Clicker Basics

Part 2 of the email from Alexandra in her Yahoo Group, Dec 2012.

So here’s the basic set up for getting started. For the mini who is mugging, I would recommend going back to this. Count out twenty treats and put them in your pocket. Depending upon the size of the treat and how many you feed each time you click, this means you have ten plus or minus trials for each session.

Grown-ups initially has a very stylized starting posture for the handler. There are many reasons for this which are covered in the books and DVDS. I won’t go into them here. I’ll just describe the basic stance. You’ll be standing in balance with your hands folded together in front of your body. Your forearms will effectively be blocking access to your pockets.

With a mini I generally make one modification. I begin by sitting in a chair. That puts me at a better height for the mini. I have a barrier between us so sitting in a chair should be a safe option.

Since mugging has been an issue, I’m going to assume that the mini is going to come over and nuzzle at your pockets. When he takes his nose away, click and treat. Feed out away from your body, placing your hand where the perfect horse would be. In this case the perfect horse would have his nose between his chest about the height of the point of his shoulder. If you are on the left side of the horse, you should feed with your left hand. This gives you more power of influence if your horse is pushy. I will often have people put a piece of duct tape on the back of their right hand. Once the horse gets his treat, if the handler can get her left hand back to the duct tape target before the horse has moved out of feeding position, click, she gets to treat again. The duct tape helps the handler keep her mechanics clean. She won’t be inadvertently reaching for the treat before the click. You can see this illustrated on the Lesson 1: Getting Started DVD.

The goal for this first round is a high rate of reinforcement. You want to click – feed out away from your body, click – feed out away from your body in rapid succession. You are in effect saying this is where the food is going to be delivered. This is where you get treats – not in close to my body. As your horse begins to figure out the game, you can begin to delay slightly when you click. Over time, you’ll be building duration into grown-ups. If your horse goes back to nuzzling your pockets, wait quietly for him to remember that treats appeared when he was looking straight ahead, not mugging you. Click and treat.

You only put twenty treats into your pocket, so you will need to stop and refill. This gives both you and your horse a break. It gives you both some process time. And it says to your horse: “yes the game stops, but then it starts up again. You don’t have to get anxious because I am leaving with the treat pouch.” This is really important, especially for muggy horses. I’ve seen people try to resolve mugging behavior by rationing clicker training. This can often make the problem worse. The horse becomes more anxious trying to figure out how to keep their human in the game. They want the social attention often even more than the food treats, but they don’t know how to turn the clicker game back on. Their frustration intensifies the unwanted behavior.

Instead I begin the training by working in short sets. I count out my twenty treats. I do ten plus or minus trials and then I go get twenty more treats. The horse learns that the game stops, but then it starts up again. They don’t need to feel anxious because I am leaving with the treats. That helps to reduce mugging behavior. They become confident that the treats are there. They aren’t going to be snatched away. In fact as the game progresses, the horse will be learning more and more ways to get me to click. All of that helps to reduce mugging behavior. Fill your horse’s dance card, and there’s no room left over for unwanted behavior.

As long as I am working with protective contact, I keep to the twenty treat protocol. Once I am working directly with a horse, with no barrier between us, I fill my pockets. By that point a rhythm to the training will have developed. I will be asking not for single behaviors but for small clusters of linked behaviors. I’ll still be giving breaks, but I’ll do so by switching to previously learned, easy behaviors such as grown-ups. So the more the horse learns, the more I’ll be using grown-ups to keep emotional balance in my training.

While I am getting my twenty treats, I am thinking about the session that just occurred. I am deciding what changes I need to make, what behavior I need to work on next. Suppose my horse was doing a lot of nuzzling at my pockets to the point where I was feeling unsafe. In the next round of twenty treats I might decide to shift to some targeting and to feed so that my horse steps back out of my space to get the food. Again this is illustrated well in the books and DVDs.

Whatever I choose to do next, I will be setting my training up so that I can stay focused on what I want my horse to do. If I am seeing behaviors I don’t like, I’ll structure my lessons so that I can be non-reactive to them. Again, I want my horse to feel safe experimenting. Offering behavior is a key raw ingredient for successful shaping. While I am counting out my twenty treats, I can be making plans for dealing with any unwanted behaviors I’m seeing, but I’ll be addressing them in a clicker-compatible structure.

That’s the initial set-up. As the lessons progress, I’ll be working directly with the horse. There won’t be a barrier between us. I’ll be asking for a variety of behaviors, but I’ll be returning regularly to my tap root of grown-ups. Over time the mugging will go away. The more consistent and clear I am in my handling and in the structure of the lessons, the faster it will disappear.

When I first teach grown-ups, I free shape the behavior. I wait, as I’ve described, for the horse to take his nose away from my pockets. I don’t push his nose away. I want my horse to discover that certain behaviors he chooses have a reliable, predictable, positive outcome for him. And I want my handlers to discover the power of freeshaping. We are used to making things happen through our actions. Waiting for behavior and then reinforcing it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

So initially I freeshape grown-ups, but this is not forevermore. Later, once I have activated the lead as a clicker compatible tool, I’ll use it to remind my horse that his nose belongs away from my pockets. It’s easy for horses to become confused and to forget their good manners. We reach towards them to give them a treat. We reach towards them to slide down a lead. Our hands move about when we are asking for the next behavior and also when we are just talking with a friend. How is a horse to know what everything means? So if my horse forgets his good manners, at this point instead of letting my horse nuzzle my pockets, I’ll slide down the lead and move his nose out of my space. As soon as his nose is beyond the reach of my finger tips, I’ll release the lead. If he comes back into my space, I’ll slide down the lead again. I’ll repeat this until he hesitates ever so slightly out in the grown-ups-are-talking position. Click and treat. I am reminding him that this is where his head belongs.

I choose not to wait out the mugging at this point because it is often the result of a lack of consistency and clarity on the part of a novice clicker trainer. The horse has been accidentally, inadvertently reinforced for mugging. The variable schedule has built up a resistance to extinction. The horse will mug and mug, and mug some more convinced that this tactic will produce results. This is where both horse and handlers often get frustrated. The result: the horse’s mugging behavior intensifies in an extinction burst, and the handler breaks down and punishes the behavior. I prefer to circumvent this scenario by sliding down the lead and adding clarity to the process. “This is where your head belongs. This is where you get reinforced.” I am mentioning this here because I know that many people think that because they started out freeshaping grown-ups that’s the only way they are “allowed” to ask for it. The power of clicker training is there are many different teaching strategies. You want to select the one that best fits the goals and circumstances of your training.

For more details on the Clicker Basics please see the Lesson 1 DVD; Getting Started.

Alexandra Kurland

About theclickercenter

Clicker Trainer
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