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

The Goat Palace – Journal Report for 11/19/17: You Never Know What You Have Taught

Galahad had the first session of the day.  He’s an eager, happy learner, and he very much chose to go into the far end to play.  I stayed for a few minutes down in the front section visiting with the other goats. Elyan and Pellias were up on the top platform of the jungle gym.  They were eager for head scratches. Surprisingly, so was Thanzi.

By the time I extracted myself from their appeal for more, Marla had already begun Galahad’s session.  She commented that what she thought she had taught him was not what he had learned.  Ah yes, that’s the clinic mantra: You never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.  Yesterday he had been going to his target, click, followed by Marla dropping a treat in one of the food buckets.  He went promptly to the bucket, got his treat, and then touched the target again. Marla would then drop his treat in a second bucket, so he was going back and forth between buckets with a quick stop in between to touch the target.

His takeaway from that was just to go from bucket to bucket – never mind touching the target.  It reminded me of the table games that we play to learn about training and to work out procedures for teaching concepts.

Training game

Playing the table game during the Five Go To Sea Caribbean conference cruise.  I’m hiding from the sun under the funny hat.  Kay Laurence is sitting behind us.

Kay Laurence is the originator of these games. Several years ago we were together at an airport, both with long waits for our flights home.  So we found a quiet corner and pulled out a table game kit.  I was the learner, something when I’m teaching I rarely get to be, so that was a treat.  Kay had a plan in mind for teaching me to use the pieces from the game to draw a pentagon.  Of course, I had no idea what she had in mind.  But I was a contented learner because I was making lots of correct choices and getting clicked and reinforced  at a high rate.  The only problem was the rules I was using to produce the actions she was reinforcing were not the same rules Kay was trying to teach.  So I was coming up with the right answer but for the wrong (from Kay’s perspective) reason.

Every time Kay presented me with a puzzle moment I got stuck.  Puzzle moments are small tests to check to see if what you think you are teaching is what your learner is learning.  It was a fascinating and fun experience, though it could easily have been a frustrating experience if either of us had brought a different mind set to the game.

My flight was coming up, so we had to end the game.  Kay explained what she wanted me to do.  My reaction to being told the “answer” was interesting.  I felt deflated.  I wanted to go on and work through the puzzle.  Being told the answer was far less satisfying than discovering the answer on my own.  I missed the puzzle solving, and I missed seeing what strategies Kay would have used to get things sorted out. But my plane wasn’t going to wait for us to finish the game, so we had to jump straight to the final answer.

Galahad had come up with a solution to the puzzle that made total sense to him.  Go from bucket to bucket and expect your person to drop a treat in when you get there.  He had completely by-passed the target.

Watching him, I also didn’t think he was noticing Marla’s tongue click. With horses I suggest that people begin with an actual clicker.  The sharp sound that a box clicker makes is very noticeable, and the horses seem to catch on fast to the significance of the sound.  After a couple of targeting sessions with the clicker, you can switch to a tongue click, and the horses are very aware of the new marker signal.

I suggested to Marla that she get an actual clicker.  At the stage where you’re using target sticks, clickers are easy to use. You can duct tape a box clicker onto the end of the target stick so you have easy access to the clicker.

Marla got a box clicker and continued on with the lesson.  Galahad quickly remembered that he was supposed to touch the target. Yesterday’s fluid pattern was back. Now it was: orient to the target, click, go to the indicated food bucket for a treat, look for the target. A clean loop was reappearing.

This experience highlights another part of the start-up process.  I like to begin with very short sessions.  With horses I have people count out twenty treats.  That means handlers who are new to this process have to stop frequently to reload their pockets. This also gives them time to think about what has just occurred and to consider what, if any, changes need to be made.

With five goats to juggle I was certainly finding I needed to do a lot of adjusting.  It wasn’t just what was happening with the individual I was focusing on.  What was going on with the other goats?  When I had Pellias out by himself, he was having a grand time, but how stressed was Elyan?  Was he being chased by Thanzi?  Yes.  When I took Thanzi out, was Trixie able to cope?  There was a lot to think about, a lot to keep shifting around to find the right training combinations.

Keeping your initial training sessions short lets you check in with your animals more frequently to see what they are actually learning. Each time you go back in and start up the session, you get to see what’s been processed from the previous session. If your learner has come up with a different answer, these short sessions mean it hasn’t become so entrenched that it is now hard to shift the pattern.

It is ironic that I am writing about short sessions, because I am known for using long training sessions. With an established learner I’ll fill my pockets with treats and keep going. That seems to suit the learning style of horses, but these long sessions are broken up into smaller units. I give breaks through the behaviors I’ve taught. For example, I might be working on lateral flexions. We’ll have a bit of success, then it’s off to find a mat. The mat acts both as a conditioned reinforcer and a way to give a break. The change in the rhythm of the training provides a break without having to stop the play.

At the heart of this is the training principle: for every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.

The balance that I thought was needed now for the other goats was a morning session of quiet visiting.  I was very pleased that Thanzi wanted to participate in some head scratching.  I had the two ladies in the back section so the three youngsters could relax and not worry about dodging out of Thanzi’s way.  She stayed by the gate while I scratched her head.  Normally, she’s been drawing away when I try to touch her, so I consider this real progress.  Trixie came up to me repeatedly through the morning, but she’s not yet ready for a proper scratch.  The boys, on the other hand, had a blissful time enjoying a prolonged cuddle session.

Afterwards, Marla and I worked some more on the Goat Palace.  We’re getting close to the finish line, but there always seem to be a few more things to do.  Years ago my family did some remodeling to the house.  The process dragged on and on.  Every day my father would make a list of things that the builders still needed to get done before he could sign off on the job.  He remarked that they always seemed to get done only half the remaining jobs.  You would think on a finite project like that, you would be able to check everything off the list, but it never seemed to happen.

At the moment we seem to be caught in that twilight zone of always completing just half the remaining tasks.  One of yesterday’s tasks was tidying up the section we’ve designated for storage.  I was very pleased to see how little we have left to store.  We have managed to use up an amazing amount of miscellaneous clutter.  So perhaps when we run out of stuff to find a use for, we will also run out of tasks that still need to be done. That will finish off phase one of the goat palace.  (I say phase one because phase two is obviously going to be expanding the goat jungle gym. That will be as much for our entertainment as it will be for theirs.)

One of the things that contributed to the tidying up of the storage area was the snow blower went out to be serviced for the winter.  That left a clear area that could be used for training.  So in the early evening I took advantage of this space to work with Elyan and Pellias.  It was a good time for training.  The goats were beginning to settle down for the night.  It was easy to close the middle gate so only Pellias and Elyan were in the front section.

I had everything set up for them out in the storage area.  I had my chair, a food bucket and a couple of platforms, including the very distinctive foam platform I had introduced them to in July.

Elyan came out first.  I brought him out on a lead, and then turned him loose.  He stayed nearby.  He was clearly interested in playing, but he wasn’t sure what to do.  I let him explore for a couple of minutes, then I brought out the baton and directed him towards the foam platform.  He hopped up onto it, click, I dropped the treat into the bucket.  He had to step down from the platform to get to the bucket.  So now the question was what would he do?  The answer was he backed up to get back on the platform. Click! Drop treats in the food bucket.

Elyan seemed to catch on fast.  The “rule” was get back to the platform, and you’ll get clicked.  At least that’s what was happening.  His “rule” might just as easily have been: back up, and you’ll get clicked. The platform was just in the path of the backing. I’ll need to have a puzzle moment to check whether he is going to the platform or simply backing up.

In any case, while he was getting his treat, I nudged the platform a little further away.  He continued to back himself onto the the platform.  We could have kept going all night, but this was a session that should be kept short.  I got up from my chair, and he followed me back in to the front section.

Pellias was eating hay.  He hadn’t been at all fussed having his brother outside the pen.  But now I wanted to do a swap, and they were both at the gate.  I got Pellias out and sat down in my chair.  He went straight to the platform.  Click.  I dropped treats in the bucket.  He stepped off the platform, got his treat and went straight back to the platform.  I repeated this a couple of times, and then I exclaimed; “Wait a minute.  You’re not Pellias!” In the fading light I hadn’t noticed that little Elyan had pushed past his brother for a second turn.  With his jacket on to keep his coat clean, it was harder to tell them apart. No wonder he was so good!

I got them switched around so now it truly was Pellias’ turn.  He’s always been a platform superstar.  He went straight to the foam platform.  Click.  But now the food delivery was different.  He’s used to getting the treat from my hand, not a food bucket.  I moved the bucket close to the platform and helped him find the hay stretcher pellet.  He got his treat and then stepped off the platform. He wandered away from the platform. I waited.  He began to eat the leaves that we hadn’t swept out of this area.  I got out my baton target and gave it a little shake.  That got his attention.  He followed it to the platform, click, drop the treat.

The hay stretchers make a very sharp noise as they fall into the bucket.  That helped draw Pellias’ attention, and he began to look in the bucket for his treat.  He only had to take his front feet off the platform to get to the bucket, so it was easy for him to step back onto it and get clicked.  My concern was the sound of the treat dropping into the bucket might become the functional marker signal, so I clicked, and began to wait to see him react to the click before I made any move to drop the treat into his bucket.  I got lucky several times with that.  He had turned on the platform so he could look down the driveway.  The sound of my tongue click turned him around, so it was clear, at least in this situation, that he was responding to the sound of the click.

Again, I kept the session short.  When I opened the gate to let him back in, I dropped treats on the floor to distract Elyan.  Pellias came in to get the treats, as well.  I’m not sure I want the others out in this area yet, but for these two their July visit prepared them well for going outside of their pen.

I filled their hay feeders, opened the middle gate and left the goats tucked in for the night.

Today’s July Goat Diary appropriately enough continues with the initial training of platforms.

The July Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 3: Arrange The Environment for Success

I described earlier the morning sessions of day three in which I introduced both goats to platforms.  This was an errand day so I wasn’t able to fit in as many sessions as usual. When I got back to the barn around 5, E and P were clearly hungry. They were standing on a bed of hay, but none of it was to their liking. I gave them fresh hay and left them to eat while I did barn chores.

7 pm session with P

P was very rambunctious – literally. He reared up several times. I managed to dodge him and get him on the platform, but the session didn’t feel very productive.

I wasn’t satisfied with the way he was orienting to the target. I thought a second platform might help. If a platform was the end destination, it might make more sense to him why he was following a target. I decided to consider this a data collecting session.  I knew where I needed to head, but I would wait until tomorrow to add the second platform.  Training success depends very much upon having a good set-up.  I suspected adding the second platform would help smooth things out.  Instead of continuing on with a session that wasn’t going well, I would wait until I had a better set up.

In contrast to P, E’s session was great. He was so very soft and sweet. I had him target the baton, click, treat. Then I scratched him around his ears. His eyes got soft, and he leaned into my hand, clearly enjoying the feel. I asked him to follow the target again, click, treat, scratch.  Who knows what E was learning.  I certainly found it very reinforcing!  I began his day with bliss, and that’s how I ended it.

The password to open this video is: GoatDiariesDay 3 E Learns

Note: When I was in town, I stopped at the new bird store that’s just opened.  I bought some black sunflower seeds which the goats really like. So now they are getting a mix of sunflower seeds, peanuts and hay stretcher pellets.

8 pm final session of the day.

We ended the evening with “cuddle time”.  While Ann groomed Fengur, I took my chair into the stall and enjoyed a few minutes of goat bliss.

Coming Next: Clicker Training Day 4

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: 

JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction Part 7

The Training Game
I’ve mentioned training games several times.  The original clicker training game was a close cousin to the children’s game “Hot and Cold”.  The learner was sent out of ear shot while the rest of the group chose a goal behavior.  When the learner returned, the only instructions she was given were to offer behavior.  If she did something that her designated trainer liked, she would be clicked. She was then to go to her handler for a treat.

I’ve seen situations where the learner got the behavior seamlessly.  One easy click after another led the learner directly to the goal behavior.  I’ve seen other situations where the same behavior tripped people up completely.

When we train our animals, we want the first scenario – seamless, successful training.  That’s what we want for our equine learners.  But in the training game, we often learn the most when we experience clumsy shaping.  It can be frustrating to struggle through a session that lacks a clear training plan, but you do gain a great appreciation for what NOT to do.

Kay Laurence developed a different style of training game.  In this one trainer and learner are seated opposite one another at a table.  Instead of acting out the behavior like a game of charades, the learner manipulates objects which the trainer has set out on the table.


Kay always has great fun collecting objects for the table game.  She has small plastic fruits and cakes, toy cars, small cones, plastic insects of various varieties.  It’s a colourful mixture that she hands over to her trainers.  When I play the table game at clinics, I raid the host’s kitchen junk drawer.  My toys aren’t as much fun as Kay’s, but they serve the purpose just as well.

Kay calls her game Genabacab.  It has very few instructions and really only one rule: the only person who is allowed to talk is the learner. The trainer and spectators are not to give any verbal hints or to discuss what is going on until afterwards.

The table game lets you work out shaping plans BEFORE you go to your animal.  Do you want to learn how to attach a cue to a behavior and then change that cue to a new cue? You can work out the process playing the table game and spare your animals the frustration of your learning curve.

Kay has described workshops at her training center where someone arrives with a “how do I teach this?” type of question.  Maybe the handler wants to teach match to sample, or she wants to see if her dog can indicate which object is bigger or smaller.  Instead of going straight out to the dog and confusing it with missteps and false starts, everyone in the group will pull out their Genabacab games. Kay says people will often spend half the day happily absorbed in developing the best teaching strategies for their dogs.  The dogs spend the day relaxing while their people work away at the puzzle.  It’s only once the process is well understood, that the dogs are brought in for training.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and his students at the University of North Texas have been using Genabacab to understand basic principles of behavior.  He wants to bring the game to the scientific community as a research tool, so he gave his version a new name:  PORTL – Portable Operant Research and Teaching Laboratory.   Kay still has her Genabacab for teaching her canine handlers and Jesús has PORTL for teaching behavior analysis.  On the surface they are similar games, but they serve different functions.

Animal studies are increasingly difficult to do because of ethical concerns and expense.  PORTL offers an alternative for research.  You can have a question about how a particular process works, design an experiment using the PORTL game, and in hour’s time have gathered enough data to write a paper – all without frustrating a single lab rat. Now that’s progress!

His students meet on a regular basis to play PORTL games. When they turned their attention to the extinction process, they made some interesting discoveries.

In one game, the learner was shaped to place one hand over the other – right hand over left, and then to reverse it – left hand over right.  The behavior was put on a fixed ratio of 5, meaning the learner was clicked and reinforced on every fifth swap of hands.

The second task was tapping a block.  Again the learner was put on a fixed ratio of 5. (The learner was to tap the block five times for each click and treat.)

The trainer then increased the ratio for the tapping to 30. The learner began to tap the block, but now there was no click and treat after 5 taps.  The learner kept going to about 13 taps.  At that point she began to experiment.  She reverted back to swapping hands.  Then she tried a few more taps, before going back to hand swaps.  She tapped the block a few more times.  The trainer was still keeping track so each of these taps was counting towards the count of 30 she was looking for.

In the twenties the learner began to be creative.  She tried different ways to move hand over hand.  She’d go back and forth between experimenting with hand swaps and tapping the block.  Finally she reached a count of 30 at which point her handler clicked and reinforced her.  All the extra gunk was also chained in.  Now as the handler kept reinforcing the tapping of the block, the frequency of the hand swapping also skyrocketed.  That behavior was no longer being intentionally reinforced, but it increased right along with the tapping.

Now you may be thinking:  “Well that’s just poor training.  No one is going to jump from a fixed ratio of 5 to one of 30.” My response would be to say that this can happen inadvertently.

Suppose a handler has had a behavior on a high rate of reinforcement. The horse is responding on a consistent basis, but then he’s distracted. He’s no longer offering the same consistent response.  Instead the handler is seeing a string of unwanted behaviors.  Sometimes the horse almost meets criterion, but not enough to click. And then he comes through with the right answer.  The handler captures that moment with a click and a treat.  The question is: what is the long term result of that click? Has the handler just identified a single clickable moment or has she chained in a long string of “junk” behavior?

The horse’s future responses will answer that particular question, but Jesús’ response in general is: if you want clean behavior, you need to train in clean loops.  Kay and I would add that you need to microshape.  You need to learn to set up your training so the behavior you want is the behavior you get.

Here’s a link to a great youtube video of  a PORTL game presented by Mary Hunter.   Many of you will know Mary from her blogs. Mary is president of The Art and Science of Animal Training, the organization that puts on the annual conference of that same name in Dallas TX.  She and Jesús will be presenting a program on PORTL at this year’s clicker Expos.

Coming Next: Mastering Extinction

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

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:          

Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 3 of 5

Procedure versus The Emotional Effect
Yesterday’s post began a discussion of negative reinforcement.  Especially when you have a horse who is new to clicker training it is important to separate procedure from emotional effect.  I can perform what appears to be the same procedure with two individuals and end up with completely different emotional outcomes.

That’s true whether I am using what appears on the surface to be a positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement procedure.  Think of all the people who run in the opposite direction if you suggest playing a training game.  I view these experiences as fun opportunities to improve my skills.  Others see them as a torturous experiences, even when you are passing out reinforcers they want. Their childhood experiences have set them up to see training games as anything but fun.  Same procedure – different emotional response – different behavioral outcome.  So for one person the training game is a positive experience.  It will get them in the room, engaged in the process.  For another it has the opposite effect.  It will get them looking for the nearest exit!

If I’m working with a horse that has been handled well all of it’s life, sliding down the lead will convert easily into a cue, and there may never really be any aversive elements in the process. That’s especially true if I have set up the use of the lead through the first couple of foundation lessons.  If I begin with basic targeting and use my food delivery to move a horse back a step or two to get his treat, he will quickly respond to my body language.  When I turn into him, he’ll easily back up.  Now I can add in the activation of the lead as I turn towards him, and he’ll back up just as readily.


I’m really using more of a transferred cue process than negative reinforcement.

History Matters
An individual who has been hurt by leads will be deeply suspicious of them, even if I have gone through the same foundation lessons that prepared that first horse so well.  I can be super soft, but any interaction with a lead will be regarded with suspicion.  Same action, different emotions.

For the first horse the pressure acts as a cue from the very beginning. But what about the second?  When I slide down the rope, that horse is going to read it as a threat. That’s his history. If he guesses wrong, he’s expecting to be hurt.  If he comes crashing into my space with a lot of energy attempting to escape the inevitable, the wall I create with the lead is going to have to be pretty solid.  I’m ricocheting his own energy.  I’m not adding any pressure beyond that, but his previous experience will control how he feels about what I’m doing.

The Emotional Spectrum
When I slide up the lead to richochet this horse’s energy out of my space, I am operating in a zone that sits between true, easy-to-define negative reinforcement and positively taught tactile cues.  With some of the horses that I work with, it is very clear to me that I am starting out with negative reinforcement.  No question.  Slide down the rope and you meet with the guarded response of a horse who knows the pressure will escalate if he guesses wrong.  My job is to show him that that’s not going to happen.  No matter what he does, I am not going to retaliate.  His history may be creating some major flare ups of aggression, but I am not going to be drawn into a counter attack.

It’s Not Your Fault
At times like these I remember a line from Ismael Beahl’s autobiography “A Long Way Gone”.  Beahl was a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war.  He and the other boys he fought with were given drugs that contributed to the horrific acts of cruelty which they committed.  He describes his actions with great honesty in his book.

When he was pulled out of the army and sent to a hospital for rehabilitation, he lashed out at the people who were trying to help him.  He had done such terrible things.  How could he live with himself?  He wanted to hurt everyone who came near him.

“It’s not your fault,” his caregivers would say, refusing to be drawn into the drama of his conflict.  Again and again they would repeat this:

“It’s not your fault.  It’s not your fault.”

At first this enraged him even more, but gradually he could hear the words and accept their meaning.

Changing Expectations
When horses are flaring up with aggression, I say the same thing to them: “It’s not your fault.”  I’ve seen how horses are handled.  In far too many places harsh handling is the norm.  It’s how we’re taught you have to be around horses.  It’s not the handler’s fault either.  It is our heritage, but it doesn’t have to be our future.  We can pass on a different legacy to the next generation of horse owners.

When I’m using a lead, my task is to direct the horse away from this expectation of retaliation.  Eventually, he will truly believe that the lead will always and only be a positive communication tool. That’s when he’ll let you in past his guard, and the relationship becomes magical.

The response to the lead shows us it’s hidden history. I cannot make a blanket statement that the slide down the lead is experienced as something pleasant and acceptable, something neutral, or something aversive.  The horse’s history creates an expectation that effects his initial emotional reaction to the rope.  In some cases the emotional reaction is one I hope to change.  By changing the way I use the lead, the lead itself may no longer trigger an unwanted emotional response.


Coming Next: Part 4: Hidden Motivators

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

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: