I started sharing the July Goat Diaries on October 2, 2017. I knew in the two weeks that the goats were with me they had generated enough material to fill a book, but I really didn’t think they had also generated enough posts to fill five months! But here finally I am at the last day of the July Goat Diaries. I certainly learned a lot. One of the main things I learned was how entertaining goats are!
When I started this project, my goal was a simple one. I wanted to get to know goats a little better, to see if they would make a good addition to the barn. My training goals for the goats were also simple. I wanted to introduce them to clicker training and to get the basics stabilized enough that they would not frustrate or be frustrated by novice clicker trainers.
I had started with two timid goats who wanted nothing to do with me. They spent their first evening in the barn trying to stay as far away from me as possible. I had observed them, and they had observed me. The following morning the peanuts arrived and greed took over. They forgot about being afraid and tried instead to raid my pockets. The clicker training was under way!
Mid-way through their stay I was wishing I had more time. They were delightful. They were charming. They were enthusiastic learners. But they were oh so very were greedy for treats. Stable, polite manners seemed like a very distant goal.
I was feeling greedy myself – for more training time. On this their last day with me I wanted to squeeze in a couple of extra sessions before they were collected in the afternoon. I decided for these sessions to experiment with putting platforms out in the arena. I began with P. As we entered, he veered off towards the mounting block. I unclipped his lead and walked beside him as he ran across the mounting block. At the far end he jumped down. I backed up a few feet. As he followed me, I clicked and reinforced him. Then I directed him towards one of the platforms.
We went from platform to platform then back to the mounting block. It was fun to engage with him in some goat play. As he jumped off the mounting block, I turned, and he trotted with me all the way to the first platform. There are all kinds of fun ways we could build on this.
Things changed dramatically when I put P on a lead. Everything would have been fine if I had simply gone with him as he forged ahead to the next platform. But I didn’t.
With horses mats let us work on two sides of the same coin. At first, the horse is reluctant to step on an unfamiliar surface. He’s right to be cautious. Avoiding holes is how you keep from breaking a leg.
So the first half of the mat lesson is developing the horse’s confidence and comfort level around mats. Stepping on mats is a good thing. It produces lots of goodies.
The other side of that lesson is dealing with the mat once it has become a tractor beam. Horses become eager to go to mats. That’s where you get lots of goodies. So instead of hanging back and avoiding the mat, now your horse is dragging you to them. You’re dealing with the same kind of I-want-to-go-somewhere emotions, the same pull that you encounter when you take him out to his paddock or you turn for home out on the trail. He doesn’t want to wait for you. He’s in a hurry!
Except heading for the pasture gate or for home after a long ride generates even more excitement than a mat. So the mats provide a way of having this conversation but at an emotional level you can both handle. With P I was now having that conversation. “What do you mean I can’t just run to the mat!?”
The first time I redirected him from the mat, he handled it okay, but in the middle of the lesson things disintegrated. He reared up and spun around, bumping into me in the process. I felt as though the mats had turned into Borg ships from Star Trek – Resistance is Futile.
In my neighborhood I can watch lots of excited dogs behaving just like this. It’s one thing to manage this when the animal is the size of a dog. I was thinking what this behavior would look like in a horse. Standing up your hind legs is not a behavior I want to encourage, no matter the size.
I used the lead to redirect him and just rode out the wave of energy. “I know you want to go to the mat, but that’s not what we’re doing right now.”
The Sister had described to me how they introduce the lead to the goats. They put the lead on the young goats and let them work out the restriction of the lead. There’s no step by step progression of lessons, so this twirling, leaping, rearing behavior that I was getting was very much in P’s repertoire.
Once all four feet were back on the ground, I used the mat to help me teach him how to stay with me instead of pulling ahead. We walked in the general direction of a mat, but I asked him to keep going past it. When he turned in my direction and put slack back in the lead, click, I reinforced him. I then added another layer of “yes! – aren’t you clever!” by letting him go to the next mat. Click and treat.
Note in Figures 2-3 in the series of photos below it might look as though I am dragging him away from the mat. If that’s what your used to seeing, that’s how your eye will translate this. But actually, as soon as the slack goes out of the lead, I am waiting for P. I don’t keep walking. Instead I wait for him to turn back to me. Click and treat.
The value of mats is they begin to have this magnetic draw. I want P to be eager to go to them. But that draw can mean the sight of a mat overrides all other cues. I wanted to teach P how to stay with me so we could walk together to the mats.
P began to figure it out. Now we could walk past a mat without it dragging him into it’s magnetic orbit. When I released him to a mat, we could go to it together with slack in the lead. I ended the session at that point. The last day of training didn’t really feel like the time to be opening a whole new chapter.
E’s Session with the mats
Now it was E’s turn. As usual, he was completely different from his brother. There were times when he spotted a mat and started to head there without me. Instead of going with him, I changed course. The lead would go tight. I’d pause, waiting for E’s next move. He’d redirect back to me. There was no leaping about as there had been with his brother.
To picture what he was like with the mats think eager dog who wants to greet another dog or say hello to a person. He was all happy wiggle. When he turned back to me, click he got a treat.
All the work we had done with the backing was paying off. If he started to surge past me to get to a mat, I would stop. The answer was sitting right there, fully primed, ready to open at the top of his rolodex. All he had to do was back up and we were right back together.
More good leading:
Once E was “parked” on a mat, I focused on grown-ups. When we left the mat, he let me redirect him with the lead. I was thinking what a pleasure it would be to walk him round my neighborhood at home. I’m not sure what the dogs would think, but I would certainly have the most elegant of companions on the end of my lead!
The importance of Shaping on a Point of Contact:
E makes choices:
Because it was their last day at the barn, I wanted to get in as much training time as possible. So I brought P back in after E’s session. Just a half hour earlier he had struggled to go past a mat. Their magnetic attraction was very evident. We had to weather the storm of an extinction burst as he tried to get to the mats. He had been like a fish on the end of a line, rearing, spinning, trying everything he could think of to get to a mat. None of it had worked. Landing back on the ground, moving away from the mat, that had earned a click and a treat.
This is where it is so important to stay on a point of contact and not add pressure. If I add make-it-happen into the mix, I run a very high risk of poisoning the process. Yes, absolutely, I could have dragged him away. He’s a small goat, and I’m used to handling much larger animals. I could have punished the rearing. I could have forced him to follow me. He would have learned his lesson, and I would also have broken everything I was trying to create with these goats.
Instead I stayed on the point of contact, moving with him, not against him. This is very much like holding onto a squirming cat. You don’t try to confine the cat, you simply keep moving with it, redirecting it as it tries to wiggle out of your arms.
There is always a chance that this lesson was too much. Remember the training mantra: you never know what you have taught. You only know what you have presented.
When I brought P back out for this second session, he showed me what he was learning by walking with me past the mats. If a mat started to draw him in, I could easily redirect him. He was learning that there are many ways to get treats. Going to mats was a bonus, but going away from mats was also good. Hurray!
P’s late morning session
I did another round of training in the late morning. I thought I would make things easier if I put just one tempting mat out.
This lesson is all about the now/not now nature of cues. It is learning that the lead has priority over other cues. This is what I want him to learn: The mat may be sitting out in the middle of the arena, but until I release you to it, I want you to just ignore it.
When P started to surge towards the mat, I would say “wait” as the slack went out of the lead. That’s a useful verbal cue for an animal to understand. The meaning evolves with usage. P very promptly changed direction and came back to me. Click and treat.
I began to tack back and forth past the mat. He got reinforced for ignoring it. With the horses I can use the draw of the mat as a preliminary step towards teaching them to leave something they want, such as yummy spring grass. It is much better to begin this lesson in the safety of a familiar paddock than out in a complex environment that’s full of distractions.
Dragging me to grass, to other horses, back to the barn, these all have similar emotional roots, just different levels of intensity. I would much rather begin with the mats. The draw they have is one I’ve created, and it is nothing like the draw another horse or a field of fresh grass can have.
I begin the discussion with mats. My horse can learn to manage his emotions as I show him that there are alternatives that work just as well. Going to the mat earns treats, but so does walking past the mat.
When they arrived, the goats had sled-dogged their way into the barn. I knew they could pull! Now P was learning to lead even past something he very much wanted to get to. Click and treat.
Goat Diaries Day 12 – If Goats could purr . . .
E’s last session in the arena was a lot of cuddling, and a little bit of leading. If goat’s could purr, that’s what he would have been doing.
I took E back to his stall, finished my barn chores and then went in to sit with them for for another round of goat “purrs”.
Their ride would be collecting them in a few minutes. I decided on one last adventure. I put the leads on both goats and took them outside for the first time since their arrival. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be trying to manage two sled dogs going in opposite directions, but they were perfect. All that work on basic training was paying off. I’m sure to many all this caution where I spent so much time first in their stall and then in the barn aisle must have seemed silly. These are goats! Just get on with it.
But I’ve seen what “just getting on with it” means for both horses, and dogs. I’ve watched enough dogs pulling against their leads to know that just getting on with it isn’t my idea of a fun walk. When the goats arrived, they showed me they could pull as hard as any dog. Now they were keeping a soft feel in the line. Because I had taken my time in the beginning, we could all three enjoy a walk together now.
Trailer Loading – Goat Style
Sister Mary Elizabeth arrived in her pickup truck. When the goats first came, my question had been how do you get them out of the back of a pick up? Now I had the reverse question. How do you get them in? E was small enough to lift up, so that was easy. I tossed some treats on the floor of the pick up and showed P a target. He jumped right up onto the tailgate. Easy! I wish all horses were as easy to load.
And then they were off. My two weeks of goat training were drawing to a close. There was just one more piece to describe and that’s graduation day.
That’s how I think of the following three days. I drove up to the convent to give a clicker training workshop to the 4-H group that the Sister runs.
We had a great set up for introducing goats and children to clicker training. The goats were in pens made from metal livestock panels. We could begin with protective contact, introducing the goats to targeting with the children staying on the outside of the panels.
Most of the children had brought their own goats, so they already had relationships well established. Even so, the panels were a great help. We started all of the goats out with protective contact. The barrier helped explain the “rules” of the game to both the goats and the children. Touch the target and click – treats appear. The panels stream-lined the process.
E and P showed what they had been learning. P came in first and was a super star. I set out two wooden platforms and showed the children how he would follow the target from one platform to the next. Some of the children were sitting up on top of the panels. P never even so much as glanced at them. His focus was entirely with me, inside the pen.
With E I used a different approach. I put him on a lead and had five of the children come into the pen with us. Each child had a target stick. One by one they held their target out for E to orient to. He was very cautious at first. From his perspective the children must have looked very predatory leaning towards him with their outstretched sticks. But he did reach his nose out to touch the target, click, treat, on to the next child. He caught on and began to move with much more confidence from target to target.
We did the same game with P. He was much more confident. It was good for him to move from target to target. It’s a great way to generalize targeting to many different objects.
Both goats were great. They led beautifully, took their treats politely, oriented to the target, worked for other people. It was truly graduation day for them.
My own special treat was leading them down from the upper barn where most of the herd was housed. It was cooler up there. There was more of a breeze and the goats could shelter in the barn from the sun. We’d tried the day before keeping all the goats down below where we were working, but it was just too hot for them. On the second day only the goats we were going to be using were brought down to our work area. I went up with the Sister to bring E and P down. We got them through the gates of the upper pasture and into a fenced lane way. The goats followed me one on each side, just as they had at the barn. When an animal chooses to be with you that is indeed a great honor.
The goats were fun visitors. I enjoyed having them in the barn. The training I did with them was just the beginning steps. It was nothing unusual or fancy. It was just clicker training basics, the same basics I would be using with a new horse. But basics are never boring or ordinary.
Always it is a study of one. And in that study of one, you discover the individual.
What do you do?
On forms that ask for your occupation I am never sure what to say. I’m a writer, a teacher, a business owner. For convenience I often say I’m a horse trainer, but really that is the least accurate description of them all. I never really think of myself as a horse trainer. To me that title refers to people who train other people’s horses for a living.
Very early on I tried having people send me their horses to train. I hated it. I felt as though I was running an assembly line. It was get this horse worked and then move on to the next so I could get everyone done. I barely had time left in the day for my own horses, and it began to feel as though they were also part of the assembly line. The horses I had in training left my care knowing a lot more than when they came, but I didn’t enjoy it.
Training for me is about love. I open my heart to each animal I work with. When I sat with the goats, it wasn’t about training them to perform a particular task. It was about making a connection with them.
Perhaps this is why far too often professional training can be so hard on horses. The trainers certainly love horses. They love the talent a particular horse shows. But, do they love the individual? Do they have time for that? After so many horses have passed in and out of their barns, do they have the heart space for it? Do they thank them, appreciate them, love them, each time they see some little breakthrough of understanding?
That’s what a marker signal lets us do. Each time I click, I am celebrating the success of my learner. I am building a relationship – a history of reinforcement. That matters to me. It is why I do not have a barn filled to the rafters with animals. It is why I am a teacher not a trainer. I want to have the time with each individual to make it a study of one. That is what I share not by training horses, but by teaching the people who love them. Together we are on a voyage of discovery.
It would have been fun to have had the goats stay a little longer. Their two weeks of intensive training laid the ground work for so many grand adventures yet to come. The goats were clearly eager learners. Their leading skills meant we could have gone for walks around the property together. I could have set up obstacle courses for them and taught them about agility. As clever as they were, I could have taught them match to sample, color discrimination, counting and other forms of concept training. Mostly, I would just have enjoyed their company. Because at the end of the day, that is what training lets us do – enjoy one another.
Instead they were going back to the children who love them. They will be taking back with them the gift of clicker training. Hopefully, it is a gift the children will be able to open.
The Goat Palace – Update
As you know the goats left in July, but came back to spend the winter. So while this marks the end of the July Goat Diaries, it does not mark the end of my goat experiences. In fact Trixie is due to give birth in just a few days so I suspect there will be many more goat reports once we have baby goats in the barn.
I have some other exciting news to share, but this has been a long report so I will wait for another day to tell you about my next great adventure.
Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order. The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd. I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/ Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July. The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period. In November these two goats, plus three others returned. They will be with me through the winter. The “Goat Palace” reports track their current training. I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.