I’ve been distracted by several projects this week so I am a bit behind getting these Goat Diary reports posted. That seems very appropriate somehow because today’s post is about distractions!
In one of his Clicker Expo presentations Ken Ramirez talks about the importance of introducing distractions into the environment. When he was the Director of Training at the Shedd Aquarium, he instructed his trainers to make changes every day to the training environment. He wanted the dolphins and belugas that were used in the public demos to be so comfortable with change that if a tornado ripped the roof off the Aquarium, they would just think – “Oh look what our trainers have done for us today”.
I have always loved that image. It creates a high standard of creativity and consistent good training that is worth aspiring to. With the goats at this point in their training it was easy to introduce change – essentially everything I did with them was new. I wasn’t yet thinking about adding distractions as an active strategy. I was starting with fearful animals so I knew I had a long way to go before they would be comfortable in a changing environment. In their evening session I was about to discover just how easily something that I didn’t consider a distraction at all could completely derail their eagerness for training.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! – And People, Too! The July Goat Diaries: 7/14/17 7 pm session
In a previous post I shared with you what a happy goat looks like (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/01/26/). I had taken E and P into the arena and watched with delight as they turned the mounting block into a playground. I wanted to share the fun with Ann. She can’t see their antics, but she can certainly hear the laughter in their feet as they run across the mounting block.
Ann came in the evening to visit with Fengur. While she was playing with him, I sat with the goats. When the arena was free, I set up the camera and brought them in. Ann stationed herself beside the camera well away from them. After my big build up about how much fun they had running over the mounting block, they were total fuddy-duddies. There was no energy, no joy, no laughter, no interest in the mounting block at all – just a cautious inspection from a distance of Ann. What was she doing out in the middle of the arena? Having a new person in the arena was clearly a concern.
After a few minutes of non-performance, I decided to put them back. They followed me into the barn aisle and went eagerly into their stall, knowing that I would be dropping treats on the floor. It turns out that I neglected to turn on my camera, so none of their non-interest was recorded.
I let the goats settle back into the comfortable familiarity of their stall, then I took them out again individually for another leading session. The main focus of the session was on treat delivery and their behavior around food. I was continuing with the work I described in the previous two goat diary posts. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/01/29/ and https://theclickercenterblog.com/2018/02/02/
A Panda Story
This focus on treat delivery and the time it takes to establish good manners was reminding me of Panda’s early training. Cold winter days are a good time for stories, so I’m going to indulge in a couple, beginning with a favorite Panda story. Panda is the miniature horse I trained to be Ann’s guide. I remember when I first started working with Panda, she was as eager as the goats were to get into my pockets.
A week into her training – at about the stage I was now with the goats – I took Panda with me to a clinic I was giving at a barn that was about an hour away. Ann rode in the front seat with her new guide dog curled between her feet. Another of my clients was driving. I was in the backseat with Panda essentially in my lap. I was definitely a captive audience. Doing a short session and then putting her back in her stall to process was an impossibility. I had an hour’s drive with a horse in my lap! What’s more I had a horse who knew I had treats in my pocket.
For the duration of the drive I clicked and treated anytime Panda’s nose moved even fractionally away from my pocket. The idea was to keep her on such a high rate of reinforcement that she didn’t have a chance to mug me. Over and over again, through the food placement I was saying to her – this is where the treats are delivered. Going to my pocket gains you nothing. Out here away from me, this is where you will find treats. You might as well keep your nose here and not waste your energy going to my pockets.
Ann was in the front seat listening to the constant barrage of clicks. I know they were making her anxious. She had only recently taken on a new guide dog. Everything about this dog was a struggle. He should never have been placed. The school was hoping that because Ann was such an experienced guide dog user, she would be able to make him work.
“Make the dog work” was truly the philosophy behind this dog’s training. The result was a dog who showed extreme avoidance behavior. Ann had one problem animal. She didn’t want another. How could she have a guide who needed to be clicked and treated every couple of seconds? Ann knows how training works. She knows that we would be building duration, but in that stage where the mugging is still such a strong reaction, the future good manners can seem impossibly far away.
Good manners emerge over time. They are the result of consistent handling and a growing confidence in the learner. By the time I handed Panda over to Ann, the guide dog had gone back to the school to be re-trained for a different job. He went into search and rescue work, a job that suited his temperament much better. And Panda became Ann’s full time guide much sooner than we had originally planned.
We celebrated the transfer by going out to dinner. Panda kept her nose to herself and stayed quietly by Ann’s side throughout the evening. Even when the salad course arrived, all she did was have a curious sniff before ducking her head back under the table to continue her nap. That’s great duration in a behavior that had begun with barely seconds between clicks.
Good manners emerged for Panda, and I was confident that they would also become the norm for the goats. Time and consistency would create the behavior I wanted.
(If you want to learn more about Panda and her training, read the Panda Reports on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Some of her early training is also featured in my DVDs: An Introduction to Clicker Training and Lesson 4: Stimulus Control.
Treats: Whatever Is Logical Do The Opposite
At some point in the distant future, it might be fun to travel with the goats in my car. But at this point the thought of spending an hour trapped in the backseat of a car with an eager, greedy goat sounded exhausting. We had a long way to go before they would be as settled about treats as Panda.
You meet your learner where he is not where you want him to be. When I took P back into the arena, the session was very much focused around food delivery. The children in the 4-H program may have giggled and let him snatch pretzels from their mouths. With me P was learning that we played a very different game.
I brought P back out on a lead. He continued to show good progress. He backed away from my closed hand. He did a bit of head flinging which means he was feeling frustrated by having to back up. I’m sure it did conflict with how he thought things should be done. He wanted to push forward to get to the treats. That’s what he had always done, but now he had to remember to back up instead.
Whatever is logical, do the opposite. I could sympathize with his frustration. From his point of view it made no sense that backing should work. Going forward was how you get children to spill treats all over the ground. Why should backing work?!! We have all been given directions that make no sense. Why should turning left instead of right get us to our destination?
And how many of us turn right because we’re convinced that should be the correct answer. Even when we do turn left, it feels wrong. Surely we’re heading in the wrong direction. This can’t be right. We’ll never get there. Oh look, there’s our destination just ahead. How did that happen!?
It can take a while to relax and trust the directions. That’s the stage I was in with P. With a little more reinforcement history behind us, he would relax into the confidence that treats were coming. There was no need to rush to get them.
The Goat Palace written Dec. 27 – Our Animals Always Tell Us
Meeting your learner where he is, not where you want him to be makes me want to share this story. It was prompted by the goat’s current training. If E and P’s treat taking manners were reminding me of Panda, a session I did with Trixie and Thanzi at the end of December made me think of Robin. There are several of training mantras that apply to this session:
Our animals will always tell us what they need to work on next.
You get what you reinforce.
My favorite, though, is this one:
Before I describe the goat’s training, here is Robin’s story:
Over the winter when Robin was still very new to clicker training, he started to snatch his treat from my hand. I’d click, he’d grab, and then he’d eagerly be offering me the next clickable behavior. I ignored the snatching. He was eager. It was cold. He was offering lots of great work.
The snatching increased. You get what you reinforce. I didn’t like the snatching, but if it was getting worse, something in our interactions was reinforcing it.
I ignored it. Robin was eager. It was cold. We were having fun – until I wasn’t. The snatching was becoming more than annoying. I was starting to count fingers after I gave him a treat. It was time to do something about the way he took treats.
I’ve told the story many times about the way I solved this particular problem. It’s detailed in both my Riding book and The Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures. I went back to basics. I put Robin in his stall with a stall guard across the door. I stood across the aisle from him and held out the biggest carrot from a bag of big carrots. Robin stretched his neck out to try and reach it.
I immediately turned my back, removing the carrot from sight and counted to three. Then I turned back and held the carrot out again. Robin stretched out his nose. I turned my back and counted to three.
I again offered the carrot. This time Robin hesitated ever so slightly. I clicked, reached into my pocket and handed him a piece of carrot. I was using negative punishment. I was taking away something Robin wanted – the carrot – to decrease a behavior I didn’t like – the reaching out towards me to get a treat.
(When an activity decreases – it is being punished, either by adding something unpleasant or by taking away something the individual enjoys (positive punishment and negative punishment – it’s just math adding or subtracting). When an activity increases, it is being reinforced, either by adding something the individual wants or taking away something he doesn’t like. So again there is positive and negative reinforcement. When the behavior increases it is being strengthened, i.e. reinforced. When it decreases, it is being punished. In both – the positive and negative refer to adding or subtracting, not value judgements.)
I offered the carrot again. Robin hesitated. Click, I handed him a piece of carrot from my pocket. Robin is a super fast learner. He had the dots connected. If he drew back away from my hand, he got treats. I could hold the carrot directly under his nose and instead of snatching it off my hand, he arched his neck and drew up away from it. Click and treat.
I was enchanted. He looked like a beautiful dressage horse. Robin being Robin, he quickly made the connection. If he arched his neck, click, I would give him a treat. He wasn’t snatching anymore. Instead he scooped the carrot slice gently off my hand with his enormous soft lips.
He started to offer what I have since called “the pose”. When I walked by his stall, Robin would draw himself up and arch his neck. Click. I’d pause in my barn chores and give him a piece of carrot. Through the winter I reinforced him a lot for this behavior. I might have begun with negative punishment as I tried to stop an unwanted behavior – snatching treats off my hand. Now I was actively reinforcing him for something I wanted – “the pose”.
I should add that this is not the way I teach the pose today. It popped out when I was working on something else. Now that I know this behavior is worth going after, I shape it more directly, most often with the aid of targeting. And in general, when I find myself reaching towards a negative punishment strategy to solve a problem, I go have a cup of tea instead. I think about what I want and look for reinforcement-based teaching strategies instead.
The “pose” is not the best name that I could have come up with for this behavior. For many people, a pose is a fixed, rigid, stilted posture. It’s that awful grimace so many of us have when we’re forced to have our picture taken.
Instead, for me, the pose is a very dynamic behavior. For Robin it has become a default behavior. I was the cue. In the absence of any active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him. It meant that if he wanted attention from me, he could get me to engage with him using a behavior I actively liked.
Horses are always doing something. A horse in a stall has a long laundry list of behaviors to choose from. Some are behaviors that I like, some are behaviors that I can ignore, and some are behaviors that I never want to see. The laundry list includes taking a nap, eating hay, having a drink, watching the activities in the barn aisle – all perfectly acceptable and easy to ignore.
A horse could also be fighting with his neighbor, kicking the stall door to get attention, cribbing, raking his teeth up and down the wall, pacing, weaving. These are behaviors I definitely do not want. But if I fuss at a horse when I see him engaging in them, I could easily be reinforcing them through my attention. Think of the small child who bangs the kitchen pots and pans while mother is on the phone. Even negative attention is attention, and that can be better than no attention at all.
Robin doesn’t have to kick the wall to get me to notice him. All he has to do is pose. Click and treat. I love having behaviors which my horses can use to ask for my attention. They know I will always acknowledge their request for connection.
Think of all the ways people interact with one another: “Good morning.” “How are you?” “Never better.” These quick exchanges connect us. Think how chilling and unpleasant an environment becomes when these social pleasantries are absent. We need them to tell us things are okay between us.
Robin says good morning by posing. I respond with a click and a treat. All is well between us. Our social bond is strong and getting stronger with each click and treat.
I reinforced Robin for the pose because he looked pretty. I wasn’t heading for anything in particular beyond that. This is what makes training so much fun. Sometimes the next unexpected piece just pops out.
Here’s what happened to the pose. One evening I had Robin in the arena. I was asking him to trot around me on a circle. He was giving me a nothing of a trot. He looked like an old plow horse. There was no energy, no pizzazz, nothing I wanted to reinforce.
Robin was expecting me to click. He went once around the circle. Nothing. The way I tell the story was you could all but see the cartoon bubble appearing above his head. “I’m not being reinforced.”
He went around again.
“What can I do to get reinforced?”
On the third time around he had the answer: “I know! I’ll try the pose!”
The way Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz tells this story is this: by withholding the click I was putting Robin into an extinction process. He began to regress back through behaviors that had been successful in the past. The pose had been highly reinforced, so it was the first thing that he tried.
Whichever version of the story you prefer, Robin had to add energy to the trot in order to get into the pose. Suddenly, his trot looked as though it belonged on a magazine cover. He was gorgeous! I clicked and gave him a treat, all the while gushing over how pretty he was. I sent him back out around me. It took him a few strides to find his balance, but he once again added the pose to the trot. It was just one stride that I was clicking – but wow! What a gorgeous stride it was! The rest is history. Robin led the way. He showed us that we could shape the beautiful, suspended balance of a classical dressage horse just through well timed clicks and treats.
Why am I telling this story? Because this morning’s session with Thanzi and Trixie made me think of Robin and the pose. It reminded me of the expression:
In December I had been trying to work them individually. We had snow Christmas eve and then the temperatures dropped and the wind rose. Trixie was nervous about being out in the hallway by herself, so I let Thanzi join her. Suddenly with two goats I had lots of crowding. Hmm. You get what you reinforce. I knew at night when I was tucking them in, I was in a hurry. It was cold. It was late. I just wanted to get done with the final chores and get back inside where it’s warm. Had I been letting them crowd me and hurry the treat deliver? Apparently the answer was yes.
I needed to sort out the crowding so in this session I set two mats out face too face. Trixie hopped on one, Thanzi on the other. I stood in the middle with both goats crowding into me begging for treats. I waited.
“Oh right. Crowding doesn’t get treats.” They took their noses away from me. Click. I reached into my pockets.
They were right back, pushing against my hands. I got the treats out of my pockets and then drew my hands together. I stood as though in calm meditation, waiting. First one then the other took her nose away. I waited until they were both good, then held out the treats to them.
They got their treats, and then they were right back crowding me, pushing against me with their muzzles. I waited. They took their noses away. Click. Get the treat. Wait again with hands held together in quiet meditation. They both drew away from me. I held out my hands and let them take the treat.
It only took a couple of repetitions. They were both working so hard to stay away from my pockets. Click, pause, feed. They were both so good.
I left them in the hallway while I filled their hay feeders. I was just finishing up when I looked out into the aisle. They were standing each on her own platform waiting for me. How can you resist? I went out and did another round of paying attention to their good manners.
Your animals always tell you what they need to work on. I don’t know where this will lead me, but I know it is what they need. If it makes me think of Robin’s pose, I must be on the right track.
It’s easy to be focused and consistent through one training session. It’s much harder to maintain that consistency over time. When we transferred Panda full time to Ann, it was actually a relief to hand her over. I missed her constant presence by my side, but maintaining the level of consistency that is needed for a guide was demanding. When you can see, you don’t need a guide to tell you that you’ve come to a curb. If I started cutting corners in Panda’s training because I didn’t need all the things I had taught her to do, it would undermine her performance as a guide. Ann would never be able to enjoy the luxury of seeing the curb that’s in front of her. She would be relying on Panda to point this out to her. A horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count so it always has to count. I followed that mantra throughout Panda’s training.
The same thing applies to the goats. The same thing applies to the goats. If sometimes I let them push into me to get treats, I will never get to the consistent good behavior that I want. But it’s been cold! It is so easy to get in a hurry and let standards drop. So their training has been a bit like a yo yo. I let things slip in my hurry to get chores done and my gloves back on. They begin to crowd me, but now I am catching it sooner. The manners pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. Over time the cumulative effect shows me that the balance is tipping towards good manners.
Just for Fun!
I told you the story of Robin’s pose. Here’s one of my favorite videos of Robin. He was only three when this was filmed. He had not yet been started under saddle. So he’d never had a rider on his back, and I had never lunged him in side reins or any other type of mechanical device. This beautiful balance and cadence had been shaped entirely with the clicker. You’ll see I am holding two dressage whips. You can call them anything you want, but they are functioning as targets. They give him points of reference to balance between. I know the lighting is not good in this video, but this was a long time ago, and this was the best the video camera could do. Enjoy!
Coming Next: The Goat Diaries Day 10: You Can Never Do One Thing
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.