Summer Pleasures – Watermelon Parties and The Two Sides of Freedom

Watermelon Parties

watermelon

Summer means watermelon parties for the horses.  They are always a surprise.  As I walk through the barn, bowl in hand, I’ll announce: “It’s party time!”

Watermelon parties are held outside. That was quick learning on my part. It’s astounding the amount of happy drool even a few pieces of watermelon can produce.

Robin and Fengur follow me outside.  While I pass out chunks of watermelon, they stand waiting, one on either side of me.  There’s no pushing, no trying to jump the queue, no grumbling at the other horse. We have a happy time together. The horses get to enjoy one of their favorite treats, and I get to enjoy their obvious pleasure.

Summer also means sharing an afternoon nap with Robin. I’ve just come in from mowing the lower pasture. It’s time for a cool down. I’m sitting in a chair in the barn aisle, cold drink by my side, computer on my lap, and Robin dozing beside me. Fengur has wandered off to the hay box to snack. He’ll join us in a little while.

Robin asleep lip drooping

The view from my chair – Robin’s lower lip droops while he naps beside me.

Why am I writing about these simple summer pleasures? My horses live in a world of yes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this means. Living in a world of yes gives me the freedom to enjoy these simple pleasures. But the freedom isn’t one-sided. Living in a world of yes gives my horses just as much freedom.

We often think of training in terms of what we need from our animals. When I walk down the barn aisle, I need you, horse, to move out of my space. When the door bell rings, I need you, dog, to go sit on your mat. I’ll teach these things using clicks and treats, but the behaviors are for my benefit more than my animal companions. The freedom to ask is all on my side.

That’s not how things are in my barn. It’s set up to maximize choice for the horses. Doors are left open so they are free to go where they want. Right now what Robin wants is to nap in the barn aisle. I couldn’t give Robin this luxury of choice if I hadn’t also given him behaviors that let us share space amiably.

When I walk down the barn aisle, Robin will often pose. It’s a simple gesture, a slight arch of the neck is all that’s needed. If he thinks I’m not paying attention, he’ll give a low rumble of a nicker. I’ll click, and give him a treat. Often I’ll get a hug in return.  That’s good reinforcement for me.

The pose is a guaranteed way to get attention from me. If Robin wants to interact, he knows how to cue me. And I am under excellent stimulus control! That’s how cues should work. They create a give and take, a back and forth dialog. They erase hierarchy and create instead the three C’s of clicker training. Those three C’s lead in turn to the freedom my horses and I enjoy sharing the barn together.

Before I can tell you what the three C’s are, we have to go back a few steps to commands.  It’s not just in horse training that commands rule. They control most of our interactions from early childhood on.  Commands have a “do it or else” threat backing them up. Parents tell children what to do.  In school it is obey your teachers or face the penalties. In our communities it’s stop at red lights or get a ticket. Pay your taxes or go to jail. We all know the underlying threat is there. Stay within the rules and stay safe. Stray too far over the line and you risk punishment.

This is how we govern ourselves, so it is little wonder that it is also how we interact with our animals. With both horses and dogs – commands have been the norm. We tell our dogs to “sit”. When it is a true command, it is expected that the dog will obey – or else! The command is hierarchical which means it is also unidirectional. A sergeant gives a command to a private. The private does what he’s told.  He doesn’t turn things around give a command back to the sergeant.

We give commands to our horses, to our dogs – never the reverse. We expect our commands to be obeyed. We say “sit”, and the dog sits. I tell. You obey. Because they are hierarchical, commands exclude dialog. The conversation is all one-sided. Commands put us in a frame that keeps us from seeing deep into the intelligence and personality of the individual we’re directing.

Cues are different. Cues are taught with positive reinforcement. At first, this sounds like a huge difference, but for many handlers it represents a change in procedure, but not yet of mind set. The handler may be using treats as reinforcement, but the cues are still taught with an element of coercion.  How can this be? It’s not until you scratch below the surface, that you’ll begin to understand the ever widening gulf that the use of cues versus commands creates.

dog touching a targetTo help you see the coercive element, let’s look at how twenty plus years ago we were originally instructed how to teach cues.  You used your shaping skills to get a behavior to happen. It might be something as simple as touching a target. Cues evolve out of the shaping process. The appearance of the target quickly becomes the cue to orient to it.  But this cue is often not fully recognized by a novice handler.  We’re such a verbal species, this handler wants her animal to wait until she says “touch”.  As she understand it, that’s the cue.  So what does she do? She begins by saying “touch” and clicking and reinforcing her learner for orienting to the target.

This part is easy. Whether she had said anything or not, her learner was going to touch the target. She’s ready to make a discrimination. Now she presents the target, but she says nothing. What does her learner do? He orients to the target, just as he’s been doing in all the previous trials. He expects to hear the click and be given a treat, but nothing happens. His person just changed the rules which has plunged him into a frustrating puzzle.

He’s in an extinction process. He’s no longer being reinforced for a behavior that has worked for him in the past. He’ll go through the normal trajectory of an extinction process. That means he’ll try harder. He’ll try behaviors that worked in the past, and he’ll become frustrated, anxious, even angry, before he’ll give up for a moment. In that moment of giving up, his person will say “touch” and present the target again.

She wants him to learn the distinction. In the presence of the cue perform the behavior – click and treat. In the absence do nothing.

The problem with this approach is she never taught her learner what “do nothing” looks like. She stepped from the world of commands into what she thinks of as a kinder world of cues, but she didn’t entirely shed the mantle of “do it or else”. With cues the threat of punishment may not be there, but extinction is still an unpleasant and frustrating experience. Why isn’t this key on my computer which was just working now locked up and frozen?!! Until you can find your way out of the puzzle, you can feel very trapped and helpless. A good trainer doesn’t leave her learner there very long. She’s looking for any hesitation that let’s her explain to her learner the on-off nature of cues.

There’s another way to teach this that doesn’t put the learner into this extinction bind.  This other way recognizes that cues create a dialog, a back and forth conversation.  I want my learner to wait for a specific signal before moving towards the target.  Let’s begin by creating a base behavior, a starting point.  For my horses this is the behavior I refer to as: “the grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt”.  I will reinforce my horse for standing beside me with his head looking forward.  He’ll earn lots of clicks and treats for this behavior.  And he’ll begin to associate a very specific stance that I’m in with this behavior.  When I am standing with my hands folded in front of me, it’s a good bet to try looking straight ahead – click and treat.

Ruth Scilla grown ups.png

“Grown-ups”

In separate sessions he’ll also be reinforced for orienting to a target.  When both behaviors are well established, I’ll combine them.  Now I’ll look for grown-ups.  I’ll fold my hands in front of me, knowing I’ll get the response I’m looking for.  Only now, instead of clicking and reinforcing him, I’ll hold out the target to touch.  Click the quick response and treat.

The message is so much more interesting than the one created by using an extinction procedure to introduce cues.  Cues have just become reinforcers which means they have become part of a conversation.  If you want to interact with the target, here’s an easy way to get me to produce it – just shift into grown-ups.  That will cue me to lift the target up.  A conversation has begun.  We’re at the very elementary stage of “See spot run”.  I’m teaching my horses the behaviors they can use to communicate with me, and I am showing them how the process works.  You can be heard.  You WILL be heard.  Let’s talk!

The conversation that emerges over time comes from looking more deeply at what cues really are. We can think of them as a softer form of commands, but that doesn’t oblige us to step out of our hierarchical mindset. It is still I give a signal. You – my animal companion – respond. Click and treat. Diagram this out. The arrows all point in one direction.

Signal from human leads to response from animal

Peel another layer of understanding about how cues work and you come to this:

It isn’t just that cues are taught with positive reinforcement. Cues can be given by anyone or anything. A curtain going up cues an actor to begin speaking his lines. We would never say the curtain commanded the actor.

If cues can be given by anyone or anything, that means they are not hierarchical. We cue our animals, and they cue us. Cues create a back and forth exchange. They lead to conversation – to a real listening to our animals. We adjust our behavior based on their response. Cues lead to the three C’s of clicker training which I can now say are: communication, choice, and connection. And in my barn that in turn creates opportunities for more freedom. It means doors can be left open. It means I can have watermelon parties and sit with my horses while we both enjoy the afternoon breeze through the barn aisle.

Let’s parse this some more.

The mindset that commands create is very much centered around stopping behavior. Other training options won’t make sense. They won’t work.

Cue-based training makes it easier for you to see your horse’s behavior as communication, as a bid for attention. That makes it easier for you to look for solutions that satisfy his needs.

Let’s see how these differences play out in a typical boarding barn scenario. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker has been ignored. In frustration he’s escalated into banging on his stall door. His human caretakers see this as “demanding” hay. In a command-based frame demanding hay equal rebellious behavior which can’t be tolerated. The behavior must be stopped.

Within this frame the only training options you can think of are those centered around stopping the unwanted behavior. Other options don’t make sense and won’t work. The command-based frame narrows your field of view. It’s as though you have a tight beam focused on the problem behavior. Everything within that beam is crystal clear, but everything outside the beam might as well not exist. You can’t even begin to think about other solutions. You are targeted on the unwanted behavior.  Banging on the stall door must be addressed and addressed directly.

Now let’s look at the contrast that a cue-based frame creates. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker to you is noticed and responded to. You appreciate his alerting you to the lack of hay. You have read how important gut fill is in preventing ulcers. You attend to your horse’s needs. Within this frame many options become available including hanging a slow feeder in his stall so he doesn’t have to become anxious about his hay.

Which training options make sense will depend upon which frame you are in. If you are a teacher and you want your instructions to be effective, you need to help your students open a frame that matches what you are trying to teach.

In her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman uses a graphic showing a hierarchy of behavior change procedures beginning with the most positive, least intrusive procedures.

Dr. Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of interventions

You begin by looking at health and nutritional considerations and then move to antecedent arrangements. Hanging a hay net for our hungry horse would fit in here. Her graphic pictures a car moving along a highway. As you begin to approach more invasive procedures, there are speed bumps blocking the way. They are there to slow you down, to make you think about other approaches before you bring in the heavy guns of positive punishment. The hierarchy doesn’t exclude positive punishment as a possible solution, but it does say you would use this only when everything else has first been tried.

This hierarchy makes sense when you are looking at behavior from a cue-based perspective. From a command-based frame, the car enters not at the bottom of the roadway, but at the top.

My Changes To Procedural Changes slide

The first intervention is positive punishment. The barriers are still there, but now they act to keep you from seeing other options. It is only when punishment fails, that you are dragged, kicking and screaming, to consider other ways of changing behavior.  I’ve heard these stories so many times from people who are attending their first clicker training clinic. They’ve been brought there by “that horse” – the one who challenges everything they thought they knew about training. Nothing else worked, but then they tried, as a last resort, a bit of clicker training and everything changed! So here they are, ready to learn more.

They don’t yet know what an exciting world they are entering. Everything they have thought about training is about to be turned truly upside down and inside out. That’s all right. They have the fun of watermelon parties ahead of them.

Live in a World of Yes.png

If you want to learn more about living in a world of yes and the freedom that creates for both you and your animal companions, come join us in Milwaukee for the Training Thoughtfully conference.  https://www.trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com/

JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 12

Mastering Micro: Building Unlikely Behaviors with Resurgence
Nothing is either all good or all bad.

We want to use positive reinforcement with our animals because we see it as being both effective and more humane.  But the associations created through positive reinforcement can create addictions to harmful behaviors.  Think about the way advertisers manipulate our behavior to encourage smoking or overeating.

Resurgence and regression can be very negative procedures, but they can also be used to produce what might otherwise be very difficult behaviors to obtain.

If you aren’t sure how you can turn what seems like a negative procedure into a positive teaching strategy, PORTL can once again help to illustrate how this works.

Here’s the set up:

The trainer sets a toy chair on the table for her learner to interact with. The goal is to get the learner to push the chair over the table the way she might push a toy car.

We’ll now observe quietly in the background while the learner begins to interact with the chair.  The trainer could get lucky.  The learner might begin offering the behavior she’s after within the first couple of clicks.  But with this learner there’s no sign of any chair pushing behavior. Why?

History matters.

The learner is going to draw on all of her previous repertoire of things she has done with chairs.  In this case we have a learner who was scolded as a child for pushing her chair over the floor, so she’s not very likely to offer this type of behavior with the toy chair.

A history of punishment has played a role in depressing chair pushing behavior for this learner, but pushing would also have been an unlikely behavior if the trainer had set down a dice. The learner would have tossed the dice or shaken it in her hand because that’s what you do with this kind of object. Pushing a dice over the table like a toy car is not an obvious behavior to try.

Through a series of small approximations, the trainer could try to shaping the behavior she wants.  Her first step would be reinforcing the learner for touching the chair.

The learner in this case is not particularly creative.  She offers simple touches, but nothing else.  Again, the trainer may be dealing with a history of punishment.  Her learner doesn’t have a lot of experience being reinforced for trying things.  In fact, quite the opposite – she may have been punished for stepping “outside the lines”.  She is like so many of our animal learners – hesitant, lacking in confidence, and not showing any outward signs of curiosity.  In her first few attempts she touches the chair, but she doesn’t try any other behaviors.  Getting her to push the chair is going to be hard.

So the trainer takes the chair away and sets out a toy car. Using an object that normally would be pushed makes it very easy to get the desired action.  The learner pushes the car over the table top. Click and treat.

This is repeated several times, and then the trainer takes the car away and sets the chair out.  The learner goes back to touching it.  The chair accidentally falls over – click and treat. The learner latches on to that, expanding her repertoire to two behaviors – touching the chair and knocking it over.

We see this so many times with our animal learners.  One click and suddenly you’ve locked in a behavior you don’t want.  With a creative learner this isn’t a problem.  You can quickly shift the behavior into something you want, but with these “one trick ponies” you have to be so very careful what you click.  In this case the learner persists in knocking the chair over even when she is no longer getting reinforced for the action.

Her trainer makes a quick decision and decides to put everything but pushing the chair like a car on extinction.  Her learner is clearly becoming frustrated.  To avoid having her shut down completely, the trainer takes the chair away and sets the car out again.  The learner immediately starts pushing the car over the table top.  Click and treat.

To help with the generalization the trainer puts a third object out – a small block. The learner pushes the block.  Click and treat.  This is repeated several times, then the trainer takes the block away and sets out the car.  The car is pushed. Click and treat.

The trainer sets the chair out, and the learner pushes the chair.  Job done.

Resurgence and Dog “Yoga”
Using the car in this way is an elegant teaching strategy.  Often when we come up with these clever ways of helping our learner to be successful, we know that it works, but we don’t really have good explanations for why.   Understanding resurgence helps us with the why in this case.  And it helps us to be more deliberate in the use of this kind of teaching strategy.  Here’s another example.

One of Kay Laurence’s students taught her dog to step up with his hind legs onto a chair.  It was elegant training, a beautiful example of setting the learner up for success.  In his talk on extinction, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz helped us to see that it was also a great example of using resurgence.

Here’s the lesson: First, the dog learned to stand one foot each on four small plastic pods. This alone was impressive training.  The pods were the same ones physiotherapists use to help people improve their balance and proprioception. It took great coordination for the dog to stay balanced on the four pods. But that was only step 1.  Next he learned to keep his front feet on the floor while he maneuvered his hind feet up onto the brick ledge of a fireplace hearth.

Adding in the precision of the pods came next.  Now the dog wasn’t just standing with his front paws on the floor and his hind end up on the ledge.  He was also balancing on all four pods.

This was not done as a cute party trick.  The dog’s owner is a yoga teacher.  Her interest was very much the same as mine – helping her animal learner maintain a healthy spine.  In this orientation she could ask her dog for weight shifts that contribute to a flexible spine.

The last step was setting up a training session next to a chair. The handler withheld the click, putting the dog into an extinction process. With very little experimentation, the dog oriented himself so his hind end was to the chair.  He certainly demonstrated the flexibility of his spine by stepping up onto the chair with his hind legs so he was standing hind end up on the chair and front feet on the floor.

Generalization and Creativity
Jesús commented that if we didn’t know about resurgence we would simply be saying the dog generalized.  That’s not a sufficient explanation.  What we were seeing was a great example of resurgence. PORTL has given us a better understanding of how to encourage this kind of problem solving.  When we want to train for this type of generalization, knowing about the “why” of resurgence helps us to be more deliberate and efficient in our training.

It isn’t positive reinforcement by itself that creates a positive learning experience.  An eagerness for learning comes from being a successful puzzle solver.  That success in turn comes from the kind of efficient, clean training that the clever use of resurgence encourages.

These examples give us a great perspective on creativity.  When we’re training, we aren’t waiting and waiting for our animals to do something we can reinforce.  Instead we can “seed” the behaviors we want them to draw on.  Then we set up the conditions and let them have the pleasure of discovering for themselves new or unlikely combinations.

We have a procedure for setting up the creative process.  You give your learner the repertoire, the components that form more complex behaviors, and then you set a puzzle and let extinction be the catalyst for solving it.

Coming Next: The “Pose”

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: Understanding Extinction: Part 1

Today’s post begins the final chapter of JOY Full Horses, but don’t worry about the book ending too soon.  I still have a month’s worth of posts to go.  The first installment went up January 3, 2016.  I thought maybe I’d be done around April. Ha!  I hadn’t realized how much work was going to be involved in putting up each post.  My goal is to finish by January 3, 2017.  We’ll see if I make it.  In the meantime, if you have friends who would enjoy reading the JOY Full Horses blogs, do share the links.   The more the merrier in this Holiday season!

Enjoy this next installment.

Extinction and Shaping
In the last couple of posts I’ve been sharing with you a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz on extinction.  Many clicker trainers will say they never use extinction.  I know I work hard to set up my training so horses aren’t put into the kind of guessing game that leads to outbursts of frustration and aggression.  That’s something I very much want to avoid. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use extinction. That’s what Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz makes so clear when he talks about resurgence and regression.

To the people who say they never use extinction, his response is: “What do you mean you never use extinction!  Extinction is at the heart of shaping.  Shaping is differential reinforcement. It’s the interplay between positive reinforcement and extinction.  So if someone says they aren’t using extinction, probably they don’t understand what they are saying.”

That’s such a wonderfully blunt and typical Jesús comment. Thankfully he doesn’t leave people just with that.  He goes on to explain what he means.  At the core of his presentations is this statement: “If you don’t understand extinction, you won’t be able to master it.”

So what does it means to master extinction, and how do you put it to use in a positive way?  That’s what I’ll be exploring in the coming posts.

Coming Soon: Regression and Resurgence

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

Hidden Motivators

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 4 of 5

Hidden Motivators
Yesterday’s discussion of negative reinforcement considered the impact that each individual’s learning history has on the emotional response to a particular procedure.  Something you regard as fun might make someone else run for the hills.  When we’re choosing which teaching strategy we’re going to use with our horses or dogs, their past experience matters.

We often think of negative reinforcement in terms of the overt actions someone is taking.  We can see the slack being taken out of a lead and understand that pressure is being applied.  The release of that pressure is intended to reinforce a desired response.  But there’s another form of pressure that’s not as easy to see that plays an important role in horse training.  I’ll use an example you can experience yourself.  Suppose I’m working with you showing you some of the rope handling techniques that I teach.

I’ll begin by having you stand in balance over your feet. I’ll slide down the lead very softly.  You’re relaxed, and I want you to stay that way.  If I slide down with a lot of “make it happen” muscle, I’d be picking a fight, and you’ll stiffen into resistance.

I want you to stay soft and relaxed, so I take care how I come down the rope.  I slide into a neutral position that doesn’t effect your balance.  This is the “get ready” stage of my cue.

Now I shift my own balance.  I let my overall balance shift forward onto my toes.  This subtle shift rocks you back on your heels.  The shift is so subtle, you may at first not even notice.  I wait.  I’ve taken the slack out of the lead, but I am not pushing on you in any way.  I have simply set up a shift in your balance.

After a bit, you’ll begin to feel uncomfortable.  You can’t maintain this slightly-out-of-balance position forever. You’re having to use muscle to sustain your position, and it’s creating uneven pressure on your joints. So you take a step back.  My hand releases, click and treat.

sue-3-photos-tai-chi-wall-2

At clinics people get to feel how subtle this is.  All I have to do is rock my balance slightly forward and the other person will shift back into her heels.  She won’t feel threatened by the action. In fact she often isn’t even aware that I have created this shift in her balance.  Her focus has been on my hands, not the subtle shift in her own balance.

It’s like a magician’s trick.  You’re so busy watching where the magician is directing your attention, that you don’t notice when he slips your watch off your wrist.  It isn’t the pressure from my hand on the lead that creates the change or causes that slight discomfort.  The lead gives me the framework through which to create the shift.  It’s the mild discomfort that the balance shift creates that triggers the step back.

This shift out of what feels normal to you draws your attention inside.  I want you to become aware of your balance, to learn to pay attention to these subtle shifts and to make adjustments that bring you closer to an optimal state of comfort.  I want to help you shift from what feels normal but may actually be a state of imbalance to what feels good because you are now in functional balance. That’s also what I want for the horses.  Body aware horses stay sounder longer.  And body aware horses not only look very beautiful, they are more athletic than their out-of-balance counterparts.

harrison-3-photos-before-after

This set of three photos show Natalie Zielinski and her horse Harrison.  In the top left photo he’s standing all higgeldy-piggledy.  Whenever he stopped, he was always out of balance.  He tended to fall over his left shoulder, so when she led him, he was always crowding into her.  The beautiful trot you see in the other two photos evolved out of work that helped him become much more body aware.

What Triggers Change?
Here’s another example of hidden negative reinforcement.  This one is a dog example.  I’ve watched Kay Laurence teach a puppy to put his paw on a target.  It looks like a wonderfully elegant example of shaping with positive reinforcement.  But is that all that’s going on there?

If you want a puppy to put his paw on a target, most people would start with the target.  Kay doesn’t. Instead she sets the puppy up to offer a consistent motor pattern.  She gets the puppy moving his paw, and then she puts the target in the path of where the paw is going to land.  Simple and elegant.

She begins by having the puppy lie down.  This is the base position she uses to teach the behavior.  Lying down limits the behavior which the puppy can offer.  Instead of offering responses from the entire range of things a puppy can do with his body, now he’s restricted to those things he can do while lying down.  This makes it much easier to get only the desired behavior and to get it without a lot of unwanted add-ons.

Kay jump-starts the process by placing a treat off to the side away from the direction she is eventually going to want the puppy to move his paw.  He has to shift his balance and move his paw to the side in order to reach the treat.

He’s left out of balance.  If he were to stay in this position, he’d quickly become uncomfortable, so he rights himself.  He moves back to center.  Kay clicks as he moves his paw back towards a more balanced position, but she doesn’t feed him there.

Instead she again feeds him so he has to move his paw to reach for the treat. He gets his treat and returns to center.  Click!

Why does the puppy not just stay out there in this position where all the treats are delivered?  Why does he right himself?

Over time the answer becomes because he is being positively reinforced for moving back to center.  The function of the click is to identify for the puppy the right-answer behavior that leads to a treat being given.  But initially he rights himself because he’s out of balance and that feels odd. So even here there is a negative reinforcement component in what appears on the surface to be the most elegant of positive reinforcement training.

Trying to decide what to call a particular procedure can make your head spin.  If you are trying to stay on the positive side of training, of course, you want to avoid the harsh use of aversives, but, as we’ve just seen, not all discomfort creates a negative emotional reaction.  Rather than fight against the terminology, I prefer to use it.  I think it is useful to understand that that slight feeling of muscle fatigue will cause you to take a step back.  I don’t have to push you back or do anything else to get the behavior.  I can simply wait and let you figure out the puzzle.  The same thing holds true for my horse.

My horse’s emotional reaction will tell me if I am on the side of the angels or sliding fast down the slippery slope that appears when soft words don’t match hard actions. I use the terms to remember the history of the harsh methods modern horse training has evolved out of.  At some point we may be able to let go of that trail, but for now I think it is wiser to keep remembering.

Coming Next: Part 5: The Fluid Nature of Langauge

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

Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 3 of 5

Procedure versus The Emotional Effect
Yesterday’s post began a discussion of negative reinforcement.  Especially when you have a horse who is new to clicker training it is important to separate procedure from emotional effect.  I can perform what appears to be the same procedure with two individuals and end up with completely different emotional outcomes.

That’s true whether I am using what appears on the surface to be a positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement procedure.  Think of all the people who run in the opposite direction if you suggest playing a training game.  I view these experiences as fun opportunities to improve my skills.  Others see them as a torturous experiences, even when you are passing out reinforcers they want. Their childhood experiences have set them up to see training games as anything but fun.  Same procedure – different emotional response – different behavioral outcome.  So for one person the training game is a positive experience.  It will get them in the room, engaged in the process.  For another it has the opposite effect.  It will get them looking for the nearest exit!

If I’m working with a horse that has been handled well all of it’s life, sliding down the lead will convert easily into a cue, and there may never really be any aversive elements in the process. That’s especially true if I have set up the use of the lead through the first couple of foundation lessons.  If I begin with basic targeting and use my food delivery to move a horse back a step or two to get his treat, he will quickly respond to my body language.  When I turn into him, he’ll easily back up.  Now I can add in the activation of the lead as I turn towards him, and he’ll back up just as readily.

robin-touch-target-back-up-with-caption

I’m really using more of a transferred cue process than negative reinforcement.

History Matters
An individual who has been hurt by leads will be deeply suspicious of them, even if I have gone through the same foundation lessons that prepared that first horse so well.  I can be super soft, but any interaction with a lead will be regarded with suspicion.  Same action, different emotions.

For the first horse the pressure acts as a cue from the very beginning. But what about the second?  When I slide down the rope, that horse is going to read it as a threat. That’s his history. If he guesses wrong, he’s expecting to be hurt.  If he comes crashing into my space with a lot of energy attempting to escape the inevitable, the wall I create with the lead is going to have to be pretty solid.  I’m ricocheting his own energy.  I’m not adding any pressure beyond that, but his previous experience will control how he feels about what I’m doing.

The Emotional Spectrum
When I slide up the lead to richochet this horse’s energy out of my space, I am operating in a zone that sits between true, easy-to-define negative reinforcement and positively taught tactile cues.  With some of the horses that I work with, it is very clear to me that I am starting out with negative reinforcement.  No question.  Slide down the rope and you meet with the guarded response of a horse who knows the pressure will escalate if he guesses wrong.  My job is to show him that that’s not going to happen.  No matter what he does, I am not going to retaliate.  His history may be creating some major flare ups of aggression, but I am not going to be drawn into a counter attack.

It’s Not Your Fault
At times like these I remember a line from Ismael Beahl’s autobiography “A Long Way Gone”.  Beahl was a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war.  He and the other boys he fought with were given drugs that contributed to the horrific acts of cruelty which they committed.  He describes his actions with great honesty in his book.

When he was pulled out of the army and sent to a hospital for rehabilitation, he lashed out at the people who were trying to help him.  He had done such terrible things.  How could he live with himself?  He wanted to hurt everyone who came near him.

“It’s not your fault,” his caregivers would say, refusing to be drawn into the drama of his conflict.  Again and again they would repeat this:

“It’s not your fault.  It’s not your fault.”

At first this enraged him even more, but gradually he could hear the words and accept their meaning.

Changing Expectations
When horses are flaring up with aggression, I say the same thing to them: “It’s not your fault.”  I’ve seen how horses are handled.  In far too many places harsh handling is the norm.  It’s how we’re taught you have to be around horses.  It’s not the handler’s fault either.  It is our heritage, but it doesn’t have to be our future.  We can pass on a different legacy to the next generation of horse owners.

When I’m using a lead, my task is to direct the horse away from this expectation of retaliation.  Eventually, he will truly believe that the lead will always and only be a positive communication tool. That’s when he’ll let you in past his guard, and the relationship becomes magical.

The response to the lead shows us it’s hidden history. I cannot make a blanket statement that the slide down the lead is experienced as something pleasant and acceptable, something neutral, or something aversive.  The horse’s history creates an expectation that effects his initial emotional reaction to the rope.  In some cases the emotional reaction is one I hope to change.  By changing the way I use the lead, the lead itself may no longer trigger an unwanted emotional response.

scout-on-lead-two-photos

Coming Next: Part 4: Hidden Motivators

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: Unit 10 – Part 2 of 5: What We Say

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing With Chains – Cues Evolve into Chains

What We Say
It’s ten p.m., an hour at which I should be heading off to bed, but I can’t leave yet.  I’m sitting in the faculty lounge at the Clicker Expo.  We’ve just come from dinner and a presentation by this year’s guest speaker.  After a full day of presentations you would think we would all be ready to call it a night, but instead we’re just getting warmed up.

Around the table with me are Dr. Susan Friedman, Ken Ramirez,  Eva Bertilsson, Kay Laurence, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, and Laura Monico Torelli.

We are discussing terminology.  Eva got the ball rolling with a question about chains. We are wrestling with the different definitions of chains that are in use.

chain-2

Dr. Friedman is defining a chain from the perspective of a behavior analyst.  A chain has a very narrow and very specific meaning.  For a true chain, you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

This type of chain can be very elegant to watch.  Imagine a series of agility obstacles set out in your arena.  You give your horse a cue that sends him out to the first obstacle, a small jump.  Just beyond the jump is a cone.  Your horse spots the cone as he clears the jump.  The cone itself serves as the cue for him to trot over to it, and pick it up.  Nearby is a large bucket.  He walks over to the bucket, drops the cone into the bucket.  A few feet past the bucket is a large platform.  Your horse now walks over to the platform, steps up onto it with all four feet, and lifts one foot high into the air while you click and run over with his treat.

That’s a technical chain.

Now imagine a different scenario.  You send your horse out over the first jump.  Just beyond the jump are two cones, a green one and a red one.  As your horse jumps, you shout “green”.  You’ve added a cue to tell your horse which cone he’s to pick up.  He heads straight over to the green cone, but now there are more choices.  Instead of one bucket, there are two identical ones, except one has a symbol of a circle painted on it, and the other a triangle.  As he picks up the green cone, you shout “circle”.  He walks over to the correct bucket and drops the cone in.

After this he again has more choices.  There are two platforms, one to the right and one to the left of the buckets.

You shout “Left”, and he walks over to the platform that’s off his left shoulder and steps up on it.

If you are using scientific terminology, this very sophisticated series of behaviors is not a chain because you are cueing each one.  It would be considered a sequence.

Our discussion rolled on around these two terms.  We all understood the distinctions.  The question was how fluid and flexible should we be with the language we use.

The Meaning of Words
In the field of learning theory scientists took for their own use many terms which already had a common-usage meaning.  Punishment is a great example.  When someone says we need to punish a child, a criminal, a terrorist, another country, the meaning is clear.  There is a moral element to it.  You don’t simply want to stop the behavior.  You want to impose a penalty.  You want the person to suffer in some way, to “pay” for his offense.  You are punishing the individual, not the behavior.

When a behavioral analyst uses the term, the meaning is very different.  There are no moral overtones of retribution.  If you smack a horse for biting, and the behavior decreases, you can say that the smack punished the biting behavior.  If the biting continues, the smack did not punish the behavior.  It may have annoyed or even frightened the horse, but if the behavior of biting didn’t decrease, the smack wasn’t a punisher.

When scientists take words that are already in common usage and redefine them, we can get a muddled result.  We also have confusion when scientists use words that we’re sort of familiar with, but not really.

A great example is operant conditioning.

That’s the big umbrella under which clicker training sits.  Operant sounds like operator.  And conditioning we understand from fitness programs.  But what do those two words put together really mean?

Look at what else happens when scientists start combining words we thought we understood.

Consider the four quadrants of operant conditioning: there’s positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment.

Positive punishment!?  Really.

Okay, the scientists explain.  The positive means simply that something has been added.  You’re adding something the horse doesn’t want and that stops the behavior, at least for the moment.  You add the smack of your hand when your horse bites you.

That’s clear enough, except it’s hard not to feel the harsh “take that” edge when you even just think about smacking your horse.  We can say we understand the plus and minus of the terms, but we still experience emotions we’ve come to associate with the words: positive equals good, negative equals bad.  Of course people get confused by these terms!  They understand them intellectually, but they experience them emotionally.  The only term that matches up and creates no conflict in meaning is “positive reinforcement”.  The rest get us into a real “knickers in a twist” state of confusion.

Negative Reinforcement
I was listening to the conversation, but I was also keeping an eye on my watch.  Eleven o’clock.  I had presentations to give the following day.  I should be calling it a night.  I decided to stay just a few more minutes.

Eva was asking more questions.  Now we were talking about negative reinforcement, a subject that always gets my attention given it’s connection to horse training.

When horses are handled with conventional training methods, rope handling is a very clear example of negative reinforcement.  The horse can avoid/escape the threat of escalating pressure by moving in the direction the handler wants.  As the horse learns to obey, the pressure diminishes to a subtle command.  The work looks soft, but the threat of escalation remains.  The soft command tells the horse how to avoid the escalating pressure.

Often people watch the finished result and think the trainer is very soft and kind.  This is very much a case of don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The handler can look gentle because the horse understands the threat of escalating pressure that’s hidden inside every soft request.

That’s very straight forward.  If the handler is skilled, many horses thrive in this kind of system.  They know what they need to do to stay out of trouble. There’s no guess work. The commands are clear, the consequences are swiftly applied. Respond well, the pressure goes away. Fail to respond, and it escalates.  If you can figure out what is wanted – and if you can physically do it – you can stay out of trouble.

It’s easy to understand this kind of handling.  It’s textbook negative reinforcement.  And it’s also standard-issue horse training.

So what do we call it when the pressure doesn’t increase? When there is no threat of escalation, what is it?

I’ve always kept the use of the term negative reinforcement when I write about clicker-compatible rope handling.  I do this in part because I want to remember our history.  I want to remember where so many of the techniques that we use evolved from.  I want to remember so I won’t ever be tempted to go back there.

I have always combined pressure and release of pressure with the clicker.  You could say that I am simply piggy backing the clicker onto existing training systems, and that’s not really clicker training.

Perhaps, but it is a bridge.  If I am working with a rider who has spent years perfecting her horse-handling skills, I don’t want to say: “Throw all that away.  You won’t be using leads, or reins, or anything else you’re familiar with.”  That’s a great way to lose someone before they’re even out of the starting gate.

But if I say the communication system you know still works, we’re just going to teach it very differently, that makes more sense.  There’s still a huge learning curve, but I’m not going to begin by “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

By the way do you know the derivation of that expression?  Before the modern era of indoor plumbing, baths were a rarity.  You brought water in and heated it for one bath.  The patriarch of the household took his bath first, followed in rank by everyone else.  The children would be the last ones to bathe.  By the time it was the turn of the youngest babies, the water would be murky brown.  You literally had to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

This derivation comes courtesy of the historian, Lucy Worsley and her wonderful book, “If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home”.

Just as we still take baths – but my how they’ve changed – we still use lead ropes and other pressure cues in clicker training. But again – how things change when you take the threat away and make them clicker compatible!

Coming Next: Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

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

The Clicker Super Glue

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 6 of 12

What Keeps People Interested in Clicker Training?
I ended yesterday’s post with the question: what is the “glue” that gets somebody to stick to clicker training?  What makes someone take more than that first look?  What creates the shift from being simply curious about clicker training, to giving it a try, to becoming an active user, and eventually a clicker trainer?  I think there are four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue.

Science
The first component of clicker super glue is a love of science.  I’ve already talked about this, but let me expand on it here.  When I talk about a love of science I don’t mean someone who has read the chapter on learning theory in the psychology text book and memorized the four quadrants.  Lots of people can give you the definitions of negative and positive punishment.  That’s simply someone who has done a bit of reading.

A love of science is something more.  It’s that curiosity that has you always asking the “why” questions.  It’s wanting to know how things work.  It’s never being satisfied with the “because that’s the way it’s done” answers.

Someone who is passionate about science is also passionate about history.  You want to know what others before you have said in answer to those “why” questions.  Where did our current ideas come from?  Why do we use marker signals?  Why do we call them bridging signals? Where did that term come from?  What was meant by it, and is it still applicable?

“Just because” isn’t good enough.  How do we test our ideas?   How do we peel back the layers of confusion our words often create and look at what is really going on when we say antecedents set the occasion for behaviors which are controlled by consequences?   Do you nod your head and passively write that down in your notes?  Or do you want to dig down into those words to find out what those relationships really mean for your animals?

People who are passionate about science understand that what is understood today is not fixed in stone.  As we learn more, our understandings change.  In the sciences, as you test ideas and develop techniques that allow for more fine-tuned levels of exploration, ideas shift.  Science is the perfect companion to training.

science is the perfect companionIn both you will hear people saying: I used to follow this line of thought, but then the data showed me that this other was a better explanation/approach.  It offered a more functional interpretation or way of handling the behavior I was seeing.

Nothing becomes entrenched because we are always asking those why questions.

Science alone is not enough.  Think of it like the super glues that come in two separate tubes.  Each tube by itself won’t hold anything together, but combine them, and you have a super glue that will last for years.  By itself science creates an interest in training, but it doesn’t guarantee that someone will turn into what I mean by a clicker trainer.

Relationship
One of the other super glue “tubes” is relationship.  When I first went out to the barn with a clicker in my hand and treats in my pocket, I was curious.  The scientist in me wanted to explore what sounded like an intriguing approach to training.  There weren’t any other equine clicker trainers around to act as role models.  I didn’t go out to the barn because I had been watching youtube videos showing me the amazing relationships people were developing with their horses.  It was the science behind the training that made me take the first look.  I kept going because that early exploration into clicker training so enriched the relationship I had with Peregrine.

I started sharing my early forays into clicker training with my clients.  I remember asking one of them what she thought about clicker training.  She said out of all the things I had shown her, it was her favorite.  When I asked why, she said it was because of the relationship it created with her horse.

Repertoire
Two tubes aren’t enough to create clicker super glue.  There is another element that I think is critical and that’s repertoire.

I’ve known many people who were excited to try clicker training.  They introduced their horses to the target, and then they got stuck.  What do you do with it?  That was the question.

When I started with the clicker, Peregrine already knew a lot, but there were glitches and speed bumps throughout his training.  Always the physical issues he had with his stifles got in the way.  As a youngster, he was plagued by locking stifles.  The stifle joint is equivalent to our knee.  When Peregrine wanted to take a step forward, the tendons that ran over his knee cap wouldn’t always release.  He’d try to move, and one or both of his hind legs just wouldn’t bend.  He’s be stuck in place until they let go.  On the ground backing usually unlocked his joints.  Under saddle the solution he was more likely to find was a hard buck forward.

So you could say he was both very well trained, and at the same time very much a problem horse.  On a good day he was a dream to ride, but when his stifles were locking up, he was a nightmare.  His stifles had forced me to learn so much more about training, especially about ground work, just to be able to manage him safely on those bad days.  On the good days, that same training produced some simply beautiful work.

Twenty plus years ago when Peregrine and I were first exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging.  That was all they knew.  You lunged your horse to get the “bucks out” so your horse was safe to ride.

Lunging was often crudely done.  The horse ran around you on a circle, often out of balance, often pulling on your lunge line.  It wasn’t fun for either of you, so if someone said: “we’re going to use the clicker to do ground work”, of course people ran for the hills!  What was fun about ground work?

I’ve raised all my horses.  Peregrine was a horse I bred.  I raised his mother, and Robin came to me as a yearling, so ground work to me has always meant so much more than lunging.  Ground work is the teaching of connection.  Ground work means showing your horse how to get along with people.  It includes basic manners and leading skills, but it’s so much more than that.  For a young horse ground work includes long walks out to learn about the world.  It includes walking through mud puddles and over wooden bridges, meeting the cows that live in the next field over, encountering joggers and bicycle riders.  It means liberty training and in-hand work.  It means learning about your body and gaining control over your balance so you can go up and down hills safely and one day carry a rider in comfort.

All this meant that after Peregrine was routinely touching a target, I wasn’t stuck.  I had a rich and varied repertoire to work with.  I began by reshaping everything I had ever taught him with the clicker.  In so many places I could almost hear him say: “Oh THAT’S what you wanted!  Why didn’t you say so before?”

Everything I had already taught him – the clicker made better. I began by using it as a piggy back tool, meaning I simply added it in to familiar lessons.  I would ask Peregrine to rotate up into shoulder-in much as I had always asked him, and I would click and treat as he complied.  It made him more willing, so it took less explaining on my part to get the desired response.

Reworking our existing repertoire got us a solid foot in the clicker door.  It gave us lots to explore to get us started.  When I’m introducing people to clicker training, I want to help them see all the many possibilities that exist in ground work.  If you equate clicker training just with targeting, you may well get stuck.  Your horse is touching a target.  That was fun, but now what?

The “now what” is finding creative ways to use that targeting behavior.  And it’s recognizing that there are many other shaping methods you can use.

It’s remembering that at one point your horse didn’t know how to pick up his feet for cleaning or to stand quietly while you put on his halter.  Can you use the clicker to make those things better?  Of course you can!  While you are learning how clicker training works, you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I like beginning with the “universals”, things we all do with our horses regardless of the type of riding we do.  We all need to clean our horse’s feet, groom them, halter them, and, if we ride, bridle and saddle them.  Below is a fun video from Monty Gwynne showing how a clicker-trained horse takes a bridle.  It’s a great example of turning the ordinary – something we all do on a regular basis – into something with real clicker flare.

Persistence
Science, relationship, repertoire are all important.  There’s one more component to our super glue and that’s persistence.

Training is not easy.  It is not straight forward.  It is certainly not a linear path where one success builds on another, and you never have another frustrating day ever again with your horse.

Training is about running up against a reaction you don’t understand and going off to have a proverbial cup of tea while you figure out a different way to approach the problem.  You have to have persistence to weather these little storms of confusion.  You have to have persistence to learn the handling skills that can make the difference between smooth-sailing success and a stormy ride.

You can understand the science inside and out, but your horse may still be turning his back and walking off the minute he sees you coming.  Persistence keeps you in the game, scratching your head trying to figure out what to do next. What do you change?  What do you add?

Persistence is what gets you to clinics and fills your bookshelves with training book after training book.  It is what gets you to tie a lead rope to your fence rail so you can practice, practice, practice your rope handling skills before you ever go near your horse.  And it is what takes you back out to the barn to see what your horse thinks of all the homework you’re doing on his behalf.

Put these four things together and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis.  But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.

Coming Next: Using Clicker Training Versus Being A Clicker Trainer

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