The July Goat Diaries Day 8
This looks like a long post, but it’s loaded with photos – so lots to look at, less to read.
These goat diaries began by talking about relationships. In June when Sister Mary Elizabeth offered to let me have a couple of her goats for two weeks, I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t ask how old they would be, or how much handling they had had. All I knew was I was getting two goats.
They goats arrived – two brothers – yearlings who had had considerable handling from children, but in this new environment were afraid of being handled. So Step One was building a relationship.
In the workshops I give that is also Step One. I take the time to begin building a relationship with the people who come. Friday night is spent in conversation. As people share their stories, it becomes very clear that the horse world is filled with people who love horses, who want to share their lives with horses, but who are very afraid of the horse they own. And the same can be said of the horses. So many of the stories are about horses who are afraid of people.
We are in such a hurry with horses. We are in a hurry to start them. We are in a hurry to ride them. In our great hurry we all too often destroy the bonds of trust.
We go in with our horses too soon. With clicker training I begin with protective contact. I put a barrier between myself and the horse. The barrier may be as little as a rope tied across the door of a stall. Or it may be as solid as the metal panels of a round pen, but there is a barrier. That protects us both. If the horse starts to push into my space to get at the treats, I can just step back out of the way. I don’t have to correct this unwanted behavior. I’m not mixing the positives of clicker training with punishment. I want the horse to feel that it is safe to experiment. He can offer behavior without the fear of correction.
I want the horse to feel safe in my presence. The barrier helps with that. It protects him as much as it protects me. With a barrier between us I can’t be grabbing at him or trapping him a corner. He can leave whenever he wants. Knowing he can always escape gives many horses the confidence to approach and explore.
With the goats I didn’t have the kind of set up that allowed for protective contact. I didn’t need to be protected from the goats, but they needed to know I wasn’t going to grab them. So I sat in a chair. That anchored me to a spot. Even when I had something they wanted – pretzels and peanuts – I stayed in the chair and let them approach me.
Once food was involved, everything sped up. Suddenly, I had goats pushing into my lap to get the treats. The training could begin!
But even here I took my time. We used just the stall for the first couple of sessions, then I let their world expand out into the outside run. And then we expanded out into the barn aisle.
There are lessons here for the horses, as well. We are in such a hurry. I hear stories all the time of people who went too far too soon with their horses and ended up in trouble. Before buying their new horse, they probably only rode it once or twice – and that was in the horse’s familiar environment. As soon as they got the horse home, they were saddling up and heading off on a trail ride. Five miles out on a trail is not a good time to discover that your new horse is not as bomb-proof as you had been lead to believe. Now you are learning that when he’s afraid, he bucks – hard. Why should he keep you on his back? He doesn’t know you.
Taking your time in the beginning of a relationship builds a safety net for both you and your horse. Taking your time for the goats meant several things:
* expanding the complexity of the training environments in small stair steps.
* building a repertoire of behaviors that would keep us connected to one another as the level of distractions increased.
* building a history of reinforcement together – in other words building a relationship.
It was time to test the waters yet again, to see how these stair steps were working. So I let their world expand even more. We had been working in the barn aisle. Now I thought they were ready to discover the indoor arena.
I took them out together which I knew would help E. The arena door was left open, so at any time they could escape back to the security of the barn aisle and their stall. I didn’t set out any mats. I wasn’t asking them for anything. They were free to explore on their own.
First things first – they spotted the mounting block (Fig. 1). P led the way. He scaled the “mountain” all the way to the top step, then took the short cut down by jumping off.
This was so unhorse-like. Leaping up on the mounting block would not be a horse’s preferred safety zone. For the goats the mounting block was the best part of their new play ground.
Once Mount Everest was successfully scaled, the goats ventured further out into the arena. Not surprisingly P took the lead.
E chose to stay closer to me (Fig. 2: 1-4). I held my hand out inviting him to follow it like a target. He was hesitant at first. Should he follow his brother or stay with me? He chose to stay. Click and treat.
We walked a big circle, stopping every few steps for a click and a treat. Eventually P joined us (Fig. 3: 1-4). I held out both hands and the goats followed along behind me, one on each side.
Thankfully, I had put a cup of treats into both pockets so I could deliver the treats smoothly. And they were good at waiting for me to get the treat. All that work in the barn aisle was paying off. They were beginning to understand that the treat would be coming to them. They didn’t have to charge me to get to the treats.
We eventually headed back into the aisle where I had a bucket of hay set out. They followed me back to their stall. P actually trotted the last few steps back. I had established the routine of scattering treats on the floor for them, so entering the stall came with the promise of more good things. As I was leaving, E slipped out. I wasn’t planning on doing any more, but since he was out, I did a leading session.
E and I went into the arena. He led beautifully. I was so very delighted by him.
Fig. 4: Beautiful leading!
These photos were taken from the middle of our session. They show several beautiful examples of what it means to wait on a point of contact (Fig. 5: 1-8).
As small as he is, I could easily add pressure to the lead and pull him along, but I don’t. Instead when E hesitates, I wait. As soon as his attention comes back towards me and he puts slack back in the lead, I click and reinforce him.
This next series of photos shows a lot of useful details (Fig. 6a-d). We begin by entering the arena with E walking beside me on a slack lead. Click and treat (Fig. 6a:1-3).
As I begin to walk off, E hesitates. I pause and wait for him to walk on (Fig. 6a: 4-6). I don’t add pressure and pull him forward.
This is the key to using the lead in a clicker-compatible way. This is what shaping on a point of contact means. You let your animal find the answer. In the next set of photos (Fig. 6b: 7) E walks off with me and keeps nice slack in the lead. I click when his attention comes back to me. And then I give him his treat (Fig. 6b: 8-9).
Before walking off again, I pause for a brief moment in “grown-ups”. This brief pause will grow over time into real duration (Fig. 6c: 10-17).
Remembering to put the pauses in is so important. E is such a very gentle goat. His timidity makes him especially easy to work with. It would be easy to simply click and walk off. If I don’t take the time to pause, to build the expectation that waiting is part of walking, it won’t be there when I need it.
Here’s the mantra: “You can’t ask for something and expect to get it on a consistent basis unless you have gone through a teaching process to teach it to your animal.” I changed the last word. Normally I’m referring to horses. This overly long sentence comes from John Lyons, a well known trainer and clinician. I’ve often thought about modifying it to make it more my own, but he really did get it right the first time. Every word is important.
I was going through a teaching process with E. I was showing him how leading works. If I left out: “sometimes we stand still before walking off again”, I couldn’t expect that understanding to be there when I needed it.
It takes patience and focus to remember to put in all these little pieces. With a bolder animal like P it is easier to remember. He makes it clear that I need to teach a lot of patient standing. Often it is the more difficult animals that end up the best trained because they make it clear we need these pieces. With the easier animals we often don’t notice what we’ve been leaving out until we’re in a situation where those pieces are really needed, and then they aren’t there for us.
So even though it would have been easy with E to just walk off, I needed to take the time to build grown-ups.
Our animals always lead the way. It was just a few short sessions ago that I was clicking and reinforcing every couple of steps that E took on a lead. Now he was walking along beside me, keeping slack in the lead (Fig. 7).
P’s Leading Session
P was next. I put the lead on him and started his lesson in the aisle. Instead of staying beside me, he has a tendency to overshoot and to swing around in front of me. Again, our animals tell us what we need to work on. Clearly I needed to work on whoa.
Testing the waters is a good way to begin. What could I ask for?
I tried simply stopping. He kept walking and hit the end of the lead. He shook his head and fussed at me. I didn’t want those horns butting into me, so I quickly rethought this strategy.
I didn’t have a stop yet, so it wasn’t fair game to ask for it. I needed to build the reaction pattern I wanted. So, it was click as he walked forward, and then feed so he had to back up out of my space to get the treat. Once he understood the pattern, I took him into the arena so I could film it. What an interesting session!
I clicked as he walked along beside me, got the treat and then turned into him so he had to back up to get to my hand (Fig. 8: 1-6). I had every confidence that he would be able to figure out what he needed to do to get the treat.
Crowding forward into me gained him nothing. Backing up brought him to his treat. As the pattern repeated, it became easier and easier to ask him to back. He was understanding how he had to move to get his treat. I could even begin to add a pause before we walked off. That’s all part of being able to ask him to stop.
I did wonder if I was encouraging him to butt. Asking him to back up curled his neck into the orientation that it would be in if he were going to charge me. But head butting is a forward moving exercise. He might be curling his neck, but his feet were moving back. Time would tell if I was reading this correctly.
At times my arm was against his forehead so he was in head butting position, but instead of going forward, he was going backwards, and when he did, I turned my hand over and fed him! Talk about messing with a goat’s brain!
I clicked and gave him a treat several times for standing still. Then we walked on again. The next part of the training loop was taking shape. It was click for walking beside me. Feed so he had to back up. Click for standing still. Feed again. Walk on when ready (Fig. 8: 7-8).
It had been a long and eventful morning. They had had their first exploration of the arena, plus their leading sessions. I got P back into his stall, fed them both some hay, finished a couple of chores and then went back in to sit with them. I always like to balance out the activity of the formal training sessions with the quiet of these cuddle times. As usual, E came right over for a scratch. P was more interested in the hay, but still asked for a back scratch. The arrival of a delivery truck interrupted our visit.
I left their stall feeling as though yesterday and today have been breakthrough days. The goats were understanding the process more and more. And they were clearly showing a connection to me. If I had not spent so much time scratching their ears and making friends, I don’t think they would have chosen to walk beside me.
P in particular seemed to be working things out. Instead of leaping from one mat to another and then standing up on his hind legs when I didn’t respond like the children by throwing all my treats on the ground, he was now going calmly from mat to mat (yesterday’s gain). He was also leading beside me without charging past or trying to cut me off (today). Progress!
And both goats were turning into the most delightful companions. I loved it when E pressed in next to my chair asking for more scratching, or P moved under my hand to request a head rub. They were so like cats in the way they enjoyed a good scratch. If only they could purr!
The Goat Palace Update
We have made a startling discovery. The goats have manners!
This discovery came about because we needed to do some repairs to the gate separating the two pens. The boys have been slowly demolishing the middle rails. When I went out with their morning hay I discovered that they had swapped around who was living where. Thanzi and Trixie were in the front pen and the boys were in the back.
The boys were devouring a Christmas tree that the ladies had been pretty much ignoring, so they were happy. Trixie was eating hay out of a feeder and Thanzi was up on the top platform of the jungle gym looking very much in charge of the situation, so they were happy. Apparently, I was the only one who wasn’t pleased with the new arrangement!
When Marla arrived, we got to work repairing the gate. We replaced the current rails with much sturdier, more goat-proof two by fours. For most of the repair job we kept the boys in the hallway and left Thanzi and Trixie to sort themselves out. Thanzi kept going back and forth through the gap in the gate until we had enough rails up so she could no longer fit through.
Both girls ended up in the front area. We had to make several trips back into the barn to get extra screws, a fresh battery for the drill, and finally more hay for the ladies. I’m not sure where in all this coming and going it happened, but I suddenly found myself with all five goats together in the front section.
When they first arrived having them altogether in one group created chaos. Thanzi and Trixie chased the boys. At that point the middle gate was left open, so they could escape into the back area. But now the gate was closed, and all five goats were crowded together in a much smaller area. I was worried for the youngsters. I abandoned Marla to finish the repairs on her own so I could supervise the goats.
I am delighted to report that the chaos has been replaced by a circus act. At least that’s what it looked like. Pellias claimed the top platform of the jungle gym. Galahad showed his acrobatic prowess by balancing on an upside down feed tub. Elyan found his usual spot on his “balance beam”. Trixie ended up on Galahad’s usual platform, and Thanzi stationed herself off to the side.
I could click and treat them one by one. Everyone waited. There was no head butting, no driving the others away from a platform or a mat. When Galahad fell off his very slippery perch, I could wait for him to get back on – and everyone else waited as well!
Progress! Who knew they were becoming this good!
What this shows you is how much you can get done even when you can do very little. The last two days the temperatures finally climbed up to the freezing mark. It felt like a heat wave! For the past two weeks it’s been so cold we might just as well have been living at the North Pole.
We suspended formal training sessions during this time. I would go out a couple of times a day to replenish their hay and give them warm water. While I was out there, I would spend a bit of time working on communal manners. I set three platform out in the barn aisle and reinforced Elyan and Pellias for letting Galahad go to the third platform.
Normally I don’t work with Galahad. He’s Marla’s project, but he was causing problems for the other two. When I filled the hay feeders, Pellias and Elyan would park themselves on their platforms. Galahad would push his way into the feeders, but when I clicked and tried to give the others treats for their good manners, Galahad was there pushing his way in. Elyan and Pellias would chase him away, which meant their good platform manners were falling apart. Something had to be done.
The “something” was to spend a minute or two in the hallway reinforcing all three for staying each on his own platform. Galahad needed to learn from me that platforms were good places to be. I also needed to reinforce Elyan and Pellias for letting Galahad stay on a platform instead of driving him off. It took a couple of days for good manners to emerge.
Elyan in particular was like that little kid in school who makes sure teacher knows everything that the other children are doing wrong. It’s cute when it’s a goat acting like this – not so much when it’s a child. But Elyan and Pellias learned that it was okay to let Galahad stay on a platform. And Galahad learned how to play with the others.
“Teacher” was pleased because now I could get the hay into the feeders without Galahad trying to climb into them and when I reinforced the other two for being on their stations, I could also reinforce Galahad for being on his.
All of this sounds as though I spent real training time establishing these manners, but remember the temperatures were hovering down around zero degrees with wind chills some mornings dropping below minus 20. (I always want to emphasize that’s Fahrenheit not Celsius.) My hands ached with the cold. I was good for a couple of treats per goat and then I had to get my hands back into gloves and just get on with the refilling the hay feeders as fast as I could. The “training” they were getting was minimal, but it made a difference. The result was the surprise that we had a “circus act” of five goats all stationing.
I know in the winter people often feel as though they aren’t getting anything done with their horses. They are used to thinking in terms of long riding sessions. At the spring clinics people often start out by apologizing for how little they’ve been able to do with their horses because the weather has been so bad. And yet what the goats were showing us was how much you can do even when it’s just a quick minute here and a quick minute there. Little things do add up to some fun surprises.
So one last mantra and then I’m done with today’s post: Your animals are always learning. That means when you are with them, you are training.
That’s something to think about over a hot cup of tea. Stay warm!
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.