equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Ken Ramirez Seminar: July 2012

In July 2012, I attended a two day seminar that Ken Ramirez gave at a local dog training club. Some of the topics he covered were similar to those I had already heard at ClickerExpo, but he had some new material too. I didn’t take extensive notes, but I did share some highlights on my Facebook page. I’ve collected these together into this one document for easier access.

1. Reinforcement substitutes.

Note: Reinforcement substitutes are reinforcers you use instead of food. These could also be called secondary reinforcers. Ken uses the term “reinforcement substitutes” because he is referring to a specific type of secondary reinforcers, and he finds its easier for people to understand if he gives that type its own name.

On Saturday morning Ken talked about using reinforcement substitutes.  This is a topic I have heard before (twice) but it is good to hear it again because it is easy to just use food and forget that it is important to have other options.  At the Shedd Aquarium they condition a lot of reinforcement substitutes to provide reinforcement variety for their animals and to allow the trainers more choices.  If there are times when you cannot use food and you have not conditioned other reinforcement substitutes, you can face a difficult training challenge. 

To condition a reinforcement substitute, you can choose a neutral stimulus and create a positive association or you can choose something the animal already likes and condition it and/or establish rules for how it will be used.  If you don’t know anything about conditioning reinforcement substitutes,  you can read about them in my Clicker Expo notes which are in the articles section on my website.    One new piece I learned is that if you that you do choose to use something that your animal already likes, it’s important to know what particular aspect of it is important.  This will help you maintain the behavior as a reinforcement substitute. 

He used the examples of tug and scratching. If your dog loves to tug and you use tug as a reinforcement substitute, you may need to maintain shorter tug sessions by sometimes following them with longer tug sessions.   Otherwise the value of tugging will decrease because what the dog really wants is a long tug session and it never gets it.   So every now and then ,  you should follow a short tug with a longer tug session, just to maintain the association. It’s the same way you condition any reinforcement substitute, but sometimes we forget to do it if we think the animal already liked the behavior we are choosing to use.   To maintain scratching, you might have to do a similar thing which is follow a short scratch with a nice long session where you get all the itchy spots and the animal can really enjoy it.

2.  Observation of all parts of the ABC cycle is important

In one of Ken’s videos, he showed dolphins playing with some toys and talked about how they enjoy their playtime.  He also stated that before they throw the toys in the water, they send someone underwater to see what the dolphins are doing .  This is to make sure the dolphins are not doing any unacceptable behavior that might be reinforced when they throw the toys in.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but somehow I was, as I had never really thought about the challenges of working with animals that can submerge out of sight.    If your animals are not always visible, it’s important to check before offering reinforcement.  

And then I remembered that when I taught Willy to nicker at me, I did it by going in and out of the barn door.  I would wait outside, walk in, and reinforce him if he said hello.  It took me quite a few sessions and in each session I would go in and out a few times.   I did eventually get him to reliably nicker when I cued him.  However, it turned out that the behavior I really trained was “walk in a circle->nicker.”    It turns out that when I went back out the door between repetitions, he did a little circle and since I couldn’t see him, I didn’t know that I was reinforcing the whole chain. 

Good rule of thumb:  never train your animal if you can’t see them!

3.  Adduction:

One of the topics Ken discussed was teaching adduction which is where the animal is cued to do two or more behaviors and combines them, without previously being taught how to do them both together.  I have always been intrigued by this and use adduction all the time, but my horses certainly don’t know it as a concept.  He calls that the “and” type of adduction. 

He also talks about the “then” type of adduction where the animal is given a string of cues and does the whole sequence without being recued.  The animal has to remember and do the behaviors in sequence.  In order to do this, you need hold and release cues so that the animal waits for all the cues before starting. 

Has anyone taught this to a horse? It seems to me that it would be handy even for one behavior where you wanted the horse to wait until you gave it the “go” signal.

4.    Handling animal mistakes

The weekend was divided into a series of topics and on Saturday afternoon Ken talked about how to handle animal mistakes, or problem solving.  He focused on dealing with both unwanted behavior and “errors” where the animal is in a training session and offers the wrong behavior.  He covered a lot of material and it’s really too much to share here, so I am just going to list his final thoughts which I think are important and good food for thought.  This is from his notes:

  • Finding positive alternatives gets easier with practice. 
  • Focusing on desired behavior keeps you focused on reinforcement.
  • Understanding the science assists you in making the right choices (for how to deal with unwanted behavior). 
  • Read about the tools and ask others. Use what works for you!

I want to add a little note from my own personal experience.  For those of us who are crossover trainers, it can be easy to fall into old habits or patterns.  I take comfort in his first statement which is that finding positive alternative gets easier with practice.  I think this is true and one thing I have found to be useful is to review each day’s training and see if there are places where I could have handled things in a more positive fashion.    It may seem like things come up that you can’t predict, but I have found that the mental exercise of writing down “I will do ___ if my horse steps on my foot” is useful even if it never happens again. You are slowly programming your brain to look for other options and eventually you will be able to do it in the moment.