Notes from The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference (ORCA): Dr. Peter Killeen on “Skinner’s Rats, Pavlov’s Dogs, Premack’s Principles.”

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Dr. Killeen is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and has been a visiting scholar at the University of Texas, Cambridge University, and the Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo.  He gave the keynote address on Saturday morning.  Here’s the description from the conference website:

“Reinforcement is a central concept in the enterprise of training, and yet it remains a controversial one. Much of the opinion about its nature is derived from laboratory protocols involving food or water deprived animals. This does not always translate into the more complex and pragmatic world of animal training. In this talk I take a step back, to re-embed the concept of reinforcement in an ecological context. Reinforcement is always caused by the opportunity for an animal to make a transition from one action pattern to the next. The Premack principle is a simple deployment of this insight. I will discuss the Premack principle, alternate versions of it, and the relevance of the emotional state of the animal.”

I want to preface this article with a few thoughts.  This is a long article and at times it may seem overly academic for the needs of most animal trainers.  By the time I was done writing it, I found myself wondering if anyone would want to read it. 

But I hope that you will do so, because I think Dr. Killeen has shared an important perspective on animal training and behavior that combines the work of psychologists, ethologists and other professionals in related fields.
This is somewhat unusual.  In Karen Pryor’s closing remarks, she commented it was common for professionals in related fields to be isolated from one another, even though they each have important information that they would benefit from sharing.  A presentation that shows the connections between different fields (psychology, ethology, biology), takes the information we have learned from all of them, and puts it in a larger framework, is a great resource.

But this presentation was not just about the big picture.  He included a lot of useful information about what we have learned in the past 100 years, and I found there lots of practical tidbits scattered throughout it. I also found it was very helpful to see the context in which each “discovery” was made and how the new information built on, and either complemented or required some re-thinking about previous discoveries. I hear references to the work of Pavlov, Skinner and Premack all the time, but without understanding more about the historical significance, how the work was actually done, and future applications, my knowledge of how to use that information has been and will be somewhat limited. Putting their work in context has made it easier for me to see what we can learn from the science, as well as what we still need to learn.

And finally, I think learning this stuff can be fun. Yes, I said it. Ok, I am a bit of a behavior geek and I like reading about scientific discoveries, but I think that it can be very eye-opening to read about the actual research and what it tells us about behavior. The first year I attended ClickerExpo, I went to Kathy Sdao’s “A Moment of Science” lectures and found my brain fizzing with excitement.  Previously I had only had a limited understanding of the science behind clicker training, so learning more about it was exciting, but there was something more. Something about seeing all the little connections (and how we learned about them),  seeing more clearly that behavior is not generated randomly, but follows predictable (well mostly…) patterns, and that by observing, analyzing and changing the conditions under which behavior happens, we can influence it.

So what did Dr. Killeen have to say? The following article is based on my notes from his talk and is shared with his permission. He also generously shared the slides with me, so I could study them in more detail and include some diagrams.

Dr. Killeen started by staying that training requires art and science.  He has spent most of his life as a laboratory scientist, but recognizes that knowing the science is only part of animal training. Still, he feels it’s very important to get the scientific information out to the public so that the knowledge can be shared and also viewed in the proper context. With this in mind, he took us on a “brief tour of modern learning theory” and looked at the contributions of Pavlov, Skinner, Premack and a few other scientists along the way.

He started with a little review of what we’ve learned from studying behavior:

  • Classical (Pavlovian conditioning)
    -sign learning – pairing of stimuli to create associations
  • Effect (Skinnerian conditioning)
    -self learning – responses get connected to consequences
  • Attraction (Thorndikian conditioning)
    -approach to incentives – surprisingly general and powerful law
  •  Premack Principle
    -transition to higher probability response
  • Timberlake’s Ethograms
    -organizes the Premackian insight

Then he went into more detail:

Ivan Pavlov:

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who was studying digestion in dogs in the early 1900s. In his experiment he wanted to measure salivation the amount of saliva produced when dogs were fed meat.  But, he started to have trouble because the dogs were salivating before he could feed them, and eventually even before he showed them the meat.

He referred to these as “psychic secretions” and ended up studying them instead. He did this by pairing a sound (typically a metronome) with the presentation of the meat and studying how the response to the metronome changed over time.  After a few pairings the dog would salivate in response to the metronome, instead of to the meat itself.

This work led to an understanding of the process through which conditioned stimuli can become associated with unconditioned stimuli to form new associations and responses, the process we now call “classical” or “Pavlovian” conditioning.  It is also led to the basic laws of association which describe the relationships between the US (unconditional stimuli), CS (conditional stimuli),  UR (unconditional response) and CR (conditional response.)

Note:  Dr. Killeen used the terms “conditional,” not “conditioned” as is often seen.  According to Paul Chance, the term conditional is closer to Pavlov’s original meaning, but the two terms (conditioned and conditional) are often used interchangeably.

Pavlov’s motto was “Control your conditions and you will see order.”

A few items of note from his experiments:

  • Pavlov’s dogs were restrained and he was positioned such that he could not see all their responses to the stimuli.
  • The investigators only paid attention to the smooth muscle (visceral) response, not to other behaviors that the animals did. This is important because it led to a limited view of classical conditioning, with scientists assuming it only occurred with certain types of responses.
  • The original description of classical conditioning was one of substitution, where you could replace one stimuli with another through conditioning.

Further research into Pavlovian conditioning has shown that it should be viewed somewhat differently. In the 1970’s scientists (H.M. Jenkins and others) were studying Pavlovian conditioning in unrestrained animals and found that there were numerous responses to the unconditional stimulus. They said it was more accurate to call the conditioned response a “conditional release” because it was releasing a number of natural responses.

Their conclusion was that:

  • The CS-US episode mimics a naturally occurring sequence for which preorganized action patterns exist. The CS “substitutes for a natural signal, not for the object being signaled as in the Pavlovian concept of substitution …”
  • CR should mean Conditional Release
  • The topographies of CRs “are imported from the species’ evolutionary history and the individual’s pre-experimental history”

H.M. Jenkins’ work showed that the textbook description of the CS as a “faint image” of the US is not accurate. It is more accurate to say that it is a signal to engage some new action patterns.  This is called induction.

Edward Lee Thorndike

“Psychology is the science of the intellects, characters, and behaviors of animals including man.”

Dr. Killeen remarked that most psychologists study the behavior of man and perhaps it’s time to turn that around a bit…

Thorndike is best known for stating the Law of Effect, which he formulated after observing the behavior of cats placed in puzzle boxes. The cats learned to escape through trial and error, but learned from each experience, so they were quicker at escaping once they had done it successfully.

“The Law of Effect is that: Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal, will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation, so that, when it recurs, they will be more likely to recur; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort to the animal will, other things being equal, have their connections with that situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur. The greater the satisfaction or discomfort, the greater the strengthening or weakening of the bond.” (taken from his slide, which credits Kenneth M. Steele)

The Law of Effect is the foundation for Skinner’s work on operant conditioning because it clearly states the connection between response and reinforcing context. Dr. Killeen described it as “A law of selection by consequences. It is a probabilistic law.”

So far we have:

  • Pavlovian Conditioning – connection of context to stimuli, CS, US
    -> Similarity, proximity, regularity
  • Thorndike – connection of response to context, S-> R
    -> when they lead to satisfiers
  • Skinner – connection of response to reinforcers, R -> S (superscript R)
    -> dropped the need for satisfaction
    -> wanted to vest all variables in the environment

These are different ways of looking at behavior, but you have to realize that they are all going on at the same time.

To understand the importance of these discoveries (laws), Dr. Killeen had a slide showing  where they would be placed in a list of either the top 10 laws in Psychology or the most important laws in Psychology at the end of the 20th century.

Top 10 Laws in Psychology  (this list was taken from textbooks):

  • 2. Law of Effect
  • 3. Laws of association
  • 6. Laws of continguity
  • 8. Law of exercise

(note:  the laws of association, contiguity and exercise are roughly equivalent, or contain essential components of numbers 6, 8 and 10 below.)

Important laws in Psychology at the end of the 20th century (this list was taken from a journal article.):

  • 2. The Law of Effect
  • 6. Premack’s Principle
  • 8. Classical conditioning
  • 10. Reinforcement/operant conditioning

Dr. Killeen said that he, personally, thinks that Premack’s Principle is the most powerful of all.

David Premack

Dr. David Premack was a psychologist who studied reinforcement and cognition in chimpanzees.  Two of his most notable contributions are his work on Theory of Mind in chimpanzees and the Premack Principle.

The Premack Principle states that:

  • Behaviors are reinforcers, not stimuli
  • More probable behaviors reinforce less probable behaviors.
  • Less probable behaviors punish more probable behaviors.

This re-defining of reinforcers as behaviors was a very important shift in thinking and changed the way that scientists (and others) looked at reinforcers.  Previously, reinforcers had been defined as stimuli (food, objects, etc.) but Dr. Premack showed that it was the activity associated with that stimulus that was reinforcing.  It’s EATING the food that is reinforcing.  It’s PLAYING with the ball that is reinforcing.

If you aren’t sure about this, think about some of the activities you enjoy doing and ask yourself if the end goal is reinforcing, or if it is the activity itself. Why do you eat? Is it just to feel full? Why do you read a book? Is the book better if someone tells you the ending ahead of time?

When you are trying to change behavior, you want to look at possible activities and see which ones are more probable and which ones are less probable. This gives you a preference hierarchy of possible activities, which can then be used to shift behavior in the direction you want.

Dr. Premack did a number of interesting experiments looking at changing more probable and less probable behavior by limiting access to resources. He found that there was a “reversibility” of reinforcers, so an activity that was reinforcing in one situation might function as a punisher in another.

This work was done in the laboratory, but the Premack Principle explains the relationship between behavior and reinforcement under many conditions. Dr. Killeen showed an example (from Jesús Rosales-Ruiz) of using the Premack Principle with a barking dog. The amount of barking could be decreased by moving the dog either toward or away from the other dog, depending upon which behavior was more reinforcing for the individual dog at that moment.

Dr. Killeen stated that he thinks all reinforcement principles come down to Premack’s Principle.  But, there are objections and some difficulties in figuring out how to measure probabilities.

One problem is how to measure probability? It’s difficult to measure as it’s not solely based on duration or intensity, but may depend upon many factors.  Eventually Dr. Premack decided to use how much time the animal will spend on a task, if not satiating.

There was also the question of whether or not the animals had to be in a state of deprivation for an activity, in order for it to become more probable. In his experiment with rats where he was able to reverse the probabilities of wheel running and drinking, he did use deprivation to make one of the behaviors more likely.

While deprivation can certainly change probabilities,  there was an interest in looking for a better way to calculate (or predict) more and less probable behaviors.  There were also scientists who were interesting in finding a larger framework within which to view Premack’s Principle.  William Timberlake, a psychologist at Indiana State University, had developed  a way of mapping behavior that proved to be useful. His Behavioral System offered an way to describe and map behavior that showed how an animal will naturally progress through a sequence of behaviors, with each one reinforcing the previous one.

Timberlake’s Behavioral System was based on looking at the natural sequence of behaviors that are part of specific activities. Dr. Killeen had a series of slides that showed predatory behavior, and showed how each step leads to several choices, which leads to several more choices, and so on.  When an animal makes one choice, it makes some new choices more likely and some other choices less likely.  If you want to read more about Timberlake’s work, this article goes into more detail: http://indiana.edu/~bsl/behavior.pdf.

Here’s one of Timberlake’s Behavioral Systems charts that Dr. Killeen showed:

Timberlake1For the purposes of this article, what you need to know is that Timberlake looked at patterns of behavior; identifying systems and subsystems, modes, modules, and actions. You could trace and predict an animal’s behavior by making a diagram of the Behavioral System that showed possible pathways.

This provided a framework for viewing how one behavior might reinforce another. For example, in predation,  the mode “focal search” might lead to the behaviors “investigate”, “chase”, “lie in wait”,  “capture”, and “test”.  If an animal continued down the chase pathway, it might “track the animal” or try to “cut it off”.

Once you can identify different behaviors states (modes, modules or actions), you can collect data by observing animals to see which pathways are more likely.  This gives you general tendencies, not absolute values, as there are many variables and an animal can start down one pathway and be forced to shift to a different one. So it’s not useful in the absolute sense, but it can provide information about what behaviors tend to reinforce other behaviors, and it can help to identify the most common sequences.  This information helps to see the connection between what Premack learned from his laboratory work and the behavior of animals in their natural habitat.

I want to make a comment here.  When I see people describing the application of the Premack Principle in training, they often put an emphasis on using an available activity, one that is what the animal would choose to do on its own.  So a dog might be taught to orient to its owner in the presence of squirrels, and they would try to reinforce that behavior by providing the opportunity to run in the direction of a squirrel.

But there’s nothing in the Premack Principle that says you need to use a “naturally” reinforcing activity. I asked Dr. Killeen about that and he said that you can use any behavior, as long as you take the time to build a strong reinforcement history so that it can function as a reinforcer.  In Emily Larlham’s presentation, she talked about how to use Premack to decrease deer chasing and she did it by building a high probability for an alternative behavior that had nothing to do with chasing deer.

I think it can be helpful to look at the Premack Principle in the context of naturally occurring behavior sequences, and you may be able to use them in some cases, but don’t let that limit how you think about using it.

Unified Theory of Connection (Peter Killeen)

Dr. Killeen pulled all the Laws of Connection (Pavlov, Skinner, Thorndike, Premack) and Timberlake’s Behavioral Systems together to make his Unified Theory of Connection. This is where you start to see how the different laws fit together to create a complex repertoire of behavior. The Behavioral Systems provide a framework  and movement through the Behavioral Systems can be explained using the Laws of Connection.

Some Key Points of the Unified Theory of Connection:

  • Different subsystems (predatory, defensive, sexual) make different modes attractive.
  • Reinforcers are responses, not stimuli.
  • Movement down the modules constitutes reinforcement.
  • Movement from state to state (subsystem -> mode -> module ->  action) is possible because of satisfying events.
  • Animals approach stimuli that make progress possible (these stimuli are unconditioned or may be classically conditioned.)
  • Within modules, the actions and how they are done are subject to the law of effect, operant strengthening, etc.

Using this chart as an example, he provided some specifics on what movement within each column indicates, and what prompts transitions:

unified theory

The “action” column:

  • More probable (and thus reinforcing) responses are ones lower in their action space (lower responses reinforce higher responses).
  • Transition points enable progression through the actions. An animal moves through transition points for one (or more ) reasons.
  • —- 1. They are satisfying (Thorndike)
    —- 2. They are approached (Thorndike)–are incentive motivators
    —- 3. They elicit other species-typical actions (Pavlov)
    —- 4. They Reinforce the particular responses that lead to them (Skinner)

The “module” column:

  • Moving from one module to the next provides a “conditional release” (Jenkins) for what classes of responses are most likely.
  • The topography of the conditional release comes from the animal’s natural behavior (pre-organized action patterns).
  • Signs of such transitions are Pavlovian CSs – the CS substitutes for a natural signal.(in this context, I think a “sign” is what we might call a cue or a signal to proceed to the next behavior).

The “mode” column:

  • Moving from one mode to the next “sets the occasion”(Holland) for what classes of stimuli are most effective, what responses are most likely.
  • Such transitions are “motivating operations.”
  • “Occasion setters” follow different rules than CSs.
  • Training and interactions in general are as much about configuring motivational operations as about applying reinforcers. You want the animal to be in the right mode.

Readiness and Regulatory Fit:

Understanding how animals move either horizontally or vertically down the chart is essential when trying to change behavior. He provided a little additional information on this subject by looking more at readiness and regulatory fit.

Thorndike’s Law of Readiness (1914) already provided some information about how moving into a module provides readiness to move down the chain.

“When a child sees an attractive object at a distance, his neurons may be said to prophetically prepare for the whole series of fixating it with the eyes, running toward it, seeing it within reach, grasping, feeling it in his hand, and curiously manipulating it.”

Skinner and Premack had also talked about how behavior tends to move down action chains, as the body is already anticipating the next action.  Some of the behavior in the action chain may be innate and some may be learned.

Dr. Killeen provided a simple example of how our behavior can be influenced by the mode we are in.  This example comes from Tony Higgins who studies human behavior to see the effects of different modes (promotion vs. prevention, approach vs. avoidance) on behavior.

If you are trying to sell someone something, you have to put them in the right mode.

  •  If you want to sell them a yacht, you put them in “adventure” mode by telling them stories that make them want to go out and do something new.
  • If you want to sell them life insurance, you put them in “life is dangerous” mode by sharing stories about people who have died, accidents, etc..

Key Points from the Unified Theory of Connection:

  • Animals approach satisfiers. He shared a number of slides citing research supporting the basic idea that behavior is motivated by approach or withdrawal.  The research included field data and experimental data.
  • Satisfiers are contexts with higher rates of reinforcement/action relevant to their current state, or contexts associated with more attractive actions.
  • Satisfying contexts are those that lead to actions at deeper levels in their Behavioral System. Always look at behavior from an ethological viewpoint.  Sometimes these actions become satisfying in their own right and animals get stuck in them.  We have purposely bred dogs to get “stuck” at some actions (retrievers, pointers, etc.).
  • Behavior is a trajectory through a field of attractors — modules.
  • Conditioned stimuli are signposts on the journey. If they are extrinsic, it’s Pavlovian sign learning, if they are intrinsic/proprioception, it’s Skinnerian act learning.
  • If moving to a better state, CSs function as conditioned reinforcers. If moving to a worse state, they function as conditioned punishers.
  • Many actions are shared by different systems and some are shared by different modes, so an action can have one meaning in one context and a different meaning in another one. A bite can be predatory or sexual. Actions shared between multiple systems or modes can lead to short-circuiting.
  • What gets learned are more efficient routes/actions ways to get to satisfying actions within modules or ways to get to modules that are deeper/more satisfying in their action hierarchy.

Sign Tracking:

As stated above, one of the key points of the Unified Theory of Connection is that animals approach satisfiers. An example of this can be found by looking at sign tracking, which has been found in dozens of species, and shows a tendency to approach and contact signs of reinforcement.

He described an experiment by Hearst and Jenkins (1974) in which they put a pigeon in a long cage with a light on one end and a food hopper on the other.  When the light came on, the pigeon would approach it, which meant the pigeon was actually moving away from the food hopper when the light came on.

But the food hopper was set up so that the food was only available for a short time after the light came on. By the time the pigeon got back to the food hopper (after going to the light), the food would no longer be available. You would think the birds would learn to wait at the food hopper and watch for the light, but they never did. That’s how powerful sign tracking, and therefore the desire to approach, can be.

Role of Affect:

He finished up by looking a little bit at the role of affect (emotions).

  • No matter how we think about stimuli and their settings –
  • We must also know how to feel about them –
  • Affect tells us which action modes to engage, what kind of “readiness” in Thorndike’s terms.
  • Different actions modes are associated with different emotions and they can tell us whether to approach, avoid or kick back: wait it out.

You can think of emotions as the signatures of different behavioral modes. They:

  • differentially prime perception
  • prime motor systems
  • inhibit competing systems
  • tell us what to do, and simultaneously empower that action
  • hold us in relevant modes

And this leaves us with the New Laws of Connection:

  • Approach -> To stimuli that mark transitions/routes down our hierarchy (Pavlovian sign-learning). They are are pleasurable/satisfying or scary; emotion empowers responses relevant to modes
  • Effect -> In similar contexts we approach the actions that gained that improvement (Skinnerian self-learning)
  • Act for Action -> It is access to better actions that constitutes reinforcement (Premack Principle)–Imposition of adverse actions that constitutes punishment.

There were two other presentations that looked specifically at using Premack Principle in training and I was originally going to include them as part of this article. But I think it would be better to write about them separately so they will be in a future article.

Notes from The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference (ORCA): Duration

police-dogThis year (2017) the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference had a theme for each day. On Saturday, the lectures focused on the Premack Principle and how reinforcement works. On Sunday, the focus was on how to effectively maintain behaviors.

As you might expect, there were some interesting connections between different presentations, both across topics and between topics.Because of this, rather than write about each presentation separately, I am going to write a series of articles on some of the “themes,” using information that was presented at the conference, as well as information from other sources if needed for clarification.

This article is going to look at the topic of duration. Duration was discussed in several presentations on Sunday, as part of the larger theme of how to effectively maintain behaviors. Most of the information in this article comes from the following talks:

Steve White: “Training in 3-D: Embracing duration, distance and distraction” – Practical tips on building duration, distance and teaching dogs to work in the presence of distractions. (60 min)

Ken Ramirez: “Teaching Duration Behaviors: Creating lengthy behavior chains” – A look at how to create a lengthy show with minimal food reinforcement. (20 min)

Emily Larlham: “The Show Must Go On: An Investigation into maintenance of behaviors for competitive sports and dogs with jobs“ – How understanding the components of training for duration can help you prepare your dog so you can have success in the show ring, or in a job where a dog might need to perform for an extended period of time. (20 min)

Alexandra Kurland: “Putting Behavior to Work” – Alexandra Kurland shared her thoughts on building duration, both from a practical and philosophical point of view. (60 min)

What is Duration?

In training, duration commonly refers to the amount of time that an animal does one or more behaviors before being released for reinforcement. If I am building duration for a single behavior, it means I am extending the amount of time the animal can maintain the behavior. It can be a static behavior (a down) or a moving behavior (walking).

Duration can also refer to extending the total time spent doing behaviors, with the animal doing several behaviors before being released for reinforcement. Duration over multiple behaviors is usually achieved through some form of chaining, or by teaching the animal to expect to do a sequence of behaviors. In a sequence of behaviors, the animal learns that each behavior will be followed by the cue for the next behavior and learns to go from one behavior to the next with no interruption. The final reinforcement is delivered at the end of the chain or sequence. There may be other reinforcers built into the chain or sequence, but the animal is working toward the final reinforcer.

Duration is an interesting topic because it touches on so many other aspects of training. As Steve points out, duration is closely related to distance and distraction and in order to build duration, you have to pay attention to all three components of your final behavior. Ken pointed out that successful chaining or sequencing of behaviors is based on clear cueing and adequate reinforcement. Emily pointed out that attitude and mental and physical fitness matter. And Alex showed that how we approach and think about training is often a result of the unconscious “frame” under which we are operating.

Steve White’s talk provided a nice framework for a discussion of duration because he provided some history on how duration is traditionally trained and a lot of practical information on how to do it.

This information is taken directly from my notes from his talk:

Steve White – Training in 3-D: Embracing Duration, Distance, and Distraction

Animal trainers need duration for many behaviors and in the older style training, it was taught with compulsion. For example, a dog might be held (physically restrained) in a long down so it would learn to stay there for longer. While this may have worked to teach the dog to stay down for longer, it had some unfortunate side effects in that the dogs were reluctant to do the behavior since it was associated with force.

Alexandra Kurland pointed out that duration is also traditionally taught this way with horses, where the horse is forced to continue the behavior (with a whip if moving), or punished for movement (if the desired behavior is stationary.) While it can be taught with other methods that build the behavior slowly and systematically, what she called the “tortoise” approach, many people are in a hurry and try to build it too quickly, the “hare” approach.

The first step away from that method was using food to encourage the animal to stay in the long down. Ian Dunbar would feed the dog in position and the dogs learned to maintain the behavior. Since then, trainers have learned better ways to shape and maintain the behavior, but the basic progression is still the same, teaching duration, then distance and distraction.

Traditionally training the 3Ds:

  • Duration trained first – build stability and baseline
  • Often can get additional duration as a by-product of distance
  • Original duration work for down was to hold the dog down – lead to poor latency
  • Ian Dunbar – feed dog in down to get duration, he would add the cue too “good down”
  • Then add distance and distraction: distance for tightly constrained kinetic behaviors like a send-away, distraction for loosely constrained kinetic behaviors like detection work

We’ve learned a lot about training duration from research in the laboratory, but understanding behavior in the laboratory does not always translate to being able to train behavior in real life. Even in real life, it’s hard to prepare for every possible scenario, so trainers have to work carefully and plan ahead, while understanding that part of their job (and the dog’s job) is being able to handle unexpected events. Learning how to regroup after them is also an important aspect of training and ideally the dogs become more robust from each new experience, even if it’s stressful.

Why 3-D? (why do we teach duration, distance and distraction?)

    • Life is not a lab: Most of us are training animals that have to work under a lot of different conditions, so we need animals that can handle lots of variability and remain fluent in their jobs.
    • Compromised timeline: He has dogs for 16 weeks so he has to get a lot done. Has to ask questions to find out why he has the dog. Why don’t they want this dog? Does it just need to learn new skills or are there issues? Are there poisoned cues? In Europe, they teach the dogs to bite, bite, bite and then to “not bite,” which creates stress. He prefers to re-shape the behavior, which is quick if the dog already knows the topography, then add a new cue.
    • Limited control: You can’t control everything that happens in a working situation.
    • Multivariate: You always have to be considering multiple variables. In training, you can set up scenarios to work on one aspect at a time, but eventually you need the dog to be able to handle changes in duration, distance, and distraction all at once.
    • Unpredictable (beautifully so): For some things you can develop a training plan and prepare, but you can’t be 100% prepared for everything. Also, have to deal with the fallout (get the dog back to being comfortable). He likes the variability and said it keeps him on his toes.

From a practitioner’s point of view, it’s important to know the science so you can make educated choices in your training strategies, but he feels that training should be about exploring new options and learning to observe, understand and inform.
Trainers who are open to new ideas, and curious about how things work, are the ones who are out there breaking new ground. Steve said he feels it’s more useful to look at the science to explain what we do, not wait for the science to tell us what to do.

In any training, the first question you need to ask is “What does the dog need to learn?”

Once you can answer that, then you can start teaching the behavior. He had a nice photo of some dogs being lowered in harnesses from a helicopter and you could see all the things the dogs had to learn to be comfortable and successful doing that behavior. They had to learn how to orient themselves (hind feet down so they touch first), eyes looking down (to see when they are going to land) and know what to do when they landed (get out of the way). Once they had learned the basic behavior, then they had to learn to deal with increasing distance and distractions.

Training the 3D’s: Evaluate your animal’s response to different stimuli

Before starting to train for duration, distance and distraction, it’s helpful to know how your animal is going to respond to different kinds of stimuli. There may be some general tendencies for different species, but you also need to evaluate each individual so that you can make a training plan that has a realistic starting point and then systematically introduces new stimuli at appropriate times. Some things you may want to consider when evaluating stimuli are:

  • Volume (loudness, size, different meanings)
  • Salience (stands out from environment)
  • Proximity (at what distance does the animal react?)
  • Vector (where it’s coming from)- same object can be perceived differently by the dog depending upon where it’s coming from.
  • Speed (slow vs. fast, how does it affect the dog?
  • Permanence – how long does the stimulus stay present?

You will also want to evaluate each animal to see how it responds to stimuli that are perceived by different senses. While there is some variation from dog to dog, he has found that the following is a pretty typical for most dogs:

  • Visual distractions are the most common -the dog reacts to what it sees
  • Sound is next -the dog orients toward or is startled by sounds
  • Smell is the most engrossing -the biggest problem he has is with dogs that are distracted by smells because they can be unable to move on. This can be a deal breaker for some dogs.
  • Touch is the one with the most propitious response – the dog looks quickly when you tap
  • Taste is captivating
  • Nature vs. nurture – in his view, nurture is going to trump nature so you can train a dog to ignore certain types of stimuli, but some dogs will take longer with different types of stimuli than others.

(note: I think it would be interesting to make this list for horses. I would certainly put visual first and sound second, although that might be reversed if riding in an indoor arena. My horses are very reactive to sounds when they can’t see the source. Are horses distracted by smells? I’m not sure. I’d have to think about the rest as they don’t seem to come into play in training very much.)

With this information (or as much as you can gather) in mind, you can start to work on the 3Ds. As he mentioned earlier, it is usually easiest to start with duration. Once you have some duration, you can introduce distance or distractions, which will build duration as well.

Duration:

He had a graph to illustrate how to build duration. It showed the change in duration over time, starting from the current level of duration and ending at the desired level of duration. The line is the general guideline for how to proceed and the angle will vary depending upon who much time you take and how much duration you need. It can be used as a general guideline for how to proceed.

But you are not going to proceed in a linear manner where each repetition is harder than the last. Instead you are going to “ping-pong” along the vector so that some repetitions are easier than others, but the general trend is toward longer durations. This variability keeps the dog guessing and makes it less likely that the dog will bail out because the work was getting consistently harder or the degree of difficulty was increased too quickly.

Distraction:

I think you need to build a certain amount of duration before you can add distractions, but once you are at that point, you can work on both distractions and you will be building additional duration at the same time. Steve had a nice video that showed a dog learning to hold on a nose target and then hold on the nose target while the handler manipulated or touched the dog.

In the video, the progression was:

  • Teach dog to touch a nose target
  • Teach dog to hold briefly on a nose target
  • Teach dog to hold on a nose target and maintain head positon while she checks his mouth
  • Teach dog to do the same nose touch, but on the wall
  • Teach dog to nose touch on the wall while patted all over by the handler
  • Teach dog to nose touch on wall while she picks up and wiggles the hind end
  • can increase complexity by adding by sending to the dog to the wall (adding distance)

It’s important to remember that what we call a “distraction” is just an inappropriate response to a stimulus. He did mention that he sometimes uses a Keep Going Signal to help the dog learn to maintain a behavior when adding distractions. Whether or not to use a KGS is a subject of much debate, but he does find they can be useful at certain stages in training, especially if you have a limited amount of time to get the training done.

Distance:

Here are some things to keep in mind when working on distance:

    • Fear/anxiety vs. calm/assured are inversely proportional
    • Reinforce appropriately – in place for stability on the target, at or beyond for more active behaviors or when changing behaviors.
    • You are often combining distance and distraction. For example, he showed how they teach a police dog to wait until released to “catch” a person. They start by placing the person (distraction) at a distance and then have him move slowly toward the dog on slightly irregular line. When dog relaxes while observing the person, that’s the time to release the dog. His reinforcement is getting the person.
    • Once the dog learns to remain calm under those circumstances, they can have the person head toward the dog in a more erratic way, taking a longer route, varying the speed and other movements so that the dog is learning to maintain duration with more and more distractions.
    • Steve said it was important to “Wobble, shift and shuffle” or “bounce around the 3Ds” by varying different aspects of the 3Ds so the dog learns to handle changes in them in random order. He recommends starting this early.

What can go wrong? Potential Snags:

    • Anticipation: Check your ABCs (antecedent -> behavior -> consequence), Don’t make assumptions.
    • Repetitive failure: Manipulate single variables (go back to focusing on one at a time if the dog is struggling.)
    • Plateaus: Who is training who? Trainers hit training plateaus when they stay at each step for too long.It’s important to move forward in balance. He used the image of jacking up a house where it’s important to keep jacking up each corner a little bit at a time to keep the house level. With training the 3Ds, you want to keep increasing the difficulty of each one a little bit at a time so the dog learns to handle lots of variations and combinations along the way.

Final thoughts:

  • Life is not a lab
  • Assess distractibility in all 5 senses
  • Wobble
  • Reconcile Perception vs. Reality: Perception drives behavior, not reality – there’s something to think about!

In Steve’s talk, he was speaking about building duration as a process and he had examples of building duration for single behaviors and for chains, as most of the information he provided would apply to both. But putting together longer chains or sequences, and maintaining them, requires some additional skills on the part of the trainer. This was the subject of Ken’s Sunday presentation.

Ken Ramirez – Teaching Duration Behaviors: Creating lengthy behavior chains

Ken Ramirez does a lot of consulting work with animal trainers from facilities around the world, and his presentation was based on some work he did for a group in Cuba. The trainers at the facility wanted to create a dinner show that featured dolphins and swimmers doing underwater synchronized swimming.

Their goal was to have a 20 minute show with no food reinforcement. They felt that feeding the dolphins during the show would interrupt the flow and they had spent time putting together a show by teaching long chains and using tactile reinforcers. But they were having trouble maintaining the behaviors under those conditions and they asked Ken for help.

Ken said it was a particularly challenging project for several reasons. Some of them were due to logistics (no visitation, slow internet) and some of them had more to do with the training itself. It was an ambitious project and the trainers were missing some important information or had misconceptions about how to build strong chains and the amount of reinforcement needed to maintain them.

Some of the training issues that Ken identified were:

  • Not enough positive reinforcement
  • Tactile used as a “reinforcer,” but not effective
  • The strength of the dolphin/swimmer relationships was questionable
  • There were too many different behaviors and cues (added confusion)
  • They were not back chaining effectively
  • The chains were too long. I think the original plan was to do the entire show (140-200 behaviors) as one long chain.
  • Communication among swimmers was not good during the show

Rather than jumping in the middle and trying to “fix” something that was not working well, Ken had them go back to the basics by returning to more frequent reinforcement to build behavior strength again.

This is something Emily Larlham emphasized as well. You need very strong behaviors if you are going to use them in longer duration exercises, and often we don’t put enough time into this. She spoke about making sure you build fitness and overtrain so that the difficulty level in longer duration behaviors is within the dog’s ability.

They also learned how to build shorter and stronger chains and simplified the number of behaviors and cues. In their original training, they had 93 different cued behaviors. He was able to simplify this down to 11 cued behaviors as many of the behaviors were variations on hand and foot targeting with the dolphins either following or pushing the target. Having fewer cued behaviors and one word names for any chains improved the trainer’s ability to communicate with the dolphins and each other during the shows.

One a personal note, with my own horses, I have found that cueing problems often show up when building chains because the horse no longer has the click to confirm the correct response to the cue. This leads to guessing and deterioration in existing behaviors, so cleaning up your cues is very important.

In addition, he found that their understanding of how to use intermittent reinforcement was based on the industry standard norm (common in marine mammal training), but was not actually working for them. He had to teach them about using reinforcement variety and how to evaluate how much reinforcement they really needed and how to provide it. This was where the secondary reinforcers came in, and also why they switched from to using multiple dolphins instead of having the same dolphins do the whole show.

His summary of the work they needed to do included:

  • Return to more frequent reinforcement to build behavior strength again
  • Develop better conditioned reinforcers
  • Establish shorter chains and develop clean backchain protocol
  • Focus on sequences with reinforcement built in, as opposed to fixed chains (animals tend to take short cuts in fixed chains)
  • Use multiple dolphins so they can rotate in and out of the show
  • Clean up behaviors: 93 different cued behaviors (too many!) simplified down to 11

He had a few specific points about how they improved the use of chains and sequences:

  • 3-6 behavior chains (fixed)
  • 12 sequences that could be changed
  • Short name for each chain (so swimmer could call it out)
  • Staggered for reinforcement (I think this meant it was set up so that dolphins got reinforced at different times so the reinforcement was less obvious. It also made it easier to rotate dolphins in and out of the show.

The show went on to be very successful and they won at award at the 2008 IMATA conference. Ken said it was a unique consulting experience and showed, once again, that more effective reinforcement makes a difference.

I found this presentation particularly interesting because most of my ridden work is now done as long chains and sequences and it took me quite a long time to figure out how to do this effectively. I encountered some of the same problems as the dolphin trainers, so it was interesting to see how the same general strategies that worked for me also worked for them.

The topic of duration was continued in the next talk, which was by Emily Larlham. This one also looked at training for performance, but with dogs. I already mentioned that Emily and Ken shared some of the same advice on common points and you’ll see some other similarities in the following notes which are based on the material she presented in her talk.

Emily Larlham: The Show Must Go On

What makes a great performance? What are the qualities that contribute to a great performance? How do you get there?

Emily approached this topic by looking at the trainers she admires, identifying the qualities that make their performances exceptional, and then looking at their training to see how they got there. She identified 5 key concepts:

Key Concepts:

  • The right attitude
  • Strong behaviors
  • Overtraining
  • Working for duration as a concept
  • Preparing for performance

(note: despite the title, this presentation was not just about preparing dogs for competitions or shows. The information she provided is useful to anyone who needs animals to perform for longer periods of time)

The Right Attitude:

When watching performance routines, one of the qualities that makes the difference between an average and a truly exceptional performance is the attitude of the dog and relationship it has with the trainer.

Emily showed some video of freestyle routines that showed the kind of happy, expectant, and joyful attitude that she likes to see in a dog. This comes from a training method that does not rely on physical or psychological intimidation and that minimizes frustration so that the dog is looks forward to training and is an eager and attentive participant.

She had some video that showed teaching some simple behaviors and how important it is to set up your training to avoid frustration. Even something like teaching a dog to follow a lure can be frustrating if not done correctly and trainers need to learn when a dog is showing signs of frustration (before it becomes full-blown) and how to adjust their training so the dog becomes successful again.

Building strong behaviors:

Trainers often underestimate how much time it takes to take a new behavior and build enough reinforcement history and flexibility to make a truly strong behavior. She showed some videos by Maria Brandel and Siv Svendson that showed how they continually build on successful behaviors so the dog becomes confident and learns behaviors to fluency.

One way they do this is by starting new behaviors in environments where the dog is likely to choose to do the behavior anyway, and the behavior’s topography and emotional state are consistent with how they want to use it. For example, they teach the “down” by capturing it when the dog is lying down while they are watching TV or resting. This is a time when the dog is likely to lie down and stay there for longer and allows them to build duration more easily.

In this situation, the dog is also more likely to associate the down with calmly waiting or resting because that is what is normal for a down under those conditions. This idea of using environmental cues or context cues to facilitate learning can make it much easier to train behaviors with the emotional tone that you want.

Overtraining:

Overtraining means planning ahead and setting up your training sessions and exercises so that the effort required in your “performance” is less than what the dog is used to doing during training. It’s a way of ensuring that the dog is physically and mentally prepared for the amount of effort or focus and has a bit of reserve to handle any unexpected changes.

Overtraining could mean paying attention to the dog’s fitness to ensure that the effort required during performance is well within its ability. That doesn’t necessarily mean the dog has to practice more, it may just mean taking the dog for longer walks or spending more time on play. One of her strategies is to do play sessions that are longer than the ring routine duration. If he dog is used to actively moving for 10 minutes in play, then a ring routine which is less than 10 minutes is going to be easier.

Teach working for duration as a concept:

A dog that has learned a lot of individual behaviors may struggle with chains and sequences, and the whole idea of duration over several behaviors because it doesn’t understand duration as a concept. She likes to teach this through the use of backchaining with a release cue.

She had a video of Emmy Simonsen showing how she could cue a behavior and then release the dog to the food dish. Then she could ask for two behaviors before releasing the dog to the food dish. Over time, the dog learned that it would be asked for a variable number of behaviors (that’s Steve White’s ping-ponging) before being released.

Along with this, Emily said it is helpful to teach the dog a lot of little chains, varying the order of behaviors and mixing in reinforcing behaviors so that reinforcing behaviors might occur at the beginning, middle, and end of the chain to keep it reinforcing. Using different markers can be helpful here as you can have some markers that are associated with excited reinforcement delivery and other markers for calm reinforcement delivery. Markers can be behaviors too so a behavior can be used to tell the dog it has responded correctly and tell it what to do next.

Preparing for Performance:

If you’ve done your work well so that your dog has strong behaviors, loves training, and is physically and mentally prepared to give a great performance. What are some other things you can do?

  • Check to make sure your cues are going to be easily perceived by the dog in the performance environment.
  • It can sometimes work well to train visual cues as they are often more salient in noisy environments and can also function as reinforcers
  • Practice without the dog first

Challenges with Building Duration:

Several of the speakers touched on some of the difficulties you may encounter in building duration and I thought it might be useful to end with a little summary, because we all know that understanding how something “should” be trained is not a guarantee that things will go as planned. There’s always some little hiccup in the process and it helps to be prepared with some ideas for what to do when things don’t go as planned.

I have a list of items pulled from the various talks, but before I share it, I want to make a few comments on Alexandra Kurland’s presentation, about which I have said very little. This is for two reasons. One is that Alex’s presentation was less about the details of training duration, and more about the attitude of the trainer when training duration (or any other behavior). The other is that her presentation was based on a blog post she wrote, and I think that any summary I can give would not do it justice. You really need to just go read it. You can find it at https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/01/08/i-dont-understand-you-you-dont-understand-me-thank-you-donald-trump-for-helping-me-to-understand-why/

The main point of her presentation was that there are many ways to train behaviors and our choices are often based on the “frame” through which we are viewing behavior. The word “frame” comes from some work by George Lakoff who writes extensively about how we view and interpret the world based on information that we have picked up through life experiences. In her blog, she compares the contrasting frames of the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent” and shows how they relate to horse training.

When you choose how to train any behavior, you are viewing behavior (both yours and your learners) through one of these frames, and it will affect how you choose to teach and maintain the behavior. While the thoughts in her blog post apply to training in general, it is interesting to think about them in the context of training duration, because I think this is one place where cross-over trainers (those that started with traditional methods and switched to positive reinforcement) are likely to find it challenging to stay in the positive reinforcement mindset.

This is because we often start to build duration at the point at which we feel the animal “knows” the behavior, and it seems like it should be so simple to get more of it… but it’s not. So, it’s easy to revert back to previously learned techniques to get the animal to maintain it. One could say that when training for duration with your animal, you are also working on training yourself to stay in the positive reinforcement mindset for longer and longer periods of time as well.

Challenges and Solutions:

    • Anticipation – The animal does not meet criteria for duration because it is anticipating the end of the duration behavior or the next cue. To address this, you should check your ABC’s and also make sure you are increasing duration at a realistic rate and with variations (ping-ponging) – (Steve White)
    • Repetitive failure – Go back to a simpler variation and focus on only one variable (Steve White). You may also want to evaluate your reinforcement. Is there enough? (Ken) Is the reinforcement supporting the behavior? (active vs. static) (Steve, Emily)
    • Plateaus – Do you have a training plan to get from A (starting point) to B (ending point) and a way to measure progress so you keep moving? Training can stall out when trainers are not aware of when to move on (Steve, Alex).Note: Alex talks about this in the context of Loopy Training where you should move on when a loop is clean. If you are not familiar with Loopy Training, you can read about it on my website (look under “Alexandra Kurland” in the articles section.
    • Deterioration in behavior – Have you adequately identified the level of distracting stimuli (Steve), checked for adequate reinforcement and clarity of cues (Ken)? Go back and strengthen individual behaviors (Ken, Emily)
    • Insufficient understanding of chains, sequences –Do you and your learner understand chaining? Is there any reinforcement built into the chains? (Ken and Emily) – Go back to shorter chains and include secondary reinforcers if possible.
    • Cue confusion – Are your cues clear? Have you made things too complicated by asking for too many different behaviors or too many similar behaviors? (Ken)
    • Not enough reinforcement (Steve, Ken, Emily, Alex)
    • Secondary reinforcers are not strong enough (Ken) – Using secondary reinforcers requires a good understanding of when and how to use them and how to evaluate them. Barbara Heidenreich’s talk on this subject had many suggestions for how to use non-food reinforcers. I’ll be writing that up in another article.
    • Mental or physical fatigue (Ken, Emily) – Learning to work for longer periods of time takes mental and physical fitness. If your dog loses focus or seems fatigued, you may need more careful preparation with fitness in mind.
    • Distractions – It can be difficult to prepare for all possible distractions, but you should evaluate your animal and train for different types of distractions as much as possible (Steve). Having strong behaviors and a learner that is eager and engaged will work in your favor (Steve, Ken, Emily). You can also use the Premack Principle and change how your animal responds to distractions (Emily’s Saturday talk – more on this in another article).
    • Additional Unwanted Behavior Creeps in: When working toward duration, there is a greater likelihood that other behavior will creep in and become part of the behavior you want. These are called adjunctive behaviors and Paul Adronis gave us a nice introduction to them. I will share my notes on his talk in another article.

I thought I would end this article with a fun video that Steve White shared. You can think of it as a little additional reinforcement for you if you have read through this entire article. He shared it to make the point that learning new skills is always difficult, and that we often underestimate how hard it is to learn something new once we are at the point where we don’t have to think about how we do it.

Thank you to all the speakers for permission to share my notes from their presentations.

Enjoy,

Marker Signals: Thinking Beyond the Click

clickersClicker training gets its name from the use of a clicker (or click) to mark behavior, but that doesn’t mean that a clicker is the only effective way to mark behavior. A clicker is just one of the most frequently used options because it is short, salient, and produces the same sound every time (mostly…). It also has the advantage that it’s a novel sound for most animals, so there are no previous associations.

When I learned to clicker train, I started with a box clicker, then discovered i-clicks (from Karen Pryor), and finally tongue clicks. A tongue click is the “klock” sound I can make by pushing my tongue against the roof of my mouth. It is very useful if I am doing training where it would be difficult to hold a clicker, or I find myself in situations where I don’t have a clicker. It can take some practice to be able to produce a consistent and reliable tongue click, and I spent about 6 months practicing in the car, while doing dishes, laundry, etc. until I could reliably make a clear and consistent sound every time.

For a long time, almost all of my clicker training was done using clicks (either with a box clicker/i-click or tongue click) and treats. And for the most part, it seemed to work just fine. The one exception was that I did use a verbal marker for my foal so that he had a different marker than his mother.

But, as I did more reading, learned more about training with other species, and was exposed to more animal trainers via the internet, I kept hearing that the click was only needed for teaching behavior and that other markers could be used to mark and reinforce already trained behavior. Not only that, they should be used, because using the click for everything could make it “dull,” and it should be reserved for use as a precision tool.

Still, I was reluctant. One of the things I liked about using a click was the clarity it brought to my training, both because it was precise, and because my horses never expected food from my hand unless I clicked. I felt that keeping the rules about hand feeding very simple and consistent contributed to the polite manners that my horses had around food. So, I played with using alternate markers (verbal ones) a little bit, but then put the idea aside and moved on. Honestly, I just couldn’t see when they would be useful, especially since I was already using a tongue click.

Then, a few years ago, when I was taking Kay Laurence’s IDTC course, I found myself reading about using different marker signals again. This time, the context was a little different because it was in a series of discussions about using secondary reinforcers. The idea was that it was useful to have different markers that were associated with different reinforcers, and also that different markers could be associated with different types of behaviors, training sessions, or different emotional states. So, this was about having options that would allow the trainer to choose the appropriate marker/reinforcer pair that would support the behavior she was trying to train or reinforce.

Since then I’ve started using a variety of marker signals at various times in my training, and have found that they can be useful. I started very simply by just introducing one new marker and reinforcer combination to one horse and exploring how well it worked under different conditions. Then once I could see where it was helpful, I tried it with a few other horses and learned when it was beneficial to use a click and treat and when other combinations could be used more effectively.

I do want to mention that the term “marker signal” is one of several terms that are used to describe a stimulus that is used to identify what behavior is being reinforced. You may also encounter the terms event marker and bridge. For the purpose of this article, I am lumping them all together in the same category.

I still feel a bit like I’ve only dipped my toe in the water on this subject, but I think it’s worth exploring further because anything that expands my ability to communicate with my animals and choose appropriate and varied reinforcers is a step in the right direction.

If you are intrigued by the idea of using a different marker or using several different markers, here are some basic tips for choosing and using them.

Types of marker signals:

A variety of different marker signals are used by animal trainers. In dog and horse training, a click is the one I see used the most, but other types of markers are common with other species. They seem to be associated with different species or broad categories of training (marine mammals, zoo animals, birds, dogs, etc.). Some of it may be tradition, as that type of marker signal was what was first used, and has continued to be used, even as the training has grown to include other species or applications. Some of it is that there are some marker signals that are going to be more suited to working with different species or in certain environments (underwater vs. land vs. in the air).

Here are some of the more common marker signals that are used:

  • Whistle
  •  Verbal (words, letters –“x” is one that is sometimes used)
  •  Visual (lights, thumbs up, hand gestures)
  •  Tactile (touch)
  •   Other sounds (bell, beep, etc.)

Qualities of a good marker signal:

Although there are different types of marker signals, they all share some common qualities that I’ve listed below. Not every marker signal needs to meet all these categories and it will depend partly upon if you are planning on using the marker to shape behavior or to mark already trained behavior.

  • Short (with some exceptions)
  • Salient (stands out from the environment)
  • Can be reproduced consistently (same tone, duration, intensity)
  • Does not convey emotion
  • Unique

I do want to mention that there is one hypothesis that the click is such an effective marker signal because of how it is processed in the brain. Karen Pryor thinks that the click goes directly to the amygdala, which means it has a more direct route than a stimulus that has to go through the “thinking” part of the brain. I haven’t seen any research studies that look at this, but if you want to read more it, you can read Karen’s article at http://www.clickertraining.com/node/226.

Reasons to choose a different marker signal:

To keep things simple, let’s assume your usual marker is a click. Why would you choose to use or switch to using a different marker? If your usual marker is not a click, then you can just substitute in the name of your marker where I have written “click.”

  •  A click is not the best choice because of the individual animal’s needs. An auditory marker is not going to work well with a species that has poor hearing or an individual who is deaf. Some animals also startle or become fearful when hearing the sharp sound of a click.
  • I am working with multiple animals and using the same marker signal for every animal could create confusion. I routinely click horses in small groups, but only for known behaviors and there are usually context cues that help them identify whose behavior has been marked. If I needed to train new behaviors with multiple horses, it might make sense to use a different marker signal for each horse.

    This is what I did with my mare and foal. My mare had already been trained with a click, so I chose to use a verbal marker with the foal. Would they have figured it out if used the click for both? Maybe, but my mare had previously been aggressive toward me and I didn’t want to risk doing anything that would create confusion and frustration.

  • In some cases, a marker signal can accidentally become associated with an unwanted emotional state or even become a cue for unwanted behavior. In these cases, it’s usually simpler to just choose a new marker, rather than trying to change the previously learned association.

Reasons to teach additional marker signals:

This is the part that I find interesting because it’s about looking at different ways to mark and reinforce behavior and seeing if adding additional markers can improve communication.

When I first read about not using the click for everything, the general argument was that it was better to save the click for precision shaping. I think my horses are good at figuring out when I am clicking for trained behavior and when I am shaping a new behavior, but it does bring up the interesting question of whether or not we are thinking enough about what the marker signal means to the animal.

Is it really just about marking behavior and indicating reinforcement is available, or does it convey more information to the animal? I think the answer is yes, and here are some examples where using a different marker can provide additional information to the animal.

    • If different markers are paired with different reinforcers, or even types of food delivery, then the marker provides information about what to expect and how to get it. The most common application of this is using secondary reinforcers where a different marker is associated with a different secondary reinforcer. You can also have a marker that is associated with a variety of reinforcers. I do have a different marker I use during riding if I don’t want my horse to stop within a few strides of hearing it. This gives me the option of marking the behavior and then using other reinforcers.
    • Different marker signals can become associated with different emotions, levels of activity. A lot of clicker trained animals learn to associate the click with “doing something” and hearing the click brings up their energy level. This can make it difficult to use the click to mark calm and stationary behaviors, especially if I am trying to build duration. One solution is to not use the click and to use food directly. Another option is to use a different marker that is only used for calm behaviors.
    • Some behaviors do not require precision markers. Using a click without careful attention to the effect it has on the whole behavior can lead to some distortion of the behavior because the animal will become too focused on some small element of the behavior. I have found that there are times when having a less precise marker will actually work to my advantage if I prefer to have the behavior more loosely defined. I think my horses have definitely picked up on this and they adjust based on whether I click or use a more general marker.
    • Having another more discrete marker can be helpful if you plan to take your clicker trained horse out into a less clicker friendly environment. I regularly take my horse to traditional horse events and I find it is easier to use a marker other than the click. In most cases, I still feed treats (if not, I find some other form of reinforcement), but I use either a verbal or tactile marker. I’m pretty sure that when I switch to using my alternate markers, my horse knows this will not be a normal clicker session and adjusts her expectations accordingly.

    Cautions?

    If you are new to clicker training, I’m going to suggest that you stick to using one marker, a click unless another marker would be more appropriate. There is a lot of value in keeping things simple and I do think that exclusively using a click promotes good manners around food and is clearer to most horses.

    But…if you’ve been clicker training for a while, I hope you will start to think about the possibility that there may be some benefit to having additional markers. It’s very easy to teach a new marker signal by pairing it with your reinforcer, and if you’ve been clicking long enough, you’ve probably had it happen by mistake. I find that once animals learn that marker signals exist, they are quick to pick up on patterns that predict food or a click so adding a new marker is easy.

    I do want to make a few comments about verbal markers. While they are sometimes the most practical to use, I find that I have to be very mindful of how and when I use them. It may just be me, but I find that once I give myself permission to use words as markers, I become a little sloppier about when I use them (compared to a click) and I have a tendency to talk more during training. This is not necessarily a bad thing in every situation, but I definitely take it into account when choosing what marker to use.

    Verbal markers seem to work better when they are spoken in a way that is different than normal conversation because it makes them easier for the horse to recognize them. This is important if you use a lot of verbal cues. One of the verbal markers I have used is the word “yes,” and I said it in a higher tone of voice and quite quickly, so it was more like a sound than a spoken word. I have another verbal marker that I use and when I say it, I use a lower voice and hold it for longer than a normal word. I’ve heard (second hand so don’t quote me on this) that one creative rider used clearing her throat to mark behavior in competition where speaking was not allowed.

    While I am suggesting it may be useful to have more than one marker, I do think that there’s probably a point at which more is not better. Too many markers or marker/reinforcer combinations might get confusing and is probably unnecessary for most training. With my horses, I have four markers; the mechanical click, the tongue click, and two verbal markers. With my dog, I also have a hand gesture that functions as a marker, but I found this was more difficult to use with my horses since I move my hands around more in training.  It’s been interesting to see the effect of different markers and I may add some more as time goes on, but at this point I’m having success with the ones I am using and will stick with them for a while.

First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare: Theory of Change

I had a little spare time the other day and started checking out the website, http://www.hbcanimalwelfare.com/hbcaw1–2016.html, which is the home page for the First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare. The conference was held in September 2016 in the UK.

The conference brought together a wide variety of speakers from both the professional and academic fields, and they shared their ideas, experiences, and research on how to improve animal welfare by understanding and putting more focus on changing human behavior. Most of their presentations are available as YouTube videos, easily accessible from the home page.

I’ve only watched a few videos (so far), but I’ve found some interesting information. Brenda Bonnett gave a talk titled, “Don’t Know or Don’t Care? How Beliefs and Attitudes about Dog Health and Welfare Limit Behaviour Change.” She used the example of brachycephalic dogs, which are becoming more popular, despite the high incidence of health issues among them.

Why are people choosing dogs that come with known health issues, even when veterinarians and dog professionals are trying to educate the public about the risks associated with these dogs? A similar version of this question could be asked by any professional who is trying to educate the public about some aspect of animal care or training and finds that they are having trouble changing people’s behavior. The message may be getting out, but people are not listening. Why?

In her discussion on brachycephalic dogs she looked at possible reasons including lack of education (not getting the information), social pressure or contagion (but everyone else has one…or someone famous has one), marketing by dog breeders, “normalizing” of health risks by saying it’s “normal” for the breed, and people putting higher value on other factors (looks, personality, etc.) than health when selecting a dog.

Again, these factors are not specific to a discussion of brachycephalic dogs, but are things to consider when trying to understand the choices people make and how to change human behavior.  I found myself thinking that a lot of the discussion points were useful things to consider when trying to promote training with positive reinforcement.  What are the factors that make people more likely to choose one training method over another?  What are the best ways to get people to consider changing their current training methods?

Not surprisingly, the academic world has studied behavior change in people and we can use this information to help gain some insight into the process of change and how to get it started. Brenda shared a diagram of the “Stages of Change Model” from “Change Theory.”

I’ve taken this from the YouTube video of her presentation:

stages-of-change-cropped

There are a few things to note:

Change follows a predictable pattern and most people go through the same stages before either exiting the cycle (with no change) or exiting with a new stable behavior change.

People in the “pre-contemplative” stage have to get into the cycle, before any change can happen. This means you have to find a way to reach them and move them to the “thinking” stage on the cycle itself. This is often the biggest challenge because they may not think there’s anything wrong with what they are currently doing, or they may have an emotional or financial investment in their current way of doing things.

“Relapse” is built in to the model. You can go around the cycle a few times before you learn to maintain the change and move on to a “stable improved lifestyle.” “Relapse” does not mean change is no longer possible. It just means you have stalled out.

And finally, once people are in the cycle, you want to keep them in it until they reach maintenance and/or move on with a stable change in behavior.  It’s important to know how to keep people in the cycle and what they need at each point.

She had another diagram that shows some of the ways we can help people stay in the cycle.

stages-of-change-support-cropped

She made several important points about the second diagram.

Appropriate intervention depends upon where a person is in the cycle. We need to recognize what the individual needs at each stage, and make sure those resources are available.

Education doesn’t necessarily get people into the cycle. It helps people who have already entered the cycle and are already in the “contemplation” stage.  Education is important, but it may not be the best way to reach people in the “pre-contemplation” stage.

She also pointed out that on social media, the two most active groups are the ones in the “pre-contemplative” stage and the ones in the “stable, improved lifestyle” stage because these are the phases in which people tend to be most vocal about their beliefs.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that, at any given moment, there are a lot of people who are already “in the cycle” and we want to support them so they continue on their way toward a long-term change.  Sometimes our efforts to reach the “pre-contemplative” group can be disruptive to people farther along in the process so we need to be careful about how we try to reach the people who seem uninterested in change, and do it in such a way that we don’t compromise the progress we have already made.

When I started clicker training, I was just looking for something fun to do with my horse and I was not prepared for the kinds of responses I got when I showed other people this great new thing I was doing. Yes, there were some people who thought it was cool, but there were many more who couldn’t understand it at all, or why I would want to train in such a “weird” way.

Over the years, I have met more and more people who have dabbled in clicker training (or some version of training with positive reinforcement) and I do think that it is becoming more accepted for certain types of behaviors and among certain groups of horse people, but I would love to see it become more widely used.  I think part of this will come from clicker trainers understanding more about what is important to people and how we can help them make the transition.  I love that there is now an entire conference devoted to animal welfare and human behavior change.

If you enjoyed this summary of Brenda Bonnett’s presentation, you may want to watch the entire thing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyspnEz_YtU.

To learn more about Change Theory, you can visit the website http://www.theoryofchange.org.  There is also some information on the introductory page for the HBC for AW, http://www.hbcanimalwelfare.com/introduction-to-hbcaw.html.

If you are interested in another view of how people respond when confronted with someone who is doing things in a different way, you may want to read Karen Pryor’s article on “Being a Changemaker” which is at http://www.clickertraining.com/node/157.

 

A Training Strategy for Building Duration: Backchain it by using a terminal behavior.

Duration with a short chain.jpgBuilding duration is often a sticky point for many trainers. I know that I find it fun and easy to get behaviors started, but when it comes to building duration and adding stimulus control, it starts to feel a bit more like work. Part of this is because those two processes often involve withholding reinforcement for an existing behavior (which seems slightly unfair) and keeping better track of what you are doing (which requires better record keeping).   This is a little different than the shaping part where I have a training plan, but my job is to work with what the learner offers and the learner typically has more freedom and choices about how we do the training.

But that doesn’t mean that building duration has to be difficult. It’s really just a matter of having a variety of options for ways to build duration and choosing the right one for the animal and the behavior that you are training. I was originally taught to build duration by slowly delaying the click so the animal has to do the behavior for longer before it gets the click and treat. There are lots of additional details and tips that can make this successful and if you are new to building duration, you might want to read the article on building duration on my website.

While the method I described above is one I still use at times, I’ve also learned some other ways that can make building duration easier for certain types of behaviors. One of my favorite ones is to increase duration by using a short chain of two behaviors.  The first behavior in the chain is the one that I would like to get more of (increase the duration) and the second behavior is what Kay Laurence calls the “terminal behavior.” It’s the behavior that tells the animal when it is done with the first behavior. You can also do this with more than two behaviors, but your chain will always include the duration behavior and the terminal behavior.

I like this method because it means that I can set up the training so the animal learns a predictable end to the behavior, and this often works better than having it be the more open ended “do it until I click.” It also takes advantage of the power of backchaining which is when you build a chain by starting with the last behavior and lengthen the chain by adding new behaviors to the beginning.

I first started playing around with this idea when I was teaching young horses to pick up and then continue to hold up their feet. Since they have often gotten a lot of reinforcement for picking the foot up and immediately putting it back down, it’s a big criteria shift to ask them to hold it up for longer. I always felt like they were a bit confused about why they didn’t get clicked for picking it up, and also when they did hold it up, they were waiting anxiously for the click. Since relaxation is important when handling feet, I started looking for ways to give them information about what I was doing so they knew when they were getting close to the end of the behavior.

Why does this matter? I think it matters because it changes the horse’s focus. I think of it as creating a “forward thinking” horse so that instead of the horse thinking “Am I done? Am I done? Am I done?” while it is doing the behavior, and looking for any sign it might be done, the horse is waiting for, or moving toward the next behavior. It might seem like this is the same as waiting for the click, but in practice I find that there is often a difference in the emotional state of a horse waiting for a click vs. a horse waiting for the next behavior.

An additional advantage is that using a terminal behavior can make the behavior clearer to the horse by providing a concrete end point. I have always felt that Rosie does better when she can see the point of what we are doing or there is a clear goal behavior.   I have also found that horses will usually try and look for information that predicts when they are getting close to the click. By choosing and deliberately using a terminal behavior, they are less likely to start to use other behaviors (that I might be unaware they are using) and try to end the behavior early because they are using information that I didn’t intend for them to use.   Not every advantage applies to every use of this technique, but hopefully you’ll get a feel for how and when to use it as I share some different examples.

Back to hoof handling. It turns out that I am pretty systematic about how I teach hoof handling and once I started thinking about it, I realized that I was already set up to create a little chain to build duration for holding the foot up. My usual progression is:

  • Can you pick up your foot and hold it up for 1 second?
  • Can you pick up your foot and hold it up for 2 seconds?
  • Can you pick up your foot and hold it while I brush it with my hand?
  • Can you pick up your foot and hold it up while I brush it with my hand for longer? (I do a few repetitions of this until I have enough duration to match one stroke with the hoof pick)
  • Can you let me use the hoof pick once?
  • Can you let me use the hoof pick twice? And so on… until I can pick out the entire hoof before putting it down.

Normally I progress through these steps, but what if I continued to do the same behavior right before I put the foot back down? Would that provide some consistency so that the behavior was “hold up your foot until I do this behavior” and not “hold up your foot for a variable amount of time.” So I tried it using the behavior of “brushing the foot with my hand” and it worked very well. Even once I was up to cleaning the entire foot, I always finished by brushing it with my hand before I put it back down. It looked like this:

  • Can you pick your foot up hold it while I brush it with my hand?
  • Can you pick your foot up and hold it for one swipe of the hoofpick followed by a brush with my hand?
  • Can you pick your foot up and hold it up for two swipes with the hoofpick followed by a brush with my hand?

The horses learned that I might do various thing with their feet but that I always ended with brushing the foot with my hand. I found this made them calmer while I was doing the other hoof behaviors because they were not waiting with such anticipation for the click. This made it easier to build duration by slowly increasing the number of things I did before I brushed the hoof with my hand. I chose to use brushing the hoof with my hand because it’s easy to do, regardless of why I have the foot up, and it’s the first thing I usually do with babies, but any simple behavior that includes holding the foot quietly will work as well.

Now one obvious question would be “Isn’t putting the foot back down a good terminal behavior?” and in a more advanced horse, it could function as one. But what I have found is that when using a terminal behavior as part of the teaching process, it is important to choose a terminal behavior that I can control. By control, I just mean that I can decide when to ask for the behavior or set up the environment so that the behavior happens when the horse has met the desired criteria for duration. Yes, the horse can stop or cease doing the behavior at any time, so this is not about making the behavior happen, but if he wants to get clicked and reinforced, he has to complete the chain with no shortcuts. It’s worth remembering that the downside of chains is that animals will rush through them to get to the end, so if I want to build duration using a chain, I need to set it up so that it’s clear when the criteria for duration has been met and that there is no reinforcement for jumping to the end of the chain.

This might be clearer with another example of how to use a short chain to build duration in movement. Here’s one way to increase duration at the walk by adding the terminal behavior of going to a mat, target, or other destination.

Let’s say I have trained my horse to walk forward on cue and he will walk for a few steps (3) before I click. Now I would like him to walk forward for more steps, building up to the ability to send him forward and having him keep walking until he gets another cue. I can do this by setting it up so that he is doing a short chain: walk forward -> stop at destination (mat, target, specific location). The destination should be indicated by a behavior the horse already knows so if my horse doesn’t know matwork or targeting, I need to teach that first.

I start by placing the destination object, or positioning the horse, so he has to walk the number of steps he already knows (3, in this example) to arrive there. Once he has learned to do this, I can start to build more duration for walking forward by changing the distance to the destination. I still want to follow the general guidelines for building duration by increasing the distance slowly and maintaining some variability so the horse has some easy reps mixed in with some harder reps, but it’s easy to do this because I get to decide how to set up each repetition. Here’s an example using walking forward to a mat. It might look like this:

  • walk 3 steps to mat – click/treat
  • walk 4 steps to mat – click/treat
  • Walk 6 steps to mat – click/treat
  • walk 4 steps to mat – click/treat
  • walk 5 steps to mat – click/treat
  • walk 7 steps to mat – click/treat

If my goal is to fade out the mat, at some point I can just start clicking before the horse gets to the mat and he will learn that he is getting clicked for walking forward and not necessarily for going to the mat. I can do the same thing with targets or specific locations. I’ve done a lot of work where Rosie gets clicked for arriving at a corner.

Once you get the idea of using short chains, it becomes easy to think of ways to use terminal behaviors to improve preceding behaviors. Some examples of other ways to use them to build duration are:

    • Backing – In the same way that I can use a destination to build duration for walking forward, I can use a destination for walking backwards. I’ve played with using targets and mats to help a horse learn to back for more steps or with better mechanics (diagonal pairs, relaxed topline).
    • Any other movement behaviors – Giving a horse a destination can be incorporated into a lot of ground and ridden work to make it easier to build duration.
    • Husbandry behaviors – A lot of husbandry behaviors require the horse to stand or hold still while I do something. If the horse starts to anticipate the end of the behavior and end it too early, it can be helpful to add a specific terminal behavior that teaches the horse to maintain the behavior for slightly longer.
    • Leg lifts – I’ve used a touch as a terminal behavior for leg lifts. The horse learns to hold his leg up until I touch it. This has the nice advantage that the touch can also be used to reinforce the leg being in the desired position because touching the leg when it is in a certain position also reinforces that variation on the behavior.

General tips:

    • Choose a simple, easy, and short behavior that you can use to mark the end of the behavior. It can be a change in your behavior (something you do to the horse), or the environment, or something you set up as a goal behavior for the horse. I like to think of the terminal behavior as the period at the end of the sentence.
    • Consider whether or not you will want to continue to use the terminal behavior as part of the final behavior. If you just want to use it as part of the teaching process, then you need to plan how you will fade it out.
    • Using a terminal behavior does not mean you never click for the duration behavior.  You can (and probably should) sometimes click and reinforce the duration behavior at times. This is because some chains can start to break down if individual elements are never clicked and reinforced. I usually start by clicking the duration behavior to get it started, then I add a terminal behavior, and start working toward my goal duration. At various points along the way, I may choose to click for the duration behavior instead of cueing the terminal behavior. I tend to do this either to confirm that the duration behavior is the right answer or if I want to introduce the idea that I might not always ask for the terminal behavior.
    • Remember to choose a terminal behavior that cannot be offered prematurely by the horse.  One of the downsides of chaining is that animals tend to rush to the end of the chain if they think they can. I try to think carefully about how to set up the training so the horse can’t take a shortcut and expect to get reinforced.

I’ve put together a little video that shows the use of short chains to build duration. You can watch it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mjLuUpWijw&feature=youtu.be. Please ask questions if you have them. Here is a brief description of what we were doing:

Aurora:

Foot pick up and hold. Aurora was learning to hold her feet up for longer. I am showing how I use the behavior of brushing the bottom of her hoof before I put it back down.

Red:

Backing to a mat. Red has several cues to walk backwards, but over time his default response to his back cue had become to back 2 steps and then stop. This was often all I needed around the barn, so he lost the idea of backing for more steps. Since I didn’t want to build duration by withholding the click if he only backed two steps, I set up a new exercise using a mat so that he learned to back for more steps as I increased the distance to the mat.

I have to say that when I started this project, I underestimated how hard it was for him to back 5 steps in a straight line. So, in addition to getting 5 steps of backing, we spent a lot of time working on symmetrical and even steps. This was great for him as it helped him work through some crookedness in his body, but it did make the behavior more complicated to teach. You’ll see me checking the position of, and resetting the mat because I wanted to make sure it was directly behind him so he would land on it only if he backed in a straight line. If I hadn’t wanted to work on backing in a straight line, I could have used a wider mat.

I also want to note that I wanted a square halt on the mat since this is a behavior he knows and this exercise was part of set of related exercises that were focused on straightness and stopping in balance. If you are just using the mat to mark the end of backing, there’s no need to be that particular about how the horse lands on the mat.

Red:

Backing while I’m sitting in a chair. This was just a fun project that came out of the backing to the mat. I wanted to see if he really understood that the back cue meant to keep going and if he would do it without me accompanying him (I usually walk toward him as he backs).   I taught this by slowly shifting the position of the chair (relative to him) so he learned to back up until his nose was even with the chair. I did add a pole to help him stay straight since my position makes him inclined to want to orient toward me. When I have time to play with this again, I could fade out the pole if that was important to me.

Using Targeting to Build Confidence When Riding Outside the Ring

dsc00371Do you have a horse that is not very confident riding out alone? If so, then this story about Rosie may be of interest to you. It’s about how I used clicker training to build her confidence and give her a way to communicate with me so we could ride out together.

My main riding horse is my mare Rosie. We do a lot of ring work, but I also like to ride out in the fields and woods around our house. I think it’s good to have some variety and for her to learn to be ridden in different places.

When she was young, I started riding her out of the ring by slowly adding new areas to our normal routine. I often introduced these areas by hand walking her in them a few times before riding there. On our property it’s pretty easy to set up larger and larger “loops” so I started by riding down to the house from the barn, and then down and around the house (out of sight of the barn) and then around the house and into the front field.   I mixed things up a bit until she was comfortable being ridden around on our property in lots of different ways.   I say “comfortable,” but of course, there was some variation, depending upon what was going on, the weather, her mood etc.

However, for the most part, I felt she was relaxed and interested being out and about. I wanted riding out of the ring to be a positive experience so I incorporated some familiar exercises or behaviors like going to a cone or mat, putting out buckets with treats, and allowing her to stop and graze. Sometimes I could allow her to choose which way we would go. When I could, I rode with another horse so she had company, and on those rides we would often go a little farther than normal. It’s great for young horses to go out in company as they have the more experienced horses for support and as role models.

I continued to ride her out in the fields and trails near my house for a few years, but one summer she was badly frightened by a group of mountain bikers and after that she became very anxious on the trails. She has always had the habit of stopping and freezing when something catches her attention and now she did this for longer periods of time and also started spooking more. After a while, it became clear to me that I needed to rebuild her confidence and I stopped riding her out of the ring because neither of us was enjoying it. I did continue to ride her in the yard around my house, but that was the farthest we went.

After about 6 months, I decided to try again. That was 3 or 4 years ago and while we have not gotten back to riding out as much as we did at one point, we have worked out a way that she can be ridden out and we can both have a nice ride. The first step was to go back and start again from scratch, paying more attention to her level of tension and expanding her comfort zone much more slowly. I also made a few other changes and one was that I started riding with a target stick. I am sure there are lots of ways to use a target stick while riding but I thought I would share how I use it because it ended up being such a nice way for her to communicate with me.

I started carrying a target stick because I wanted to be able to cue a well-known behavior while riding, one that she could do even if she was a little stressed and one that was not dependent upon location, or that required me to put objects out ahead of time. Carrying a target stick seemed like a good idea because she loves targeting, it’s easy to do from the saddle, and I can present the cue and she can touch it when she is ready.

The last point is important because it means I don’t have to worry about what to do if she doesn’t respond to the cue. I’m always a little cautious about using a cued behavior in a situation where an animal is distracted or upset. I don’t want to use the cue if the animal is not likely to respond, but sometimes giving a cue reminds the animal that there are other options and can be an important step in teaching the animal that there are alternative behaviors.   With the target stick, I can present it and Rosie can respond when she is ready. I didn’t realize it when I started using the target stick, but giving her this ability to tell me when she was ready was probably the most important thing I could have done for her.

Just riding around my property, her big issues were that she would stop and freeze or walk very slowly. When I started riding with the target stick, I started out by just having her stop and touch the target at various times so she knew I was carrying it and that this was a behavior she could do while I was riding. My initial thought was that I would use it to get her attention when she froze and looked at things.

But I soon found that if asked for her to touch the target before she was ready, she would ignore it, or she would touch it and then snatch her head away or refuse to take the treat.   It was better to wait until she oriented back toward me a little bit or to present it so she could see it out of the corner of her eye, so she knew it was there, but it was more of a suggestion than a request.

What this means is that when she stops and looks at something, she can tell me when she is ready to go forward by touching the target stick. She touches the target, I click and treat, and then she walks forward or I cue forward. I’d like to say that this was all planned out in advance, but the reality is that this is what evolved and worked for us. One reason I wanted to share how we use the target stick is to show that sometimes training is about starting with an idea and seeing where it takes you. You don’t always have to have all the answers when you get started.

This use of targeting sounds simple, but along the way I did have to make some rules. One is that touching the target stick is always followed by going forward. This means I do not ask her for, or allow her to do, multiple touches. She touches it once and then she either walks off on her own, responds to my cue to walk off, or we stand and wait until she’s ready to walk forward.   This doesn’t mean she has to walk far. In the beginning, I was happy with one step and would click for it. Then we might do a few steps before I clicked. Usually once she was past the “scary spot,” she would go back to walking nicely for longer periods. Now that we have been doing this for a while, she usually walks off nicely after her target touch and treat.

Do I ever break this rule? Yes, of course. Sometimes she seems ok and will target, but then something else happens (the bush wiggles) and she has to look again. So I try to be aware of times when she is still concerned and compromise a bit. So there is definitely a component of reading her body language, but in general, I have found it works better if she does move forward between target touches. In some cases, I do end up waiting until she is ready to walk off instead of cueing it, but I don’t offer the target again until she has moved at least a step or two.

I also discovered that she sometimes associates targeting with specific locations. So if something startles her in one location on our ride, she will want to stop and target the next time she approaches that spot, even if there is nothing there. I don’t really have a problem with doing this once or twice, but I will sometimes ask her to go a little farther if she stops for no obvious reason and it’s a location where she has stopped before. Usually once she realizes that the location is not a cue to target, she’s fine the next time.

This summer we had some really nice rides out in the fields near my house.  She walked along at a nice pace and seemed to enjoy being out and seeing what was going on.  I also noticed that she wanted to stop and graze at more places along the way, which is something she doesn’t do when she is anxious.  I think that with time she will become even more confident and we will be able to go for longer rides again. But even if we don’t, I’m happy that we now have more options for what to do when it’s a nice day and we want to go riding.

About the picture:  I don’t have a picture of her touching her target stick on the trail so I have used one of her meeting the Easter Bunny.  Teaching horses to target novel objects is another way to build confidence and was something I did with her when she was younger and we were walking around exploring new areas.

 

Aurora gets a bath: Some tips on how to train your horse for husbandry behaviors

aurora-hose-cropped

Using clicker training for husbandry and medical procedures is a great way to teach your horse to accept some of the routine, but less fun, aspects of handling as well as to prepare her for procedures that might involve some discomfort.

We recently had a hot spell and I decided to spend a little time with Aurora in the wash stall, continuing with some work with the hose and bathing that I started last year. When I got her in the fall of 2014 (she was a weanling), I knew she had some previous experience with hoses and bathing and didn’t particularly like it. I learned this on the day I bought her, when her breeder insisted on hosing off her muddy legs. She said she didn’t want to send me off with a dirty horse. Aurora did stand for it, but her posture indicated that she was very uncomfortable with the whole process and I had to intervene and say a little mud was not a problem.

I put hosing on my list of things to do, but since it was November, I didn’t plan on starting right away. Then, a few weeks after she got here, she cut her leg and I had to hose it off daily for about a week.   That didn’t exactly fit in with my plan which included being able to do some careful training to prepare her, but we did get through it. And, on the plus side, I did discover that she would stand still (mostly) as long as I fed her treats. So I managed to make it a more positive experience by keeping her busy eating and taking breaks as often as I could.

Last summer, I did a little introductory work to see how she really felt about the hose and getting wet. I waited to do this until she was comfortable in my wash stall. I had spent the previous winter getting her used to grooming in her stall and then in other locations, working up to standing in the wash stall for grooming. While I do a certain amount of work at liberty, I also like to teach my horses that we sometimes work in a halter and lead and to be tied in different locations and configurations (cross-ties as well as single tie).  In many cases I can use a target or mat to ask the horse to stand still, but I do like to have the option of limiting the horse’s movement if I think it will make a procedure easier for both of us.

Working at liberty vs. using a halter, lead rope, being tied etc…

This question of whether or not go use any form of restraint in husbandry work is one that comes up a lot. A lot of trainers like to work completely at liberty (horse loose and wearing no halter) so the animal has the choice of leaving the session if they are uncomfortable. I think this is important, but there are many things that have to be considered when choosing whether or not use restraint. And there are many levels of restraint.

I have chosen to use the word “restraint” here because it does seem to be the most common way of describing training with some kind of equipment that limits an animal’s choices. But I am using it with some reservations because it implies the horse is being held against her will and I don’t think that has to be the case.   Horses can learn that the presence of certain pieces of equipment are good indicators of what kind of behavior will be reinforced and while the same pieces of equipment can certainly be used in a very restrictive or punishing way, that does not always have to be the case.

For me, restraint rarely means anything more than choosing to put a halter (with or without lead) on a horse or tying her. I do use cross-ties, but I have very stretchy ones and they allow a certain amount of forward and back movement, as well as freedom in the head and neck. My horses can reach back and bite at flies on their shoulders and backs while they are on them. Some cross-ties are overly restrictive and I don’t like ones that hold a horse in a very rigid position

Regardless of what equipment I am using, my goal is for the lead rope or tie to remain loose during the training process. I am not using them to prevent the horse from moving, but more to indicate that I would like the horse to stand still. If I am training with a halter and lead and the horse starts reacting so she is putting pressure on the lead, then I need to re-evaluate my training plan. This may mean breaking the behavior down into smaller steps, removing or changing the equipment, location, or some other element of my training plan.

There are some horses that shut down (offer no behavior and seem depressed) when they are haltered or tied because of past experiences, and this should be taken into account. They may benefit from doing a lot of work with complete freedom as well as making new positive associations with halters and other equipment that needs to be used for routine handling.

I don’t have set rules for whether or not I put a halter and/or lead rope on a horse. It depends upon each individual horse, what I am training, and where I am in the process. I find that I often go back and forth between the different variations. I think it’s fine to start with a halter and lead and work toward doing the same behavior at liberty (if appropriate) and it’s also fine to start at liberty, teach the behavior and then show the horse they have choices even when they are wearing their halter, on a lead, or tied.

Here are some things I consider when choosing whether or not to use restraint:

  • How does the horse feel about restraint in general? Some horses panic if they feel trapped and it’s important to be very careful so that no one gets hurt. My horses all know how to tie, but I have one that panics a bit if something unexpected happens. I never tie her up for anything where I think she might move quickly.
  • How much time do I have to train it? If I am dealing with something unexpected and my horse has not been trained to handle it, I will put the horse on a lead rope or tie it.   If I have a lot of time to train a behavior, I may choose to train the entire thing at liberty.
  • What is my training space like? Is the space one where I can safely work at liberty? Or is it safer if I limit my horse’s movement? It’s good to have a few options so that the horse can learn behaviors under different conditions. I have spaces where the horses are used to being loose, being tied, or put on cross-ties.
  • How do I do the rest of my training? If I do most of my training at liberty, then it makes more sense to do husbandry behaviors at liberty too. The same goes for working on a lead. If I do most of my work on a lead rope, then I think it’s fine to do husbandry behaviors with a lead rope too. I don’t want my horse to think there is anything different about husbandry behaviors. I’m not going to say that a horse can learn to enjoy standing for a shot as much as it enjoys pushing a ball around, but the more similar I can make the training for both, the less likely it is that the horse will perceive shot training as “bad” and ball training as “good.”
  • Is the procedure one where it is ok if the horse moves? With some husbandry behaviors, it doesn’t matter if the horse leaves before I am done or moves around a little bit. With others (particularly some medical procedures), the horse does need to stand still for a period of time.
  • How important is the timing of my click? It can be hard to click and treat with good timing if the horse is moving around a lot. The more structured I can make the procedure, the easier it is to click precisely. Using targets can help a lot with this. I can also teach a horse to accept the use of my hands to hold a body part in position. I routinely teach horses to allow me to manipulate their legs and hold them in certain positions, and I do the same thing with their heads. This can be done through a combination of teaching body part targeting and teaching the horse to accept prolonged contact. For some behaviors, I do want the horse to wait until I click or release them, so the teaching process may include moments when the horse wants to move and I ask him to wait a moment longer and then release him.
  • Do I have a helper? If I am working alone, I am more likely to use restraint. If I have a helper, I can have the helper click and treat the horse for a simple behavior like staying on a target.  Or I can click and she can treat if I am in the best position to decide when to click.

Passive Restraint vs. Active restraint

Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between “active restraint” and “passive restraint.” Ken Ramirez’s book “Animal Training” has some great information on training for husbandry behaviors and it includes this article about teaching a dolphin to accept passive restraint for daily injections. This work was done at the Brookfield Zoo and the article describes why they decided to use passive restraint and how they taught it.

“After much discussion, we realized that we had two options. We could continue to catch and physically restrain Akea for the next several months or teach her to participate in a behavior called “passive restraint.” Passive can be defined as “inactive, while acted upon” and “receptive to outside influences” while restraint is defined as “to hold back from action!” This technique has been used at other facilities and with stranded animals with success, but we had not trained it in recent history at Seven Seas.”

“It was important that the staff realize that we would not be able to condition this behavior fully using only positive reinforcers, and the challenge would be to balance the reinforcement using a minimum of negative reinforcers. Precise implementation of both positive and negative reinforcers would be needed to condition the passive restraint.”

The article goes on to describe how they started with several trainers physically holding the dolphin in place, but were able to condition the dolphin to accept restraint and over time they were able to decrease the number of trainers. The dolphin eventually learned to stay in position for injections with fewer people (few enough she could have left if she wanted) and the behavior was maintained mostly with positive reinforcement. They listed the components that contributed to the success of this training. They included starting with basic restraint (having enough people that they could hold her), positive reinforcement, a companion animal, fading the aversive (they used a net to contain her at times), minimizing time (coming up with ways to make the procedure quicker) and minimizing staff.

This work was done in 1997, so it’s a slightly older article, but I think it shows how you can use restraint as part of a positive training program.  My guess would be that most zoos now have training programs in place to prepare the animals for medical procedures, but I thought it was interesting how they did it and that they got good results.  I found myself in the same situation when Aurora first cut her leg and I didn’t have any time to teach her to stand for hosing. While it would be nice to always be prepared and train behaviors before you need them, there are going to be times when your training is not completed or you have a time constraint and can’t take the amount of time you would like.

Different Approaches to Training Husbandry Behaviors

With this in mind, let’s look at some different approaches to training horses for husbandry behaviors.   I am including training strategies that require a long and carefully thought out training process as well as those that you can use in an emergency or when you have limited training time.   I find that in most cases, it is possible to make an unexpected procedure a positive experience for your horse, or at the least, you can avoid setting yourself up for future problems because you had to do something that caused discomfort, before you had time to prepare your horse.

There are different approaches to husbandry behaviors. Some of them focus on teaching the animal to be comfortable with and accept what needs to be done, others put more focus on finding ways that the animal can actively participate. It’s tempting to rate some of these approaches as being better than the others, but I think it’s more appropriate to recognize that any one of them might be the best option at the time and most of us will use each of them at one time or another. Yes, it’s fun to have a horse get excited about and actively participate in husbandry behaviors, but that may not be appropriate or possible for all horses, and all behaviors, all the time.  Teaching a horse to stand quietly for husbandry behaviors using positive reinforcement is a big step in the right direction and anyone who does it should feel pleased with their training.

Steady click and treat during the entire procedure (or just treat):

If I don’t have time to prepare the horse and something needs to be done, I can try maintaining a high rate of reinforcement for the procedure.  In this situation, I am feeding the horse while something is done to it. Some horses are better if I click and feed. Others are better if I just feed. I may have to experiment to see what works. The food is keeping the horse busy, and while the food is not necessarily being used in the optimum way for classical conditioning, the use of food usually makes the whole process more acceptable to the horse. This is easier to do with two people.

One advantages to this approach is that no previous training is required. If I can’t hand feed, I can use a bucket. When Aurora came and I had to trim her feet, I had someone feed her while I did it. This was a better option than trying to use a more operant approach with a weanling who had no understanding of the click and treat and was worried about having her feet handled. I used the same strategy with her the first time she cut her leg and I had to hose her. I fed her a steady stream of treats while I was hosing her leg.

There are a few disadvantages. It may not work in all cases, especially if the procedure is painful or the horse has to stay absolutely still for a period of time. If I am working alone, I may need to restrict the horse’s movement, either by holding the horse, tying her, or putting her in a small space. It also will not work if the horse won’t eat or the food is not enough to reinforce the behavior I want.  In addition, I have to be careful that the horse doesn’t get satiated before I am done.

The other point to keep in mind is that this approach is more about management than it is about training. A horse that learns to stand and eat during husbandry or medical procedures is not learning what it should do. The food is acting more as a distraction or a way to prevent misbehavior and if I want to be able to do the same thing with less food, I will need to start to make the reinforcement contingent upon behavior, which is the next option.  Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with doing this as a first step or until you can do some more training.

Click and treat for cooperation: the horse accepts the procedure

If I have time to prepare the horse or your horse is already familiar with clicker training, then I can take a more operant approach. This would include teaching the horse the appropriate behavior ahead of time, taking the time to desensitize the horse to any equipment and preparing them for new stimuli (feel of needle, water, etc.).  I would be looking very specifically for behavior to reinforce that was consistent with my end goal for the husbandry behavior that I was teaching.

Even under unexpected conditions, I can do a shorter version of this so the horse is introduced to equipment and any new stimuli in as gradual a way as possible. If the horse has previously been clicker trained for some husbandry or medical procedures with positive reinforcement, it is likely that he will be able to accept a new one as long as I take a little time at the beginning and make use of already trained behaviors.  A horse that has learned to target for one husbandry behavior will often be willing to target for a new one, as long as I set up similar conditions and take a little extra time at the beginning.

This approach has some advantages over the first one. The first one is that the focus is on training behavior, not on managing behavior. Because I am using the click and treat to mark specific behaviors, I can shape behavior if needed, and I can build some duration. Over a few sessions, I can educate my horse about exactly what I want him to do and he will start to offer behavior and be actively working to earn a click and treat.

Using this method, horses can be taught to accept lengthier procedures with fewer clicks and treats which avoids the problem of satiation or having the click and treat interrupt what is happening. Honestly, I find that the latter is usually only an issue if I am working alone and I have to interrupt what I am doing to feed the horse. I’ve only encountered this for things like wrapping legs or hooves where it’s hard to stop in the middle to feed the horse.

Click and treat for participation: the horse gets to make some decisions about how the procedure is done.

The difference between this approach and the previous one is the horse’s level of participation. Both approaches include taking time to desensitize the animal to any equipment, teach appropriate behaviors,  and prepare him for what needs to be done.

In the second approach, the horse is usually being trained to stand quietly while something is done to it. In this approach, the horse is trained to do behaviors that allow her to more actively participate or she can be taught how to communicate with the trainer about when sshe is ready to start, when he needs a break, or some other aspect of how the job is done. Many animals feel more comfortable when they are allowed some control over what is happening and even though we can’t always let them choose whether or not something is done to them, we can let them make some choices about some aspect of how and when it is done.

There are lots of variations on this kind of training and it goes by a lot of different names. Dr. Susan Friedman calls it “dialog training.” Alexandra Kurland calls it “cue communication.”  Jen Digate calls it using “barometer behaviors.” And Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson-Vegh and Peggy Hogan call it using “start button behaviors.”

The biggest advantage to this method is that it allows for more communication between the horse and the trainer about what is happening. It’s always important for the trainer to be observing the horse for body language that indicates discomfort, but this takes it to another level by giving the horse a clear way to ask for something specific.  Some horses do much better if they are given more choices about how husbandry behaviors are done and they will participate willingly in a procedure that that would not tolerate if they felt trapped or restricted.

I hate to say there is any disadvantage to this approach as I think we should all work towards giving our horses more voice about when and how things are done to them, but I will say that it takes a little more careful planning, good observation skills, and it requires that the trainer has complete control over the session, which is not always possible with some veterinary procedures. So I think it’s something to work toward and some elements can be incorporated from the beginning, but it is a more advanced way to teach husbandry behaviors.

Going into the details of how to teach husbandry behaviors this way is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll share a little story that gives an example.

Many years ago I had a foal who was terrified of clippers. I don’t use clippers much but I do like to introduce them in case a vet needs to clip around an injury. I started by running the clippers while he was eating, touching him with them while they were turned off, and then holding them in my hand while they were running, etc., all the standard desensitization ideas that people often use with clippers. He was ok with this, but he was very upset when I touched him with them while they were running. I was working at liberty and as soon as they made contact with his skin, he would flinch and move away.

So I taught him that he could turn them off by touching them. I would turn them on and ask him to target them. If he touched them, I clicked, turned them off and treated. Once he understood that, I would stand next to him, touch him with them, click and treat. Then I would hold them out to him. If he touched them, I would turn them off and give him a break. If he turned and tried to touch them while I was working, I would offer them and let him tell me if he wanted me to turn them off. If he kept his head forward and I was able to use them for a short time (I was actually only pretending to clip), then he got clicked and treated for that. Over time he started asking to touch them less and less and I could keep them running for longer. Since I didn’t actually need to clip him I never built up a lot of duration, but I clearly remember how much more comfortable he became with them once he learned he could ask me to turn them off.

Husbandry Training using Aurora’s bath as an example

I am going to go through the steps I used to introduce Aurora to the hose, related equipment, and getting wet because the general process is one that can be used for any husbandry behavior and it’s a good example of how you can break a behavior down into many small steps.   I have found that taking the time to go very slowly, even if the horse seems ok with it, pays off in the long run. It takes much longer if you move too fast and the horse gets worried, because then you have to take a step back and rebuild the behavior again.

Aurora’s Bath Plan

I followed the tips in Ken Ramirez’s book “Animal Training.”

“The important steps are:

  • Plan Carefully
  • Progress slowly
  • Desensitize all stimuli
  • Bridge precisely
  • Maintain trust
  • Apply proven operant techniques”

Plan carefully, Progress slowly, desensitize all stimuli, maintain trust

I wrote out a general training progression and then broke it down into steps for each session. Here’s my general plan and some notes about how it worked out, or any changes I needed to make:

  • Let her see other horses being hosed or bathed. Her stall is across from the wash stall so this was easy. I just made a point of using the hose to clean or spray off one of the other horses every few days so she could see how the other horse reacted. This isn’t necessary and is not always possible, but horses do learn from watching each other.  Seeing her friends have baths and being exposed to some of the sounds of the bath from a distance was an easy way to introduce the idea to her.
  • Desensitize her to all possible noise and movement. This includes the sound of the water turning on and off and the sound of the spray nozzle. My spray nozzle can make some odd sounds so I spent time spraying the floor, spraying into a bucket and spraying my hand. I have had horses that were upset by the spray nozzle in the past, so if she had seemed concerned I would have just removed it and added it back in later when she was comfortable with the rest of the process.I spent time moving the hose around, so she saw it going in front of her and behind her. I also lifted it up and down and just moved it around on the floor. I wiped her with a dry sponge and scrubby so she got used to the feel of them on her body. I did all this over a period of weeks a little bit at a time. I could have done it much quicker but I would still have wanted to give her some time between sessions so I didn’t try to expose her to too many things too quickly.
  • Start with the part of her body where I think she will be most comfortable. I always start with water that is lukewarm or slightly warm, even if it’s a hot day. With many horses I start by gently hosing the shoulder area. They seem less reactive to water there and it’s easy to stand in that location and click and treat without having to move the hose around.However, with her, I decided to start by hosing off her hooves.   This might not be a good choice for some horses because a lot of horses move when they feel water on their legs, but I have done a lot of work handling her legs and she is very comfortable with me working around them. She also had some previous experience and reinforcement history for standing while I hosed her legs.

    One advantage to hosing her hooves was that I could introduce the sensation of water on her skin very gradually. So I sprayed her hooves and a little water misted up on her lower legs. Then each day I went a little higher.   I found it was easy to move from foot to foot and I would spray one foot for a few seconds and then do another one. This allowed me to slowly build some duration without staying in one spot and made it easier for me to click and treat without accidentally clicking when she moved.

  • My plan included an option for what to do if she was reactive to water coming from the hose on to her body. I have worked with a few horses that were uncomfortable being sprayed directly by the hose. One option is to remove the spray nozzle and just set the hose on a slow drip. Once the horse is comfortable with this, I can use my thumb over the end to create a little bit of a misting effect and slowly build up to using a spray nozzle.Another option is to use a sponge as an intermediate step. When I do this, I use the following progression:

    Can I touch you with the dry sponge?
    Can I touch you with the wet sponge?
    Can I touch you with the wet sponge while holding the hose?
    Can I touch you with the wet sponge while the water from the hose is going on to the sponge?
    Can I touch you with the water from the hose going over the sponge so some is hitting your body directly?
    Can I touch you with the water from the hose going over my hand (no sponge) so some is hitting your body directly?
    Can I touch you with my hand and water from the hose?
    Can I spray you directly with the hose?

    This progression prepares the horse for the sensation of the water hitting her skin directly. I think many horses react because they are surprised by the water coming from a distance. They are more comfortable when I use the sponge and my hand because that tells them where the water will touch them.

  • Work in short sessions, focusing on one new element each day. She is general pretty accepting of new things so I had to make myself keep the sessions short and not assume that acceptance was the same as really being ok with it. I find she’s sometimes harder to read than a more reactive horse and I have to make myself go slow, even though it may not look like she needs it. I think she does, she just doesn’t make it very obvious. I was able to move pretty quickly through the desensitization steps, but made a point of only using the hose on her for a minute or two in the first few sessions.There has been some research, looking at physical indications like heart rate and breathing, that shows that a quiet horse is not necessarily less stressed than a horse that is reacting to a procedure. This is more likely to be true with horses that have been punished in the past, but I think you have to be careful with any horse to make sure that you are not asking too much of them. Learn to read your horse’s body language and allow her to let you know how she feels about what you are doing.
  • Look for opportunities to make it more fun for her. Some horses like to put their noses in the hose or enjoy being hosed in certain areas. My gelding Willy always liked having the underside of his neck hosed off and he would stretch his neck out and try to rub against my hand when I hosed him there. She seems interested in the water so I sometimes hold the spray nozzle near her nose and let the water run into my hand and she will stick her nose in it. Another option is to mix in other favorite behaviors such as targeting or interactions with objects.

Bridge Precisely

The plan covers most of Ken’s steps (plan carefully, progress slowly, desensitize all stimuli, maintain trust) in detail. It also mentions the importance of clicking at the right moment. One of the challenges of training husbandry behaviors is that a poorly timed click can set the training back considerably, especially if it happens in the early stages of training. I find that clicker trained horses like to be clicked for doing things, so a mis-timed click, that happens during movement, can often lead to the horse offering more movement.  One way to make this less likely to happen is to try and set up the training so that the clickable moments are long enough or for previously learned behaviors so that they are easy to mark.

There are a couple of strategies I can use to help with this:

  • Use a target – If the horse has been trained to hold on a target, that gives both of us a focus and makes it easy to decide when to click. A nose target can be useful if I want the horse to hold his head still. A foot target might be a better choice if I want the feet to stand still. I put Aurora on a mat for hosing to encourage her to stand in one place.
  • Click and treat for standing quietly when I am doing something to the horse and also when I am not. It’s a good idea to mix in some clicks and treats for standing quietly between repetitions of the husbandry behavior or between procedures.  When I was hosing her feet, I clicked and treated when she was standing still while I was hosing. I also clicked and treated when she was standing still when I was not hosing. Those were great opportunities to click and treat for the behavior I wanted, but with less risk that she would move just as I clicked.
  • Teach the horse to voluntarily participate.   It’s easier to time the click if the horse is the one that initiates contact or movement or the horse is responsible  for maintaining contact. For example, if I train my horse to target my hand or an object with his ear or eye, it’s easier to time my click correctly because I can see the horse’s intention. If I just put my hand out toward his ear, I might not be able to tell if he is going to allow the touch or not, so there’s more risk of clicking at the wrong moment.

Apply Proven Operant Techniques

The last point I want to mention as part of the plan is Ken’s comment about using “proven operant techniques.” The operant technique I use the most is positive reinforcement (the click and treat) and it’s an integral part of my training plan. I am going to mark and reinforce Aurora for moments when she is standing still or doing other desirable behaviors. During bathing, I sometimes click for a change to a more relaxed posture. So if her head is up, I can click if she drops it to a lower position. I don’t necessarily want her to take her nose all the way to the floor, but I can encourage a drop to a more neutral position.

I can also click for standing in good balance or for interacting with me in appropriate ways. I don’t need her to stand like a statue, so I sometimes click for natural behaviors that show she is aware of what I am doing and wants to see more or check in with me. I do have to be careful that she doesn’t think these behaviors are required, so I try to respond to her but without creating any expectation or setting up a pattern. I can also mix in simple behaviors to give her a break or additional opportunities for reinforcement.

With a husbandry behavior like bathing, positive reinforcement is not the only operant technique that I am using. Negative reinforcement also comes into it. Does this mean what I am doing is aversive? No, it just means that there will be moments, especially in the beginning, where she finds it reinforcing when I stop using the hose or washing her. She may just be tired of standing while I work on one location or need to take a break. So I can time when I stop hosing to reinforce behaviors I like.

I should point out that I while I am aware that taking the hose away can also reinforce undesirable behavior (fidgeting, moving away), I don’t like to leave it on if the horse is clearly uncomfortable. Waiting for a “good moment” when a horse is already stressed is not a good training strategy. It’s better to listen to what the horse has to say, remove the hose and try again with a slightly modified training plan.

In the beginning, if she stands nicely while I spray one location, I can remove the hose, click and treat. Later I can reinforce the same behavior by taking the hose away for a moment and giving her a break. I don’t necessarily have to click and treat for every area I hose. I actually find that if I am doing something with shampoo, it can be tricky to click and treat a lot during bathing as my hands get covered with soap and the horses don’t like that. So I try to build in other types of reinforcement like a scratch or pat, removal of the hose, or some praise. That way I can click and treat less often but still reinforce good behavior in between.

Final Thoughts

Most horses can be clicker trained to accept and participate in husbandry behaviors if the trainer takes time to prepare them and works at the pace at which the horse is comfortable.  Teaching your horse really strong targeting behaviors and introducing equipment gradually will make the process easier and more enjoyable for everyone.  Planning ahead and doing some training before you need it is always a good idea. I try to mix in a little practice here and there as I have time so that it’s not a big deal if I suddenly need to hose a leg, put in eye medication, or wrap a foot.

A lot of the information I have shared in this article can be used for other husbandry behaviors. The key to success is breaking it down into tiny steps and observing your horse carefully to make sure that she is comfortable with what you are doing.   Since Aurora is only 2, I’ve been doing a lot of husbandry behaviors with her and I hope to share more tips as we work on each one.