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.





The Goat Diaries: More Catching Up

The Goat Palace – Finding Stillness

In my last post I caught you up on some of the changes that occurred over the Thanksgiving Holiday.  I transformed what was to be a storage bay for equipment into a training area for the goats.  And I started working Elyan and Pellias as a pair.  Now it’s time to catch you up with the ladies.

I’m going back over my notes as I’m thinking about what to write.  On Nov. 21st all the goats were still living together which meant we had the problem of separating one out for training.  The problem wasn’t getting one to leave the group.  The problem was convincing all the others that they had to stay behind and wait for their turn.

At one point I had Trixie by herself in the back area.  We were definitely making progress in that she was now okay being by herself.  I wasn’t seeing the extreme worry that had been there only a few short sessions before when I tried to work her by herself.  As you’ll recall, initially I had to give her the “security blanket” of training her with Thanzi. That made all of our sessions feel more than a little chaotic.

Trixie and Thanzi together

An early training session: Trixie is on the left.  She’s just touched her target.  Thanzi is on the right.

Now that I could have Trixie by herself I would have liked to have worked her with protective contact. The only way that could be done in the back pen was to use the side gate, but that would take her out of sight of the other goats.  That was too big of a stretch for her to make.  So I went into the pen with her.  She immediately crowded in next to me trying to get to my treats.

In a way this was progress.  When you are working with timid animals, there is a point where you celebrate mugging.  I’ve done that many times with people who are working with very shut down horses.  “He mugged me!” is said with great excitement.  It means the horse is finally feeling safe enough to experiment and explore.  It is a sign of huge progress, but it is also a behavior that needs to be replaced quickly with something that we find more acceptable – and safer.

I couldn’t work Trixie with a fence between us, but I could use the next best thing which was one of the large posts supporting the lean-to roof.  I hid behind the post which effectively blocked access to my pockets. I could now be stationary which took me out of the picture and brought the target into focus.

I had a feed tub next to the post. I held the target up directly next to the feed tub so it was easy to find.  It took a few minutes for anything consistent to emerge. At first Trixie just tried to get to me, but I held my position and let the post block access to my pocket.

Trixie on mats

Trixie with the “protective contact” post in the background.

She looked at the target often enough for me to click and drop treats into her food bowl. The dots were finally beginning to connect. She would dive for her treat and then lift her head up and immediately orient back to the target.

She has been so much slower than the other goats to make the connections between her actions, the click and my delivering a treat.   Her worry has definitely gotten in the way and made it harder for her to figure out the game.

She is much more settled now than she was when she first arrived. That’s helping her to understand the training.  The fact that she was trying to get to my pockets shows how much more comfortable she is now both with me and the environment.  So even though it felt like chaos in those first few days when I had to work her with Thanzi and about all I could ask her to do was come to my hand for a click and a treat, it was a good starting point for her.  Before I could ask for anything more, she first had to discover that she was safe.

She was now making her next discovery which was that it is an advantage to be by herself.  When she doesn’t have to compete with Thanzi, she gets a lot more treats.  I am hoping that as she and the other the goats learn that they don’t have to rush to get a treat ahead of the others, they will settle down and slow down to a more relaxed learning rhythm.

But now I was hiding behind a post so I could bring myself into stillness.  When I am trying to dodge away from her to avoid being mugged, she is not noticing the target.  She’s just thinking about getting to my pockets.  Using a post as a barrier was an odd way to create protective contact, but it worked.  Again, the environment matters and you learn to make creative use of what you have.

Trixie has also given me a new training mantra:

In stillness comes understanding.

I’ve practiced this for years.  It’s something I’ve known, but the goats have really helped to crystallize this concept so I can put it into words.  With the horses we begin with stillness both with targeting and the “grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt” lessons.  When I first introduce the target, I am behind a barrier so I can be as non-reactive and quiet as possible.  I put the target up in approximately the same place each time I present it.  I don’t move it around a lot and have the horses follow it – not yet.  That comes later.  In this first introduction I work to get a clean loop by having the behavior remain very much the same through a series of repetitions.  Keeping things constant means it is easier to notice the things that are most relevant to getting your person to reach into her pocket and hand you a treat.

For grown-ups the handler stands next to her horse with her hands held together in front of her.  This position helps to block access to her treat pockets, and it brings the handler into stillness.  She is learning to be non-reactive to behaviors she does not like.  Instead of pushing her horse’s nose away, or correcting the unwanted investigation of her pockets in any way, she stays quiet.  As soon as her horse takes his nose away even for an instant, click, she hands him a treat.

The stillness gives her a neutral base position.  When she moves out of stillness to ask her horse to back up or to come forward, the change is much more noticeable to both of them.  When you begin with noise, it’s much harder to notice a small change.  When the environment is chaotic, it’s much harder to pick out the one piece of information that’s relevant.  Isn’t that how mystery writers try to confound us?  They clutter up the landscape with lots of characters and side stories.  The more red herrings they throw in, the harder it becomes to spot the relevant clues.

What stillness does is strip all away all the extra noise that’s coming from us.  For Trixie that meant the target suddenly became the one noticeably element in her environment.  Now she could quiet down the noise in her brain.  Where was Thanzi?  Where were the treats?  What was this person going to do?  All of that could drift into the background.  Finally, just the target could come into focus, and she could begin to make connections.  And the connections could begin to rewire her brain, to bring all the frazzled ends together in a way that made more sense and could help her to settle.

I was going to write so much more to get you completely caught up to the current training, but I think this concept of stillness is one that needs mulling over.  So I will be still and end the day’s post here.




Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 3

The Goat Palace

Yesterday was an odd day.  I had to leave the barn early so we didn’t have a formal training session.  When I was in the pen refreshing hay and water, I did suddenly find that I could close the middle gate so only Trixie was in the back area.  I took advantage of that so far rare opportunity to give her a short session by herself.

She was great.  She stayed with me following my target hand.  Thanzi stood up on the middle gate.  I kept an eye on her to see what she would do.  Apparently, she decided it wasn’t worth trying to jump the fence.  She dropped back to the ground and watched through the bars.  Normally this is what Trixie is doing while Thanzi has her turn.

I led Trixie to one of the platforms made up of a stack of plywood mats.  She stepped onto it, click and treat.  Then click and treat several times while she was still on the platform.  I led her to a second platform and repeated the rapid-fire clicks while she stood still on the platform.  I don’t think she was making any connection at all between the treats and her feet being on the plywood.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes for that awareness to emerge.

We went back and forth between the two platforms several times, then her attention began to wander.  She is definitely a candidate at this point for very short sessions. It’s interesting how closely these current training reports mirror what I am writing about in the July Goat Diaries. Today’s post focuses on the importance of beginning with short sessions. When I saw the rhythm of the treat delivery begin to change for Trixie, I opened the gate and Thanzi came rushing in.  I dropped treats for both of them into the feed tubs that are scattered about that area, and then continued on with the morning chores.

My overall impression of Trixie is she’s a very sweet, very soft individual.  I found myself questioning what sweet means.  Trixie is a nervous goat.  Her worry keeps her from approaching too close.  Thanzi, Pellias, and Galahad are all much bolder.  They will crowd in to get the treats.  Elyan and Thanzi stand back more.  So could “sweet” be translated as more nervous?

But then I wondered if we become how we are treated.  If I think that Trixie is sweet and treat her as such, will our relationship evolve so that those elements which match my label “sweet” are highlighted and reinforced?  I think that Thanzi is also very sweet (with me), and super smart.  We’ll see what emerges as our relationships develop.

On to the July Goat Diaries.  We are finally getting to day three of their clicker training experience.

The July Goat Diaries: Day 3

You never know what you have taught. You only know what you have presented.

With horses I have people begin by counting out twenty treats. That ensures that the first few sessions will be short. With so few treats in their pockets they have to step away from their horses to go refill their pockets. That gives them thinking time. How did the session go? What was working well? What needs to be changed? What do you want to do with the next round of treats?

Starting out this way gets people into the habit of thinking about their training session. It’s easy to jump in and just train, train, train, without giving much thought to what you are doing or how your animal is responding. That’s a recipe for a disaster. You need time to think about the responses your animal is giving you. I certainly needed time to think about what the goats were offering.

I definitely needed to make some changes. For starters, I put the cup filled with treats into my pocket.  When I held it, I thought it was just too much of a draw for their attention.  I had wanted a quicker way to get to my treats.  The cup gave me that initially, but now it was time to go back to using my pockets.

The goats’ response to this change would tell me if I had made a good choice.

8:30 am First Morning Session

IMG_2816 Both goats sleeping in hay.jpg

P’s session was first. They had had their morning hay and were both lying down when I went into the stall. I let P out into the outside run and left E with some treats scattered over the floor.

P went straight to the platform and stood looking out over the top field. He seemed to be scanning for the dogs. His fixed attention worked in my favor. It let me take a step or two away. Click. He stayed on the platform while I stepped forward to give him the treat. He went back to staring. I stepped even further away. Click. He continued to stare. It was clear the sound of the click did not yet hold any significant meaning.  It was only as I stepped toward him and reached into my pocket that he turned his head.  That was a cue he understood. Treats were coming!

Goat Diaries Day 3 platforms Pt 1 12 panels distractionI continued to step further and further away from him until I was back by the stall door. He was being a perfect statue. What a handsome goat! He was standing in perfect balance. This was the picture I wanted to train towards. Head up, but not stretching out to me. Expression alert, interested, but not afraid.

It was time to take him off the platform. He hesitated. Following a target was still too new to draw him off his sentinel post. I settled for less.  A nose stretching towards the target was enough to earn a click and a treat. I watched him making a choice between staying on the platform or leaving to follow me.

Goat Diaries Day 3 Platforms: Pt leaving platform 8 photos.png

Cuddle Time Pays off

Approaching the target earned a click and a treat. It also presented me with an opportunity to make physical contact. He stood quietly for a prolonged head scratch.

Goat Diaries: Day 3 Platforms Pt 2 - head scratch 3 photos.png

Head scratching was followed by another opportunity to follow the target onto the platform. Just moments before he had stood staring up at the top field. Now he had a softer gaze, but he was still staying on the platform while I took several steps away from him. He also stayed put while I stroked his back and rubbed his head, click and treat. We’d come a long way in a very short time. On their arrival day they had stayed as far away from me as they could. Now P was calmly accepting a head rub.

Goat Diaries: Day 3 Platforms Pt 2 - targeting to platform.png

P was still slow to follow a target. Those dots were not fully connected. But the platform work! He had that down.  He was showing me again how smart he is – Robin smart.

When I offered the target, he was always hesitant. It’s hard to leave a platform. Goats like being up on things. Why leave a preferred location, especially when that’s where the treats were? I could see him choosing between the platform and the target. I just needed to give him time to work out the puzzle.  He chose the target each time. Smart goat!  More good learning – you get clicked for lots of different things.

As the session continued, I saw many good things that I liked. His attention had come off the far field. His focus was now inside the pen with me. While he stood on the platform, I could see him tracking my position as I circled around him.

Goat Diaries: Day 3 Platforms Pt 3 - build distance 2 photos.png

He likes being on the platform. Leaving it to touch a target created a conflict. Which did he value more? I was pleased that he was making the choice to orient back to me and the target. Click and treat.

Goat Diaries: Day 3 Platforms Pt 3 - targeting off platform 4 photos.png

And I was very pleased that I could scratch his head and neck out here, and he very much seemed to enjoy it.

Goat Diaries: Day 3 Platforms Pt 3 - time for a scratch.png

Coming Next: Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 3: Begin with Bliss

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: