Goat Diaries Day 10: Distractions!


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.

p46_PandaInRestaurantWithTrainerAlexandraKurlandOwnerAnnEdieNeilSoderstrom 343

Dining out with Panda

(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:

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

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.

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

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:

If you don’t notice a little resistance, don’t worry about it.  It will get bigger.  And eventually, it will get big enough that you will do something about it.

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.

Staying Consistent

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.




JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 14

Our Creative Horses
Yesterday I shared with you the story of Robin’s “pose”.  The use of resurgence has helped us develop a much more systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors.  Because we understand the process better, we can be more deliberate in it’s use.  I ended the post by saying: “The end result may look like magic, but there is good science behind it.”

When we open up our training in this way and turn our learners into more active participants, we often find that they are even more creative than we are.  Once again Robin provided me with a great example of this.

When Robin was three I took him to the Equine Affaire to be my demo horse.  I wanted to show people what freeshaping via clicker training looks like.  I didn’t want them just to see the end product of freeshaping.  I wanted them to see me teach Robin a completely novel behavior.  The problem was he already had a pretty extensive repertoire. I was stumped for ideas, but I thought the easiest solution would be to use a prop.  One of my clients had been teaching his horse to flip a hula hoop up over his head.  I thought I could make a start on that with Robin.

Robin had been our first equine retriever.  Picking things up was solidly in repertoire.  I figured if I put the hula hoop on the ground, he would try to pick it up.  I’d be able to reinforce that and build it into Robin holding it longer which might over three days of demos lead to him flipping it over his head.  Such was my level of creativity, that’s all I could think of to work on with a hula hoop.

So during our demo, I brought out the hula hoop and tossed it out on the ground.  I was still explaining freeshaping to the audience so I wasn’t focusing yet on Robin.  While I was talking, he walked over to the hoop and stood with his front feet planted in the middle of it just as he would have stood on a mat.  Before I could respond to him, he reached down, picked up one side of the hoop and began walking himself forward foot by foot with the hoop!  That was his level of creativity!

The Creative Process
Here are the steps the horses have been teaching us:

First, you build a strong history of reinforcement for the component behaviors.

You change the situation somewhat so mild extinction comes into play.

You get a resurgence of these previously reinforced behaviors and new combinations emerge.  That’s creativity.  The most fun for me is seeing what the horses invent. As we have seen, they are often so much more creative than their human partners!

Familiar Landscapes
Kay Laurence might say we were seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz would say you have to understand the process of extinction before you can master it.  If you understand it, you’ll avoid situations that create macro extinction processes and all the frustration that goes along with them.  Instead you’ll use micro extinctions to build complex behaviors.

I would say that monitoring the level of extinction your learner is experiencing is a keys-to-the-kingdom part of good training.

I’ve just spent a couple of days working with a group of horses I have come to know well. One of them is a retired performance horse. Without going into a lot of details, I would describe him as an emotionally fragile horse. He’s easily worried.  If he thinks he has the right answer, he’s a superstar, but I always have to be careful how far I stretch him into new behaviors.  If he thinks he might get something wrong, he worries.  He’s come out of a training environment in which he had to perform correctly or his rider could get seriously hurt. I suspect he was punished for mistakes which accounts for his worry.

Mastering Micro
His back was looking prematurely aged so I wanted to teach him Robin’s “pilates pose”.  I had already shown him that he could get reinforced for lifting his back up and releasing at the poll.  In this particular session I was holding out for slightly better versions. As I withheld my click, I saw him experimenting.  Was it higher with his poll? Was it more lift of his back? What did I want?

The shifts he was giving me represented micro changes.  They were all within a clickable range.  Clicking him for any of these variations would have been fine, but I was waiting fractionally to see what else would pop out.

I was using micro extinctions to create the next step.  And because I was thinking about this in terms of extinction, I was monitoring closely his emotional responses.  I did not want him to become macro worried.  We were always just a second or two from a click so I could let him experiment without risking the emotional fallout of a larger extinction process.

Micro Masters
Micro is so very much the key.

Macro extinctions are frustrating.  Micro extinctions are part of good teaching.

Macro shaping can be confusing.  Micro shaping is elegant.

Macro negative reinforcement is literally painful. Micro negative reinforcement is clear communication. It is a conversation with cues exchanged in both directions.

When you go micro, your learner is always just a second or two away from a reinforceable moment.  You can cue another behavior, or you can simply click and treat. Either way, you are saying: “Yes! Great idea!” Micro Mastery is what we should be striving for in our training.  When you say someone is a great trainer, you are really saying that individual is a Micro Master.  In training that’s the “black belt” we should be aiming for.


With this last section we come to the end of my JOY FULL Horses book – almost.  What remains is one final chapter and that’s what’s coming next.

Coming Next: Doorways

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

You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

Using the Cues Your Horse Discovers

Collecting Gems
I began with the intent of introducing a beginner clicker trainer to the concept of cues.  Look where it’s taken us!  The first post in this unit was put up on Feb. 10, 2016.  Look at all the things I’ve covered since then.  I may have started out really simple, but as I’ve marched through the list, I’ve covered some very complex concepts.

That’s very much like training in general.  Focus on one particular exercise over a period of time, and you’ll ALWAYS get many more good things emerging from it than that one simple beginning point.

The more we look at cues, the more good things we see that are connected to this “green light” concept.

So far we’ve looked at:
1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) Having a cue attached to a behavior isn’t enough.  We need stimulus control – a fancy term for saying you get the behavior you want when you want it and only when you want it.
7.) We can use cues to counter balance one another to create stimulus control.
8.) Cues change and evolve. You can use this to create the degree of lightness you want.  You can also create new cues for existing behaviors.

Now for number nine I would say to my novice clicker trainer:

9.) You can’t not cue.

Your horse is a grandmaster at reading humans.  And he’s also great at predicting the future.  He knows your patterns even if you don’t.  He knows when you’re about to ask him for head lowering, for backing, etc..  Before you can give what you think is the cue, he’s already worked out what you want.  It’s time to notice those cues so you can play with them and have some fun as you solve some common training problems.

Clever Hans
I wrote about Clever Hans earlier.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/14/) Clever Hans was a horse who gained fame in Germany in the early years of the 20th century.  It was said he could do basic arithmetic, including multiplying and dividing.  He could tell time; he could keep track of the days in a week and solve other puzzles that were asked of him.  Ask him how much 3 times 9 was, and Clever Hans would tap out the right answer.  Of course, it had to be a trick. Horses couldn’t do math or know the answers to these other questions.  But how was he doing it?  Even when they took his owner away, Clever Hans would still tap out the correct answers.

A panel of experts examined him, but couldn’t solve the puzzle.  And then in 1907 a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst cracked the code.  Clever Hans didn’t need his owner to be present.  As long as the other people watching knew the answer, Clever Hans would stop tapping at the correct moment.  It wasn’t magic or a hoax, just a horse who was extremely good at reading body language.

He couldn’t do arithmetic and all of those other intellectual feats. People could go right back to their firmly held belief that horses were indeed stupid animals.

How sad.  There is another conclusion they could have drawn – and celebrated. Horses are brilliant at reading body language.

We are training the species that is represented by Clever Hans.  You can fight your horse’s ability to read even the subtlest of cues, or you can put it to good use.

Working WITH Your Own Clever Hans
If I were setting up a scientific study to test a horse’s ability to differentiate colours, I might want to be very rigid in my experimental design.  I would want to know that I wasn’t giving away the answer through some subtle hints I might not even be aware of.  I would have to work hard to take my body language out of the picture.  I might wear dark glasses so my horses couldn’t see where I was looking, but even that wouldn’t be enough. Horses are such masters at reading subtle signals, any tilt of my head would be a giveaway.

Fighting against my horse’s ability to read me is NOT how I train. I’m not training my horses so I can pass the scrutiny of some scientific standard.  Instead of fighting my horse’s ability to read body language, I’m going to make use of it.  I WANT my horses to read me.  And I want my horses to be successful.

So I’m going to embrace a very basic understanding of cues which is: you can’t not cue.

Canine Teachers
Several years back at the Clicker Expo Morten and Cecilia Egverdt did a series of presentations on teaching canine obedience using backchaining.  They want high energy, enthusiastic dogs who can perform with great accuracy and precision.  When a signal is given in competition, they expect an immediate response.

They taught their dogs via clicker training.  The end result was sharp, accurate performance at the highest levels of competition.  In a competition if you were comparing one of Morten’s clicker-trained dogs with other dogs that were more conventionally trained, you would see all the dogs working with extreme accuracy and precision.  They would all respond immediately to the signals they were given. They would all work at speed.  They would all work accurately.  Stimulus control would create in all the dogs very polished performances.

But Morten stressed that he didn’t want to end up with a dog that was indistinguishable from the more conventionally-trained dogs.  He wanted his clicker-trained dogs to retain the enthusiasm for their work that they displayed when they were first learning new skills.  He wanted to keep the creativity and joy even as he developed the unwavering precision in response.  He wanted his dogs to know that offering behavior was still okay.

At the start of a work session his dogs could offer behaviors that were appropriate to that particular environment.  If they were out in their training arena, they could sit, lie down, spin, run in a big circle, leap over a jump, etc..  Any and all of these behaviors would be reinforced.

It was as if the dogs had a menu from which to choose.  In this environment barking, digging holes in the footing, biting the handler – these are NOT behaviors which will ever be reinforced.  But sitting, lying down, running backwards, jumping over the jump, retrieving the dumbbell, these are all behaviors which will earn clicks and treats – until . . .

Until the handler gives the first definite cue.  After that ONLY the behaviors which are cued will be reinforced.  No off-cue behaviors will earn a click and treat.

Selecting from the Menu
I loved the concept of the menu.  In this context, these are the behaviors that have a high probability of being reinforced.  This is something I very much want my horses to understand.  It is the basis for what I refer to as default behaviors.

A horse can’t do nothing – not unless he is dead.  Your horse is always doing something.  When I’m in the barn doing chores and my horses are in their stalls, there are lots of possible “somethings” they could be doing.  Some of the “somethings” would be behaviors that I wouldn’t want – banging on the stall door or raking their teeth across the metal bars to get my attention.  I also wouldn’t want them pacing, attacking their neighbors, rearing up, etc..

I wouldn’t mind if they took a nap, ate their hay, drank from their water bucket.  Those are all perfectly acceptable behaviors.  If they want me to interact with them, they could pose, or put their ears forward.  They don’t have to wait for a specific cue from me.  I am the cue.  If I walk past my horse’s stall and he wants to initiate a conversation, all he has to do is arch his neck in what I consider to be a pretty pose.  Click – he has my attention.

I’m not under perfect stimulus control. Sometimes I’m carrying two water buckets which makes stopping to give a treat difficult.  But I think my horses would tell you, they have me pretty well trained.

What Morton and Cecilie’s work suggests is that the dogs (and horses) are learning the concept of putting individual behaviors into categories.  Under these conditions these behaviors are acceptable.  If you want reinforcement, offer me behaviors from within this class.  Cantering is a wonderful behavior to offer out here in the arena, but I don’t want to see it in the barn aisle or in your stall!

Use Your Cues
The only place where I parted company with what they were saying was their comment that they weren’t cueing these behaviors.  I watched a video clip showing one of their dogs offering behavior after behavior while Cecilie stood in a rigid position, arms at her side, feet together.  Of course she was cueing!  That body position was the cue for her dogs to offer behavior.

I don’t want to fight these cues, or pretend that they aren’t there.  The previous section looked at how cues evolve out of the shaping process.  I want to put them to work.  As soon as I recognize how fast cues emerge out of the shaping process, I can begin to use them to solve some very common behavior problems.

Coming Next: An Accident Waiting To Happen

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.

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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