How to Improve Your Clicker Training Skills (even if you can’t get out and train)
This article was originally published in 2010. It’s due for an update, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
One of the sessions they have every year at Clicker Expo is a panel discussion where many of the presenters sit together and answer questions sent in by the audience. The panel includes trainers who come from diverse backgrounds, work with different species and train in various environments (including pet training, zoos, and with performance animals). This discussion is an opportunity to compare the way that each trainer approaches training questions and it is enlightening to see that while there is general agreement on some questions, there are differences in technique, strategy or philosophy on others. It is useful to see how easy it is to customize the training to any given situation while still following the rules of good clicker training.
A few years ago, one of the questions that was asked was “what makes a great clicker trainer?” I thought the answers to this question provided a good starting place for identifying some of the ways that we can all improve our clicker training skills. The answers from the panel included the following:
understanding the science behind it
empathy for the learner
trusting the process, believing it would work, patience
ability to think quickly on his/her feet
identifying the learner’s needs
good observational skills
being a “behavior junkie” – great clicker trainers love to watch animals and study behavior
The nice thing about this list is that these are all qualities that we can cultivate in ourselves, even if we start off deficient in some of them. In many cases, these qualities that can be improved through spending time clicker training and the more experienced you get, the more you will find that you are better at many of them. But many of us are not professional clicker trainers and are only working with a few animals so there is a limit to how much hands on experience we can get. Therefore, I think it is helpful to have some other ways to supplement our actual clicker training time.
I think you can group these qualities into two broad categories, mental and physical. The mental category would include embracing the clicker mindset and philosophy, learning about the science, and learning to be a creative thinker. The physical category would include improving your mechanical skills such as food delivery, timing, control of body language and/or any physical skills necessary to your end goal, and learning to be a good observer. For some people the mental part is easy, but the physical skills are harder, and for some people, it is the reverse. I find that I tend to alternate between the physical and mental skills so that I don’t overwhelm myself with new information. I will do some reading on the science and the let that sit while I spend the next chunk of time on my rope handling skills and then I go back to some other mental aspect such as learning to develop better shaping plans. There are so many pieces to explore that it should never become boring and you can always try something else if you get bogged down in one area.
Since the panel discussion didn’t go into more detail about how to acquire these skills, I am going to share things that I have found helpful in my own education and development as a clicker trainer. This list is not a ‘to-do” list for everyone because everyone is going to have different needs, but my hope is that by reading it, you will find an area where you would like to improve and get some ideas for how to go about doing it.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions for ways to improve your skill as a clicker trainer:
LEARN ABOUT THE SCIENCE:
To learn more about the science behind clicker training: READ, READ, READ. There is tons of information out there on operant conditioning and the work of B.F. Skinner. Even if it all seems a bit overwhelming at first, keep reading. As you read more books, things will sink in. I found that in the beginning, it was easier for me to learn by reading books that were stories about animal trainers with some theory mixed in. There are lots of books out there about people and their relationships or work with animals. For example, Karen Pryor’s book “On Behavior” is a collection of essays about some of her work training animals. Her new book “Reaching the Animal Mind” is also informative and easy to read. I started with books like those and later I could read more technical animal behavior texts and I didn’t get lost.
There is a lot of information on the internet. If you do better reading in small doses, visit some websites about animal training with operant conditioning. I have learned a lot from free internet articles. I do want to point out that there is misinformation on the internet too, so you do have to be a bit careful about what you read. If you read something and it doesn’t fit with information from other sources, it is probably incorrect.
There are also DVD’s available on the science behind clicker training. Kathy Sdao has a series of DVD’s on the science behind clicker training. She is an energetic and entertaining speaker and makes dry material more interesting. A lot of other training DVD’s contain some basic information on operant conditioning and other aspects of clicker training. Virginia Broitman has a series of DVD’s that are geared toward dog training but are useful for training any species. It is not really my intent here to recommend specific videos as I am sure there are lots of good ones that I have not seen. I really just want to make sure people know they are out there.
Attend lectures on operant conditioning or animal behavior. It doesn’t matter if it is specific to the animals you work with or not. The more I learned about animal behavior, how animals learn, and other people’s training programs, the easier it was to come up with my own training plans.
DEVELOP EMPATHY FOR THE LEARNER:
One of the best ways to do this is to play the training game. The training game is the name for the game where a person trains another person using only a click and reward. There is no talking or hinting. The trainee’s only source of information is the click or absence of click. You can play this with one friend or get together with a group of like minded trainers and clicker train each other. This game is often played with novice clicker trainers to introduce them to the idea of clicker training, but I think it is useful for trainers of all levels as the players (and audience) get different things out of it depending at different times. Being the trainee is an enlightening experience for most people and will change the way you think about training.
You can try some variations on the training game:
What happens if you give out real rewards instead of pretend rewards?
What happens if you add other elements such as no-reward-markers or aversives?
What happens if you purposely keep the reinforcement rate high or low?
As the trainer, make sure you get feedback on what was helpful. Did you move around too much? Did you convey emotion by holding your breath, getting excited or some other type of body language? Did you do anything the trainee found distracting?
As the trainee, think about how you felt during the training process? At the end? What made you frustrated or excited? Were there times when you would have liked hints? What would have made it easier or harder?
The training game is a great way to learn more about the training process and helps people develop empathy. But one reason it works is that we are pretty good at identifying our own emotions and the emotional state of the person we are training. Most people learn to read each others body language from the time they are little, but they are not always so well informed about animals body language. So, learning to feel empathy is good, but as part of this, I would say you also need to learn about your trainee’s body language so you can recognize signs of stress, frustration and enthusiasm. This is partly about improving your powers of observation, but also about learning how to interpret what you see. There are lots of good resources on reading body language in horses but you can also just start to create a mental library of how your own horse behaves in certain situations. Some common signs of stress in horses are obvious such as ear pinning, biting, snaking the neck, body tension, tail wringing and lifting a foot as a warning. But there are other more subtle signs. Learn to read your horse’s face, look at the chin, the tension lines around the muzzle, the expression around the eyes.
TRUSTING THE PROCESS, BELIEVING IT WOULD WORK, PATIENCE:
Because most of us have been exposed to traditional animal training either through family pets or previous training experiences, it can be easy to slip back into old habits or belief systems that suggest animals are stupid, have to be dominated or can’t be taught through positive methods. I find the best way to counteract that mental shift is to read as many inspirational stories about people connecting with their animals as I can. These don’t have to be stories specifically about clicker training, they can be stories about people’s relationships with their animals and the things they have done together.
When I attend clicker clinics with Alexandra Kurland, Alex always has some time set aside for people to share their stories and it is this sharing time that brings us together. People talk about the challenges with their horses and how clicker training has changed their lives. They talk about past successes and hopes for the future. There is a real feeling of how powerful and amazing this tool is that allows us to connect with our horses in such a profound way.
I have included patience here because that was another quality that came up and I think it is closely connected to believing in the process. If takes patience to allow the animal time to figure things out and for a new behavior to develop. Clicker training can have moments when the animal learns very quickly, but it can also have times when it takes a lot of repetitions and steady work to be successful. I think it takes a lot of patience to take a behavior from the early shaping process to a final behavior that happens reliably on cue.
How does one build patience? By believing in the process and letting it happen. One thing I have found that is helpful is to look for one tiny improvement in a behavior in any given session. Be happy with consistent little steps forward and recognize that by going slow and building the behavior carefully, you will have a stronger behavior. The other thing that I have found to be valuable is keeping a training journal. There are lots of different ways to keep records of training sessions and it doesn’t matter what you choose, but I like to make sure that at the end of each journal entry, I write a small positive note about something that improved. There is always something that got better and by writing it down, it reminds me that I am making progress and it helps me trust the process.
ABILITY TO THINK QUICKLY ON HIS/HER FEET:
I think the ability to think quickly is important to clicker trainers because we are using a training system where the trainee is really driving the training process. I may go out with a plan, but I might change it during the session if I think it is not going well or I see that I really need to work on something else. I could rephrase this and call it flexibility and in some ways I like that better. Being able to think quickly on your feet implies that you have to be able to make snap judgments when training and while that can happen, I think there is nothing wrong with seeing you need to change something, taking a break and regrouping. Of course, making the decision to take a break might also be considered thinking quickly on your feet but that is different than instantly coming up with a new plan.
Flexibility means being able to change a training plan if something unexpected happens and the animal offers something new or different. It means recognizing when to go with the flow and when to stick with the plan. I am going to include in flexibility the ability to read the horse and see what is the strongest reinforcer at the moment. Many of us use food as our most common reinforcer and in most cases, this works well. But there are situations where the horse will clearly show that something else is more interesting than the food and being able to think quickly means figuring out how to use that stronger reinforcer in the current situation. Some of this comes from experience, but some of it comes from being open minded about letting the horse work for what it wants.
IDENTIFYING THE LEARNER’S NEEDS:
This could be listed as a category under the ability to think quickly, but I wanted to keep it separate because I think it is worth emphasizing. When you start a training session, you might have a plan based on past behavior or previous experience with other animals. But you have to recognize what the animal needs on any given day. Sometimes there is another issue that comes up and you have to address that first. Being able to see that an animal needs to work on something entirely different takes a certain amount of flexibility and understanding that training is about the process and the relationship and not about the end goal.
It also means being quick to change the training plan and either back up to something easier or address another issue that is interfering with progress. Some days the behaviors we want to train are not available to us and we have to be able to accept and work around that. I usually have a variety of behaviors I work on in any training session and I select which behaviors to train based on what the animal feels like when I take him or her out.
Creativity is a tough one for some people. I find that people tend to identify themselves as being creative or not. And it’s true that some people are naturally inclined to want to try new things and other people prefer to follow established recipes. But whether you are naturally creative or not, I think you can improve your creativity. There are lots of ways to define being creative and becoming more creative in any of these ways is beneficial. I could define being creative as being able to come up with new ideas out of the blue. I could also define creativity as being able to combine things in new and different ways. Some people are creative about thinking up new behaviors. Others are good at coming up with unusual shaping plans or clever uses of food delivery. Any of these, and any others you can think of will serve you well as a clicker trainer.
If you are a naturally creative person in other parts of your life, but you have been involved in traditional training, you might just need to let yourself think outside the box. Especially as horse trainers, we are taught there are WAYS to do things and being creative is not encouraged. But clicker training is about thinking outside the box and experimenting with different ways to train behaviors. I find that sometimes people have good ideas but are hesitant to try them out for fear of “ruining” their horse and they just need to let themselves experiment a bit on some small behaviors. I find that playing games and teaching tricks to horses allows people to develop their creative side without the fear of doing it wrong. There is no “right” way to teach a horse to chase a ball. In addition, playing game and doing tricks encourages your horse’s creative side and once the horse starts coming up with new ideas, so will you.
If you find that you are not so good at coming up with new ideas, that’s ok. One way to start is to just collect lots of other people’s good ideas and after a while you will start to come up with some of your own. You can start by tweaking someone else’s shaping plan or combining two ideas and as your experience training grows, so will your own ability to come up with new ideas. Part of being creative is having a lot of stored information about what has and hasn’t worked in the past combined with your own observations about your horses. I often find that if I am stuck for an idea on how to shape a new behavior, I can just start observing my horses, looking for little pieces that I could use as a starting place.
One way to develop your creativity is to brainstorm with other people and just throw around ideas. Sometimes it just takes some group energy to get you thinking in new and creative ways. The training game can be helpful here too. There are several versions of the training game that I have played. One is the standard one where one person trains another to do a predetermined task. The other version is more open ended. In this version, the trainee just starts reinforcing the trainee for behaviors that they like and then picks one and builds from there. Sometimes you follow the trainee’s lead and just reinforce behaviors you like without an end goal, but just to see what you can come up with. You will be amazed at what people come up with and it will improve your ability to see opportunities in your trainee’s behavior.
Good mechanics starts with the mechanics of food delivery. One of the most important aspects of clicker training is having good food delivery because sloppy or inefficient food delivery can slow down the training process, create confusion and encourage bad behaviors. With horses, we are mostly hand feeding so it is important that the horse learns to take food nicely from our hands (with lips, not teeth) and stays out of our space and allows us to present the food. In the beginning, the most important things to watch are that you keep your hand out of treat pocket until you have clicked and that you feed out away from your body. You also want to make sure that you present the food in the same place so the horse knows where to expect it.
Jesus Rosales-Ruiz has a graduate student doing research on jackpots and she found that a change in food delivery can derail the training process. In her study the dog expected food to be delivered in one location by hand and when they changed the trainer’s action to deliver the food (she used a pipe instead), the dog did not know where to look for it. The dog was using the trainers body language for information about where to find the food. This is worth keeping in mind if you usually feed by hand and then decide to feed from a bucket or vice versa.
When hand feeding (especially a new horse), I like to feed so that the horse has his head straight out in front of his body in a natural position. Later, I can expand how I use food delivery and I might use food delivery to back the horse out of my space, encourage it to hold a position, or reposition it to do another repetition. I don’t use different methods of food delivery randomly within a session. Usually I use the same method within a session or I might have different methods of food delivery associated with certain exercises. What is important is that I have enough consistency that the horse can look to me for information about where to find the food. If my food delivery is unpredictable, that will interrupt the flow of training.
In addition to food delivery, good mechanics includes being proficient at whatever physical skills I need for my chosen work with my horse (this includes ground work, liberty work, riding, driving and so on.) If I am doing a lot of ground work on a lead, it is worth taking time to work on my rope handling skills. Clumsy or abrupt rope handling can be aversive to horses and it is hard to build softness and feel it I don’t have it with my own actions. A lot of what we do with horses on the ground can be practiced without the horse, either with the help of a friend or just by practicing on your own. Alexandra Kurland has a video on Tai Chi Rope Handling which shows exercises you can do to improve your rope handling skills and I have found her work very helpful. At her clinics, she usually has people practice rope skills on each other so that by the time we get to the horses, we have some of the early clumsiness worked out. People give great feedback and you can learn a lot by using a lead rope connected to a person.
The other element of good mechanics is body awareness. Again, this is something that you can improve and develop over time. I think one of the first things that new clicker trainers have to learn is how to be still. We tend to want to help the animal and use our body to encourage, guide, and direct it. There are some times when this is appropriate and I do a lot of directed learning, but there are other times when all that becomes extra noise and distracts the animal from the task at hand. Not only that, but the quieter and clearer you are in your body, the more easy it will be to teach the horse to respond to the cues you want. If there is a lot of extra movement going on, it can be very difficult to create clean and salient cues.
So ask yourself how still you can be when you are training something. Are you aware of extra body movements that might be confusing the horse or becoming an unwanted part of the cue? Videotaping is a good way to get feedback on your own behavior when you are training. Being still is important for free shaping and creating clear cues. But there are also times when we want to communicate with our movement and in order to do so, we have to be aware of what we are doing. Animals are very responsive to our body language and will use our gestures, position, and energy level as cues. This is very important for any kind of groundwork or riding. If we can’t control our own bodies, we are making it hard for our horses. It turns out that a lot of us are not as in tune with our bodies as we could be. We have not learned good body awareness and we send out lots of unintentional signals to our horses. One way to improve our body awareness and perhaps make improvements is through activities such as yoga, Feldenkrais or Alexander work, or pilates. The more you learn about how you use your own body, the more you will be able to direct and control it in the way you want.
Timing is important for all training, but especially for clicker training because the precision of the clicker can work against you if your timing is off. A lot of people start off with sloppy timing because they have not been exposed to activities where timing is important. Kathy Sdao talks about having a gentleman with really good timing in a beginner clicker class, and it turns out he was a professional photographer. He had good timing because he had already learned it through taking pictures. This gave him a head start and he had better timing than most novices. Starting with good timing is a plus, but the nice thing is that for most horses, we can get by with a bit of sloppy timing in the beginning because we usually start by clicking big body movements. As you advance, your timing will need to be better to fine tune behaviors and the horses will be more sensitive to the precision of your timing. Of course, there are some horses for whom it is really important to have good timing right from the beginning but I those horses will just teach you to improve your timing faster.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to improve your timing. The more you clicker train, the better your timing will get. In addition to that, you can practice your timing independently and spare your horse some confusion. If you have a training partner, you can practice on each other. If you are working alone, there are other options. One way to work on your timing is to find any repetitive action and use it to practice clicking at a specific moment. Some people will use bouncing a tennis ball for practice. Bounce the ball and try clicking when the ball is at it’s highest point, or when it hits the ground, or on the second bounce. Another option is to watch TV or youtube and find an activity that has predictable behaviors. Some people will watch sports games and click when the athlete does something specific (hits a ball, the ball goes in the basket etc…). You could watch jumping and click as the horse goes over the jump. Video clips of people or animals moving can be used and you would just choose a fairly common body movements such as a raised hand or looking a certain direction. If you are interested in clicker training specific movements, watch a horse movie and practice clicking when a specific behavior happens such as the inside hind stepping under, or the start of a canter transition.
In addition to using videos and TV to improve your timing, I have found that good timing often happens because you know exactly what you are looking for. The first time I train something and I don’t know exactly how it is going to go, it can be hard to have perfect timing because I have not had enough experience with that particular behavior to recognize the behaviors that precede the one I am after. Part of having good timing is being able to predict when the behavior is going to happen and we learn to predict it by watching what happens before. It is easier to have good timing if the clickable moment is part of pattern as opposed to a random event. We don’t always do this consciously, but if we watch a horse repeating a sequence of behaviors enough times, we tune into what happens prior to the clickable behavior and this means that when it does happen, we are ready. So, one way to improve your timing is to spend time watching your horse as he does the behavior on his own, or find another resource that shows the sequence of behavior. Once you start looking, you will realize that seemingly unpredictable behaviors are not always as unpredictable as you thought.
There are some internet games specifically to work on timing. You can find them by googling “reflex testers.” I am not sure they are quite the same as clicker training because most of them are not using predictable behaviors, but they can improve your hand/eye coordination, although in some of them moving the mouse adds an extra complication. One you can try is:
I also want to mention that some people have better timing with different clickers. There are a few different types of clickers out there and there is also the tongue click. Some people find the standard box clicker easier to hold while others like the raised button of the i-click. And don’t assume that if you have good timing with one type of clicker, that you will have good timing with another, they all take practice.
GOOD OBSERVATIONAL SKILLS
In one of Karen Pryor’s lectures, she talks about having 1000 hour eyes. She means eyes that have seen a lot and can analyze and predict behavior before it happens. I mentioned in the section on timing that knowing more about the behavior you want to train can help with your timing. This is very true and is one good reason to watch horses doing the behaviors you want to train before attempting to do it yourself. But beyond that, having good observational skills means you have trained yourself to notice little details about how horses move, how they set themselves up to do certain behaviors and what behaviors they need to know before learning a new and more difficult behavior.
Having good observational skills also includes learning to read horse’s body language and recognize when the horse is struggling. You can improve your ability to read your horse’s body language through books and DVD’s, but even more important, I think you can learn by watching your own horses interact. Spend some time just watching your horse in the field and see how it interacts with its herd. See how it moves at liberty and how it spends its time. I have learned a lot about how to train my horses by watching them with other horses. Does your horse move off at the flick of the ear from the dominant horse or does that horse have to bare its teeth? Does it spend a lot of time grooming the other horses or does it prefer to be alone. My most difficult horse is one that never liked being touched by people, but I noticed that whenever she was turned out in the field with a group of horses, she always found one to do mutual grooming. She clearly seeks out and likes this kind of contact and I was able to use that piece of information to help connect with her. I am not talking about the idea that I need to pretend to be a horse to communicate with her, but more the idea that I can learn more about her by watching her interact with other horses. I think all these things are windows into a horse’s personality.
When I talked about timing, I mentioned that good timing often comes from knowing what you are looking for. In one of Kathy Sdao’s DVD’s, she talks about how during each set of reps within a clicker session (I am calling a set of reps a mini-session), you need to set the criteria ahead of time and only focus on if the dog meets criteria within the mini-session. She is making a distinction between the kinds of decisions you make while clicking and treating in a mini-session (you only have to decide if it meets criteria) and what you do between mini-sessions (set criteria, think about training set-up, evaluate progress). During the actual training, your mind should only be thinking about one thing which is “does this behavior meet my criteria?” If she wants to train a dog to go to a mat. she decides ahead of time if the criteria is one foot on the mat, two feet on the mat and so on. Then she just had to observe and click. She can make decisions about changing criteria between sessions. In order to do this, she has to have a pretty good idea what the dog might do as it approaches the mat and she has learned this by observing lots of dogs doing mat work.
We can do the same thing with horses. I wanted to teach Rosie to side pass over a pole this summer. When I started out, I thought I would just click for any movement sideways but after a few sessions of looking at this, I realized that it made a big difference what I clicked (which leg and how she moved it) and I realized I didn’t have a good picture in my mind of how a horse would move its legs fluidly to side pass over a pole. So I went and watched video clips of horses doing side pass until I could recognize and reinforce the leg movements that would lead to fluid side passing. I know an agility dog trainer who spends hours watching video clips of dogs at work and practicing her clicking until she is sure her timing is right. Doing all this ahead of time means you are not experimenting on your own animal. Most of us (that would be me <smile>) are not this disciplined about how we plan our shaping sessions, but I do think that it is easier to teach a behavior if you have observed it and analyzed it before you get started. So I would encourage you to allow some time for research before you try to train a new behavior.
BECOMING A BEHAVIOR JUNKIE
By behavior junkie, I mean someone who is interested in animal behavior of all types. I think that a lot of people who are interested in clicker training have some level of interest in animal behavior. They might start out just looking for “better” behavior, but I think once they have a basic understanding of clicker training, behavior becomes more interesting. I think on some level, there are always going to be some people who are behavior junkies more than others, but I think learning to watch and enjoy animal behavior is an interest that grows over time. The more you learn about any subject, the more interested you become in the fine details and the differences between how different people approach the same issue. I find that as people become more comfortable with clicker training and learn to recognize operant conditioning at work, their interest in training spills over from training horses into looking at how people and animals learn in lots of different situations.
When I first learned about clicker training, I just worked with my two personal horses. But as I got more interested and learned to see patterns of behavior better, I found myself watching other people with their horses, and groups of horses in a different way. Now instead of just watching, I see things. I notice when a certain behavior is being reinforced. I notice when animals are solving their own puzzles. I became more interested in clicker training other animals and I worked with our dogs, cats and guinea pigs. I experimented with using more positive reinforcement on people. I started to see a lot of life’s daily challenges as training opportunities or chances to learn about why people and animals do the things they do. It reminds me a lot of people who are mechanically inclined and have to take apart everything to see how it works. I think that once you see how consequences drive so many behaviors, it becomes a bit addicting to watch and tinker a bit to see what happens if?
I am not really going to make suggestions here for how to become a behavior junkie. I just wanted to say that it is worth opening your eyes and your mind to all the interesting things that are going on around you. Even in simple little things, there are things to observe and often if you are struggling with a frustrating behavior issue, looking at it as a behavior puzzle can take some of the frustration out of working through it.
I added this one. I am a very persistent person. If I get my mind set on doing something, I can be pretty single-minded about doing it. As a kid, I was considered stubborn and I think my parents found it endlessly annoying. But in adults, persistence can be a good thing. When I first started clicker training, I thought that persistence was not a good trait for a clicker trainer because I would have a goal in mind and I would be determined to get there. I was not necessarily good about working at the pace that my horse needed to go. But over the years, I have decided that persistence is actually a useful trait in a clicker trainer. All training has its ups and downs and being able to just keep chugging along regardless of setbacks is a good thing. In some ways clicker training can be so fast and easy. We have all experienced those times when an animal learned something in one session or in just a few clicks. But there are other times when progress is slower and it is a matter of systematically picking away at the problem of building the behavior despite distractions, setbacks and unplanned events. This requires what I call long term persistence (maybe it is a form of patience) and I think the ability to appreciate and recognize each little part of the training process is what makes clicker trainers successful in the long run both, maybe because persistence gets them to the final behavior, but also because they have learned to enjoy the process.
Katie Bartlett – July 2010