The Goat Diaries: Day 7: Repetition

Repetition

The lessons I’ve been describing may seem redundant.  If you were watching, you’d see the same things over and over again – a goat standing on a platform while I step back from him; a goat following a target to the next platform.  What I hope you would also see in all this repetition is that nothing stands still – both literally and figuratively.

When you’re working with a horse who’s on hyper drive, the mantra you want to keep repeating to yourself is “Never get mad at movement – you need it to train.”

That expression comes from John Lyons – definitely not a clicker trainer, but he’s right. Whether you’re using make-it-happen or treats, lots of movement makes it easier to shift behavior in the direction you want.

The goats were never still for very long.  I could hear it in the rat-a-tat-tat of their feet on the platforms.  So I might have been doing the same thing over and over again, but I most certainly was not getting carbon copies.  What I was getting were super fast learners.  The goats were showing me that they were figuring out this funny new game.  They were ready for me to move them to the next level.

In each session I could add a little bit more.  Now the mantra became: “The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you see that it gives you.”  All that repetition was adding up to increasingly consistent, desirable behavior.

The July Goat Diaries: P’s morning session.
Goat’s Climb!

I was late getting a session in because we had a hay delivery.  That took up a chunk of time putting a year’s worth of hay up in the loft.  Thankfully, I just had to watch.  The farmer who brings the hay does all the heavy lifting.

After his crew left, I took the goats out into the aisle.  I was already tired of dismantling their sleeping platform to use as components for platforms.  Instead I gathered up every plywood mat I could find.  (There were a lot of them! I had saved all the scrap wood from the original construction so we had an abundance of mats).  I stacked the mats on top of one another to create a new kind of platform for the goats.

P was first. He was super – very confident, and very consistent.  The bouncing excitement of the previous sessions had settled into calm surety.  The mantra “Don’t take score too soon” was paying off.  By being as non-reactive as I could be to his exuberant leaps into the air, he’d figured out which behaviors produced treats and which didn’t.

What to do was simple.  When cued, move from one stack of mats to the next, then stay on the stack to get clicked.

Goat Diaries day 7 P exploring panel 1.png

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E was equally good.  He went quietly from mat to mat.  He was more hesitant than P.  Always the contrast between the two brothers is so interesting.

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Compare this to his reluctance to venture very far from the stall on the previous day, and you will see how much progress he has made.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/01/06/)  This is an important lesson for those of us who work with anxious horses.  Four elements played an important role in E’s rapid gain in confidence:

* Preparation: E understood platforms.  Having something familiar to do made exploring easier.

* Choice: E had the option of retreating back to his stall.  He had an escape route.  If you know the way back to safety is available, it’s easier to explore.

* Patience: I waited for E to be ready.  When he showed concern over moving deeper into the aisle, I let him stay on the platforms he was comfortable going to.  As always it was: “train where you can, not where you can’t.”  I hadn’t push him to go beyond what he could handle in his first session in the aisle. The result was he could handle more the next day. (See Saturday’s post for comparison.)

* Social Support: I have to add that going out into the aisle again with his brother helped him to be braver. But what I wanted was an individual who could be brave with me.  It’s great that P gave him the confidence to explore further, but would that confidence still be there when his brother wasn’t?  That’s why I’ve listed this one last.  Without the other three I might always be dependent upon the presence of another goat.   (Think how this relates to horses.  If you ride, you’ve probably encountered horses who aren’t secure unless they are in the company of other horses.)

When I opened the stall door to let E back in, P popped out instead.  Usually E will go back inside the stall regardless of what P is doing, but not this time.  He followed his brother up the aisle. So I did a little work with them as a pair.

They were still reluctant to go back to their stall, so I got a bucket of hay and lured them down the aisle.  E followed, but P got waylaid by an adventure.  He wanted to see what was on the other side of the wheel barrow that blocked access to the arena.  It proved to be an effective barrier, but I had forgotten to block off the foot of the stairs going up to the upper deck and the hay loft.  Mountains are always worth exploring!

E saw his brother vanish and turned back to find him.

“Oh, don’t go up the stairs,” I foolishly said to them, as if that was going to stop them.  By the time I got to them, P was on the middle landing with E right behind him.  I managed to get a lead on E and get him turned around.  I abandoned P to get E back in the stall.  But by the time I had E secured, P had gone all the way up onto the upper deck.  He was down by the sliding glass doors that open into the upstairs meeting room.  He was staring at his reflection.  I’m glad I got there before he decided to challenge whoever this strange goat was!

P wanted to continue exploring, but I was being a fuddy-duddy.  I put the lead on him and headed back towards the stairs.  Would what went up come down?  That was the question.

Thankfully, going down was easy.  He followed my hand as a target without any hesitation.  Clearly there’s an advantage to working with mountain goats!  Teaching Panda to go down stairs was much more of a process.

Panda going down stairs PO and museum

Once they were both safely back in their stall, I cleared away the mats so I could work on leading.  E went first.  He was hesitant about going all the way down to the end of the aisle.  We would go a couple of steps, click and treat, then a couple more.  I felt as though I had a shy child always trying to hide behind me.  He kept switching sides instead of maintaining a consistent position beside me.

I was careful not to ask him to go further than he could manage.  When he was loose, he could always retreat back to the stall.  But now the lead prevented that, so I had to be even more attentive to his emotional well-being.  This is where shaping on a point of contact really helps you out.  I could judge by E’s response to the lead just how comfortable – or not – he was.  At any point we could always turn and head back towards the security of the stall.

Goat Diaries E leads contrast.pngP was a study in contrast.  He marched boldly beside me.  When I clicked, he would swing around in front of me and thrust his nose up towards my pockets.  My response was to use the food delivery to back him out of my space.  He fussed at first, but very quickly caught on.  Moving back brought treats.

Goat Diaries day 7 P leads panel 1.png

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Goat Diaries day 7 P leads panel 3.pngGoat Diaries day 7 P leads panel 4.pngThe rest of the day was spent mowing – a never ending summer job.  I didn’t get a second session in until the end of the evening.

I did a short session in the aisle with both of them.  We worked on mats.  Again, the difference in the personalities of the two brothers was very clear.  P was bold and confident.  He marched down the aisle.  When I clicked, he was instantly focused on getting the treats.

E was much more cautious.  He was more easily distracted.  He is much softer to work with.  In many ways he is much easier.  His confidence will grow with good experiences.

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Goat diaries Day 7 E study of one panel 3.pngAnn came a short while later. While she was working with her horse in the arena, I sat with the goats in their stall.  I had the door to their outside run open so they could explore out there, but mostly they wanted to stay beside my chair.

Afterwards I did a training session with both of them in the aisle.  We worked on leading. P went first.  He was such a gentleman!  It feels as though we have turned a corner, that there has been a real shift in his understanding of what to do.  He walked beside me, keeping a good orientation.  When I clicked, I had him back up to get the food.  It felt very easy.  He was understanding and anticipating what I wanted him to do.  The sled dog had disappeared!  He was leading!

Earlier in the day after I clicked, he had been consistently pushing past me to get to my pockets. I  used the food delivery to displace him back.  He had been very bold and pushy about the food.  In this session, he had that sorted.  He stayed more by my side.  When I clicked, I barely needed to displace him.  He was more and more where the perfect goat should be.

I set up a “leading loop” training pattern.  I kept him on the lead from the far end of the aisle back to the stall.  When we got to that end, I unhooked the lead and walked back to the far end of the aisle.  I would then call him and click and reinforce him as he approached me.  This gave him lots more experiences coming to me when called and having the lead hooked onto his collar than he would have gotten if I had just kept him on the lead.

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Goat diaries P Day 7 Manners emerging panel 4.pngGoat diaries P Day 7 Manners emerging panel 5.pngE was even better.  I felt as though I had an overgrown Maltese walking round the ring at Crufts.  What an elegant little thing he is, and so very soft.  He pulled like a freight train the day he arrived.  He might be little, but he can pull with the best of them.  Today, however, he led beautifully up and down the aisle.  I could not have been more pleased with the progress.

What a good day it had been for both of them!

When I was done with E, I let both goats have some time to explore together in the barn aisle.  To get them back to their stall I had them follow the lure of a bucket full of hay. That’s a useful management tool to have in their repertoire.  Back in their stall, they got hay and a cuddle – a good deal indeed.

The Goat Palace

This report is long enough.  I’ll wait to give an update on the current training.  I’ll just say in brief that we have had two weeks of arctic temperatures so there is not much to write about unless you want to read about barn chores at 5 am when the wind chills are around minus 20.  Brrr.  I’ll leave that to your imagination!  (Though I know a great many of you reading this don’t have to imagine it – you’re living it.  Warm weather is coming!)

Coming Next: The July Goat Diaries: Day 8

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 Goat Diaries – Weathering the Storm

I’m still in catch up mode.  Eventually I’ll get back to the original July Goat Diaries.  At the moment I’m in a snowballing stage with the goats.  They have figured out the game – not just individual lessons, but the global picture.  That means they understand that their actions have a direct impact on me.  They can reliably, consistently get me to play with them and give them treats.  They just have to figure out what to do.  They are making connections fast and every session feels as though we’ve taken another major step forward.  I love this stage!  That’s why I call it the snowballing stage.  The ball is definitely moving!

So why have I titled this report: “Weathering the Storm”?  I used that phrase in one of my journal entries.  Elyan was still chasing his brother away from platforms.  Thanzi and Trixie were still pushing their way through the gate every chance they got.  To get them back into their pen, I was dropping treats into their feed tubs.  There was no sharing.  They raced each other from bucket to bucket.  It was like being caught in the middle of a wild whirlwind.  Nothing about this behavior could be described as calm or orderly.

Horses can go through a similar phase.  Even when you are working with just one horse, in the beginning it can certainly feel like chaos.  The horse knows that food is involved.  He hasn’t quite worked out the big picture.  He just knows that sometimes you have treats and the game is on.  He’s discovered that he can bump the target or stand on a mat, and you’ll hand over goodies.  What he hasn’t yet worked out is waiting.

Waiting for the target, waiting on the platform, waiting while another horse gets a treat, this is so much harder than actively doing something.  But doing, doing, doing, always doing something can feel like chaos.  At this point handlers sometimes feel like quitting.  What a mess it all seems.  In frustration they resort to defensive clicking.  That’s when you click to keep something you don’t want from happening.

That’s a slippery slope down which you do not want to go.  You’ll end up always feeling as though you have to keep up a barrage of clicks and treats because as soon as you slow things down even a little, your learner is mugging you.  So it’s click treat, repeat but never ask for more.  Your horse (dog, goat, co-worker, child) has learned how to control the game.  He’s become a master at manipulating you to get the goodies he wants!  Chaos!

So what is the solution?  It’s trust the process.  Trust that things will settle.  Trust that your learner will figure out that he doesn’t have to rush in to grab the treat before it disappears down somebody else’s throat.

Goat Diaries T&T Learning to Share

Trusting the process has brought me to this good result: Thanzi and Trixie are learning to share.

Trust the training principles: for every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.  Waiting, patience, calm – grow out of this balance.

Trust loopy training: when a loop is clean, you get to move on, and not only do you get to move on, you should move on.  Trust that the loops will get clean.

Trust that your learner will always show you what he needs to work on next.  And trust that you will notice.  Trust the foundation lessons.  Within them is the answer to what do you want your learner TO DO.

Trust yourself.  Trust that you can slow yourself down and not be drawn into the drama of the moment.  And trust your learner’s ability to figure out the big picture.

All of this will bring you to the other side of the storm, to calm waters.

I know all this, but I still find it hard to video the chaos.  It feels so permanent and so awful.  And then it changes and things become really fun.  Now suddenly, I found myself regretting that I hadn’t filmed more of the chaos so you could have a better sense of just how much these goats are learning.  Contrast is a wonderful teacher.

Yesterday’s sessions were full of change.  In a previous report I described how I taught Elyan and Pellias to go to platforms set on either side of my chair.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/12/01/)  I’ve been building on that lesson, moving the chair to different places in the hallway so they aren’t always seeing the same orientation.

I varied the food delivery, sometimes handing them both a treat, sometimes tossing the treats into food buckets so they would have to find their way back onto the platform.  Sometimes I would ask one goat to touch a target while the other waited.

While they waited on their platforms, I stood up and moved around.  Click, I would then walk away from them to a shelf where I had left a bowl with extra treats.  They continued to wait while I came back and gave each of them a treat.  I very deliberately didn’t rush.  What treat were they going to get?  This piece of squash, or this lovely slimy bit with all the seeds?

You can’t assume this kind of food delivery.  You have to teach it.  That’s another training principle to trust – one of the most fundamental.  If you want a behavior to occur on a consistent basis, you need to go through a teaching process to teach it to your learner. 

I can’t expect these goats to just know these things.  I have to show them how waiting on platforms brings them goodies.  Racing off to try and get your brother’s treats doesn’t work nearly as well.  It used to, but in this alternate universe staying on your platform works better.

In one session I took the chair out of the picture and put out two narrow platforms facing one another with food bowls in between.  Once they got themselves sorted one on each platform, they were good at taking turns.  Now it was look at Pellias, click when he was still, give him a treat. Turn and focus on Elyan while Pellias waited.

This was hardest for Elyan.  He’s the smallest of the goats, but my goodness does he know how to get what he wants!  He’s not at all shy about driving the others away.  To manage them better when I needed to swap goats around or to fill the hay feeders, I had been trying to have them go to platforms in their pen.  They would race to a platform, but then they couldn’t stick there.  Especially when Elyan saw his brother heading to a platform, that was irresistible.  He had to run over and chase him away so he would get whatever treat might be coming.  Chaos.

Poor Pellias. Every time he tried to step up onto anything that resembled a platform, Elyan dive bombed him and butted him away.  Pellias eventually gave up and retreated to the top of the jungle gym leaving the game to Elyan.  I can’t say that I blamed him.

So that was my baseline behavior.  But now in the hallway, Elyan was taking turns.  He was staying on his platform even when I dropped treats for Pellias.  What a major step forward that was!

I played another fun game with them – swaps, or you could think of it as musical chairs.  Pellias learned the game first.  I let him out into the hallway by himself.  He went to a platform, click and treat.  I had him target a couple of times, clicking and taking the treat to him.  After each treat, I moved a little further away from him until I was now standing on the second platform.  Click and treat, then back to my platform.  So far so good.  He could wait on his platform while I returned to mine.  Click.  I went forward, but instead of handing him the treat, I dropped it into his bucket.  He had to leave his platform to get the treat, and while he was off of it, I swapped platforms and stood on the one he had just left.

Pellias got his treat and turned to get back on the platform, the same platform that I was now standing on.  He was truly puzzled.  He tried to get up on the platform, but I blocked him.  He tried from the back side.  I blocked him.  Oh dear.  He stood for a moment clearly perplexed.  He went back to his feed tub, nothing.  Then he tried the old stand-by: back up.  Backing took him close to the other platform.  Oh! There’s a platform.  He hopped up onto it.  Click! I went forward and handed him a treat.  I returned to my new platform and clicked and treated him several times for waiting on his.  Then I dropped treats into his bucket and again swapped platforms.

More confusion.  He tried to return to this platform.  I blocked him.  He turned his head, spotted the other platform and went straight to it.  After only one more swap, he had this new game down.  Now when I swapped platforms, he no longer hesitated.  He went straight to the other one.

I went through the same process with Elyan.  He was so cute.  He was sure he should climb up on the platform with me.  If he got one foot on the corner of the platform would that count?  No.  He finally spotted the other platform and just like Pellias got the swaps figured out.

All of this prep, all of these variations on the game led to yesterday’s fun.  I had the platforms set out as usual facing one another.  When I opened the gate, both goats came out and headed straight to the platforms.  Before I even had the gate latched, they had themselves sorted.  Elyan won the race and claimed the platform closest to the gate.  Pellias scurried past and hopped up on the other platform.

E and P on platforms 12:9:17.png

Pellias and Elyan have raced onto their platforms.  They are eagerly waiting for me to close the gate and begin the game.

I held a target out for Pellias. Click, I dropped treats in his bucket.  Elyan waited on his platform.  I went over to him and offered him the target.  I could hear Pellias returning to his station.  So I clicked Elyan for the target touch and dropped treats.

Then it was back to Pellias for a target touch.  As I was dropping treats for him, Elyan was turning to get back onto his platform.  What a fun game!  I had begun with two piranhas.  It wasn’t that long ago if I had dropped treats for one, the other would have been swooping in to try to snatch them away.  Now both goats were not only taking turns, they were turning away from dropped treats!  Extraordinary!  The calm waters after the storm were very much in sight.

It was so much fun, I couldn’t resist filming them a little later in the day.  You will need a password to open this video: “E&P Learn To Share”.  Don’t blink at the start of the video. When I open the gate for them, they are fast getting to their platforms.  Elyan ends up closest to the camera.  You know this is Elyan because of the way he claims the platform and then makes it very clear that his brother is to keep going!

 

Trixie and Thanzi were, if anything, even more impressive.  They were taking turns, as well.  When I started with them, taking turns had not been in their repertoire at all, especially where dropped treats were concerned, and especially not in their pen.  But now Trixie was stationed on a stack of mats with a food bowl next to her.  Thanzi had a food bowl a few feet away.  I could ask Trixie to target, click, drop treats for her and Thanzi would wait at her station!  I could then go to her and have her target.  Click, drop treats and Trixie would stay put!

This was such a change from the frantic racing from food bowl to food bowl that we’d started with.  Platforms!  They are indeed a wonderful tool.

You will need a password to open this video: “T&T Learn To Share”.  Enjoy!

 

The P.S. to these sessions came in the evening.  I was doing the final hay check of the evening.  Normally I just open the gate and let the youngsters wander around in the hallway.  Pellias and Elyan rushed out to look for dropped treats.  Galahad stayed in the pen and “helped” me put hay into the feeders.  Then he went out, and Pellias and Elyan dashed in.  I heard a tappity tap tap of goat hooves behind me.  Elyan was balancing on a thick piece of wood that was lying half buried in the hay.  Beside him Pellias was on a stack of plywood mats.  Just a few days ago they were still chasing each other off any platforms I tried to create in the pen.  Now they were standing side by side looking ever so pleased and expectant.  Click and treats for both of them.

I reinforced them a couple more times, then I dropped treats down into the hay for each of them.  Instead of swooping in on each other and fighting over the treats, they each stayed on their own spot, ate their treats, and then moved to the hay feeders.  It was so peaceful!  I was even able to call Galahad in and give him treats at the other end of the pen without any interference from them.

Training! It’s a wonderful thing.  And so is generalization.  The sun is very much shining through the clouds.

 

 

The Goat Diaries – Still Catching Up

The Goat Palace – Foot Targets and Puzzle Moments

This will teach me to take time off from these Goat Diaries for the Holidays.  It feels as though I have entered Alice in Wonderland territory – always running and never getting anywhere.  By the time I catch up, I will be behind again.  Oh well.  We’ll see how far I get today.

I think the easiest approach is to describe where we are and not worry too much about the details of how we got there.  In my previous post I wrote about stillness: in stillness comes understanding.  I needed stillness, especially with Thanzi.  She’s so used to getting what she wants by pushing her way in.  Touching a target was easy.  That part was great, but after the click she was pushing in trying to go directly to the treats.

Thanzi pushing for treat.png

Thanzi has just touched her target, but now she’s trying to go directly to the treats.

In loopy training both sides of the click have to be clean for a loop to be clean.  The food delivery was a long way from being what I wanted.  I could move on with the targeting, but I would be dragging along with it all the unwanted food manners.  So I changed tactics and introduced both ladies to platforms.

Platforms give the feet a place to be.  I could click them for being on the platform. That was the behavior side of the click.  On the food delivery side I positioned myself so they remained on the platform while they got their treat. That meant staying very close to them which made my treat bowl even more of a target, but at least I had their feet more or less planted.  It was funny watching how much they could stand elephant-on-a-drum at the edge of the platform.  They would look as though they couldn’t possibly keep from tumbling forward, but they spread their toes and somehow managed to stay on.

When I first set out the platforms,  Trixie predictably was suspicious of the platforms.  She able to be by herself in the hallway, but she was uneasy about moving too far away from Thanzi.  She certainly wasn’t ready yet to go as far as the second platform which was set further down the hallway.  Both platforms were initially something to avoid. She was the most horse-like of all the goats.  It wasn’t that she was afraid to step on raised surfaces, but she was definitely suspicious of anything new in her environment.

Thanzi was the complete opposite.  When I opened the gate, she would dash out.  She would then stick to me like glue.  If I went to the far end of the hallway, she dashed right along with me.  She certainly had no concerns about being away from Trixie.  Instead it was hurry, hurry, hurry to stay glued to me.

The platforms, however, were also something to be avoided.  At first, I just worked on targeting and ignored the platforms.  Thanzi was getting pretty solid with the targeting so it was time to make the platforms part of the lesson.  I had my green target stick with me. I had her orient to it a couple of times. Click.  I fed so she had to back up away from me.  Then I kept changing my position.  To get to the target, the most direct route was to step up onto the platform.  This is so very different from the way I would do it with horses!

Thanzi put her front feet up on the platform, and then it was easy.  She stepped up all four onto the platform.  Click then treat while her feet were on the platform.  Finally, with her feet still, I could work on grown-ups. I held the target stick straight down in a neutral position and waited for her to take her nose away from my pocket. Click – treat.  It helped so much having her feet anchored on the platform.

In stillness comes understanding.

The platform is a foot target.  Keeping her planted on one spot helped her to notice what the rest of her body was doing.  I was standing right beside her, close enough for her to easily reach my pocket.  If I had stepped away even a little bit, my movement would have drawn her off the platform.  When she was pushing at my pocket, no treats, but as soon as her nose moved away from my pocket, click, I fed her.

When she wasn’t on the platform, her feet moved along with her nose so it wasn’t clear what she was being clicked for.  Here it was so much clearer.  I clicked because you moved your nose.  That sound you just heard is a predictor that treats are coming.  Thanzi was putting two and two together fast.

With people we often find rules restricting.  The more rules we have, the more we feel caged in.  But here rules were liberating.  Stand on this platform, look straight ahead, and you are in control. You can make this very odd person reach into her pocket and hand you a much desired piece of squash.  For Thanzi understanding created even more of an eagerness to play the game. That eagerness was expressed not with anxiety, but with an ever-growing confidence.

Once Thanzi was on a platform, she was super at staying on. I would click and treat for a short round, then I walked to the other platform holding the target out for her to follow. Thanzi raced after me, but she didn’t automatically jump up onto the platform.  She’d by-pass it on her way to get to me.  I had to maneuver myself so the most direct route to me was via the platform.  Click as she stepped up, and then another round of clicking for all four feet on the platform and her head in good “grown-ups” position.

Trixie’s sessions were similar.  They were just done in slow motion compared to Thanzi.  I noticed with her that when I switched sides, she completely lost track of the target. She had not yet generalized so I could present the target from different orientations.  I had to be on her left side, and the target needed to appear as expected.

Certainly with horses if I don’t vary my presentation, I can end up with a very one-sided learner. Trixie’s reaction to the target was more than this.  It made me wonder if her nervous personality made it harder for her to notice patterns. And then does that contribute to her feeling even more nervous because it is harder for her to predict what is going to happen? She starts out nervous and becomes more nervous because all that worry gets in the way of making connections.

Or do nervous individuals start out having more trouble making connections, and that’s what gets the ball rolling.  They start to feel anxious because they don’t understand why things are happening the way they are.  Which comes first the chicken or the egg?  Either way, it’s a snowball scenario.

As very young horses, Robin and Panda were both superb at making connections and they are both supremely confident. Thanzi is so like them.  She’s very quick and very confident. If we collected data, would this correlation between pattern recognition and confidence hold?

Is this one of the reasons clicker training helps nervous learners? By slowing things down for Trixie I am helping her make connections.  She was understanding that A leads to B in a predictable way.  That was making her bolder and more confident in her responses.

Does predictability help reduce generalized anxiety by giving you more control over what is going to happen?  If I don’t understand how A and B are connected, it’s much harder to adjust my behavior to avoid the things I don’t like or to get to the things I want.  When you’re frazzled and worried about every little thing, all that noise makes it harder to understand what is really happening.  You see connections that don’t exist, and you miss the reliable predictors.  When the world seems to be built on shifting sands, of course you will be more nervous.  It remains to be seen if the stability that platforms offer will help Trixie to become an increasingly confident learner.

With both goats I had the beginning of platform training.  They would both step up onto a platform and stay there while I clicked and treated them.  But I wasn’t convinced that they were really aware that there was something special about being on a platform.  Once on, they tended to stay on, but when I took them off with a target, I had to direct them back to the platform.  Neither one of them went to a platform on her own.

So I switched tactics.  I set a food bowl down just far enough in front of the platform that they would have to take a step off to get to the bowl.  The question was what would they do after they got the treat.  Thanzi’s answer was she consistently backed herself onto the platform, looked regal, got clicked, dashed forward to get her treat and then backed herself onto the platform.

All the backing to deliver the treat had primed her well.  She easily solved this puzzle.  Trixie was similar, just slower.  So now I had two goats who could get themselves back onto a platform after getting their treats.  Progress!  For Thanzi in particular it was time to create a real puzzle moment for her.

Kay Laurence talks about puzzle moments.  This is when you set a test for your learner to see if what they have learned matches what you thought you were teaching.  When you play the table games, you often have times when the person gives you the correct answer.  You think they have the concept you were trying to teach.  Maybe you want them to touch only the yellow object.  You’re setting two objects out on the table, one yellow and one purple, and they are consistently touching the one you want.  Click and treat.  So now you add to the choices by setting out three objects, and they touch the purple one!  Surprise, surprise.  What is going on?

They’ve been operating under a different rule.  Maybe the yellow object was always the first one you put out, or the one you put closest, or the smallest, or the biggest.  There are lots of different variables to choose from in any system.  Your learner found a rule that worked to produce the correct answer – until it didn’t.  You can go on for quite a long time thinking your learner understands what you want, but unless you test it, you really don’t know for sure.

Maybe Thanzi had no idea that the platform was significant.  Maybe she was backing up after she got her treat because she’d discovered that backing up got me to click.  The platform just happened to be in the way.  That was certainly part of how I got her onto the platform in the first place.  The question now was had the platform itself become significant?  Did she understand that being on the platform mattered, not just backing up?

I had been gradually moving the food bowl further and further out from the platform.  That meant a couple of times after she got her treat, Thanzi was no longer lined up directly with the platform.  When she backed, she ended up broadside to it.   What would she do?

I love watching puzzle moments.  This is when you can really see your learner processing what is going on.  When you train in tight loops, a rhythm emerges.  It’s get the right answer, repeat.  Get the right answer, repeat.  You slide the criterion along so smoothly that your learner really doesn’t notice that you’ve been gradually making the lesson harder.  There’s no break in the rhythm until you stumble across a puzzle moment.  Now there’s a pause.  This is when you want to be very still.  No prompting.  No helping the learner.  No giving away the answer and depriving them of ownership of the solution.  You wait and watch.  If it’s clear your learner needs help, you offer it.  You give the clue that will make solving the puzzle possible, but first you wait to see if that extra clue is needed.

The reinforcer for waiting was seeing Thanzi step sideways up onto the platform.  Click and treat.  She was understanding.  Several more times in that session she got off line from the platform and each time she very deliberately deviated from where she was to step up onto it.  Her actions told me that she understood the platform was indeed significant.

So now she was ready for the next puzzle moment.  She was solidly on the platform.  I could click, and then walk to her to give her a treat.  She would wait for me to bring the treat to her.

And I could also drop the treat into the food bucket.  She would leave the platform, get the treat, and then back up onto the platform.  I was impressed by how well she understood the two forms of treat delivery.  There was no confusion between them.  She was reading my body language well, and she was waiting on the platform when that was indicated.

I was also impressed by how quickly I had been able to open up space between us and how solid she was about staying on the platform.  What a smart goat!

So now I presented her with a puzzle moment that made her head hurt.

I tossed the treat into her food bowl.  The platform was behind her.  As she lifted her head, I began to take a further step back in the opposite direction from the platform.  The food was going away!

In the world in which she had lived up until now you followed food, and you made sure you were the first with your head in the bucket.  In this alternate universe that she now found herself in, backing up away from the food bucket got you treats.  She had worked her mind around that concept.  Going back to the platform got me to reach into the metal bowl I was holding and hand her a treat.  But I had never moved the bowl away.  Now it was leaving!

The question was could she back up as I backed up?  Could she allow the gap between us to keep expanding.  Would she be able to cope with this truly inside out world?  I backed just a little and waited.  It was so clear her head was hurting with all the computing she was doing.  As smart as she is, she wasn’t used to having to think so hard.  No, she just couldn’t do it.  Not yet.  Not this time.  I helped by stepping slightly forward.  She went onto the platform.  Click and treat.

I did another couple of rounds where things were kept as she expected them to be. I clicked and reinforced her a couple of times while she stayed on the platform.  Then I clicked and dropped a treat in the bucket.  She came forward to get her treat.  As she lifted her head out of the bucket, I took a step back.

And this time she could find the answer.  She let me take the food bowl further away as she backed up to the platform.  What a truly fast learner she is!  What a smart goat.  No wonder she’s such a powerful leader.  When she stood up on her platform waiting for me to click, she looked so regal.  I hope she was as pleased as I was by how well she had solved that puzzle!

So that is pretty much where I am with the four I am working with.  Elyan and Pellias are learning about working together and sharing.  It sounds like kindergarten.  Always I am reminded of Robert Fulghum’s charming book, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”.  The ladies are learning about platforms.   Marla has continued to work with Galahad on targeting.  She was away over the Thanksgiving Holiday.  When she got back, she also introduced him to platforms.  So all the goats have taken a major step forward in their basic education.

Coming next we’ll see where all of these good puzzle pieces are taking us.

 

 

 

 

Goat Diaries – Clicker Training Day 2: These Goats Are Smart!

The goat palace is almost finished.  We were hoping to get it done yesterday afternoon, but we didn’t quite make it.  The three yearlings are feeling very squashed in the stall by the oldest female, Thanzi.  She is making it very clear that they are TO STAY IN YOUR CORNER.  I am glad we decided in our construction to use the entire space the lean-to provided and didn’t just settle for making a small goat pen.  They will have plenty of room to spread out.

So for this morning it is back to July and the Goat Diaries.  I had gotten as far as mid-morning of E and P’s second day of clicker training.

Training Rhythms

Good training begins to have a rhythm to it, especially in these early stages where you are asking for simple behaviors, and you’re keeping the rates of reinforcement high. It’s get the behavior – click and feed, get the behavior – click and feed, – get the behavior, click and feed. It becomes a training loop. We’re looking for clean loops.

When a loop is clean you get to move on, and not only do you get to move on you should move on. That’s the mantra of loopy training. Often people change criteria too fast which ends up confusing the learners. Or they stay too long at one step so they build a glass ceiling into their training.  To the learner backing up means three steps and only three steps. If the handler asks for four, there’s frustration. The learner knows the behavior. It’s three steps and three steps only!

The mantra of loopy training helps you to know when to move on. It also helps you to know when you should pause for a moment to let your learner show you what he has learned. Canine trainer, Kay Laurence refers to these pauses as puzzle moments.

In these early sessions with these goats I was beginning to establish some training loops. P in particular was such a fast learner, it was time to give him some puzzle moments to see what dots he was connecting.  If you aren’t sure what a puzzle moment looks like, P is about to show you.

Session 3: 11 am
I started with P out in the pen. He was ready, eager to touch a target, but my attention was elsewhere.  I was busy setting up the camera. I was very aware that I might be missing a window of opportunity. We began with a little targeting. He oriented to it, I clicked, fed, and then clicked and fed again while he was still out of my space. The jumping up on me to try to get the food that he had been doing in the previous session was almost completely gone.  My active use of food delivery was paying off.

Click for targeting. Feed where the perfect goat would be. The perfect goat would have all four feet on the ground. He would be looking straight ahead, and he would be outside my personal space.

After I clicked, I fed P so he had to take a step or two back to get the food. My concern here was the food delivery caused him to curl his neck so his head was in the orientation it would be for butting with his horns. I didn’t want to trigger that behavior. But head butting is a forward moving behavior. Here he was moving back, so I hoped that his feet would keep his head from thinking he should be charging me.

Get them while they’re standing still.

I fed P so he had to back up a couple of steps to get to the treat in my hand. Before he could come forward again, click, I was giving him a treat – this time where he was standing. I wanted him to get the idea. Standing still, away from me, is a good thing. Click treat, click treat. I was tightening the training loop down to the tiny fraction of a second in which he was standing still looking straight ahead.

The neighbors were mowing the hill up above the barn. P kept turning his head to the side to check them out. His feet were still, but I didn’t want to make such a full head turn part of the behavior. I had to wait, hoping his feet would be still when he finally looked back in my direction. Click then treat.

When I clicked, I used my food delivery to move him back a couple of steps. I wanted to be able to click again while he was still standing back out of my space. I also wanted his head to be straight. If I clicked too many times when his head was turned, I was concerned that I would build that into the base behavior. So I had to wait to click until his feet were still AND he had his head straight. Asking for two criteria at once was pushing my luck. The first couple of times he was too quick for me. He straightened his head, but just as I began to click, he was shifting forward.

I moved him back again with the food delivery. He took his treat from my hand.  Before I could click again, he had come forward into my space.

I work hard to avoid putting my learners into a macro extinction process.  Here’s what that means: This behavior has been consistently working to get me to hand you treats. Only now suddenly, it’s not. You’re not going to be reinforced for this very successful behavior.

We all know how frustrating this can be. You put your money in the vending machine and nothing comes out. Time to shake the vending machine!

My training rhythm was broken and P didn’t yet have enough experience in the game to know what to do. His repertoire of behaviors was still too limited to offer me something I could reinforce. Instead he was trying to go directly to my pockets. I suspect by this point the small children he had grown up with would have dropped pretzels and peanuts all over the floor and everyone would be happy. The children would be giggling, and P would be gobbling up the goodies. Only this wasn’t how I played the game. How annoying!

P gave a little chuff of a sneeze. I had llamas years ago, so I recognized this sound as a sign of frustration. He tried both my pockets. Nothing. He gave a head toss which I dodged, and then I got lucky. He dropped his head away from me enough so that I could reinforce him. The food delivery moved him out of my space, and we were back on track building good behavior.

Goats day 2 what frustration looks like 4 photos.png

 

Goats Day 2 back up to get clicked 3 photos.png

Training is not without moments of frustration. I was beginning to recognize what this looked like in a goat. A little tail wiggle, a snort, a head butting gesture – these all told me that P was struggling a bit to make sense of what was happening. Why wasn’t I just giving him treats! That’s what the children would have done. And if they didn’t give him treats, he’d just jump up on them, and that was sure to make them scatter their peanuts and pretzels on the ground!

But here this was different. He was clearly frustrated. Doing what had always worked in the past, namely crowding into me didn’t work. Looking away, taking a step back, produced treats!  It made no sense to him, so while it produced treats it also produced a puzzled goat.  And a puzzled goat can very quickly become a frustrated goat.  Noted.

I was monitoring carefully. Always I am asking myself is this working? Is this the best strategy? How much frustration is too much? What should I change? Should I stop?

Puzzle solving!

There is a time to be clicking, and a time to just wait it out and let your learner work out the puzzle. Through the food delivery, I had shown P the answer. Back away and you get treats. Would he put the pieces of the puzzle together? I waited. The skill here is to be quiet, to remain as non-reactive as you can be and let him figure out the answer. A puzzle you solve for yourself, is an answer you will own.

He could sniff at my pockets. I remained non-reactive. How frustrating! I was not playing the game fair. The children would have been flailing their arms about and pushing him away. Which meant they would also have been dropping treats. Push on the vending machine, and it scatters goodies over the ground, except not now.

His feet took him back a couple of steps. Click – treat. The next time the backing was even more definite.

He caught on fast and began to back away from me. When he came forward into my space, now I could wait. It was a puzzle moment. What would he do? I had shown him the answer through the food delivery. Would he find it now on his own?

The answer was yes! He backed up, not just a little, but multiple steps. And he backed with energy. Very neat!

Goats day 2 Quick study 5 photos.png

P was definitely a quick study. He was beginning to understand that he could get the food by doing other things besides jumping up or bumping my pockets. It was a really fun session watching him catch on so fast. Though I got the impression that he was still very confused. Backing was clearly working, but it didn’t make sense to him. How could backing up get treats to appear? He was a very puzzled goat.

I sympathized. We’ve all been given sets of instructions that make no sense. Whatever is logical – do the opposite. How maddening is that! Especially when it works!

I would find out in the next session if P could reconcile himself to this new inside-out world order.

(Note: we had moved on in the treats. I was now using a mix of peanuts, peanut hulls, sunflower seeds and hay stretcher pellets as treats.)

Training time for this session: 6 minutes.

Video: Video: Goat Diaries Day 2: A Quick Study: Note you will need a password to watch this video: GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns
“A puzzle solved is a behavior owned.” P showed me he was making the connections – fast!

Video: GOAT DIARIES/Day 2/Problem Solving: Note you will need a password to watch this video: GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns

 

Coming next: Day 2 Continued – Two Different Learners

JOY FULL Horses: Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 3: Patterns

Patterns
Play evolves out of success.  Play evolves when both learner and teacher are relaxed and confident in the process.  Good technique, attention to detail, attention to your learner’s emotional needs are the breeding ground for play.

In the previous section I talked about base positions and movement cycles, and how they can be used to create high success rates.  These create repeating patterns.  You are doing the same sequence of behaviors over and over again.  I’ve heard people say they don’t like drilling patterns.  Their animals get bored.  They get bored.  Patterns, they will tell you, are the death knell to good training.

All I can say is that’s not been my experience.  Horses thrive on patterns.  They like the predictability of knowing what is coming next.  They like being successful.

They aren’t the only ones.  We thrive on patterns.  Want proof.  Look at how easily we fall into them.  We are creatures of habit, which means we are creatures of patterns.  Rather than fighting against this tendency, I’m going to use it to my advantage.

I’m going to create tight, clean, repeatable loops.  I’ll follow the mantra of loopy training.  When a loop is clean, I get to move on.  And not only do I get to move on, I should move on.  

When my whole behavior cycle is clean, I’ll change my criteria slightly.  Maybe I’m teaching my horse to back up through a corner.  I’ll begin by getting just a step or two of backing. I’ll ask for this well away from the corner.  I’ll start out very micro in my requests.  I’ll be satisfied at first with just slight shifts of his balance.  I don’t need a full step back to get the process started.  Even a slight rock back is enough.  Click.  I’ll feed him so he rocks forward to the starting point.  I have a movement cycle.  He is in position to begin again.

When the loop is clean, it’s time to move on. That’s what keeps the use of patterns from becoming boring.  They are changing, growing, becoming more complex, more interesting at such a rapid pace.  I am reinforced by the progress I experience in every session.  I don’t stay stuck on one criterion, drilling away at it until it feels stale and begins to fall apart.  My steps are small, my criterion precise, and that means my horse and I experience tremendous success.

The process reminds me of bending a coat hanger.  The more you bend it, the softer it gets.  So, as my horse rocks back and forth between the ask and the food the delivery, he will be getting softer and softer.  The clickable point will shift seamlessly.  I’ll ask him to rock back a little more, click, feed forward.  A couple of clicks later, I can ask him to take a full step back, click, feed forward.  I’ll build that loop, let it stabilize briefly, and then move on to the next small shift in criterion.   As my loop expands, my pattern will grow increasingly complex, but always I am expanding it one very achievable, small step at a time.

My pattern will become a large, predictable, repeatable loop.  My learner won’t be worrying about what is coming next.  He knows the pattern well.  It’s click, check in with the handler to see where the food is going to be delivered, retrieve your treat, and then continue on to the next well-rehearsed step in the pattern.  Because every element in the pattern has been taught with such clarity and with positive reinforcement, every element can serve as a reinforcer for the behaviors that precede it.

That’s another benefit of this process.  The behaviors that I have taught through my clean loops can now be used to reinforce other elements in my ever-growing pattern.  I can place the click and treat at strategic points wherever I feel the added information they provide is needed.  Adding to their motivating value, every behavior in a well-constructed pattern also serves as a reinforcer.  If you want to understand how to teach patterns as complex as a dressage test using the clicker, this is the key that will unlock that puzzle.  Going micro creates the macro.

This is a game that’s fun to play because it is so easy for you both to win.  Isn’t that one of the characteristics of play?  You’re both winners.

Coming Next: How Clicker Trainers Play

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

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, JOY Full Horses.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I talked about why it is so important to be in a PLAY Full mindset when you go out to the barn.  I ended with this:

You want to build a conditioned response for yourself.  No matter what sort of a day you’ve had, as soon as you head out to the barn – your mood shifts.  The good news is you really can build triggers for yourself that turn this into a habit.  In this section I’ll be explaining how.

Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues, continued

Chapter 2: Turning being PLAY FULL into a Habit

Power of habit book cover

The Power of Habits
It’s all well and good to say we want to be PLAY FULL.  Your intentions may be good, but what is the reality?  What are your emotional patterns?  Is it your habit to be cheerful, or do you let the stresses of the day get the better of you?  How do you develop the habit of being PLAY FULL so that’s always how you are when you’re with your horse?

In his excellent book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about how to alter existing habits and how to build new, desirable ones.

Without knowing it he was describing a process we use in clicker training to build clean sequences of behavior.  Clean means the sequences are made up only of the behaviors you want.  There are no unwanted behaviors messing up the progression from one behavior to the next or attaching themselves tight as a tick onto existing behaviors.

I refer to this teaching process as Loopy Training. You begin with a tight, small loop.  We often write this as:

click to reward

Reward is the short hand that’s often used, but it’s not the best word to choose.  Rewards certainly imply something good has been presented, but they aren’t necessarily directly linked to the behavior you’re trying to say “yes” to.  Getting a Christmas bonus may make you look forward even more to the Holidays, but it’s a clumsy way to reinforce you for a job well done in September. If the reward was linked to the task, it would serve as a much better reinforcer.

To remind us that we want to maintain the “ABC” tight connection between the behavior and it’s consequences, it is better to write this phrase out as:

click to reinforcement

Reinforce means to strengthen.  You reinforce a bridge or concrete.  You reinforce relationships.  If our actions reinforce a behavior, we should see more of that behavior.

When we write out this single phrase, it’s easy for our brains to end the sequence there and not see this as an on-going process.  We really should be writing this as:

loopy training diagram
As Duhigg describes them, habits are very much like that training loop.  They begin with a cue that triggers them, then the response, followed by the reward (or to use the language of animal trainers – followed by reinforcement.)

We all know we have habits – good and bad.  We are in the habit of always closing pasture gates once we’ve gone through them, of latching stall doors, turning off the barn lights when we go out.  Those are good habits to be in, but you might also have bad habits such as saying “you know” too often when you talk, or stopping at Starbucks on your way home for that extra sweet cup of coffee and sugar.

What the research makes us aware of is just how much of our lives are run by habits.  Going to the barn is one of my habits.  (And a very good one.)  Before the horses moved to the new barn, I would see them in the evening.  My schedule was dictated by the evening chores.  At the boarding barn stalls were cleaned only once a day in the morning.  If I wanted my horses to go overnight on a clean bed, I had to be there in the evening to do it.  And if I wanted to leave them with a warm mash and a late night snack of hay, again I had to be there to pass it out.  The last feed done by the barn staff was at 4 pm, and that’s too long a stretch to go until morning for a horse’s digestive system.

So my days revolved around the need to be at the barn to do evening chores.  Often I’d get to the barn feeling completely wiped out from a long day. At the start of the evening I’d be thinking this really is not going to be a riding night, but by the time I was cleaning the last of our stalls, I’d be itching to get my saddle out.  What had changed?

I was in a behavior chain.  I did the stalls in a consistent pattern.  Completing one stall became the cue to move on to the next.  I was moving from one conditioned response to the next.  By the time I got to the last stall, the triggers for riding were cued.  It happened every night.

cue:trigger loop
The Effect of Cues
The reinforcement in this case was the cue for the next link in the chain.  Confused?  Here’s an easy way to think of this.  Suppose you’re teaching a puppy to sit.  You say “sit”, and as he does, you click and give him a bit of hot dog.  The word “sit” will fast become a predictor of hot dogs.  Your puppy loves hot dogs, and he loves all the social attention sitting brings him, so he’ll be eager to hear you give the cue.  In fact he’ll be on the lookout for ways to get you to say “sit”.

If he jumps up on you and you say “sit”, and then you give him a bit of hot dog for listening so well to you, what have you in fact just reinforced?  What behavior are you going to see more of?

Jumping up.

Why?

Because jumping up led to the cue “sit” which reliably produces hot dogs.

This may not be what you intended, but this is the habit pattern you are inadvertently creating.

In my case I was reinforcing good habits.  Each little habit led me predictably through my evening.  The last step in this long sequence brought me to the last ride of the night which was always reserved for Peregrine.  I always saved his session for the end.  Why? Why do we save desert for the end of the meal? Because we want to leave our favorite, best reward for the end.

Unexpected Habits
When we moved the horses to the new barn, my day flipped upside down.  Instead of going out to the barn in the evening, I was now going first thing in the morning.  I had been looking forward to being able to ride whenever I wanted.  In a boarding barn you are always working around other people’s schedules.  Here in my own barn I could ride at any time.  At least, that was the theory.  The reality was my habits got in the way.

Mornings were for working on the computer.  I would finish the last of the stalls, and then head into the tack room but not to get my saddle.  The tack room also served as a temporary office.  That’s where my computer was.  Riding the horses in the morning felt decadent.  The pull to the computer trumped playing with the horses.  That was the stronger morning habit.

Most of what we do through the course of our day is really the result of one habit piled on top of another.  I’m not talking here about the big, noticeable habits that we are probably aware of, but lots of tiny microhabits that go into forming the routine of our day.

Emotional Habits
It’s not just what we do that are determined by these habits.  It’s also how we feel about what we do.  I became very aware of this because of all the traveling that I do.  At home my day follows routines.  Not every day is the same, but it is made up of familiar segments.  Some days include a trip to the post office. That forms a distinct loop inside the larger flow of my day.  Once I enter that habit loop, it unfolds in familiar sequences with emotions attached to it that are the product of classical conditioning.

There’s the feeling of annoyance while I stand waiting in line.  I don’t mind lines in and of themselves.  I stand in lots of other lines, even other post office lines, without this feeling of grumpiness descending upon me.  It’s the inefficiency of the way this particular post office branch is run that triggered the original grump.  Now whenever I walk up the steps towards the front doors, I can feel my mood shift.  There might not be any line at all, or maybe one of the more efficient clerks is at the window.  It doesn’t matter.  I was in a good mood as I drove to the post office, but now as I walk up the steps, I can feel my mood shifting as I am drawn into the “post office habit loop”.

Traveling Outside Your Habits
When I travel, I step outside of all of these classically conditioned triggers.  I get to experience “me”, not the “me” of my daily habits.  I think this is why people enjoy traveling on their vacations.  They could stay home and spend time in their own backyards, but that doesn’t give them a break from their habits.  Traveling may not be more restful, but it certainly creates more of a change when you can step outside not just of familiar landscapes but also of familiar habits.

I’ll let you mull this over as you think about your own traveling experiences, and I’ll pick up next time with a continued discussion of micro-habits.

Coming next: Chapter 2 continued: Micro-habits

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1: Afternoon Session

This is Part 2 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period. 

If you have not already read Part 1, I suggest you begin there.  Part 1 covers the morning sessions of Day 1.  This article covers the afternoon sessions of Day 1.

Afternoon Targeting Sessions

Just when you think you have that rare thing, a complete video record of a horse’s introduction to clicker training, you discover that several sessions are missing.  For the first two rounds of Nick’s afternoon session the record button wasn’t on.

In both sets he was at the door waiting for me and began with three very definite target touches.  He came forward promptly, touched the target and backed up easily for the treat delivery.  He came out further over the stall guard than he had been in the morning.  His interest in the game was growing.  That was encouraging progress, but it was also that’s something needed to be monitored.  I wanted to make sure that this new found confidence remained in balance with his general good manners.

In both rounds he showed the same cycle.  He began by touching the target promptly with none of the hesitation that he had shown in the morning.  He gave three solid touches, and then his response rate dipped down.  That was also something to monitor.

As usual we discussed what to do with the next round of treats.  Everything about his behavior suggested that he would be fine if I went into the stall with him.  He was backing easily out of my space.  He was taking the treats politely without any excessive mugging behavior.

Because he was now showing me that he would back away from me, I felt comfortable going into the stall with him.  But that didn’t mean I had to go in.  I could stay outside the stall and continue with the targeting.  Or I could introduce one of the other foundation lessons.  The consensus from the group was to continue with the targeting to get the come-forward-to-the-target-back-up-to-get-the-treat loop cleaner.

Again there is no right or wrong to this.  We could have made some other choice.  Nick’s behavior would tell us if the choices we made were heading us in a good direction.

Video: An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 3rd Session

Data Collected. Now It’s Assessment Time

People felt this was his best round yet.  I kept this session very short.  I got three good touches and then ended the session.  This avoided the dip in behavior that we had seen earlier.  Nick was clearly still very cautious in his responses.  This is a process that has to unfold in it’s own time.

Several of the clinic participants wondered if we should change targets or change treats.  It’s always a possibility.  One of the huge advantages of clicker training is there is always more than one way to train every behavior.  There isn’t one and only one right way that you have to follow.  That’s what makes these discussions so valuable.  We could certainly try a different target, or introduce a different foundation lesson, but it was also okay to stay with what we were doing.

With Nick, I was still working with simple targeting, but in each round there had been significant changes.  I began by offering him the food approximately where the target had been.  Now I could move him back to get his treat which meant he then had to step forward to touch the target.  The shaping of more complex behavior was occurring almost without his noticing.  In the morning he started out much more on the forehand.  I made a point of feeding him in a way that shifted his balance back slightly which brought him off his front end.  That then allowed me to feed him so he moved back even more.  You are now seeing in the video clip how he is moving back well out of my way to get the treat.

Because I can feed him so he steps back, the dynamic of touching the target changes.  I will often see people moving the target around through big changes.  They’ll hold it high, then low, then out to the side.  Most horses can follow these changes and continue to touch the target.  Essentially the handler is being reinforced for changing criterion in big stair steps.  We call that lumping.  It works for a simple behavior like targeting, but I would rather see the handler learn to build behaviors more smoothly, so a response is already happening consistently before it becomes the criterion that earns the click.

Questions

Training must always take into consideration any health concerns.  One of the questions I had concerned Nick’s teeth.  I wondered how long ago they had been checked.  Nick not only took a long time to eat the hay stretcher pellets, I never heard him take them up onto his back molars to chew.  So I wondered if he might have some sharp points or some other issues that were contributing to his overall caution.  His owner said he had very recently been done by a good dentist.  That’s good to hear, but it doesn’t completely eliminate my question.

It’s so hard to judge how well an equine dentist is doing.  We can look at our horse’s feet to see if a farrier is leaving flare and other obvious signs that perhaps we need to question the job he’s doing.  But with teeth it’s much harder to evaluate the job a dentist has done.  Reaching in to check for points isn’t something we’re trained to do.

Even if you’ve had the teeth checked recently, it’s always possible that something has happened since to cause a problem.  Nick’s owner reported that he is very tight in his jaw and his poll.  That’s consistent with the way he was eating his treats.  This is all part of this early data collecting phase of the training.  Many of the concerns and questions that these early sessions raise may well simply disappear as Nick figures out the game.  What remains needs to be looked at with the possibility that there is a physical issue interfering with his ability to respond well.  For now we were very much still in an exploratory stage, so I continued on with another targeting session, the fourth of the afternoon:

Video  An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 4th Session

The Grown-up Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt

In the discussion that followed this set, we decided that it would be interesting to shift gears and introduce Nick to an exercise which I refer to as: the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  At it’s most basic this exercise is asking if the horse can keep his nose away from my treat pocket when I’m standing in close to him. Initially I free shape this lesson, meaning I am not prompting or triggering the correct response through my behavior.  I am simply observing Nick and reinforcing him for approximations that move him closer to my overall goal.

If he comes into my space or nudges at my arm, I’ll let him explore.  It’s important that he feels safe experimenting.  If I correct him for nuzzling my pockets, I can’t expect him to feel safe offering behavior in other ways.  If I don’t feel comfortable letting him nuzzle my pockets, I can always step back out of range.

When he moves his nose away from my body, click, I’ll give him a treat.  I’ll feed him out away from my body where the perfect horse would be.  That means he’ll have his head between his shoulders and at a height that puts him into good balance.

In this first round of grown-ups you will see that he spends over a minute investigating my pockets.  I let him explore.  This is such an important part of the process.  He isn’t being punished for coming into my space or nuzzling at my vest.  It isn’t dangerous for him to check out this option, but it also doesn’t get him any treats.

If you’ve been taught that you should never let a horse into your space like this, it can be really hard to watch him nuzzling at my pockets.  During this process his owner told us that he often mugs for treats.  It’s a behavior his previous owners allowed, which may account for his persistence.  But watch how quickly he catches on to this new game.  Moving his nose away from me is the way to get treats!

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 5th Session – the First Asking for  Grown-Ups

In the discussion that followed this session I again emphasized how systematic the unfolding of clicker training is.  The behaviors I work on are very connected one to another.  Even though I haven’t perfected targeting, I can still move on and introduce other behaviors.  In the targeting he was learning that moving his head away from me to touch the blue end of the target stick produced goodies.  In grown-ups he was discovering that moving his head into that same position, even when a target wasn’t present, also produced treats.

I think it’s important early on for horses to discover that there is more than one way for them to earn a click and a treat.  If you work too long on targeting or some other behavior, a horse can get too narrow in his understanding of how the process works.  He will think that there is one and only one behavior that produces treats.  He can become very locked in.  When you try and do something else, he’ll get very frustrated because he feels as though he is being blocked from the one thing that he knows works.  So it’s good to experiment and introduce other behaviors early on in the process.

Remember there is no one and only one right answer.  If we had stayed with another round of targeting, would that have been wrong?  No.  If we had moved from targeting sooner, would we have been wrong?  No.  If we had switched to a different target or to different treats, would we have been wrong?  No.

Nick is definitely cautious in his approach to the target, but at this stage that isn’t a bad thing.  We’re at the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.  I’m letting him come into my space and sniff at my hands and explore my pockets.  He has to do that in order to discover that that’s not what works.  What works is taking his nose away from me.  I’m not going to correct him for nuzzling at me.  I don’t want to punish him for it.  I want him to make that choice on his own with minimal prompting from me.

If I thought he was dangerous, if I thought he was going to bite me, I would step away.  I might even have a different kind of barrier.  Or I might wait to work on this particular lesson.  In other words, I would set it up so I felt safe.  He’s exploring.  He’s experimenting.  While he’s doing so, it’s important that we both feel safe.

If I said to you: I want you to experiment, but recognize that there are sharks in the water.  And now go dip your toe in the water, you’d say to me: “I’d rather not.”

If I’m correcting him for nuzzling, then experimenting in general is a bad idea.   Trying things has become unsafe.  He’d be right to say the same thing to me. “I’m not going to reach out and touch that target, because I might get smacked.  You may be giving me treats this time, but next time you just might hit me instead.”

This is why I set up the training in this very structured way, and why I begin with protective contact.  I want him to learn that he can experiment safely.

In this next round you’ll see how well this strategy is paying off.  Nick spent most of the previous round mugging my pockets.  Now in this set you’ll see him very deliberately moving his head away from me.

Progress.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 6th Session – 2nd Grown-ups.


Nick is showing us why clicker training is so much fun.  With every round we’ve seen a shift, a change in his understanding.  Grown-ups produced for him a real “lightbulb” moment.  Shifting from targeting to grown-ups has helped him “connect the dots”.

It also shows again the value of using these short rounds of training.  You may be thinking: that’s easy to do in a clinic.  You have to stop to talk to the participants and explain what you’re doing.  How am I supposed to do this the the real world of my barn?

It’s really easy to do these short rounds of training in your home environment.  You might do a quick round of targeting and then fill a couple water buckets.  You’d do another short round of targeting and then throw down some hay, or turn out a horse.  You’d do another round, and then sweep the barn aisle.  In other words, in between doing your normal barn chores, you can get in a lot of short sets of training.

After you’ve got your chores done, you might want to have a more “normal” visit with your horse. You want to do more with him than just targeting in a stall.  All your previous training says you need to “work” with your horse.

You can begin to expand your clicker training into all the everyday tasks he already knows.  If he’s a horse like Nick who is safe to handle, by all means bring him out and groom him.  In that grooming session, you’ll be looking for opportunities to click and reinforce him.  If he normally fusses and moves about while you groom him, but right now he’s standing still, click and reinforce him.  When you ask him to move his hips over so you can get by, as he responds, click and reinforce him.

You will now be paying attention to all those little requests that we often take for granted when we groom.  You’ll be finding excuses to click and reinforce him, and in the process you’ll be discovering how much better he can be.  You will still have your “formal” clicker sessions where you focus specifically on targeting and the other foundation lessons.  But you can also begin to incorporate the clicker into the “real world” of everyday tasks and expectations.

Business can continue as usual, but now you have this added communication tool that says: “thank you for a job well done.” 

You’ll be doing this, and you’ll also be continuing with the formal process of introducing him to the six foundation lessons of clicker training.  As your horse masters those lessons, you can use them to make daily husbandry and the rest of your training even better.

Now, if your horse were showing you dangerous behaviors, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to bring him out to groom him.  While he learns how to learn, I would be recommending that you stay with protective contact.  He can be dirty for a while.  If you’re dodging his teeth, there’s nothing that says you have to groom him every day.  If you are seeing behaviors that raise safety concerns, I would teach him the learning-how-to-learn emotional-control aspect of his training with a barrier between you.

After this discussion I decided to finish up with one more round that would include both targeting and the grown-ups are talking lesson.

Video:  An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training:  7th Session- Targeting & Grown-ups

This was the final round of the day.  In the afternoon we spent approximately fifty minutes focused on Nick.  About 17 minutes of that time was spent working directly with him.  The rest was spent in discussion.  That’s a good ratio, especially at this stage of the training.

One of the things we were discussing were all the changes we were seeing.  You have a huge advantage because you can go back and review the earlier video clips.  Think about all the changes you’ve seen in these clips.  We began in the morning with his first tentative exploration of the target, and now in the afternoon he will step forward to touch a target, and I can move him back with the food delivery.  I can stand next to him with my pockets filled with treats, and he will deliberately take his head away from me.  I can combine targeting and grown-ups in one work session.  That means  I am beginning to introduce him to two important concepts: cues and chaining.  Chaining refers to linking behaviors together via cues to create long sequences of behaviors.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, Nick was starting out with three strong responses and then his rate of response would drop off.  In this final set of the afternoon he was maintaining a high response rate through a long training set.

Throughout each of these training sets I was making choices.  In that very first round, I was deciding what does “orient to the target” look like?  Can he just sniff the target to get clicked, or does he actually have to touch it. These are all choices that have to be made.  Remember there are no rights or wrongs.   With every click I am assessing the horse’s progress.  Have I made a good choice, or do I need to adjust my criterion slightly?

When you are training, it is good to remember this wonderful quote: “It is always go to people for opinions and horses for answers.”  Through his behavior your horse will tell you if you are making good choices.  He will also be telling you if your basic handling skills are clean.  If you are fumbling around in your pocket trying to get out a treat, you’re giving him extra time to mug you.  You don’t want to be collecting unwanted behavior even as you’re reinforcing other things that you want.  The steady progress Nick made through the day told us that on balance the choices were good ones, and the game was making sense to him.  It was time to let him process what he was learning.

One of the expressions I use often in clinics is you never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.  We would be finding out what he was learning by returning the next morning with another round of training.

More Training

That last video marked the end of day 1 of Nick’s introduction to clicker training.  But this wasn’t the end of the day’s training for Nick’s owner.  We spent another fifty minutes working with her on her clicker training skills.  Just as we did with Nick, we began in a stall with “protective contact”.  She was on one side practicing her handling skills while another clinic participant played the part of her horse.

Human targeting game

I like beginning with these rehearsals.  If you are new to clicker training this is a must-do step.   What you just watched can look so easy.  You are probably thinking: “What can be so hard about holding up a target?”  Until you try it, you won’t know, but better that you find out all the little places where you’re fumbling around trying to get coordinated BEFORE you go to your horse.  If you can’t find a friend to help you, you can always pretend you have a partner.   Video tape yourself or practicing in front of a mirror to give yourself visual feedback.

I know many people fuss at having to go through these steps. They want to go directly to their horses.  They have told themselves that they are hands-on learners.  They need to be doing in order to learn.  These rehearsals give them the “hands-on” learning experience they are looking for.

I am very protective of horses.  If you are learning something new by going straight to your horse, your horse is going to have to withstand your learning curve of making mistakes, fumbling with the clicker, not getting the target up, etc. etc..  That can be hard on a new learner.  When someone runs into trouble in the first stages of the clicker training, its often because they didn’t do enough dress rehearsals.  This show up in inconsistent handling, timing that’s off, unclear criteria, and other issues that result in a horse being equally inconsistent.  The result is a lot of unwanted behavior as the horse expresses his frustration.

Watching someone else training with clean, consistent handling doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do it yourself.  The dress rehearsal is the step you put in between.  The handler will be going through all the training steps first with a “human horse”.  Her partner will hold her hands together to represent a horse’s muzzle.  When she reaches out and bumps the target with her hands, her “trainer” will click and give her a treat.  The “human horse” will adjust her behavior to meet the needs of her learner.  If someone simply needs to practice clicking and getting the food out of her pocket, the “horse” will cooperate by touching the target directly.  She won’t present any behavioral challenges until her “handler” is ready to work on that step.

One of the huge advantages of this process is the “horse”can give her “handler” verbal feedback.   By the time you’re ready to go to your horse, you can focus on what he’s doing instead of focusing on your own skills.

Once your “human horse” gives you the “all clear”, you’re ready to ask your horse how you’re doing.  In this case we had a barnful of clicker-wise horses, so Nick’s owner was able to practice her new clicker skills with an experienced horse.  This was a real luxury that prepared her even more for her first clicker lessons with Nick.
Puffin targeting in stall
This is Puffin checking on Wendy’s “homework”.  Puffin was a rescue pony who is becoming a clicker star under the guidance of his person, Karen Quirk.

The clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed his first day’s lessons.  I will make you do the same.  I’ll share Day 2 in the next installment of this report.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker. 

My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com