ASAT 2018: Ken Ramirez on “Problem Solving.”

detective snoopyThis is the sixth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Ken Ramirez: Problem solving: the eight causes of problem behavior

Problem solving can be a big part of a trainer’s job and is one of the main reasons he is called in as a consultant.  In this presentation, Ken shared his approach to identifying the cause (or causes) of problem behaviors.  The list he presented is one he started using when he was a young trainer, and he said “it has stood the test of time.” In all his years of training, he has not found a cause that could not belong under one of the eight possible causes that he’s going to describe.

Understanding the causes of problem behavior can aid in finding solutions to resolving challenging issues.  But, determining the cause is just one part of his normal approach to problem solving.

Problem solving as a 5 Step Process

The Basic System

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Determine the cause (hypothesis/analysis)
  3. Consider the balance of punishers/reinforcers – (motivation)
  4. Implement a plan
  5. Constant monitoring

People are usually too quick to jump to step 4 – implement a plan, but there’s no point in trying to make a plan before you have some idea what might be causing the problem.

Determine the cause:  8 causes of problem behavior

  • Environmental
  • Social
  • Psychological
  • Trainer
  • Session use
  • Regressing
  • Desensitization

Ken had videos and some great stories that accompanied each of the eight causes.  Because I don’t have that material, my notes are somewhat brief.  If you ever get the chance to see this presentation in real life, I recommend it. The stories and videos add a lot.


  • Weather
  • Facility changes
  • Prop changes – story of how the dolphins stopped coming to their stations for the show, but instead, they stationed farther out. It turns out that he had new boots with white soles (instead of black) and that changed their behavior.
  • Public activity


  • Their social interactions are important to them
  • Dominance/ submissiveness in social groups can make it challenging – every animal is stressed, not just the least dominant one
  • Competition
  • Sexual activity
  • Set up training sessions so the social interactions don’t cause more problems


  • Boredom
  • Neurotic or aberrant behaviors
  • Stereotypic behavior
  • Frequency of these problems is small, but we tend to get called more often for them


  • Health
  • Aging – we don’t always recognize changes in our animal’s ability as they age, or from an injury
  • Sometimes something happens once or twice and we think the animal can do it, but really they were just lucky and it’s beyond their normal capabilities
  • Example of sea turtle with injury who had to have a special scale


  • Is it me?
  • This should be the first question you ask
  • Am I working beyond my skill level?
  • Check the basics: cues, criteria, markers, reinforcers – sometimes we just get sloppy
  • Check our emotions, they impact our training, especially when we are in a high emotional state (good or bad) – story about the trainer whose boyfriend proposed during the show and how she dumped all the fish in the tank because she was so excited.
  • Attitude – story about the trainer who didn’t want to train sharks- what turned her around was presenting for a TV program and getting recognition from her colleagues

Session use

  • Planning – if you’re not prepared, the animal may lose focus
  • Number of sessions
  • Frequency of session – don’t want to do them so frequently that the animal is tired or satiated
  • Pacing – some animals work well at fast pace, others need a slower pace
  • Balance of reinforcement (story of sea otters after oil spill – they needed to collect blood samples but the otters were reluctant to be caught after a few sessions. They turned the hallway (where they did blood draws) into a fun place so that the blood draws were insignificant. They put the otters in the hall 4-5 times a day, blood draw was once a week.


  • Normal part of the learning curve
  • Ok to see a step back, or two


  • An ongoing process that never ends
  • You can’t desensitize them to everything


  • Pinpointing the cause gives you some things to change
  • This list is just one part of the overall system he uses
  • It’s a helpful checklist when you don’t know where to start, or want to make sure you consider everything
  • It stimulates thinking and helps clients explore ideas that they may not have considered



ASAT Conference 2018: Barbara Heidenreich on “Exotic solutions to exotic animal problems.”

BarbaraHeidenreich_wombatThis is the fifth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.


Barbara Heidenreich: Exotic solutions to Exotic animal problems

Barbara works extensively within the zoo community, both as a consultant and as the trainer for long-term projects.  She shared some of her experiences working with zoo animals and described how the zoo community faces different challenges than trainers working with domesticated animals and pets.  Her presentation had a lot of video, which I can’t share, but I’ve included descriptions that highlight the main points.  If you want to see some training videos, she does have a large collection of videos on her YouTube channel.

What is it like to work with exotic animals?

There are many similarities but with variations depending upon the species and the environment.

  • Same principles
  • In many cases, similar challenges

Zoo consulting:

  • She needs to be able to work with many different species
  • It’s important to take advantage of modal action patterns – what is the animal “hard-wired” to do?
  • Neophobia (fear of new objects) is a common problem.
  • There can be challenges with hand reared animals – some hand reared animals have inappropriate behaviors around people.

She can’t be an expert on every species that she is asked to work with, so she presents herself as someone knowledgeable about influencing behavior. Her job is to work closely with the people who know the species well.

Zoo trainers may have a different kind of relationship with their animals -compared to trainers working with domestic animals

  • Sometimes they do have trusting relationships.
  • Sometimes it is irrelevant to the species or the behavior (sharks and rays, cobra).
  • Sometimes it is discouraged because it can adversely influence the species or the behavior.
  • Sometimes it is required that the trainer NOT interact (common with conservation projects).

Zoo trainers have to consider:

Group dynamics:

  • How to manage groups of animals (many trainers? 1 trainer per animal? 1 trainer per group?)
  • Teaching dominant animals to allow others to participate, shy ones to participate
  • Might need to teach separation both for practical reasons and to facilitate training
  • Multi species exhibits  – sometimes the group dynamics involves other species that may or may not also need to be trained.

Different environments:

  • Large exhibits where you might not see the animal (no easy opportunity to reinforce the animal)
  • Control and choice- how much can you give? In zoos, may animals are not restricted within their own exhibit space
  • Free flight – finding suitable locations, avoiding distractions, considering safety
  • Facility design challenges – many are not designed with training in mind, not set up for protective contact, often use antecedent arrangement but the facility may make this more difficult

She shared a video of teaching pigs to separate for feeding.  She had to consider how to mark and reinforce the behavior.  The pigs were in an enclosure with hotwire, so she didn’t use a click as the sound was too similar.  Pigs love tummy rubs and this can be used as a reinforcer.  The training plan had to take into account species specific behaviors, like the fact that pigs like to bite…

Video Examples:

She had a nice collection of videos that showed work with a lot of different species and with a wide variety of behavior problems.  Most of the examples were consulting work  where she was called in to solve a problem and only had a short time to resolve it.  In many cases, she uses the same tools which are:

  • targeting
  • stationing
  • training incompatible behaviors
  • avoiding triggering the unwanted behavior
  • creating positive associations with various objects
  • changes in the environment or antecedents

I’ve listed a brief description of how the behavior and how she addressed it.  While the videos made the presentation more interesting, I think it’s actually pretty interesting to read through the list and see how she had to make small changes for different species and different conditions.  There are lots of great examples of how to set up the training so the trainers and animals could be more successful.

Monkey with undesired sexual behavior: This was a monkey that was showing inappropriate sexual behavior when his keepers were interacting with him. It only happened with them (not with visitors) and did not happen immediately, so they had time to train other incompatible behaviors in the beginning of each session. Over time the behavior decreased as he learned to offer other behaviors.

  • Avoid reinforcing it
  • Avoid triggering it
  • Teach an incompatible behavior
  • Immediately engage in incompatible behaviors before he has to time to do the unwanted behavior
  • Build repertoire of acceptable behaviors

Hoof curl with Giraffe:  This example showed teaching duration to a giraffe for hoof care. The giraffe had learned to rest her foot on a hay bale (the hoof curl behavior) but would not keep it in position.  They extended the duration by adjusting the amount of reinforcement based on how long she held the position, and being consistent about not reinforcing for efforts that did not meet criteria.

  • Want her to put her foot on the bale of hay but she won’t keep it there
  • Used different reinforcement value for different levels of response, 1, 3, 5 biscuits – contingent on what she does

Leopard that won’t go to a laser target:  Laser targets are often used with the cats to move them from one location to another.  They wanted to use a laser dot to move the cat from one enclosure to another, but this cat was ignoring it.  It required a more creative shaping plan, one that didn’t require multiple repetitions, but just built the behavior one step at a time over two weeks.  It’s a great example of how you can train, even if you can’t do long sessions.  Even one repetition a day was enough to change this cat’s behavior.

  • Creative shaping plan
  • Put a large chalk circle on the wall, added some scent
  • Leopard would go in and check it out, click and treat
  • Did one repetition a day for 2 weeks
  • Move the circle to a new spot every day
  • Once the leopard had learned to go to the circle, they reduced the size
  • replace circle with laser dot

Gibbons that won’t shift with the trainer in the holding area:  These gibbons had become suspicious about going into the holding area when a trainer was present – because this usually indicated that they would be locked up.  She had to work with their current environment and slowly shape the behavior of going into the building.  The set-up is an island that is connected to the holding area by a log.

  • They do have a remote feeder on the island
  • Sound of feeder became the marker
  • Have to cross a log to get to the holding area
  • Gradually shape them to come closer to the holding area by using the remote feeder to provide reinforcement

Elephant who bites and spits out pills:  This elephant requires medication delivered orally. She will take it but if she bites into it and tastes the medication, then she spits it out.  They had to change some aspects of the pill delivery as well as teach her to swallow the pill instead of biting it.

  • They had tried various things, but if she bit the pills and tasted the medication, she would spit it out
  • Give fruit juice first – as lubricant
  • Then freeze the pills and coat in coconut oil – so they slide
  • Had to teach swallowing with a smaller object – they actually used a quarter of a peanut
  • Once she could swallow the peanut, and maybe something larger?, they gave her the pill and cued her to swallow

Elephant that eats everything:  They wanted to use the elephant in a commercial where she was waving an object around. But, this elephant liked to eat anything she could pick up, so they had to teach her to hold something without eating it.

  • Find something she won’t eat – difficult (she eats everything!) –  but they discovered that she doesn’t like eucalyptus
  • Reinforce her for giving objects back – Offer eucalyptus – reinforce her for giving it back
  • Then offer something with the eucalpyptus, – then reinforce her for giving it back
  • Eventually she will take other objects without the eucalyptus and give them back
  • They got their video of her waving with the object

Head squeezing surrogate mom:  I think this was an orangutan (or some other larger ape – can’t quite remember).  The baby was not being raised by the mom, but was allowed to spend some time with an “aunt.”  Unfortunately, the aunt was accidentally reinforced for squeezing the baby’s head.  They did make some progress with resolving this issue, but then the baby was able to go back with his mom.

  • Identify when it is likely to happen (when baby is hungry)
  • Build repertoire of more appropriate behaviors
  • High ROR (rate of reinforcement), then thin it out
  • Have some “bail out” behaviors – that they can ask the aunt or baby to do if it happens (they wanted a safe way of interrupting the behavior)
  • End sessions at any of the pre-cursors

Giraffe that won’t stay in the chute:  This giraffe would not stay in the chute for handling. First they had to reinforce her for being in the chute and build up a positive association with that location.  Then they had to teach it to accept touch.

  • Teach approximations to following a target
  • High ROR
  • Build up to R+ for staying in the chute
  • Door open when they start to touch – so she can leave if he wants
  • The word “touch” is used to tell the giraffe when she will be touched

Lemur that jumps on keeper’s shoulders:  The lemurs are in an indoor enclosure with branches to climb on. One of the lemurs likes to jump on the keeper’s shoulders. She had them teach an alternative behavior.

  • Teach target and station on a branch
  • High ROR for targeting and stationing
  • Make it harder to do the undesired behavior, easier to do the desired one
  • Reduce the reinforcement value of the undesired behavior
  • Practice by letting him wander a little and then come back – so he learns to return to the station.  Watching where he goes when he leaves the station is useful information about what is reinforcing.

Dive Bombing conures:  These birds were in a school and were dive bombing people who entered their enclosure.  They did come up with a plan to teach alternative behaviors, but she presented it as an example of being realistic about whether a training or a management solution was going to work better.

  • DRI (differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior) – stationing
  • High ROR – then thin it out
  • But realistically, the easiest thing was to adjust the environment so that the birds were not in the same space with the people
  • Be realistic about your options and resources

Fear of New Objects:   A giraffe was afraid of new objects and wouldn’t touch a target. They were working on a high platform at head level (for the giraffe).  They started by feeding the giraffe in the presence of the target and waiting until he chose to interact with it.

  • Giraffe doesn’t like target
  • Present target, feed as long as giraffe stays within reach
  • Eventually the giraffe gets closer and closer to the target and touches it
  • It’s about waiting for the animal to choose to interact with the object
  • Once he is choosing to touch the target, then they can mark and reinforce for a targeting behavior (switching over to an operant response)

Fear Response to Touch:  This giraffe was being taught to accept touch.  They had him touching a target while standing behind a barrier (leaning over a doorway).  One trainer was holding the target and reinforcing the giraffe. Another trainer was positioned so she could touch the giraffe on the neck as he reached forward to touch the target.

  • Systematic desensitization (they started with little hand movement toward the giraffe and very light contact)
  • Teach the animal to initiate contact – they wanted the giraffe to learn that he could choose when to start the next repetition and control when the person touched him
  • mark and reinforce for accepting contact (they started by reinforcing targeting).

Undesired vocalizations that had been reinforced: This bear had been accidentally reinforced for making loud vocalizations.  Over time it had gotten worse and worse because trainers had not waited out extinction bursts.  Barbara had a video showing how extreme the extinction burst had become.

  • Avoid reinforcing undesired behavior
  • R+ for silence
  • She was reinforcing for longer periods of quiet and pushed too far so the bear went into an extinction burst
  • This was a somewhat distressing video – the bear sounded horrible – but it did show how extinction bursts work, and how bear did seem to be able to turn the vocalizing on and off.

Bear outside grabbing people: This was a short clip that showed a young bear who had been allowed to interact with people in ways that were no longer safe, now that the bear was getting bigger.  Barbara had them teach the bear to station on a log instead of grabbing at or trying to climb people.

  • Young bear used to interacting with people
  • Teach stationing

Rough play with fox:  This fox had been rescued and allowed to play rough with people. He had learned to bite at hands when on a person’s lap. The zoo wanted to be able to have people pat him, without the fox getting excited and biting at people. The first step was to teach alternative behaviors that were appropriate when he was handled by people, and then introduce patting.

  • Avoid triggers
  • Teach other desirable behaviors
  • Gradually raise criteria

Spitting orangutan:  If you thought it might be fun to work in a zoo, well…maybe not. This was an orangutan that had developed an annoying habit. I think Barbara said that she did this to avoid interacting with the keeper, but I’m not sure.

  • Would slurp up urine and spit at keepers
  • Avoid triggering it

Bouncing leopard:  This leopard’s cage was at the end of a hallway and the keepers had to go down the hallway to access something on the wall opposite the leopard’s cage.  When they did that, the leopard would start bouncing off the walls – even though they were not intending to interact with him.  Ignoring the leopard made things worse so they had to teach the leopard what to do when someone was in the hallway.

  • Would bounce off the walls when keepers were near
  • Cue for appropriate behaviors
  • Keep engaged
  • Be quick with reinforcers and bridging


A lot of the examples did use the same basic strategies, but it was interesting to see how Barbara had to adjust based on the animal’s individual needs, the environment and whether she was addressing a problem behavior or teaching something new.

In some cases, the behavior would happen as soon as the trainer approached so it was a matter of focusing on antecedents. In others, an unwanted behavior had accidentally been reinforced, so it was a matter of teaching alternative behaviors and building a strong reinforcement history for them.  In others, it was about focusing on teaching new behaviors. There was a strong emphasis on teaching the animal to participate and  reinforcing for desirable behavior.

I think we can learn a lot from looking at how zoo animals are trained and while many of her “problem” behaviors are not the same ones we tend to encounter with horses, there are good ideas that we can take from all of them. Targeting and stationing are just as useful for horses as they are for zoo animals.  One that sticks in my head is teaching the leopard to go to the laser dot by doing a little each day. I’ve done this with some horse behaviors and found incorporating a minute or two of training as part of routine handling can make a big difference.

Barbara has two websites: and  She is working on an on on-line animal training course at

ASAT Conference 2018: Emily Larlham on ” Using multiple markers to prevent mixed messages.”


This is the fourth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Emily Larlham gave a 20 minute presentation on using different marker signals to indicate different types of food delivery. She had quite a lot of video so this report is quite short, but if you go to her YouTube channel Kikopup, you can see examples of different markers being used.

Why use multiple markers?

People learn to distinguish between multiple markers – we learn to recognize which markers signal different types of reinforcement. When you hear the microwave ding, you know to go look for your food in the microwave.  When the UPS guy arrives, you know to go to the door. Wouldn’t it be confusing if they were both the same sound?

And wouldn’t it be helpful if the choice of marker gave your dog information about how the reinforcer would be delivered?

She likes to use different markers to help create different emotional responses and outcomes.  The marker can tell the dog whether the food  (or reinforcer) is coming to him, or if he should go get it.

Different markers can create different emotional responses

Think of dogs and doorbells.  Does you dog respond to different sounds in different ways? These are conditioned responses and we can use them to our advantage. The biggest advantage is being able to use markers that promote calm vs. markers that are associated with arousal.

Calm markers are useful for:

  • encouraging relaxation or waiting in position
  • Group situations
  • Husbandry behaviors
  • Long duration behaviors

Arousing markers are useful for:

  • Behaviors that requires strength
  • building enthusiasm, speed

Here’s a video describing using a calm marker:

Choosing markers

People tend to think some marker signals are more suited to different emotional responses, but it’s not about the marker, it’s about how you trained it.  The click seems like it would generate an excited state, but she had a video example of a Doberman who did really well with click as his calm marker.

If you already use several markers, you can pay attention to how your dog responds to your markers and choose the appropriate one for each behavior.

With her dogs, she has markers that mean different things:

  • Stay – wait, reinforcement is coming
  • Continue – continue moving, reinforcement will appear in front of you
  • Go – release to toy or food in the environment
  • Come – release to trainer for toy or food
  • Do – release to do a specific behavior – go say hi, go play, go sniff

Video examples 

She had several videos showing her dogs using different markers.  I didn’t write down descriptions of all of them, but here are two that showed the effectiveness of different markers.

  • She showed taking her dogs to the park where they get to run off leash. In the first example, she used an “arousing release” and as soon as the dogs were released, they zoomed off out of view.  Then she showed using a calm release – “go sniff” and they stayed with her, even after she released them.
  • Teaching the terrier a behavior where she wanted him to stay in position  and wait for the reinforcement to come to him. She used “Good” which means stay -reinforcement is coming.  The terrier stayed in position during food delivery which made it easier to continue the behavior because she doesn’t have to restart after each “click and treat.”

Teach your markers separately, before you use them

You should train your markers and methods for reinforcement delivery before you start using them in training.  You don’t want the dog to get frustrated if he doesn’t understand how he will be reinforced.  She shared the B. F. Skinner quote about the importance of teaching the rat how to get food, before any training is done.

Calm markers are ideal for teaching duration

A calm marker makes it easier for the dog to stay in position and minimizes frustration. She trains duration behaviors with a calm marker and ends the behavior with a release cue.

Most long duration behaviors have a release cue, sometimes the trainer doesn’t know what it is, and then when they add a new one, it creates confusion because the dog is using the one it was using before.

She had a video showing her dog standing on two platforms (front feet on one, back feet on another).  She has marking the behavior  with her “stay” marker and feeding the dog with her head in the up position. In this case, the dog chose to keep her head up while eating, but it’s ok to allow the dog to drop her head to eat, so she can enjoy her reinforcement.

Her point was that staying in position doesn’t mean the dog can’t move at all. It just means the dog should stay in a position so that she can re-start the behavior again immediately after the reinforcer is delivered.

Emily Larlham is based in San Diego, Ca. Her website and her YouTube channel have tons of free material if you want to learn more about using clicker training.


ASAT Conference 2018: Steve White on “Keep Going Signals.”

tracking dogThis is the third in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Steve White gave a presentation titled “Keep Going Signals: what you need to know before you even consider using them.”

Keep Going Signals (KGS) are often used by some trainers to build duration or train more complex sequences of behavior.  Steve talked about seeing Attila and Fly’s freestyle routine at Crufts and then  meeting Attila at ClickerExpo.  In his demonstration, Attila showed how he used a single click as a KGS, and multiple clicks as the end of behavior (EOB) marker.

Steve was intrigued by this, because it was a different use of the click.  He shared a quote from Karen Pryor, “A training method will be successful to the extent it complies with the principles of learning.”  Attila was clearly being successful, so maybe there was something to the idea of having another marker, in addition to the end of behavior marker.  I liked that he talked about how important it was to be curious when you see someone doing something different and how the dog is the “ultimate arbitrator” of what works.

Steve had already been using Keep Going Signals, but seeing Attila’s training made him look more closely at how he had been using them, and what you should consider before teaching one.  In this presentation, he talked about how they use them with police dogs.

What is a Keep Going Signal?

  • A “cue” that means “I like that, give me more”
  • May also be called an intermediate bridge (IB)
  • Useful in some training situations
  • The original KGS was continuous (used by Bob Bailey)
  • In his work they usually use an intermittent one

Why use a Keep Going Signal?

Operational uses:

  • Law enforcement tracking
  • Detector dogs
  • SAR (search and rescue)
  • Service dogs
  • Remote guidance

Training benefits of a KGS:

  • Useful for duration or repetition
  • Connect movement with position
  • Parallel shaping of multiple behaviors.  Police dogs need to do behaviors like indicate a gun while they are also doing another behavior like scanning the environment.
  • Maintain situational awareness
  • Can build/maintain behavioral momentum

Example of a KGS in police scent work:  The dog is following a scent, loses it and then picks it up again. They want to be able to tell the dog to follow it again. They train this by intentionally setting up a track and putting a break in it – maybe by stopping the dog at a road, putting him in a car and driving him to where he can pick up the track again. When he finds the new track, they use the KGS to tell him to follow it.

It’s an operational “cheat:”

  • They have to cover a lot of material in entry level k9 (the repertoire  includes tracking, obedience, search, evidence search, handler protection, suspect control, obstacles)
  • Compressed timeline – they have to work fast
  • They don’t always have time to finish training before the dogs go to work

Pitfalls of a KGS

  • It can be a form of prompting, and if used when the dog is struggling, it can lead to handler dependence. (It’s better to use it when the dog is doing well)
  • It can be a distraction
  • Preferred route to R+ – Most police dogs will prefer a toy over food – (not sure what he meant here. He made a comment about not making the KGS too valuable)
  • Must be used with precision. If mis-directed and you do end up marking the wrong thing, the only solution is to dilute it
  • You can’t be sure if the dog is responding to the KGS as intended.  With any cue, the dog may be paying more attention to some aspect of it (and not necessarily the one you intended), and this can also be true with a KGS.

You must have solid EOB (end of behavior) marker skills before you teach it – You should NOT teach it unless the trainer is clearly proficient. This means:

  • Clean mechanics
  • Precise timing
  • Being able to handle sublime criteria shifts
  • You need to know how to maintain the momentum of the behavior
  • You need to be able to divide your attention (multi-tasking slows you down)

“You can’t break the rules until you know how to play the game.”  Rickie Lee Jones

More pitfalls:

  • Shortchanging fluency – single biggest problem he sees is trainers trying to build chains when each behavior is not strong enough.
  • Shortchanging generalization – they also don’t have enough generalization before they start – the behavior should be able to be done anytime anywhere
  • Inconsistent criteria shifts – they are not paying attention to what else is happening, this is because they are distracted, multi-tasking

Building an effective KGS

Choose what stimulus you want to use:

  • They use verbal ones in police work because the dog is usually facing away.
  • If you already use a click as an EOB marker, a verbal “good” can work (he had a video of this)
  • Also could do “nice” as KGS, “good” as EOB marker
  • Any variation is fine as long as you are clear and consistent

Introduce it:

  • Train with all 4 classes of activity: stable duration, dynamic, homogeneous chains and  heterogeneous chains
  • At a minimum, train with stable duration and one form of dynamic behavior.
  • Introduce it as a “subliminal” pre-cue, inserting it before the next cue (cue2).
  • Gradually increase salience so the dog is more aware of it
  • Gradually fade cue2, if appropriate
  • Simple…but not always easy

Example:  They cue the dog to do a behavior (Beh1), and then give the KGS (“good”) while the dog is doing the behavior.  This is followed by another cue (cue2).

Beh1 -> “good” -> Cue2.

They want to introduce it very quietly so it doesn’t distract the dog from the task. If you were building duration, you would re-cue the dog to do the same behavior. If you were building a chain, you would use the KGS and then follow it with the next cue.

Remember about the J-curve of learning – don’t get frustrated when you’re in the low part of the curve.

Rounding out your KGS

  • introduce it in the remaining classes of activity
  • introduce it in environmentally cued chains

You should see an increase in the behavior after the KGS – this is how you know it’s working. He had a story about sending a dog out on an obstacle course without him.  He said “good” when the dog was at the top of jumps and doing well.  The dog learned to associate the word “good” with good moments.

Before you consider a KGS:

  • Benefits
  • Costs
  • Risks
  • Training
  • Operations
  • You don’t NEED it – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful in some way

Wrapping up:

  • KGS can have operational and training benefits
  • KGS poses very real risks
  • Develop a KGS installation plan – how are you going to teach it
  • Generalize your KGS
  • Use your KGS mindfully (keep emotion out of it)


ASAT Conference 2018: Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz on “How Movement Cycles Can Improve Your Shaping.”

dog cycle 2This the second in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz gave a short (20 min) talk on movement cycles . This was part of a series of talks on how to build precise behaviors by understanding and analyzing movement.

Jesús started by sharing B. F. Skinner’s definition of behavior (1938)

What is behavior?

“The movement of an organism or its parts in a frame of reference provided by the organism itself or by various external objects or fields of focus.”

The definition includes two components:

  • What part of the organism was involved(movement)
  • How it relates to the environment (space and time)

Examples:  Pressing (movement) a lever (environment) or looking towards (movement) the light (environment)

It is convenient to speak of this as the action of the organism on the outside world, but it is sometimes easier to deal with an effect than with the movement itself.  In the case of the production of sounds, we can’t see the vocal cords moving so we have to rely on some other movement, such as the movement of the lips or mouth.  Therefore, when defining behavior, we need to be aware of both the observable behavior and the physical action that creates it.

Movement Cycles

Ogden Lindsley, who studied under B.F. Skinner, introduced the idea of “movement cycles” in 1969.  He said that it was not enough to look at an isolated behavior. Instead we should study the entire cycle which contains the behavior. 

  • Each response has a beginning and an end.
  • The behavior is not done until the organism is in a position to do a new one.
  • Sitting – we usually define sitting as contact with the chair, but the cycle starts when you are standing up, includes all the steps that immediately precede sitting down, sitting, and then all the steps that follow – until you are in a position from which you could sit down again.

How do movement cycles relate to shaping?

Jesús had a slide with a graphic of a movement cycle.  The picture at the beginning of this post shows something similar, with the movement cycle for a dog sitting.  The cycle starts at 9:00, the middle is at 3:00, and the end is back at 9:00 again.   Between 9:00 and 3:00, there would be all the steps a dog goes through as preparation for sitting. Between 3:00 and 9:00, there would be all the steps a dog goes through as he stands up.  In many cases, the behavior in the middle of the cycle is the one that the trainer would click.

He had another graphic of a chain as a series of movement cycles that were linked together.

How can we use the idea of movement cycles in shaping?

We can focus on the process of getting the behavior, instead of the outcome.

  • Begin shaping at the beginning of the movement cycle.
  • Follow the movement cycle as you shape.
  • You can feed to produce the beginning of the movement cycles, then click the action in the middle of the cycle.

Video examples:

Kay Laurence shaping Quiz to put her foot on the dice, showing the difference between clicking for touching the dice with her foot (the middle of movement cycle) and clicking for lifting the leg (the beginning of movement cycle).  Quiz learned the behavior more quickly and with fewer errors when Kay clicked for lifting the leg and added in touching the dice later.

Alexandra Kurland’s students using microshaping to teach a horse to step back, showing how you can shape a step back by clicking for a tiny weight shift (starting at the beginning of the cycle) and then change the timing so the click marks a behavior that is farther into the movement cycle to get a full step back.

Mary Hunter shaping Ginger to go out, touch a stool and return.  The video showed what happened when they moved the click later and later in the movement cycle.  When you reinforce, you reinforce the whole movement cycle, not just the part where you click.

  • Teach going out and touching a stool. Click for stool touch (1/2 way through the cycle)
  • Then move the click to ¾ of the way through the cycle. Now she is clicking as the dog comes back after touching the stool.
  • This is moving the click in the direction the behavior is going.
  • When you move the click later in the cycle, you can do hundreds of repetitions before you see any deterioration in the behavior.  I don’t think they actually did this – he was saying it as a general observation –  but someone in the audience pointed out that the behavior was already changing as soon as he moved the click.  Perhaps more data is needed…

Mary Hunter with Drill Bit (dog – unusual name!) and clicking for attention.  Mary is sitting and Drill Bit is lying down watching her.

  • She is clicking for attention.
  • When she starts to shape for more duration, several unwanted “extra” behaviors start to creep in (tail and leg movement).
  • Go back to the beginning and shape in small increments to clean up the behavior.


When we teach and analyze behaviors, the tendency is to focus on a specific moment in time, the moment when the desired behavior happens.  But, it can sometimes be more effective to look at the entire movement cycle, which includes what happens both before and after the behavior occurs.

  • Focus on Movement, not Outcome
  • Use movement cycles to define or plan the shaping steps
  • Use movement cycles to clean up behaviors

A personal note: 

A few years ago when I was teaching hoof handling to my young horse, I became more aware of the importance of looking at the entire movement cycle in order to avoid reinforcing unwanted behaviors between the click and treat.  She arrived with the habit of striking when her front feet were handled. I could shape a nice leg lift, but as soon as I clicked, she would strike out and then put her foot down. Not what I wanted.

So, I changed my shaping plan and I taught her to pick up her foot a tiny bit, and then allow me to place it back down.  To do this, I started by clicking for a foot lift as normal, but then, instead of building duration for holding it up, I mixed in some clicks for allowing me to put the foot back down.  When she could pick up and put her foot down nicely, I slowly added more to the middle of the behavior until I could pick the foot up and hold it up for longer and longer periods of time.  By paying attention to the entire cycle from the very beginning, I was able to avoid reinforcing unwanted behavior between the click and treat.

ASAT Conference 2018: Ken Ramirez on “No Reward Markers (NRMs): Science and Practice”

NMR bucket1This the first in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.   To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking.  If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.

Ken Ramirez:  No Reward Markers (NRMs): Science and Practice

Whether or not No Reward Markers can be used as part of a positive reinforcement training strategy is always a controversial topic.  As part of the Sunday morning presentations on reinforcers and conditioned reinforcers, Ken shared his thoughts on the subject. This was a 20 minute talk.

Ken started by clarifying what he meant by a No Reward Marker.   The term is used by many trainers, but there are significant variations in both definition and practice, so it’s a good idea to start by defining it.

What is an NRM?

  • Most common use is that it marks the moment the animal does the wrong or incorrect answer
  • Opposite of the click
  • Conditioned punisher

If you use NRMs, you might agree with the first two points, but you will probably question the third point.  Most trainers who use NRMs would not describe them as conditioned punishers.  Instead, they prefer to describe them as providing information to the animal so that he doesn’t waste time pursing behaviors that will not earn reinforcement.  But Ken said that in all his years of training,  he has only seen 13 people (out of thousands), who can use an NRM without any visible side effects.

It may be easier to see this if you look at how conditioned punishers are taught and the possible side effects.

What are conditioned punishers?

A punisher is a stimulus that, when applied immediately after a behavior, decreases the likelihood (frequency) of that behavior happening in the future. A conditioned punisher is a stimulus that has been conditioned, through association with another punisher, so that it can be used to decrease behavior.

He shared a video example of a verbal conditioned punisher that was learned through pairing with a finger poke (I’m sure you can guess who).  The dogs clearly responded to the sound with defensive body posture and by recoiling.   The video showed that the conditioned punisher was effective, but also that it had side effects.  There’s no argument that conditioned punishers can be effective, but they are not without risks.

The rest of the talk was looking at various applications of NRMs and evaluating both their effectiveness and side effects.  The conundrum is this… If the NRM is effective at reducing the behavior, then it is, by definition, punishment.  If the NRM is not effective – it does not function as a punisher to decrease the behavior in the future – then why use it?

To unravel this, you have to look at the different applications of NRMs to see whether the NRM is functioning as a punisher, has no effect, or is perhaps functioning as something else like a new cue or a means of redirection.

NRMs: Varied uses and applications

To indicate “no” or “wrong”

  • Marks incorrect response
  • Trainers say they just want it to be information
  • Trainers think it’s ok if it is delivered in a passive manner. How about a passive “oops?”
  • The problem is that if it is effective, then by definition it is a punisher

As a warning signal

  • Last chance before something bad is coming
  • Warning prior to a more aversive stimulus (or a more severe one)
  • Varied effectiveness
  • Can become a new cue for the behavior
  • Do generate an emotional response

Ken had two examples to show some of the things that can happen when an NRM is used as a warning signal.

Example 1:  When he was a kid, his Mom would ask him to take out the garbage.  She might ask him a few times (“Kenny, take out the garbage”) and then if he didn’t do it, she would call him by his full name.  When he heard his full name, he got up and did it.  The use of his full name was effective in that it did cause him to get up and take the garbage out, but it didn’t change his future behavior – he was still likely to ignore her when she said “Kenny, take out the garbage.”  If his full name as an NRM was effective, then he should have learned to take the garbage out when she asked him the first time, but he didn’t. And, over time, the use of his full name just became the new cue (or part of the new cue) to take the garbage out.

Example 2:  The warning “ding, ding, ding” in his car when he leaves the lights on.  The sound is aversive and he feels a moment of frustration when he hears it.  It is effective because when he hears it, he does turn the lights off. But, has it made him less likely to leave the lights on? Maybe a little over time, but it could only be considered a weak punisher because it doesn’t change his behavior very quickly.  He did joke that if it was followed by a strong aversive, it might be more effective, but then he would probably sell the car.   In addition to being a warning, the sound also becomes a cue for a specific behavior – turn off the lights.

To indicate “correct the behavior or you will not be reinforced” 

He had a video showing a blood draw in a hyena where the hyena moved away before the trainer was done holding off the spot. The trainer said “ah ah” and cued the hyena to move back.  He came back into position, she finished, clicked and reinforced him.

Was the NRM effective?

  • Ken can’t see any change in the hyena (good or bad)
  • She uses her cue to bring him back
  • It’s possible the “ah ah” will just become a cue to come back into position
  • the “ah ah” is possibly just superstitious behavior on the trainer’s part

One of the points he made, using this example,  was that since the trainer only uses positive reinforcement, it’s likely that the “ah ah” has no meaning to the hyena, which is why Ken doesn’t see any response. The hyena doesn’t return to position when she says “ah ah,” (he responds to her cue), but it might learn to over time, if she continued to follow it with her cue.

Used as an interrupter

  • Stops behavior in the moment, but doesn’t always change future behavior
  • Still aversive
  • Weak or ineffective punisher (more like redirection)

Used as a “stop” cue?

This is a more common (growing) use among R+ trainers. The idea is to use the NRM and then immediately redirect and reinforce the alternative behavior.  Again, you have to look at the effect on behavior and the animal’s emotional response. What does the animal look like?

Example:  He had a clip of Susan Garrett teaching a dog to do weave poles.   The video shows several NRMs being used.  In each case, the dog is not reinforced and is re-started. He shared this as an example of an NRM that doesn’t seem to have any aversive side-effects.

  • She has a variety of NRMs (I think he said 4)
  • The dog maintains a high level of enthusiasm even after the NRM
  • In the last part of the clip, she placed a toy a short distance from the end of the weave poles. If the dog went through correctly, he retrieved the toy and she would play tug.  If he made an error, she used her NRM and he returned (without retrieving the toy) and was re-started.
  • Note: Steve White pointed out that it’s not the toy that is the reinforcer, but playing with the toy – if the dog learns that he won’t get to play with the toy – then there’s no point in going and getting it.

Final thoughts

  • Traditional use is that an NRM functions as a punisher
  • Can assist in shaping behavior, but can also create frustration
  • Other similar uses may not actually be an NRM (it’s more likely they are a cue or redirection)
  • Often conditioned inadvertently
  • Only skilled and disciplined trainers can use them well, not a bad tool, or at least should be used with thought and care.

Cones, mats, poles, and targets: Putting them to use in ground and ridden work to teach new behaviors and facilitate learning

IMG_3357Some of the most practical behaviors that I teach with clicker training are ones that involve the use of objects. These objects can function as prompts for specific behaviors, visual cues, or provide guidance for how to do other behaviors.  Because they are taught with positive reinforcement, they usually take on additional value (positive valence)through classical conditioning.  Clicker trained horses eagerly approach targets, mats and other physical items used as part of their training and will seek out opportunities to interact with them.

Often this happens automatically without any deliberate effort on the trainer’s part, but we can also choose to build or take advantage of these associations so that the positive emotions associated with clicker training are carried over into new behaviors or new activities.  This is very helpful when training any behavior, but I find it is especially helpful when training new behaviors that might have an aversive component (medical or husbandry behaviors) or for behaviors that might require physical effort (riding or groundwork).  It changes how the horse feels about the activity and makes it easier for him to learn.

I ride in an arena most of the time and I know that it’s important to plan my sessions carefully so that my horse stays mentally engaged and enjoys the work.  Therefore, I’m always looking for ways to combine familiar material (behaviors and skills) with new ideas (can you do it in a slightly different way?) to keep the work interesting. It’s always a challenge to find the right combination so that the horse can be successful but also continue to advance in his training.

One thing I have found helpful is to set up patterns using objects like poles, cones and mats.   They can be used as markers or visual guides to indicate changes of bend, direction, or transitions.  They can also be used to cue specific behaviors like standing (mats), touching, following, or head lowering (targets).  I usually use portable objects so I can set up many different configurations and move them around as needed to make the exercises suitable for the needs of each horse, and to build the right combination of consistency and flexibility.

Using objects to guide a horse and rider through a training exercise is not new and certainly not unique to clicker training. But, when we combine this training strategy with positive reinforcement, and use objects that are associated with known behaviors and positive emotions, the benefits are even greater.

Here’s a short list of some of the reasons I like to use objects:

  • They can be associated with specific behaviors and desirable emotions.
  • With some horses, especially ones that have emotional baggage about traditional ridden work, using objects that are associated with positive reinforcement changes the context and allows me to re-introduce groundwork or ridden work in a new way.
  • They encourage active participation on the part of the horse, give the horse more control, and can provide a “sense of purpose.” It may seem anthropomorphic to talk about a “sense of purpose,” but I know Rosie does better when she knows what she is supposed to do, as opposed to if I ride random patterns (as it may seem to her) until I click.
  • When used as markers, objects provide visual guidance for the horse and rider and also make it easier to evaluate how successfully the exercise has been done.  How close did he come to the cone? Was he straight between the poles?
  • For some behaviors, the horse’s eagerness to participate can be useful information. Did he walk directly to the target? How did he touch it?
  • If used in patterns, they can also help both horse and trainer learn new movement patterns and develop a feel for correct movement.  Once you can ride a straight line between two poles or a line of cones, you know what “straight” feel like.
  • Objects can also be used as an intermediate step between liberty work and more traditional handling.  You can go both ways –  start at liberty with objects and add cues for more traditional handling, or start with more traditional handling using objects and work toward liberty work.

What kind of objects can you use?

Here are some of the objects that I use, and a few ideas for how to use them.  This is not a complete list, but just some examples to get you started.


I use a variety of targets including both hand-held and stationary targets.

They can be useful for:

  • Leading (following a hand-held target)
  • Standing (standing at a stationary target)
  • Isolating and moving body parts (head, legs, shoulders and hips)
  • Going to a location (go to a stationary target)


They can be used as stationary targets or for marking patterns (visual guides.)   I find it can be confusing for some horses if cones are used as both markers and targets in the same pattern, so I don’t recommend doing that unless you have already taught different behaviors for different types of cones.  A simple way to use a cone as a target, without confusing the horse, is to place a target stick upright in the cone.

I tend to use them for:

  • visual guides – marking geography to practice patterns (turns, circles, serpentines, etc.)
  • Destinations – if used with a stationary target, a cone/target combination can encourage a lower head upon approach.
  • Turns – to encourage bend and help a horse learn to turn without falling on to his inside shoulder or counter-bending.
  • They work well in the middle of patterns as they provide guidance but don’t necessarily become associated with stopping
  • I sometimes use two cones placed close together to make a “cone gate” and direct a horse on to a line of travel. Having two cones is a different visual than a single cone and can help a horse learn to follow the desired path a little more closely.


Mats come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I tend to use solid mats (stiff rubber or wood) for movement exercises as I don’t want to have to keep adjusting a mat if it gets crinkled as can happen with some of the thinner mats.   Most of the time, I am just looking for two front feet on the mat, but I have sometimes used mats for hind foot targeting, or asked for all four feet on a mat, or on two mats placed close together.

They are useful for:

  • Stationary behaviors
  • Destinations (go to the mat)
  • They can be used to isolate body parts (moving front or hind feet while the other feet stay on the mat)
  • the terminal behavior in a chain
  • teaching a horse to go forward – going from mat to mat can encourage forward behavior
  • teaching a horse to slow down – going from mat to mat can provide places to stop for a horse that wants to go
  • Mats can also be placed in patterns and used to teach turns (toward and away from the trainer) and even backing.


I also use ground poles, either placed on the ground or on short risers (blocks that elevate them a few inches).  Cavaletti also work well.

I have used them as:

  • visual guides – a pole placed parallel to the line of travel (or two poles placed to create a chute) can tell a horse where to go.
  • visual guides – a pole placed perpendicular to the line of travel can also be used to direct a horse. I sometimes place one or more poles to mark the size of the circle I want, when working at liberty or on the lunge line.
  • cues/visual guides – horses can learn to go from pole to pole (going over them) when laid out in a pattern in the ring. The poles function as cues for the behavior of “step over the pole,” but they are associated with movement, so they also function as visual guides for where to go.  You can teach a horse to do several in a row before he is clicked and reinforced.
  • shaping movement – different spacing or configurations of poles can be used to shape movement.

Other objects:

In addition to targets, mats, cones, and poles, I’ve used other objects to make movement training more interesting, or tap into existing behaviors that have been trained under other conditions.  I think as long as something is safe, portable (or can be easily incorporated), has value to the horse, and will contribute to your training goals, then it could be a useful addition.

Here are some other ideas:

  • hula hoops
  • balls
  • pedestals or platforms
  • buckets
  • mounting blocks – most people focus on using a mounting block to get on, but if you’ve trained it with positive reinforcement, it has high value and can become a place to stop or do some targeting or …
  • toys for fetch (giving your horse a fun activity at the end of a chain can build enthusiasm)
  • what does your horse like?…

When using objects, there are some important things to consider:

  • Have you clearly defined the behavior associated with the object?  When teaching a behavior, it’s important to have clear criteria and be consistent about only reinforcing those efforts that meet them. But, when I start using the object as part of a larger pattern, I might have to adjust or relax the criteria, at least initially.  If so, I need to plan for that and also consider how I am going shift back to the original criteria, or if that’s even necessary.  For example, with mat work, how much precision do I  want? 2 feet on? Fronts square? All square? Orientation to the mat? With targeting, do I want a touch? A touch and hold? An approach?
  • How much or what kind of stimulus control do I want? Is the object the cue, or do I want to use another cue to tell the horse when to go? I find that verbal cues often function more as “release” cues and the verbal combined with the object tells the horse what to do. Objects as visual cues are very strong and this may become problematic if I don’t consider this in my plan.
  • If I am building patterns, I want to consider the best way to assemble the pattern. I can teach it adding each individual behavior one at a time, or by teaching sections and then combining them. I also have to decide if I want to assemble it by forward chaining or backchaining.
  • There’s often a fine line between the object being helpful as part of the pattern and the object becoming the most relevant piece of information.  If I am using the object to set up a pattern where the horse can practice a specific movement pattern, it may be acceptable if the arrangement of objects becomes the cue.  My horses know the cone set-up for a serpentine and that’s ok with me. On the other hand, I have other cone set-ups that are associated with multiple patterns and I want them to use the cones for guidance, but also pay attention to my cues so they know which one we are doing. This builds in flexibility.  My experience has been that if I don’t plan for flexibility, I don’t get it…
  • Do I want the objects to remain as part of the behavior, or do I want to fade them out?  Always consider the long term goal.   If I want to fade them out, then I need to include that as part of my training plan.  There are lots of ways to do this, but I usually do it gradually.  Sometimes I can tell when the horse no longer needs the object(s) because they will start to anticipate or offer the behavior in the absence of the object. Other times I have to play with the set-up to see if they are ready to have them removed.

Common Patterns Using A Combination of Objects:

  • cone circle with mats – Alexandra Kurland teaches balanced work on a circle and turns using cones, with mats placed at various locations to provide breaks, reinforcement or direction
  • mat circle – mats placed in a circle to teach a horse to go from mat to mat on a curve line
  • exploding cone circle – another from Alexandra Kurland, although the name is mine (I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t use the term “exploding”) – start with a tight circle of cones and then slowly expand it. Useful to teach a horse to stay on the outside of the cones a liberty.
  • connected cone circles – two circles with a path in between. Alexandra Kurland uses these for mat work, changes of bend, etc.
  • cone lozenge – stretch your cone circle out to include straight lines so your horse learns to go from a curved line to a straight line. Also lots of possibilities for patterns across the lozenge.
  • serpentines using cones, poles, or cone gates to help the horse learn to bend and straighten
  • shallow serpentines to teach bending lines at walk, trot, canter and introduce counter-canter
  • chutes of poles to teach straightness – I’ve used these when teaching Aurora to trot on a lead so she learned to stay in her lane, without crossing into mine. I placed a mat or cone gates at various distances so she knew where to stop trotting

Aurora’s pole circle- a more detailed description of how to choose, adjust and expand upon a basic object defined exercise:

This fall I wanted to introduce Aurora to the idea of trotting on a circle so I put some thought into various options, taking into account what I had available (cones, mats, and poles) and what she knew about them.

I had previously done a little work on a cone circle, a useful set-up that I had learned from Alexandra Kurland, who uses cone circles a lot.  But I only had enough cones to mark a small circle, so we had just done it at a walk.  I had also used cones and poles as visual guides to teach her to trot in a straight line so I could jog her for the vet, if needed.  To do this, I set up “cone gates” to mark the start and end of the trot, and placed poles in between to mark the line of travel. She would start at one cone gate, trot through the chute of poles and stop trotting at the second cone gate.

This basic pattern with ground poles and cones was easy to convert into a new configuration that would set her up to trot on a circle.  I knew I would initially need to define the line of travel on both sides because she has a tendency to either want to be very close to me, or to zoom off.  Finding a middle distance is difficult for her.  So,  I simply laid out the ground poles in a large circle and placed cones on the inside so she had a “track” with poles on one side and cones on the other.

I did debate about whether to have the poles mark the inside or outside of the circle.  Both would work, and ultimately I did have her do both, but I started with the poles on the outside because I thought this had the additional benefit of teaching her the idea of working along the track in a defined space like an arena.

Therefore, my plan was to start with the poles on the outside and use cones to mark the inside of the track.  With this set-up, I would be able to mark and reinforce her for staying between the  poles and cones. Then, as she got better at staying between them, I could slowly decrease the number of cones and reinforce her for staying near the poles, until eventually she learned to just follow the poles and didn’t need the cones anymore.   When I use objects, I always try to plan ahead if I want to fade some of them out.  It seemed like it would be easy to decrease the number of cones and maintain the behavior, if she built up enough reinforcement history for going around next to the poles.

I want to mention here that my goal was not to have her trot around and around.  She’s still young and I knew she didn’t know how to balance on a curved line in trot.  I didn’t want to stress her either physically or mentally.  This exercise was more about introducing the idea of a circle and teaching some basic skills like how to go out, stay at a distance, and maintain the trot with a little duration.  My goal was to get her to trot twice around.  At the same time, I wanted a chance to observe how she carried herself (balance and posture) so I could start to put together some groundwork exercises that would be beneficial to her.

The initial set-up was this:


I simply laid out my available rails (12) and set them on small horse blocks which raise the poles about 2 inches off the ground. This created a round ring about 45 feet in diameter, which left room for wide track around the outside.  I did leave a “gate” which is where the larger white blocks are in the picture. I could have made the circle slightly smaller and just used a pole as a gate if I didn’t want a clearly defined entrance and exit.

I introduced the circle by walking her in and around the “track” next to the poles.  The first time I walked with her into the circle, she was quite funny because she walked around the entire thing with her nose on the poles. I think she was sniffing them, but maybe she was just tracking them with her nose.  After that first inspection, she walked with her head in a more normal position.

Over the next week, I did several short sessions of just walking with me, next to the poles. I just let her walk around with me in the circle did this for a few days. I didn’t want the circle to become a cue to trot, so I wanted her to learn to walk quietly in there before we went to a faster gait.

Once she was comfortable walking in there, then I asked her to trot and jogged around the track with her.   I gave her enough space that she didn’t have to go too close to the poles, if she didn’t want to.   She didn’t seem worried about them and was happy to trot next to me.

Then I added the cones. It looked like this:


We went back to walk and I spent a few sessions reinforcing her for staying on her side of the cones, while I was on my side of the cones.  Over the course of these sessions, I added more distance and reinforced her for staying in her “track” even when I was not right next to her.  On several occasions, she clearly adjusted her line of travel if she started to cut to the inside the cones, so I knew she was getting the idea.

Once she got the idea, I started doing the same exercise at the trot.  This was interesting as she got a little confused and went out over the poles a few times.  No big deal. I just had her stop, walked her back in and tried again.  We haven’t worked on trotting over poles, so I don’t think she was doing it deliberately. She would just get moving and keep going in a straight line.

Once she was figured out that I wanted her to stay inside the poles, then she would have moments when she followed them and stayed between the poles and cones, but she would sometimes veer in and come to the inside of the cones.  This was where the cones were useful as a visual marker because if she cut in, I could just cue her to move out and click her for going back to “her” side of the cones.  I had taught her to move out away from me with a target during her regular leading to the field and back, and this cue came in handy when she started to cut in.  After a few sessions in the trot, she started to correct herself if she cut in, and would change direction to get on “her” side of the cones.  I was a little careful about what I reinforced as I didn’t want her to think the goal was to weave around the cones.

We’ve been working on this on and off for about a month. I often do two or three days in a row and then leave it for a bit.   So far she’s learned to:

  • trot when asked, but not before
  • go out on the circle
  • stay next to the poles (there are a few spots where she often drifts slightly in, but not a significant amount)
  • stop trotting when I click

We still need to work on:

  • staying out and waiting for me to bring her reinforcement to her (she wants to come to me)
  • relaxation in the trot (she’s a little high headed)
  • a little more duration
  • clarifying that the click is not for being in a certain location. She seems to think she gets clicked for being at a certain spot on the circle – probably because I clicked in the same spot a few too many times in an early session.  So she has some confusion as to whether the click is for duration or location (this is not uncommon as horses often fall into patterns where they do the same thing at the same spot so the location and the clickable behavior get sort of intertwined. )

Other uses for the circle:

While Aurora has been working on her training goals, I have left the circle set up in my arena. One disadvantage to using poles is that it does take more time to set up and take down.  Since I don’t feel like doing that every day and I have other horses that do either groundwork or riding sessions in the arena, I started thinking about ways I could incorporate the circle into their training.  This has turned out to be a lot of fun as the circle has a lot of possibilities, especially if I remove a few poles so there are openings.

Here’s one possible configuration for the circle with some poles removed:


I can ride around and through the circle at all three gaits and have used it to practice familiar patterns as well as create some new ones. Sometimes I leave the cones in and use them to add clarity or to encourage better turns, etc. Other times I take them out so there are more options.  For groundwork I sometimes add a mat or two, or I might do the patterns with a target stick. To avoid confusing my horses, I don’t ask them to do any patterns that require going over a pole.   It keeps things simpler if I only use them to mean “go around” and not “go over.”

I’ve used this set-up for both groundwork and ridden work. What I’ve found is that the different options create a lot of “clickable” moments and I can click a nice turn, response to a cue, balance shift, or change in the horse’s gaits.  The combination of straight and curved lines and different types of turns make it easy to explore what the horse knows and find some new variations that challenge him a bit, or let him practice what he needs to learn.

Horses who struggle with changes of bend seem to find it easier to go from one clearly defined opening to another clearly defined opening and I can change which poles are present/removed to create different options.  In the past I’ve done similar things with cones, but I found that I really liked the clarity of poles vs. openings.

Here are some of the things I’ve played around with so far:

  • go around the outside (larger circle – useful if a horse tends to fall in)
  • go around the inside (smaller circle – useful if a horse tends to drift out)
  • practice changes of direction by going around the outside and then taking a path through the inside.  sometimes I just remove two poles so there’s only one path. Other times I remove several so I can practice different lines of travel (bending lines, leg yielding lines, etc.)
  • practice turns and circles by going around one or more poles
  • practice figure 8’s by going around one pole and then another pole. I can do these using poles opposite each other, or along the edges
  • practice leg yield in combination with bending lines by weaving along the outside (I often remove every other pole for this)
  • practice loopy turns (serpentine type turns) by removing a pole and then leaving two so I have bigger turns
  • I can use a turn out of the center of the circle to get more engagement if I ride it with the idea of a square turn).  Once I’m on the line of the circle, I can either ask the horse to collect more or extend.
  • I have also used it with Red in his long-line sessions and found that having specific openings in the circle improved my ability to steer him.
  • I don’t have to stay “tight” to the circle to use it. Sometimes I use the full arena but just pop in and out of the circle at various points, doing a turn and then going out on to a bigger pattern.

Other possible configurations:

One day I removed some of the poles and placed cones across the openings. The cones still provided a visual barrier but were easier to move around than the poles. If you only had a few poles and wanted to do a combination of poles and cones, this option might work well.  Eventually I will probably shift Aurora to more cones than poles, so that I can set the circle up more easily and/or make it bigger.  I do think that, for her, the poles were much clearer and it was worth doing in the beginning, but I don’t think she’ll need them forever.

Here’s the circle with a combination of poles and cones:


I also set this up one day, adding a pole to go over and just one cone to mark the track on the opposite side.


The pattern of one cone to go around and one pole to go over is how I have defined Red’s liberty circle for quite a while, so I was comfortable adding “go over the pole” and didn’t expect it to confuse him.  I set it up inside the pole circle to see if he was really doing a round circle or if it was getting more egg shaped. Turns out, he is pretty accurate.

I’m sure I will come up with some new ideas for patterns to do through the circle. I haven’t done much at the canter. And then it will be time to come up with a new set-up.