’t seeking it out.

In the evening Panda’s owner, Ann, came out to the barn.  Ann is a partner in the barn and her Icelandic, Fengur is one of our permanent residents.  Ann is blind so she hadn’t really had a chance yet to meet the goats.  On the first evening when they wanted nothing to do with people, all I’d been able to do was describe their behavior.  Now for the first time, she could begin to interact with them.  When she went into the stall with me, the goats stayed at the hay bucket. She was able to stroke both of them, which I took as real progress.  P stood better for her than E.   E quickly scooted away, clearly worried by a person he didn’t know.

Ann went off to take care of Fengur. I stayed and brought out my chair again. I was beginning to think of this last session of the day as cuddle time. After the excitement of all these training sessions, it seemed important that I spend some time just hanging out with the goats. I took my chair in and sat with them while they ate hay.  If they came over, they got scratched. My rule was I could touch them, but I could not restrain them in any way. If they wanted to leave, I let them.

The goats were going to be with me for such a short time, I wanted to stack the deck as much as I could in my favor. I didn’t want to be just a treat dispenser. I wanted the treats, the puzzles, the entertainment, the time spent just hanging out to all add up to a real relationship. One of the common metaphors that trainers often use is they equate relationship building to building up a bank account. The “cuddle” time I was spending with these goats felt as though I was depositing gold bricks into my account.

I was also making some interesting discoveries about goats. Years ago I had three llamas. True to their species’ reputation for aloofness none of them liked being handled. These goats were not at all like the llamas. They were starting to seek out my attention.

My horses enjoy a good scratch, but the goats were different again. What they were really like were cats. All the ways cats enjoy having their heads rubbed and their chins scratched these goats seemed to love. I was beginning to see a tiny wiggle of the lips as I scratched them around their ears and the base of their horns. Their eyes were getting softer, and their ears were definitely getting floppier. If only they could purr, they would have been perfect!

I was also making another interesting discovery.

P was considerably bigger than little E. He was much bolder, much more of an adventurer. But when it came to hay and cuddles, E was the pushy one. When I set the hay bucket down for them, it was E who pulled the hay away with his foot. If P tried to share, E would butt him away. I tried spreading the hay out in separate piles so P could have some. E claimed them all and left P only what could be scrounged along the edges.

E loved having his head and back scratched. If P was under my hand first, he got butted away. E would then station himself by my side. If I stopped scratching him, he would lean into me or give me a gentle nudge with his nose to remind me that I needed to keep scratching. P could stand on my other side and was allowed a scratch as well, just as long as I kept my fingers going for E.

Their coats were also so very different. I was enjoying the contrast. P’s coat was soft and deep. You could sink your hands into his undercoat of luxurious cashmere. E’s long guard hairs gave a very different feel. His coat wasn’t soft to the touch and he was much bonier, but he so loved being scratched he was even more reinforcing.

Goat Diaries Day 2 Cuddle Time.png

How To Scratch a Goat

 

Coming Next: Goat Diaries Day 3 of Clicker Training

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/ 

 

 

 

Deer Fencing – A Great Example of Everything is Connected

 

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The view in winter out my window

I recently took the deer fencing down.  That may not sound like a horse training topic, but it turned out to be a perfect example of one of my favorite training mantras: everything is connected to everything else.

The deer fencing protects a sprawling, low-growing evergreen.  I let the deer eat most of my garden, but this tree I protect.  Every fall the fencing goes up.  And in the spring it comes down.  That means taking down the plastic fencing I use and then pulling the metal fence stakes out of the ground.  After I had rolled up and put away the fencing, I tackled the fence posts.  I took a firm hold of the first stake, expecting it to come easily out of the soft spring ground.  It didn’t move.  I changed my grip, and it slipped out of the ground.  The image of a warm knife cutting through butter came to mind.  What was the difference?  Simple answer – bone rotations.

As I pulled up the rest of the stakes, it occurred to me that this would be a great way to let people practice the rope handling technique that you use to get a horse to lift his head up from grass. ‘Tis the season when the grass is calling with a Siren’s song to our horses.  In traditional training we are taught to fight the grass.  The horse MUST NOT drag us to grass. This sometimes keeps clicker trainers from seeing grass for what it is  – a wonderfully convenient source of reinforcement.  Instead we struggle to keep our horses from plunging their heads down to graze.

No one enjoys being dragged to grass. So how do you change this picture? One answer is to change how you view the grass. Your horse wants it. Great! That means you can use it to reinforce behavior YOU want. Instead of trying to stop him from diving for the grass, you’ll be looking for opportunities to let him graze.

This lesson is connected to something else I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and that’s frames.  Here I’m not talking about picture frames, though that’s a good metaphor for them.  I’m referring to the mental constructs that George Lakoff describes in his books, “Your Brain’s Politics” and “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.

Frames contain things

Whether frames are the kind we hang on a wall or the kind we form around ideas, frames contain things.  According to Lakoff, we organize facts within a frame of reference.  Facts that fit within a given frame are easily processed.  Others bounce off these frames as though they don’t even exist.  Either that or we push back against them because they don’t fit comfortably within the frame.  There’s no structure, no way to relate to them so the new idea might just as well not exist.

Frames both include and exclude facts

If you’ve always resisted letting your horse have grass during training, the following lesson is a great opportunity to practice expanding your frame to let some new ideas in. The first step is to decide that you’re going to give this approach a try.  That’s a lot more inviting than facing another summer-long battle with your horse over access to grass.

You can’t just suddenly declare that the grass is a reinforcer and expect smooth sailing.  You need to go through a teaching process for your horse to understand how to behave on grass.  I’m going to assume a general understanding of clicker training.  If you haven’t yet introduced your horse to the basics of clicker training, you’ll want to do that first.  I’ll refer you to my web sites for details (theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com)

Many of us have to hand-graze our horses to acclimate them to spring grass.  This is the perfect opportunity for this lesson. (If you need an easier starting point, you can begin in a paddock and use small piles of hay.) The idea is that you are going to teach your horse to leave food in order to get food.

For this lesson on transforming grass into a useful reinforcer here are the steps:

Begin by taking your horse out to graze. Don’t try to keep him from the grass. (If you are using hay piles scattered around your training space, let him take you to the hay. Don’t resist.) Let him eat for a couple of minutes. As he begins to settle and relax, you can start the lesson.

1.) Use your lead to ask your horse to lift his head up. He may ignore you at first, but do the best you can. This is where the image of pulling fence posts out of the ground becomes handy.  If you pull straight up on the lead, you’ll feel as though you are playing tug of war against a team of football players.  Your horse’s head won’t budge. Remember when I tried to pull the fence post up with a simple grip, it stayed planted in the ground.  But when I coiled my arm around the post like a vine coiling itself around a stake, it came out easily.

So before you head out with your horse, go practice pulling some metal fence posts out of the ground. Test the effect.  Take a simple grip and see what happens.  If the stake is buried deep into the ground, you won’t be able to pull it out.

Simple versus coiled grip.png

Now coil your arm around the stake.  You’ll feel it lift out with very little effort.  This is the technique you’re going to use on the lead.  You’re going to stand directly over the snap so the lead is perpendicular to the ground.  As you slide your hand down the lead, let your arm coil around it.  You’re now in a position that matches the way you coiled your arm around the metal stake.  Think about how you pulled the stake out of the ground.  You’ll use the same action with your horse.

In the past you may have had to yank, tug, and plead to get your horse to “come up for air”. Now suddenly his head is popping up.  It can’t be this easy!

Even if your horse feels as though he’s one of those stakes that is well and truly cemented into the ground, you’ll still be able to pry his head up with considerably less effort than you would have had to use in the past.  As his head begins to lift, be ready for the next step in this lesson.

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2.) As soon as he starts to lift his head, click and offer him a treat.

3.) Keeping the lead fairly short, fold your hands together at your waist. This base position is part of a lesson I call  “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  With both hands folded together, if your horse tries to pull down to get to the grass, you’ll be able to anchor the lead to your body.   It’s surprising how solid you can be in this position.  From your horse’s point of view, it’s as though he’s tied to a well anchored post.

This only works if you have a fairly short lead so he can’t get too far down to the grass.  If your lead is too long, you’ll lose your leverage advantage.

Your horse is going to try and drop his head back down to the grass. With your hands anchoring the lead, you are essentially holding him as if he was tied to a post. As soon as he stops trying to pull down (even for an instant), click. Offer him a treat, and then anchor your hands again to your waist.

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Panda would love to keep eating.  The short lead tells her to go into “grown-ups” instead.

Repeat this several times and then, click, give him his treat and let him drop his head down to eat grass.

Let him graze a little, then again, standing directly over the snap, coil your arm around the lead.  When you’re in position, rotate your arm so the “stake pops out of the ground”. As your horse lifts his head up, click and treat, then anchor your lead by standing in “grown-ups”.  Remember that means you’ll have both hands held together at your waist, and the lead will be short.

As soon as he stops pulling down, again you’ll click and treat.  Repeat this part of the pattern several times.  Release him to the grass when you see a noticeable improvement in his behavior. The behavior you’re heading towards is his side of the “grown-ups” picture.  That means he’s standing beside you with slack in the lead.  His head is about level with his chest and he’s looking straight ahead.  In other words he looks like a settled, well-mannered horse standing politely beside you.  If a friend were with you, the “grown-ups” could talk, and your horse would be waiting patiently beside you.

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A lovely result: this horse can stand on her own over grass without needing any reminders from the lead. She’ll get a click and a treat for this desirable behavior.

Instead of fighting the grass, you are now using it to reinforce the behavior you want. When you ask him to lift his head, your horse will begin to come up faster.  Instead of trying to dive back down to eat grass, he’ll shift on his own into “grown-ups”.  He knows he’s going to get reinforced for standing beside you with his head up.  And he also knows you’re going to let him eat more grass.  Instead of being anxious about getting to the grass, now he can relax and stand beside you keeping slack in the lead.

Paddy leading on grass 2

Lots of temptation under foot, but note how relaxed this horse is leading over the grass.

Once he’s coming up readily, you can ask him to walk a few steps to get to another patch of grass. At first, just go a couple of steps, then stop. People tend to want to keep going once they have a horse in motion, but this can undo the good work you’ve been establishing.  Go too far and the Siren’s call of the grass may overwhelm your horse.  So go just a couple of steps, stop and ask for grown-ups. As soon as he settles, which means he’s able to keep slack in the line because he’s not trying to go down for the grass, click, and let him graze.

On the search for good grass

On the search for good grass. Note the slack in the lead. This horse isn’t anxious about getting to the grass because he knows he’ll be given the opportunity to graze.

You can turn this into a game in which you are helping him find the best grass. From his point of view, you’ll probably be an incompetent grass hunter.  We humans seem to be drawn to the grass that our horses don’t want to eat.  We pick the long, extra green grass.  They want the stubby weeds.  But even if we take them to less than ideal spots, they do seem to understand that we’re on their side.  We’re trying to find them good grass.  It’s a great way to build a deep connection with your equine partner.

As you expand this basic lesson, you’ll be able train on grass without it becoming a distraction. In fact, when your horse does something you especially like, you’ll be able to thank him by letting him graze. What was once a major distraction will be instead a handy reinforcer. Leaving the grass will no longer be a problem.  Your horse knows he’s going to be able to graze again.  When you’re ready to move on, he’ll come away from the grass without a fuss. Your horse will be relaxed and ready for more work, and you’ll have a great new way to say  you for a job well done!

You’ve learned how to do this because everything is connected to everything else. Pulling up garden stakes has taught you the skill needed for asking a horse to come away from grass.  You’ve also learned that you can change long-held habits of thought. Instead of pushing against the grass and fighting your horse over every mouthful he snatches, you’ve found a way to transform it into a reinforcer.  That’s a great way to begin transforming other habits of thought that get in the way of creating a positive connection with your horse.

Happy grazing everyone!

Whisper walking away