The Goat Diaries – Day 6: Staying Positive with Constructional Training

Constructional Training

I’m a clicker trainer. The work I do sits under the umbrella of The Click That Teaches. Those are both labels I’m very comfortable with, but for years people have said I need to give my work a different name.

“It’s so much more than just clicker training,” they say to me. They are referring to my emphasis on balance.  When we do a summing up at the end of clinics, someone will always say there is so much more to clicker training than they had ever imagined.  So perhaps it isn’t that I need a different name for my work. Perhaps I just need to help people see the depth and breadth of what clicker training can do.

In any case I have tried on many names over the years. One of my favorites is “Constructional Training”.  That comes via Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz from the field of Behavior Analysis.  My translation of this term is this: Complex behaviors are created from smaller components.  When I teach these smaller components first, it becomes easy to ask for the larger, goal behavior.  So I construct complex behaviors from smaller building blocks.

I also want to construct behaviors before I use them.  If I haven’t taught the goats how to soften and yield to the contact of the lead, or how to follow a target, or how to stay by my side, then it isn’t fair game to ask them to walk beside me on a lead.  If they charge ahead of me, and I use the lead to stop them, I’m being a negatively-focused trainer.  I’m using the lead to try to stop a behavior I don’t like.

But if I’ve taught them the components, then I can ask them to back up and come forward in response to cues.  Leading becomes a dance – and in great dancing both partners respond to one another.  They listen to one another.  Both partners direct the flow.  If my partner misses a cue and rushes ahead of me, I can redirect him into another direction.  I’m asking for a known behavior which my partner has learned leads to positive reinforcement.  Constructional training takes me to the dance.  And the dance helps me be a more positive partner for my animal learner.

All of this sounds very grand.  But really it is very simple.  With the goats I was building the components I would need for us to be successful venturing out into the larger spaces of the barn aisle, the arena, and eventually the great outdoors.  Leading was high on the priority list.  These goats would be going home in just a few days, back to the children who were leasing them.  They would be going to the county fair, and hopefully they would know how to lead and not be one of the goats who was dragging his child across the show ring (or being dragged by the child).

We’ve reached Day 6 of their stay with me.  In this report I’ll be illustrating what it means to be a constructional trainer.  In the previous posts I described how I introduced both goats to platforms and to the beginning of leading.  At the start of Day 6 I continued with Pellias’ platform training.

The July Goat Diaries Day 6 7/9/17 Sunday

9 am session:  I was learning from previous experience.  I made sure to give the goats plenty of time for their breakfast before asking them to concentrate on training.  By the time I was ready to play, they were lying down side by side having a nap. I scattered some hay stretcher pellets on the floor as a distraction while I went outside to set up the platforms.

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For P I set out both platforms and the ground poles as before, but the platforms were closer together so I could film. P was ready to play, and he did great.  I could move several steps away, and he stayed put.  I loved the consistency P was beginning to show.  Instead of stretching out to try to get to my treats, he was standing in great balance.

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 1

When I rattled the target, he changed platforms readily.  He had lots of energy which he was learning to control. I liked seeing him move at speed to the next platform, and even more I liked seeing him transform that energy into an ability to stand still on the mat.

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Back and forth between the platforms, I was seeing lots of energy.

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He was such fun to watch as he leapt into the air to bounce from one mat to another.

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A couple of times he missed or came off the platform. I waited, and he turned away from me and landed on the platform – excellent. It seems as though he is really getting the game.

The Goat Palace Journal Dec 23

That initial introduction to the platform has evolved into what I am working on now.  I am using Michele Pouliot’s platform training as my model.  I introduced Michele in a previous post.  In her position of the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, she transformed their training program.  Now all the dogs at that school learn their guide work via clicker training.  In her free time Michele’s training hobby is canine musical freestyle.

Michele is a creative, inventive trainer.  Lots of us use mats and platforms in our training.  Michele took the idea of using platforms and developed it into a fabulous process for teaching the body orientation and cued positions she wants for freestyle.  With the horses I make extensive use of multiple mats, but I have used them in a very different way from Michele’s work.  With the goats I wanted to explore more directly Michele’s use of platforms.

For step by step instructions for platform training for dogs I’ll direct you to her DVD on platform training which you can find on her web site:

One of the key ingredients of her approach is you want an animal that is magnitized to the platform.  If your dog, goat or guinea pig sees a platform, he’s on it.  Forget trying to pick up a platform to move it.  Your animal will already be on it.  I definitely had that!  In fact I had it with all four goats.  The lessons I’ve described in previous posts had created super magnitized mats and super eager-to-play goats.

So in July you could say I began the initial construction of platform behavior.  Now I was continuing that process.  Those early lessons let me construct this current layer.  What I’m building now will become the components for the next project, and on it goes.

So what am I doing?  Here’s my set up for Pellias and Elyan: at the near end of the hallway I set out two the narrow platforms side by side.  In the middle I have the a single platform next to which I hang a stationary target.  Actually this target is not all that stationary since it is hung from the rafters so it swings after they touch it.  Pellias’ hanging target is a giant kong toy.  Elyan’s is another dog toy, a dumbell with tennis balls at either end.  The storage box is at the far end of the hallway, so I have three stations set up.

I’ve been working them individually in this lesson.  Normally it is Pellias who goes first.  He goes immediately to one of the narrow platforms with a very expectant air of I’m here!  Let’s play.  And that’s exactly what we do.  We play.

I have four positions that we’re working on:

“Front” – I stand directly in front of Pellias as he stands all four feet on the platform.

“Side” – I stand by his left side.

“Off” – This one will only make sense to horse people.  I stand on by his right side.  In the horse world that’s referred to as the off side.  Left and right would confuse me, but my brain can keep track of the off side so that’s what I’m using.

“Behind” – I stand in front of Pellias but with my back turned to him.

I also want “Ahead”, but I will probably need to use a target to get this one.

I generally begin with “Front”.  I say “front” as I stand in the position.  Click, treat. Repeat.  Then I shift to the other mat.  “Front” – Pellias shifts with me.  Click, treat.  From here I can shift into other positions.  I can step to either side of him.  As I do, I identify the position.  Or I might step to the opposite end of one of the mats so Pellias has to spin 180 degrees around to face me.

He’s gotten very good at following me and shifting position as needed and also staying put and letting me change position around him.  The idea is I will eventually be able to fade out the mats, and he will move into the cued orientations.  Time will tell what dots he connects.  For now it is keeping us both well entertained.

When we have done a good unit on these two platforms, I move to the middle platform and Pellias follows.  I don’t want to get him stuck and only able to work on the two platforms so it’s important to have these multiple stations.  On the middle platform he gets reinforced for touching the hanging target.

From the middle platform we head to the box.  On the box I reinforce him for body contact.  Then it’s back to the middle platform, and then on to the two narrow platforms.

With Elyan I am doing a similar lesson.  The difference between the two is Elyan is much wigglier in a younger brother sort of way.  I have no idea which one is the younger twin, but the difference in actual age is measured in minutes.  The difference in emotional age is much greater.  Elyan is the little brother bouncing up and down excited that Santa is coming.  Pellias is the older, wiser brother who pretends he’s not excited that Christmas is here.  I find them both charming.

So I am busy constructing behavior.  With horses I have built component behaviors that are similar to the ones I am teaching the goats, but not in this way.  I am very much looking forward to seeing how this unfolds.  It is fun working with an animal that not only is the size of a dog, but in so many ways moves like a dog.  That means I can more directly explore some of these techniques that canine clicker trainers have developed.  It is great fun to take someone’s good work and then to see what your own learners do with it.  And then it will be interesting what I take back to the horses.

Happy New Year Everyone!  May you construct great things from the gifts your animal friends give you.

Coming Next: Train Where You Can

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:   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.

Goat Diaries Day 3 Platform Training For E

The Goat Palace –  Journal Report for Nov. 18, 2017

What felt like chaos on the first day is slowly emerging into a more orderly process.  That’s in large part because the goats are now understanding that there is a game underway that they want to be part of.

The last few days we started with training and then shifted to construction, but yesterday we reversed the order so we could fix one of the hay feeders.  By the time we were done with our various chores the goats had all shifted into the front section.  When I went in to close the middle gate, Elyan scooted out to join me in the back section.  He won the training lottery and had the first training session of the day.

I want to introduce the goats to stationary targets.  I had collected several objects that I thought would work well.  One was a large lid off a supplement container, another was a kneeling pad for gardening.  I started with the supplement lid.  Elyan ignored it.  So I swapped to the kneeling pad.  Again, nothing.  Hmm.  I tried one of the dog toys I had used yesterday with Trixie and Thanzi.  He oriented directly to it.  Click and treat.  Clearly, I would need to do a lot more generalizing of targets before he was going to recognize larger objects such as the supplement lid as something that belonged to this game.

I learned to swap around targets years ago working with horses.  Very early on in my clicker training experience I was giving a clinic to a group, showing them how to introduce their horses to clicker training.  I had had good luck using whips as targets. Everybody had a crop or dressage whip of some kind lying about that we could use. (That says a lot about the horse world.) The horses I had worked with up to this point all oriented well to them.  But, not this one horse.  She showed zero interest in the whip.  I don’t remember what made me try this, but there was a hard hat hanging nearby.  I snatched that up and held it out to this horse.  She oriented to it right away and kept on consistently targeting to it.

I looked at the whip later.  Someone had put white tape along the shaft.  When I held it out, it made the tip very hard to see.  I wondered if that was why the horse had ignored it.  She couldn’t see it, either, but she could very much see the hard hat.  So the lesson learned from this story is you sometimes have to try different objects to find the one that your learner will consistently orient to.

Once I had found a good target for Elyan, I set up a pattern of having him orient to the target, click, then I tossed the treat into a food bucket.  To get back to the target he had to walk several steps.  Going to a food bucket instead of to me for his treat opens up some fun possibilities for distance work.  It also means he’s not always looking to me for goodies.  I may be reaching into my pocket for the treat, but he gets it in the food bowl.

When I opened the gate to do a swap, all the goats rushed into the back section.  Galahad was last.  I managed to close the gate before he could get through.  He was now by himself in the front section which meant it was his turn next.  Marla did another session from outside the pen.  He was doing a great job orienting to the target.  She could hold it well out in the pen, and he would go directly to it, click, then back to his food bowl.  He was doing so well I dashed off to find my even longer target stick.  I came back with two new choices, the longer version of what Marla was already using, and the telescoping handle of a floor mop.  Marla tried the floor mop.  It was the perfect target stick, light weight, adjustable in length, and for Galahad, at least, easy to orient to.  He was a targeting star.

In the next swap somehow I got Trixie by herself in the front pen.  I was going to work from outside the pen, but she was starting to shake.  Being by herself was causing considerable distress.  I went in with her thinking perhaps the familiarity of the game might settle her.  She could orient to my hand and take food from me, but she clearly needed to be with the other goats, so once again, I opened the gate.  Thanzi came dashing in.  I did some simple targeting with her.  I had her orient to a target, then I dropped treats in a food bowl for her.  Trixie began to come over.  While Thanzi was getting her treats, I had enough time to have Trixie target my hand and get a treat.

When I opened the gate again, Elyan and Pellias rushed through, leaving Galahad by himself again, this time in the larger, back section.  Marla went in directly in with him for this session.  The work over the fence paid off.  She could offer him the same pattern – orient to the target, click, get your treat from the food bowl.  He had started out with the most intense mugging behavior of the three youngsters, but there was no evidence of it in this session.  He knew the pattern, and it didn’t include checking out pockets for treats.

In our next swap, Thanzi went through the gate into the back area leaving Trixie and the two boys behind.  I worked with Trixie again.  With the two youngsters still in the pen with her, she was less stressed.  And Thanzi stayed nearby, in part to make it clear to Galahad that he was to stay away.

Instead of my hand, I used the baton as a target.  Trixie did a great job orienting to it.  The boys initially kept their distance, but then I began to feel bold little Elyan trying to touch the target. I was holding it out of sight behind my back as I gave Trixie her treat.  It was out of sight for Trixie, but not for Elyan.

Our next swap left Galahad by himself again.  I had left three feed tubs out in this area.  As before, Marla had Galahad orient to the target.  But now she expanded the pattern by including the second feed tub.  Galahad did a great job moving to whichever tub she dropped the treats into and then heading directly back to the target.

We left them after this last session.  Pellias hadn’t had a turn, but it didn’t look as though it was going to be easy to get him swapped out by himself.  Trixie kept straddling the gate. I didn’t want to move her away, so I decided that skipping Pellias for one day would be okay.

Everyone was now down in the near end.  We had some work still to do in the back section, so we switched from training to construction.  At the end of the afternoon, I spent a few minutes scratching Elyan and Pellias.  They were on the top platform of the jungle gym.  They truly are cat like.  I would say I had to leave, that was enough scratching.  I’d start to withdraw my hands, and somehow, like magic, I’d be drawn right back in.  That’s cats.  You say you’re going to get up.  You’ve provided a warm lap to sleep on for long enough. You have other things to do, but do you get up?  Of course not!  I’ve always said one should be a well-trained human.

On to the July Goat Diaries and platform training.  You’ll see at the end of this session the beginning of this process of transforming goats into cats.

The July Goat Diaries: Day Three – Platform Training for E

Weeds and Behaviors

In gardening there’s an expression: A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place. How true that is. I’ve visited garden centers in England where they were selling pots of goldenrod. Goldenrod! Yes, it’s very beautiful, but if I don’t mow my pastures multiple times through the summer, it takes over.

So if a weed is a flower growing in the wrong place, a “bad” behavior is just a behavior occurring in the wrong context. Which means there really is no such thing as a behavior we never want to see. Pawing is a great example. When a horse paws on a tie, people get annoyed and want to stop the behavior even if that means using punishment. But pawing is forward movement. When a reluctant loader paws the bottom of a trailer ramp, it’s cause for a celebration. It means that horse is thinking about going forward onto the trailer.

What has this got to do with the goats?  Unlike P who went right onto the platform as soon as it was available, E was more hesitant.  He was much more horse like in his initial caution. Instead of following the target directly onto the platform, he circled around it. Interesting.

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Sometimes you get lucky.  As I was handing E his treat, I dropped a peanut onto the platform.  He took his treat from me, and then glanced down at the platform.  Click and treat.

Goat Diaries Day 3 E's First Platform Session - Worried -looking at platform 2 photos.pngNow the platform was of more interest.  He raised his leg to paw, click.  What goes up must come down. His foot landed on the platform. I gave him his treat.

Goat Diaries Day 3 E's First Platform Session - Worried -pawing 2 photos.pngWhen E pawed me the day before to get a treat, I sidestepped the behavior. I didn’t want to see it in that context. But when he pawed the platform, click, I reinforced him. And here’s where his goat heritage took over. As soon as he had one foot on the platform, the rest followed. Worry over.

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He was now solidly on the platform. As I stepped to the side, he pivoted with me. Hmm. Quick calculation. Did I want this, or should I use the food delivery to keep his feet still. Both were useful. I decided to take this offering and reinforce the pivot.

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He was still showing some impatience with the food. He tried again jumping up. I stepped back out of his way so his front end fell abruptly to he ground.

goat diaries day 3 jumping up 4 photos.pngThen I stepped to the side and gave him another opportunity to pivot with me. I wanted to be as non-reactive as possible to the unwanted behavior. The break in the rhythm of the training was enough to make my point. E was discovering which behavior served him better – jumping up or staying on the platform.  It was his choice to make.

His confidence was growing and with it the accumulated history of getting treats for behaviors I liked. Time would tell if getting treats led to these behaviors becoming stronger.  I can say I reinforced the behavior by giving him peanuts, but that’s only true if the behavior becomes more frequent. Otherwise, I am just feeding peanuts.

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After this session I let Pellias back into the stall and gave them fresh hay.  They were eating together out of a hay bucket.  I stood next to them stroking their backs. E let me scratch him around his ears. He liked that. P joined us, and I scratched his forehead and ears. We stood together for several minutes while I scratched their heads. When I stopped, they asked for more. That felt like huge progress!

Coming Next: The Goat Diaries – Day 3: Arrange the Environment for Success

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: 


Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 3 – Begin with Bliss

The Goat Palace:  Journal account for Nov. 17, 2017

Yesterday I introduced stationary targets to Thanzi and Trixie.  I would have preferred working them individually, but they had a different idea.  Since Trixie is so very timid, I don’t want to send her back out of the gate.  I want her approaching me, not expecting that I will drive her away, so when both ladies ended up together in the far end, that’s what I decided to work with.

I had two very different targets for them.  Both were dog toys, dumbbells with tennis balls at the two ends, but one was considerably larger than the other.  I’ve had them for years.  They’ve been stored very differently so even if they had a similar shape, they would have had a different scent.  Thanzi got the larger of the two targets.  She was fairly consistent about orienting to the dumbbell.  When I clicked, I fed as usual so she had to back up to get the treat.  That meant she had to come forward several steps to get to the dumbbell.

I made no attempt to draw Trixie in, but when she came near, I held her target out to her.  I was pleased at how well she oriented to it, click and squeeze in a treat while Thanzi was still busy eating her piece of squash. I wasn’t always successful at having them take turns.  I definitely need to tidy up the details of managing them together.  I was pleased overall at how much more confident Trixie is becoming.  She’s much more willing to approach and engage in the game.

We used our panels again to separate the boys.  Galahad went first.  I had Marla continue to work him from outside the pen.  He did great.  He went straight to the target and then moved away to get his treat, then back to the target.  Marla moved it about, and he continued to orient to it.  He’s going to have a very strong targeting behavior because of these early sessions.  It should make it very easy to teach him to go to a stationary target hung on the wall.

I liked Galahad’s session so much, I decided to begin that way with Elyan.  Taking me out of the picture is a good way to strengthen his targeting behavior. I was using a target that was new to him. He did a good job going to it, but with the wall between us he was not as good at getting his treat. It’s a new set up for him, so I need to work out this part of the process so it becomes a cleaner loop.  Our learners always show us the missing elements that are needed to make the training better.

With Pellias, I began by working him on a lead. His session was interrupted by Elyan pushing his way through a weak spot in our panel system.  When you’ve been small all your life, you know you can get through the narrowest spaces.  So my session with Pellias abruptly changed to working two goats together.  I quickly set up two platforms for them.  We started out okay, but then little Elyan starting butting his brother away.  I abruptly ended the session.  In July I had begun to work them as a pair, but it was always at the end of sessions where they had both worked well individually on platforms.

After these sessions Marla and I continued to work on the construction.  It’s amazing how much more there is still to be done.  We finished the day by taking chairs in and sitting with the goats.  Galahad stayed with Marla for a few minutes for a head rub, then went over to the jungle gym to lie down in the sun.  Elyan and Pellias stayed longer.  The surprise of the day was Thanzi and Trixie came over and for the first time stayed for the beginning overtures of a head rub.  And that brings us to the theme of today’s July Goat Diaries which is about building relationships.

The July Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 3: Begin with Bliss

Clicker training provides a fast track into a relationship. Yes, E and P were used to being handled, but on their first day, they wanted nothing to do with me. Then the peanuts arrived and the clicker game began. Suddenly, I was the center of attention, but they could have remained aloof, wanting nothing more from me except the treats in my pocket.

Clicker training is about so much more than that. I was providing them with so many things goats want. Food yes. But I was also a source of enrichment. I provided them with games and puzzles. And I sat with them for cuddle time. I was becoming an important part of the things that created well being for goats.  I was someone they liked, and just as important – I was liking them.

E’s 8:30 am Session Begin With Bliss

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Sweet E began his first training session of the day with a cuddle.

Goat Diaries E's Day 3 1st Platform Session - Begin With Bliss - Goat bliss 3 photos.pngIf only he could purr! For someone who loves cats, this was a heavenly way to start the day!

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Video Goat Diaries: E’s 1st platform session – Begin with Bliss  To open this video use the following password: GoatDiariesDay 3 E Learns

Coming Next: Goat Diaries Day 3: Platform Training for E – Weeds and Behavior

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: