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: Resurgence and Regression

Reverting to Past Behaviors
Imagine you have joined us for the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  You have just come from breakfast which you enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the open waters of the Carribbean.  You have now settled yourself comfortably in the Reflection’s conference room to listen to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on resurgence and regression.

Jesús began by sharing the story of a professor who was attending a conference in Mexico.  She got trapped in an elevator.  At first she tried pushing all the buttons, calling out for help, things we would all think to do.  Two hours later, when they finally got the elevator working again and the doors open, they found her huddled in the corner of the elevator calling for her mother – and her mother had been dead for years.

What does this story tell us?  We regress in predictable patterns that reveals our history.

When a behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you enter an extinction process in which you regress back to previously learned behavior.  When the first behaviors you try don’t work, you go back another step and then another.

As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled for us in our childhood.  If you want to learn about someone’s early family dynamics, watch what happens to them when they are under stress.  If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me.  Blame your parents.  You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.”

So extinction can reveal history.  That’s definitely a gem to take away from our Caribbean treasure trove and carry back to our horses.

Extinction Reveals Your Horse’s Past
When a horse is first learning about clicker training, much of what he knows no longer applies.  You’re holding a target up for him to touch.  A lot of horses figure out quickly how the game is played, but some get confused.  Suppose you’re working with a horse you recently adopted from a horse rescue.  He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. Consider the dilemma he finds himself in.  You only mean well, but he doesn’t know that.  Past experience has told him wrong answers get punished, but the few things he knows how to do aren’t working.   He is plunging head long into an extinction process.

The extinction process can reveal a horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?

In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing.  The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups.  You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat.  Easy.  Unless he’s one of those horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.

If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous.  The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do.

This is why I put well-behaved in quotes. Is he well mannered in the way a clicker-trained horse can be? Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior? There’s a huge difference.  In the first, the personality is expressed. In the later, it is suppressed.

When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers.  He doesn’t know what you want.  The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation.  This horse finds himself in a difficult position.  He knows he’s supposed to do something, but past experience tells him if he guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.  He’s not sure what the answer is so he’s plunged into an extinction process.

Extinction follows a predictable pattern.  At first he may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation.  When those don’t work, he’ll shift rapidly from feeling frustrated and worried to being aggressive. That’s the next, predictable stage in the extinction process.  Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly coming at you with teeth bared.

It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently. I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed.  Jesús’ presentation on resurgence and regression confirmed this.  It helped me understand even more clearly this dynamic. Sadly, there are all too many horses who have been at the receiving end of excessive punishment.  Often you don’t know which is the horse who really is sweet and well behaved, and which is shut down through punishment.  This is one of the reasons I put so much structure around the beginning steps of clicker training.  The support of these lessons helps insulate the punished horses from their history.

Well Behaved or Shut Down?
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses (and people) are really individuals whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections. They have learned to wait to be told what to do.  Offering behavior, and expressing their personality has been punished.  Give them a command, and they will respond promptly.  They can seem like such perfect horses.  Safe, easy to direct. But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in fact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see things unravel.  As the extinction process unfolds, they will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.

Clicker training did not cause these outbursts.  When these horses are not sure of the “safe” answer, they’ll began to regress back through their training history. You are seeing the behavior that others “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with punishment.

When you are brand new to clicker training, and, especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand.  What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it.  So you give it a try.  But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart.  Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth.

You’ve been promised a dream horse and all you have is a nightmare. How could you not blame clicker training?  But just as equally, how can you go back? How can you return to the use of punishment to suppress the behavior you’re now dealing with?

You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process.  That can seem like a hard choice, especially when you don’t really understand what the process is, but what other choice is there?  You don’t want to go back to your correction-based training, so you plunge ahead, clicker in hand.

Coming Next: Leaving History Behind

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

Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 4 of 12

Are You a Clicker Trainer?
I will say straight out – I am a clicker trainer.  But in 1993 when I first went out to the barn with treats and a clicker in my pocket, I was simply someone who was curious about clicker training.  I began, as we all do, by simply using clicker training.  Over time I became a clicker trainer.  What were the dots that had to connect up to turn me into a clicker trainer, and what does that mean?

There are a great many people who come across clicker training, take a quick look and never give it a try.  There are lots of reasons for this.  They may have been taught that you should never use treats in training; that the horses should work for you out of respect and because you have shown them that you are a good leader; that predators may work for rewards, but horses are grazing animals and it isn’t natural to hand feed them.

You may find yourself sputtering, wanting to say but, but, but this is all nonsense.  Save your breath.  If someone is deeply entrenched in these belief systems, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to change their mind.  You’ll only get yourself worked up into a not very clicker-compatible argument.

If someone takes a look and walks the other way, don’t worry about it.  Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s “cup of tea”.  Some people have to bump into clicker training a few times before it will attract their notice enough to give it a try.  Maybe the first horse they saw being clicker trained was still in the early stages and everything looked like a muddle.  But now they’ve seen a bit more, and they’re ready to give it a try.

What matters more than trying to argue someone into giving it a try is keeping the door open for those who get curious.

So what does finally begin to tip the balance?  What brings people to clicker training?

Why Clicker Train? The Science Foundation
For some the first attraction is that clicker training is science based.  It’s development can be traced back to B.F. Skinner’s work.  Now for some this is an instant turn off.  They’ve taken psych courses in school.  They equate Skinner with a cold and unfeeling approach to behavior.  I don’t want to get drawn into that argument.  What animal trainers took from his work can be simplified down into the ABCs of training.

That translates into this:

Antecedents are events and conditions that immediately precede Behavior.  The Behavior occurs, and it is followed by Consequences.  And it is the consequences which determine whether that behavior is more or less likely to occur again.

We tend to look at antecedents for causes.  We say “sit” and our dog sits.  It seems on the surface that it was the cue that caused the behavior.  But why did the dog respond to the cue?  Why did he sit?  Was it because he has learned that when he hears that word, if he plunks his rear end to the ground, good things happen?  You give him goodies and lots of desired attention.  That makes “sit” a true cue.

Or was it because he’s learned that if he doesn’t sit when he’s told to, he’s corrected?  You scold him as you jerk on his lead or push his rear end to the ground.  He sits the next time to avoid the negative consequences.  That makes “sit” a command.  Remember the difference?  Commands have a do it or else threat backing them up. Cues indicate opportunities for reinforcement. (Number 1: Cues Are Not Commands: Published Feb. 10, 2016: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/10/)

Reinforcers and punishers are the consequences that determine if a behavior is more or less likely to occur again.

The cues we use can be thought of as releasers.  Say “trot” to your horse and that tells him that changing gait into a trot is the fast track to reinforcement.

The cue triggers behavior.  What happens as a consequence of the behavior makes the animal more or less likely to repeat it in the future.

People often define clicker training as operant conditioning thinking they are differentiating clicker training from other forms of training.  Operant conditioning includes the study/use of punishment, as well as reinforcement.  Clicker trainers work hard to avoid the active use of punishment, but so do many good trainers.  What sets clicker training apart is the use of a marker signal paired with positive reinforcement.

Three Blind Men and the Elephant
When people talk about Skinner’s work, I am always reminded of the fable of the three blind men and the elephant.

Three blind men came upon an elephant.  The first felt the elephant’s tail.  “The elephant is like a rope,” he declared. The second blind man encountered the elephant’s leg.  “You are totally wrong.  The elephant is like a tree.”  The third blind man got a hold of the elephant’s trunk.  “What nonsense you are both talking.  The elephant is clearly like a snake!  Any fool can tell that.”

In the original fable the three blind men get into a fight because none of them could imagine that the others could be right, that depending upon their perspective they could each come to different conclusions.

What people take away from Skinner is very much like this.  Talk to some and you will hear that Skinner’s contributions to science are on a par with Darwin’s.  Others will say he held back progress in their field for decades.  For animal trainers Skinner’s work gave us the breakthrough we needed to communicate more clearly with our animals.  It gave us marker signals and with them the concept of shaping behavior.

skinner-with-dog-with-caption

The use of marker signals grew out of an unintended consequence.  When a rat pressed a lever, the automatic feeders made a clicking sound as food was released.  The click was originally just part of the apparatus, so you could say that all the innovations clicker training has brought us are the result of a happy accident.

Modern Animal Training
It is the norm to see something new, and at first to try to turn it back into something you are already familiar with.  So it is very understandable that people would come to very different conclusions about what Skinner was saying.  All of us who encounter his work bring our own perspective and biases to it.  What you take from it depends in part upon what you bring to it.

What animal trainers took from it was the power of the marker signal, and an understanding that it is consequences that drive behavior.

What has evolved is a modern science-based approach to training.  We aren’t just relying on anecdotal stories for choosing a particular training solution.  We can test our choices.  We can refer back to the studies being done by behavior analysts.  We can say, with data to back us up,  that punishment produces negative side effects

It’s the old joke – what’s the one thing three trainers can agree on?  That the fourth trainer is all wrong.  Everyone thinks their methods are the best.  With clicker training we can examine the statements we make about training.  We can design studies and produce data to help us understand why our animals respond in the way that they do.

We can look at different schedules of reinforcement, at reinforcement variability, at the effect of punishment on response, etc.  We aren’t following a particular system of training because someone tells us this is natural, or traditional, or the way it is always done.  As clicker trainers our “best practice” choices have evolved out of what research into behavior suggests really does work best.

Relationship
Science is what brought me to clicker training, but for many people that is not the principle draw.  Yes, it is reassuring that others have thought about schedules of reinforcement, etc. to develop current best practice, but what appeals to them is what grows out of this work – namely a great relationship.

Coming Next: Relationship

(And if you are wondering what happened to Poco, our ear-shy horse.  Don’t worry.  I am winding my way back to him.  When we get there, you will understand why I took this detour.)

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