Goat Diaries Day 5 – E Leads the Way

This is going to be a fairly long post because at long last we have come to leading.  We lead many of our animals, horses, dogs, even cats and rabbits.  Always the question is what has the animal learned?  Has he simply given in to avoid being dragged?  Or have we worked in a fair and systematic way to teach him how to respond to the tactile information a lead presents?

E in particular is a tiny animal.  I could so easily MAKE him follow me on a lead.  Making isn’t teaching. Too many of our animals – both small and large – learn that they MUST.  At it’s core, the lead communicates do-it-or-else.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I am hoping that as I describe the teaching process with these small animals, it will help people understand how leads can be used in a very clicker-compatible way with our horses.

Lots of Roads

There is always more than one way to teach every behavior.  That’s definitely the theme both of what I’m writing about today and what I’m working on with the goats.  This is good news because it means you can very much tailor your training to the individual needs of your learner, to the constraints of your training environment, to your own personal ethics, to your training skills and physical abilities, and to the ways in which a particular behavior is going to be used in the future.  The beauty of clicker training is it is wonderfully creative and flexible.

That’s also why we sometimes get “camps”, with each group convinced that they have the “best”, “right”, “only” way to train.  Sigh.  I want to understand and be good at using lots of different training strategies.

In clinics we tend to focus a lot of our time on learning good rope handling skills.  There are many reasons for this.  Personally, I like work in-hand.  I enjoy the connection, the communication, the lightness of feel that you experience via a lead rope.  Liberty work, riding, ground work, they all connect through an understanding of shaping via a lead.  I love using targets and freeshaping.  That kind of training is loads of fun, but the tactile sensation of a horse connecting with you via a light lead is a delight.

Rope handling is also the hardest of all the training techniques to get right.  It’s so much easier to use a target.  You can’t pull, push, or drag an animal around on a target.  (That doesn’t mean you can’t get an animal into some very contorted positions using targeting.  You just can’t drag him into them.)

The challenge with a lead is to slide to a point of contact and then to wait for the animal to respond by moving his own body.  That takes practice, focus, and attention to details.  And for many it also means changing some old habits.  So in clinics the spotlight is often turned towards rope handling. That’s not because other teaching strategies such as targeting aren’t equally valid, but because rope handling is the one that gains the most from direct coaching.

Being Creative
I recognize that there are many ways to train every behavior.  We have broad categories of teaching strategies, and then within each of those we have so many different training options.  Look at how many different ways I can use something as basic as a target to teach the same behavior.  How creative and inventive can you be?  One of the most creative trainers that I’ve had the privilege to watch is Kay Laurence (learningaboutdogs.com).  With Thanzi and Trixie my current version of being creative is to explore (and probably totally corrupt) her version of using a target stick with a cup on the end.  I described the beginnings of that training in the previous post.

Another very creative trainer is Michele Pouliot.  Michele is well known both in the world of guide dog training and canine musical freestyle.  As the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, (the largest school for guide dogs in the US), Michele was able to convert their entire training program to clicker training.  She’s now consulting widely helping other schools transition their programs to clicker training. Talk about training skill! It is one thing to train an animal.  It is something else again to change the entire training culture within an organization.

Michele’s most recent training hobby has been canine musical freestyle.  That’s choreographed dance routines with your dog.  As a member of the Clicker Expo faculty, she has shared her technique of using platforms to teach basic positioning.  It’s a very clever use of environmental prompts.

So with the goats I am making use of all of these techniques.  In July I re-introduced the lead via shaping on a point of contact (my work).  Now that I have the luxury of more time to experiment, I am using Kay’s targeting techniques with Thanzi and Trixie, and Michele’s platform training with Elyan and Pellias.  No technique is more “right” than the others.  It is just fun to explore different ways of teaching.  Every method will produce it’s own good results and it’s own wonderful surprises.  And the more ways I present an idea, the stronger it becomes.

The July Goat Diaries

E’s morning Session

We warmed up with a review of what E already knows.  I had two platforms set up in his stall.  I worked on having him stay on a platform while I stepped back away from him.   Click and treat.  I didn’t want him to get stuck on a platform so after a few clicks and treats on one platform, I used my target to move him to the other platform.  E was his usual sweet self.  I was setting the stage for leading, putting into repertoire the components that would make leading easier for him to learn.

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Part way through his session, I put one of the platforms away and put a lead on him for the first time.  E ignored the presence of the lead and went straight to the platform.  That’s not a surprise since that was what we had just been doing.

“Don’t make them wrong for something you’ve taught them.”

That’s a good training mantra to follow.  I didn’t want to create a conflict between the lead and the platform, so I let the lead go slack as he headed to the platform.  I reinforced him, as before, for staying on the platform.  Now it was time to step down off the platform.

He was stuck.  Following the lead didn’t make sense.  I added in the target, but he was still stuck.

Okay, that was a trial balloon.  The platform wasn’t going to help me with leading.  It was just going to overshadow the prompts from the lead and create confusion.  I needed to think about how best to proceed, so I ended the session.

Leading

In our next session I didn’t set up any platforms.  I wanted E to be able to focus on the information coming from the lead.  It was an advantage that we were working in a small space.  There was nowhere that E particularly wanted to go.  The lead could become what I wanted it to be – a communication tool not a restraint device.

E is tiny.  It would be very easy to drag him with the lead.  That’s not what I wanted.  With the horses I refer to the way in which I use pressure and release of pressure as “shaping on a point of contact”.  I take the slack out of the lead.  That’s my signal that I want something to change.  If E’s feet stick, my rule is I can’t pull him or make the pressure more intense to scare him into moving.  Instead I wait for him to move his own body.  When he shifts in the direction I want, click, I release the lead, and I reinforce him with a treat.

Initially when he moves in response to the lead, I only ask him to go a step or two before I click and treat. I want us both to be successful so I’m only looking for little steps in the right direction. I know these small steps will accumulate fast.

Goat diaries E learning to lead panel 1.png

We ended the session with a back scratch. I let him go out to the outside run, and let P in for a leading session.

Goat Diaries E learning to lead back scratch 1.png

A great end to a great session on leading.

P’s Leading Session

E is so soft.  He readily moves when I move so teaching leading flows easily from that.  P also follows me, but he’s a much stronger goat.  Both goats came to me with a history of begin led.  My understanding was leads were introduced when the goats were small enough to handle.  Typically the goats resist, fight the constraint of the lead and then finally give in and follow the pull of the lead.  I knew both goats could pull like freight trains so it was not a given that P was just going to follow the suggestions I was offering from the lead.

I needed to be attentive to this.  If he didn’t come with me, I needed to pause as soon as I felt the slack going out of the lead.  This is where I would wait.  I’m shaping on a point of contact.   I don’t want to add more pressure to drag him forward.  That’s something people tend to do with any animal they have on a lead whether it is something small like a goat (or dog), or large like a horse.  We pull.  And when the animal digs in it’s heels, we add even more pressure until the animal complies.

The learning here for the animal is to move or be dragged.  After a while a handler can feel very kind and gentle because now you just begin to move off and the animal follows.  But trace the history of this response back to the way it was originally taught, and what you’ll see is the escalating pressure.  This animal appears to be soft, but really he has just agreed to be dragged.  The threat is always there.  If he doesn’t follow the next time, the escalating pressure will return.

This is NOT what I am teaching.  I begin to walk off.  If my learner follows, great.  We can continue on – click and treat.  But if he doesn’t respond to the lead cue, I pause.  It’s as though we’re in a freeze frame of a video.

I always feel as though I am in a film strip where someone has just stopped the projector.  I wait.  I’m not passive.  The intent is clear, but I don’t escalate.  I wait for my learner to move his own body.  That’s what distinguishes shaping on a point of contact from molding.  In molding the handler moves the learner’s body.  The animal learns to comply and follows rather than being dragged forward.

In shaping on a point of contact the animal moves his own body in response to cues from the lead.  This can seem like semantics.  In both you are using a lead.  You are taking the slack out, so there’s pressure either way, but figuring out the puzzle and moving your own body is a completely different kind of puzzle solving compared with just giving in to an increase of pressure.  It produces a very different outcome both emotionally and physically.

Emotionally it creates confident puzzle solvers who WANT to participate.  They aren’t looking for a way out of the “game”.  They want to keep playing.  And physically, it produces lighter, better balanced steps.  You can hear the difference when you listen to animals that have been taught via escalating pressure versus shaping on a point of contact.

As soon as my learner finds the direction I want and puts slack back into the lead, click, he gets reinforced.  This is such an important point.  I want the animals I work with to be comfortable with the lead.  I don’t want them to fear it.  Instead I want the lead to be a predictor of good things.

P’s initial response to having a lead attached told me that was not how he thought about leads.  We were starting out in a training hole of past history which meant I had to be all the more careful in how I handled the lead.

Goat Diaries E learning to lead panel 1.png

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I’m showing the following two photos as a teaching aid.  It’s a case of learning from example, non-example. I don’t mean to pick on the handler’s in these photos.  I could just as easily have taken pictures of the dogs being walked in my neighborhood, or young horses learning how to lead.  We are very good at adding pressure.  In the case of goats and other farm animal this is just standard livestock handling.  It needs to be expedient.  When you are managing a lot of animals, you don’t have time to teach the niceties of leading.  You just need to get the animals moved.  With clicker training we can add another criterion  to this process.  We can move them thoughtfully.  We can move them with kindness.

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goat diaries E being led early leading lesson -1

If you were on the animal’s end of the lead, it’s pretty obvious which style of leading you’d want your handler to be using.  Molding is easy which is why it is so prevalent.  Shaping on a point of contact takes much more deliberate focus.

One of the best ways to appreciate shaping on a point of contact is to experience it from the animal’s end of the lead.  Whether you work with small animals such as these goats or dogs, or big animals such as horses, you will appreciate the difference.

Hold the snap end of the lead while a friend asks you to take a step forward or back.  Try out the different versions.  Don’t step forward as she walks off, but have her continue to walk.  What does it feel like to be dragged?  How balanced are you?

Now have her wait on a point of contact.  When you give to the lead  and step forward, what does that feel like?  If you’ve never handled a lead in this way, the differences may not yet be very clear, but once you begin to understand how to use a lead in this way, there’s no going back.  You will always be looking for the conversation that shaping on a point of contact creates.

Shaping on a point of contact is such an important concept to understand I’ll let it stand on it’s own in this post.  I’ll wait to catch you up with the fun sessions I’ve been having over the last couple of days with the goats.

Please Note: If you want to learn more about rope handling and shaping on a point of contact, please refer to my books, DVDs and on-line course, or come join me at a clinic.  Visit theclickercenter.com for more information.  I’ll also be teaching a lab on rope handling at this year’s Clicker Expos.

Coming next: Don’t Take Score Too Soon

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Remember to share the link to the Goat Diaries with your friends.

 

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.

The July Goat Diaries: Day 4 – Learning About Goats

What are you feeling?

The timing is perfect for posting this particular article.  In it I reference Dr. Joe Layng’s 2016 presentation on emotions at the Art and Science of Animal Training conference.  The organizers of that conference have just made that lecture available on the internet.  It is very much worth listening to. (https://www.artandscienceofanimaltraining.org/videos/)

Today I’m going to begin with the July Goat Diaries:

Both goats were now consistently greeting me at the door.  They were accepting and seemed to be enjoying long head rubs before we began the more structured sessions.

Seemed to be enjoying – there’s an interesting phrase.  We use so many emotional labels.  They enjoyed the session.  They were happy to see me.  How do I know what they were feeling?  The answer is I don’t.  I don’t know what a goat is feeling any more than I know what another person is feeling.

I can observe behavior and see how that correlates with what I experience.  Under these conditions, I feel happy.  When I feel happy, I present the following behaviors: I smile.  I get wrinkles at the corners of my eyes.  I laugh.  My shoulders relax.  Under similar conditions, when I see these indicator behaviors in another person, it’s a fair guess to say that he’s feeling happy.

What conditions would make a goat happy?  What does a happy goat look like?

Several years ago at the Art and Science of Animal Training conference, Joe Layng gave a great talk on emotions.  Here’s the example that stuck with me.  Suppose you’ve been in an accident, a doctor might ask, on a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you in?  What does the answer mean?  We all know people who are running for the nearest hospital if they even so much as stub their toe, while others stoically tolerate broken bones.  And that’s the point Joe was making.  The answer does not reflect some absolute answer.  We can’t know someone else’s pain.  The answer tells you what level of intervention that person is asking for.

When I first scratched the goats, I would say they tolerated the attention.  Now they were enjoying it.  My hand was doing the same action, but the response was so very different.  Now they arched their necks into my fingers.  Their ears got floppy, their eyes soft.  And when I took my hand away, what level of intervention did they ask for?  Did they move away relieved that I had stopped?  Or did they push into me asking for more?

I think I was safe in saying that they were enjoying the head scratching.  But whatever they thought of this ritual, I was finding it most reinforcing!

I used another emotional label to describe P at the start of our next training session.  He was eager.

2nd Session 11 am

P’s Session:

I let P out into the outside run.  I wanted to film this session so I had the camera and tripod with me.  P went straight to the platform.  I should have reinforced him, but I was busy setting up the camera.  Note to self – have camera set up ahead of time.  These initial offerings at the start of a session are too precious to miss.

For the most part P was very good.  He stayed on the platform – click then treat.  When I offered the target, he left the platform to come to the target – click then treat. (Figure 1.)

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Figure 1

He was experiencing success with both responses.  Stay on the platform – get reinforced.  Orient to the target when it’s presented – get reinforced.  All was going well, and then – conflict!  P got stuck between two choices.  What was he supposed to do!?  He wanted to go to the platform.  But I was holding out the target.

He started to leave the platform to get to the target (Fig. 2:1.) , but then he hesitated.  He looked back at the platform.  The pull was strong.  (Fig. 2: 2-3.)

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Figure 2

He went to the platform.  There was no click.  He turned back to me, saw the target, and leapt towards it.  When goats butt one another, they rise up on their hind legs and then curl their necks so they collide horns to horns with their sparing partner. (Figure 3.)

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Figure 3

It looked as though P’s charge was going to turn into a head butt (Fig. 4: 1-4.) , but it fizzled out.  He landed in front of me with a puzzled look.  (Fig. 4: 5-6.) What to do?  He looked back at the platform. (Fig. 4: 7.) That must be the answer.  He turned away from the target and went back to the platform.  (Fig. 4: 8.)  No click.  (Fig. 4: 9.) What is a goat to do?

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SGoat Diaries- Day 4- P's 11 am Session - goes to target 5 photos.png

Figure 4

The target was still there. (Fig. 4: 10.) He left the platform and came forward to the target. Click! (Fig. 4: 11.)  He kept coming forward as I reached into my pocket. (Fig. 4: 12.)  Food delivery should support what you want.  I had been asking him to back up away from me to get his treat, but in this case I wanted him to stay forward with me. (Fig. 4: 13.)  He followed the target back to the platform.  (Fig. 4: 14.)  This time there was no conflict.  The target was directing him back to the platform.  This was an easy choice to make.

Video: Goat Diaries – Day 4 – P’s 11 am session

P does everything with so much energy!  If orienting to the target is good, running to it must be better!  His enthusiasm was beginning to create some problems.  I want the energy.  I want the enthusiasm.  I also want him to have the ability to relax and settle.  That comes from being confident in the process.  It comes from understanding how to use the information that cues are providing.  Now is a great time to stay on a platform.  Now is a great time to leave the platform to go to a target.

I don’t want P to feel conflicted.  I want him to know that it is safe to make mistakes.  And I want him to know that there are lots of way to earn reinforcement.  That’s what these early foundation lessons clarify.

The Horses have shown me that mats can help to stabilize the emotional yo-yo.  Mats have three parts to them – going to a mat, staying on a mat, and leaving a mat.  All three elements have to be in balance.  If mats equal lots of reinforcement, I don’t want my horse or goat rushing to get to the mat.  Nor do I want them refusing to leave the mat when asked.

My plan was to reinforce P a lot for just being on the platform.  We’d go from the excitement of moving from one platform to the next, to the more predictable just stand still and get clicked and reinforced.  Time will tell if that helps him gain confidence in the whole process.

The Goat Palace Journals

That’s where we were – just beginning to sort out platforms and the emotional high they created in Pellias.  Yesterday I introduced him to a fun game, one Elyan is really enjoying.  I set a large plastic storage container out at the far end of the hallway.  It’s filled with leftover wood from the construction, blocks that are too small to be really useful, but too big to throw away.  I’m being reinforced for being a pack rat. It turns out they really do have a use.  They add enough weight to the storage box to make it a stable platform for the goats to jump up on at speed.

Elyan had already shown me that he’s very clever at getting up on things.  When I get up out of my chair, he takes my place.  If he can jump up into a chair and turn around, he can certainly jump up onto a box.  So on Monday I let him run to the box, click and treat.  He thought that was the greatest game yet!  I clicked and reinforced him several times for staying on the box.  Then I went to the far end of the hallway and called him.

He jumped off the box and ran to me.  Click and treat!  I want to say he ran joyously, but I am mindful of Joe Layng’s lecture.  Who knows what he was feeling, but the speed with which he ran to me certainly filled me with delight.

I reinforced him for staying with me, then released him back to the box.  He ran down the hallway and jumped up on it.  Such fun!  What a great way to teach recalls and send outs.

Once he was on his box, I could reach my arms around him and give him a quick hug – click and treat.  He seemed to like the contact and started to press in closer to me.

I taught Panda to press her body against my leg.  This was done for her work as a guide for the blind.  When her handler is busy doing something where her focus not on Panda, for example buying something at a store check out counter, Panda will press herself against her leg.  Her handler knows exactly where Panda is.  She isn’t swinging her rear end around into the face of some small child.  She is standing exactly where she should be by her side.

I taught this behavior for a very practical reason.  I reinforced it a lot, and it became a behavior Panda loves to offer.  After almost fifteen years working as a guide, it is certainly one she offers readily.   As I was giving Elyan a quick squeeze of a hug, I thought this was a behavior he might enjoy as well.

Yesterday I introduced Pellias to the box.  He was more hesitant at first about jumping up on it.  I used a target to indicate that was what I wanted.  In true goat fashion once he had one foot on the box, the rest quickly followed.  When I called him off the box, he trotted to me.  And then he turned and raced ahead of me back to the box.  Hmm.  Was this really what I wanted?

With Elyan it seemed fine.  He’s so very good at sticking to my side, sending him out in front of me to the box didn’t seem as though it would create a problem.  But Pellias is a much stronger goat.  Did I really want him running ahead of me?  Is this something I wanted to be encouraging at this point?  I didn’t think so.  So I brought out a target.  He jumped down off the box and began to follow the target.  Click.  He stopped with me and got his treat.

I had him follow the target to the opposite end of the hallway where there was a stack of plywood mats that we had been using earlier.  He hopped up on those.  Click and treat.  We turned back to the box.  He kept his nose oriented to the target as he trotted towards the box.  I clicked.  He wasn’t expecting that.  He had been heading to the box, so he overshot past me, but instead of being pulled in by the tractor beam of the box, he turned back to me.

What a great lesson!  He had so much energy and enthusiasm.  He wanted to get to the box.  But when I clicked mid way down the hall, he stopped with me and got his treat.  And then he stayed with me as we continued towards the box.  That’s a great preparation for putting a lead on and asking him to stay with me even when there is something exciting up ahead.

This is such a fun stage in the training.  I’ve constructed the first layer of building blocks.  Now I can use them to create the next layer.

Coming Next: Goat Diaries: Day 4 – Goats and Platforms

 

Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 4

The Goat Palace: Training is Accumulating Fast!

The goats are doing great.  My journal notes are filled with superlatives.  The basics are becoming much stronger and more reliable.  Each session opens the door to a new possibility, something I can now ask for that would have been hard to get just a few days before.  They are so much fun!  I love quick, eager learners!

But before I get swept away with their current training, it is worth going back to the July Goat Diaries to see what the first steps of the learning were, not just for them, but for me, as well.

Just before Thanksgiving I had finished posting about Day Three of their training.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/11/20/)  Three days doesn’t sound like much, but that was fourteen training sessions.  I had introduced Elyan and Pellias (E and P as I referred to them in July) to the bare bones of targeting.  They had been on platforms.  On day four I was planning to add in a second platform.  So let me jump back to July.  Hopefully, this won’t confuse you too much.  I wish I had begun posting these Goat Diaries sooner so there wasn’t this overlap, but that wasn’t how my summer unfolded.  And perhaps it is better this way.  You can see both how these first steps can be built, and at the same time how much fun you can have using these foundation skills.

Remember in July I had not yet expanded the roof of the lean-to to create the goat palace.  Instead E and P were living in the barn in one of the horse stalls.  I was using the stall, plus the outside run as my training areas. So back to July . . . .

The July Goat Diaries: How We Get Behavior

My main training goals with Elyan and Pellias were: to stabilize their behavior around food so they were safe to feed treats to; and to work on basic leading.  I was going to have these goats for less than two weeks.  At the end of that time they would be going back into the 4-H program that Sister Mary Elizabeth ran for the children in her area.  At the end of the summer the goats would be going to the county fair and to several fiber festivals.  To be shown in the ring, they had to lead.  So anything I could do to help them with their leading manners was a plus.

It may not seem that teaching them to target and to stand on platforms had anything to do with leading, but they are all connected.  I was creating the building blocks that would make adding in a lead much easier.  To help you connect the dots between these foundation skills and leading remember in clicker training there are many strategies you can use to get behavior to happen.  You can lure behavior with food.  I was certainly using that with the goats when I had them follow a bucket of hay back into their stall.

Food luring can be a very effective and humane management technique, especially under conditions when other skills have not yet been taught.  It is much less stressful for a herd animal like these goats to follow a bucket of hay into an enclosure, than it is to be driven from behind.  Getting the goats into the habit of following me and my bucket of treats was a first step towards having them stay with me on a lead.

Targeting is another way to get behavior.  The goats were in the early stages of understanding targeting.  I had used it to begin their introduction to clicker training.

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Elyan learning about targeting.

That was step number one.  The more you explore targeting, the more you discover what an incredible teaching tool it is.  Targeting is very much part of leading.  We usually think of targets as a visual aid.  Certainly the handler becomes a visual target.  But I also want the feel of the snap under a horse’s halter to become a target.  In this case it becomes a tactile target – follow this feel.

Tactile targets take us to rope handling which takes us to a discussion of pressure and release of pressure.  Often the mere mention of pressure makes some people cringe. That’s what they want to get away from when they clicker train.  But we do put halters and leads on our animals.  So the question is not do we use pressure, but how has the response to pressure been taught?  Is it information or a threat?

Escalating pressure has a do-it-or-else threat embedded in it.  This is what we want to get away from in clicker training.  But pressure doesn’t have to become painful or frightening to have an effect.  It can simply close one “door” while leaving other doors open.  When you’re trying to figure out how to use pressure in a learner-friendly way, that can be a helpful metaphor.

Used well a lead provides clues that help an animal get to his reinforcement faster.  Suppose I want my learner to back up.  I could simply wait until I see a shift of balance back.  If I’m lucky, the animal will shift back quickly, but he’s just as likely to try other directions first.  That introduces more “noise” into the process.

Think about situations in your own life where having some boundaries was helpful. Computers offer us so many good examples.  You want something to change on your screen, but nothing is happening, so you start hitting buttons.  Is it this combination or this one?  When you finally do get the response that you wanted, do you remember what you did?  Can you repeat it without first trying all the errors?  Probably not.  How do you feel?  Frustrated.

But now think about those times when the computer gave you a “not this way signal”.  When you tried something that wasn’t going to work, you heard an error message.  It sometimes takes me a couple of repetitions to realize that that ping I’m hearing is the computer telling me what I’m doing isn’t going to work, try something else.  Oh, right.  That door is closed.

At least the computer is communicating something.  I must be hitting the wrong keys.  Yes, I was pressing down the cap lock key instead of the shift key.  That’s why I was getting that error message. 

The error message doesn’t change.  Siri doesn’t come on and start yelling at me.  The computer doesn’t tell me if I don’t change my behavior and do what it wants, it will start destroying files.  The computer remains non-reactive to my emotional displays of frustration.  When I finally notice that I’ve been hitting the wrong key, it responds immediately by producing the result I want.

When I was trying to push through the wrong “door”, it gave me a clear message – try something else – but nothing else escalated.  Good rope handling is very similar.  When my animal partner learns to pay attention to the information the lead is providing, it doesn’t just close doors, it shows him which ones are open.  What is the fastest path to the click and treat?  Leads provide boundaries.  Used well, they also provide very welcome information.

The lead provides simple messages.  Slide down the lead and you are saying: “I want something.”  Staying on the lead closes doors.  Now you’re saying: “Not this way, but keep trying.  There is an open door, and I know you can find it.”  Releasing the lead says: “Great! You just found the answer!”

All of this has to be taught.  I can’t expect my learner to understand the cues a lead can provide first time out of the box.  If he’s had confusing, inconsistent, or punitive experiences with the lead, then the teaching process becomes even more involved.  I’m not working with a clean slate.  I have to show him through my actions that I’m not intentionally going to use the lead to hurt or scare him.

An animal that has not been carefully introduced to leads may not understand this.  His learning history may tell him to try to push on the “door”.  Bang on it hard enough and it will open!  Goats certainly know about pushing through things!  And so do many horses.

I want to build my training steps systematically so my learner can safely, comfortably discover that pushing on the door isn’t needed.  When he encounters a closed door, that’s a hint.  It means try a different direction.  The faster you stop banging on that door, the faster you’ll find the one that is open – click and treat.

Elyan and Pellias both wore collars, but so far I had avoided putting leads on them.  I wanted to give them some other skills first which would help them understand how leads worked.  We were heading to leading, but not directly.  The training principle is: Never start with your goal.  The more steps you put between where you are and where you want to be, the smoother and more successful the learning experience will be.

More steps in part means learning to use more than one teaching strategy.  So here is another training principle:  There is ALWAYS more than one way to teach any behavior.  The more ways I come up with to teach the same thing, the stronger that base behavior will be.

So another teaching strategy I use is referred to as free shaping.  Here you are not using any prompts such as a target to trigger the behavior.  Instead you are simply observing the individual and marking those moments that take you in the direction of your shaping goals.

When people talk about the magic of clicker training, they are referring to freeshaping.  Yes, it is good science, but it does look quite magical when an animal begins to consistently offer a complex behavior and the handler has “done nothing” but click and reinforce tiny stair steps towards the desired behavior.  There have been no targets and certainly no whips.  You haven’t applied pressure by moving into the animal’s space. You’ve just sat in your chair, and now suddenly your animal – goat, horse, dog – is backing up twenty feet.  Very neat.

I have always considered free shaping to be an advanced skill for both the handler and the animal learner.  A handler who is just learning how to change behavior through incremental steps will miss clickable moments.  The criteria will be unclear.  The timing will be off.  The result: a learner who is becoming increasingly frustrated and confused.  A confused learner leads to a confused handler.  Put those two things together and you get a mess.  That’s no way to begin with clicker training.

Freeshaping may be an advanced skills, but you need to practice free shaping in order to build your skills.  Here’s the mantra: for every complex behavior you teach, there will be some element that is free shaped.

I may use my rope handling skills to get a horse to step onto a mat.  Once he’s standing there, I’ll free shape his head orientation.

I was going to use this concept with the goats.  I got them to the platforms with the target. Once they were on the platform I wanted to free shape head orientation.  My starting point was a goat who was indeed standing with all four feet solidly on the mat, but his head was reaching up towards my pockets.  I knew what I didn’t want.  I didn’t want him straining up towards me, or the opposite – curling his neck down so he looked as though he was about to ram something.  I wanted him standing all four feet on the platform, with his head up, and looking straight ahead.

The problem was the goats never really presented me with what I wanted.  They looked off to the side, or up at my pockets, but rarely were they looking straight ahead.  If I insisted on perfection, my rates of reinforcement would drop.  I’d get a frustrated goat, and I’d already seen what frustrated goats do.  Jumping up on me was not an answer I wanted them to be practicing.

To help prime the pump I had been using the food delivery to approximate the behavior I wanted.  My concern was I might be getting too much of a curl of the neck.  I didn’t want to trigger head butting.  So that was my question as I began the morning session.  What had these goats learned from the previous day’s training?  Good things I wanted?  Or would  I be left with “Oh dear, let me go have another cup of tea and rethink where we are.”  I was about to find out.

Session 1: 8 am with P.

I wanted to make the target more meaningful to P. He clearly liked being up on his platform.  So perhaps if I set out two platforms and used the target to move him from one to the other, he would begin to have a better understanding of targets.  Targets are things you orient to get to other good things.

I set out two platforms, the original foam platform and a new one made out of two heavy blocks of wood.  P went directly to the foam platform, click and treat. I worked on his head orientation.  Mostly he was stretching his nose out towards me.  I tried to catch moments when his head was down, but I needed to be careful with that.  I didn’t want to teach him to lower his head into head butting position.

I used the target to move him to the second platform.  He definitely got the idea of moving from one platform to another, and he was staying on the platform well.  It seemed as though this was going to be a useful approach for him.

I did not film this session because there was a light rain so I have no pictures to share.

E’s Session

E’s session – I worked E in his stall.  That seemed easier than switching the goats.  I already had the makings of two platforms.  I dismantled their corner platform and used two of the blue blocks as bases for single platforms.  E was concerned with them at first so I put the plywood on them, and he was fine about getting up on the blocks.  I again added in the scratching after feeding so he got very soft-eyed and dreamy.  I liked this association.  Clicks are followed by treats (exciting!) which are followed by head scratching (dreamy).

The whole peanuts took too long to eat, so I had been breaking them up.  He wasn’t particularly interested in the hulls, but he did like the peanuts.   I had also added sunflower seeds to the mix in my pocket, and those he really liked!  We had a lovely session going from platform to platform.  He was getting treats and attention.  And I was getting more good data to record in my journal.  Win-win for both of us.

When we were finished, I opened their stall door so he could go out into the pen with P.  Instead of staying out, P came into the stall and got up on a platform.  So E came back in as well.

They started sparing over who got the platform.  I managed to get each one on his own platform and reinforced them for staying put.  Once I have taught them individually about platforms, this will definitely be a usable approach for teaching them to work as a pair.

When I was all done, I spent a few minutes scratching them both, then I left them with some treats scattered over the floor.

The Goat Palace: Working in Pairs

So now I’m going to jump forward to the present.  I just described the very bare bones beginning of using multiple platforms to work the goats together.  I’ve been building on these skills both with Elyan and Pellias, and Thanzi and Trixie.  It is key to being able to reduce the competition over food.

I was so impressed with Trixie and Thanzi yesterday.  I’ve been working them in their pen.  Each goat can now stay at her own station (a stack of plywood mats).  I can move to Trixie, offer her a target to touch, click and drop treats in her bucket while Thanzi stays on her platform.  Then I can go to Thanzi, and Trixie stays put.  That is such a change from the dashing from bucket to bucket that we started with.

Yesterday I took them into the hallway.  The narrow platforms were set out side by side.  They got themselves sorted, one on each platform.  I was pleased with the progress Trixie, in particular is making.  Thanzi, I know will leap eagerly onto a platform.  Trixie has been slower at figuring out that going to platforms is a great way to get clicked.  But there they both were each on her own platform.

I stood in front of them and waited for both of them to take their noses away from my pockets.  They could do it!  Click, treat.  And when I fed them, they stayed each in her own space to get the treat.  They didn’t try to crowd in and snatch treats from one another.  That’s huge progress, but wait it gets better!

Remember these goats were side by side.  The treat bowls were right in front of their platforms.  I could click one, drop treats in her bucket, and the other goat would stay put!  Of course, she got clicked and reinforced for staying on her platform.  Win-win for everyone.

Pellias and Elyan are becoming increasingly solid working as a pair.  I can now consistently use their stationing behavior as a management tool.  When I want them to go back into their pen, I call them and they both come running.  They dash onto their platforms: Elyan on the balance beam of a thick piece of wood, and Pellias on a stack of plywood mats.  Click – treat both several times.  Then click, drop treats and leave.

They stay at their stations hunting for the dropped treats in the hay instead of swooping in trying to get what the other one has.  That gives me time to call Galahad in and give him treats at the other end of the pen.  This core foundation skill is creating much more peaceful living conditions for everyone.

Before I can move on to teaching the “fancy” stuff, first there are these basics – the universals of day to day handling.  Done well, the basics become “fancy”.  They are certainly fun to teach.  Every day I feel like a small child who has been given another bag of leggo blocks to play with.  I can build so much more with the behaviors the goats are learning!  What’s next?  The goats will always tell me.

Coming Next:  Goat Diaries – Day 4 Learning About Goats

 

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.

Goat Diaries Day 2 Platforms 3 photos targeting.png

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.

Goat Diaries Day 2: Excitement - 2 photos where manners?.png

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.

Goat Diaries Day 2: Excitement - 9 photos C:T.png

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.

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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