Clicker Stories; Getting Started

Part 3 of the email from Alexandra in her Yahoo Group, Dec 2012.

That’s the basics. Now for a couple of stories. Since the original question involved a mini, I’ll tell a Panda story. Panda is a mini I trained to be a guide horse for the blind. She belongs to Ann Edie who is one of the partners in The Clicker Center Barn. I started with Panda when she was ten months old. Her first lesson was as I have described. She was in her stall with a barrier between us. Her very first clicker lesson was touching a foam pool noodle. She caught on fast to targeting, and she also caught on fast to the fact that I had treats in my pocket. Because Panda was going to be a guide her training was quite different from other horses I’ve worked with in one very important aspect. She got to travel with me everywhere I went. The first weekend after she arrived I was scheduled to teach a clinic at barn that was about an hour away. Panda was still learning how to balance in a moving car, so I arranged for one of my clients to drive while I sat in the back seat with Panda. Ann rode in the front passenger seat with her guide dog.

It was quite a ride. I was nothing if not vulnerable. My pockets were unavoidably right under Panda’s nose, so for an hour I maintained her on a high rate of reinforcement for keeping her nose away from my pockets. Any time my focus went away from her, she’d be sniffing around my pockets. Ann was an experienced clicker trainer. She knew her big horses were polite around the food, but it’s just like raising any youngster. You forget what the puppy, kitten, toddler stage is like. You remember the cute times, not the messes on the floor. She couldn’t help but worry that this wouldn’t do. She couldn’t have a guide who was at her pockets all the time. I had to keep reassuring her that this was just a stage, that the mugging would go away.

Building duration in any behavior takes time and grown-ups was no exception to this. With Panda it was easy to teach the guide work. It took more time to teach the “just hang out next to me and go to sleep” behaviors. But eventually grown-ups grew from keeping her nose away from my pockets for a few quick seconds to standing quietly by Ann’s chair at a restaurant while the grown-ups not only talked, but enjoyed their appetizer, dinner, desert and coffee afterwards!

I share this story to emphasize that polite manners around food is something that grows over time. The horses do not understand in one or two sessions of clicker training that the treat pockets are off limits. We aren’t using punishment to make nuzzling an unsafe behavior. That might stop the behavior – at least for the moment, but punishment has a way of creating other unwanted side effects. So instead of making the nuzzling wrong, we use good training structure to make other behaviors more desirable, more productive. Just as we would with a toddler, we explain in one small step after another what our expectations are.

Kindergarten Games
So here’s the second story. This past weekend Sue Bennett who has hosted the Indiana clicker clinics, and Trish McMillan who is the director of applied research and behavior for the ASPCA and a regular attendee at the mid-west clinics were visiting. I put them to work video taping for the on-line course I’m working on. We got some great video of the rope handling and also some really fun sessions with the horses. Trish posted a couple pictures from the sessions on my face book page. She’s one of several people who are trying to shape me to use and enjoy facebook. So far I know I have not been very reinforcing for them. But I am a strong believer in shaping so I know they will be successful!

My wish list of videos included Robin doing colour discrimination with cones. It’s a favorite game, and he’s gotten very good not just at identifying the correct colour, but also identifying bigger/smaller and left/right. I had him perfectly positioned facing the camera when we were joined by Peregrine. He also wanted to play the game. I often work them together standing side by side, but this time Peregrine positioned himself behind me. I let him stay there so he wouldn’t block the camera.. As we went through the lesson, I was reminded of Robert Fulghum’s book: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. In the book, Fulghum has a list of grown-up manners that allow us to function in groups, chief among them is sharing.

Robin is fierce as houses. In other training methods he would be called dominant and alpha. I just think of him as a very powerful individual who is accustomed to taking whatever he wants from the other horses. But in this game he shared beautifully. I held the cones behind my back as I told him which colour to show me. Then I presented the cones. He touched the correct one, click and treat. I then turned my back on Robin and gave Peregrine a turn. With my back turned, the cones were right under the nose of the waiting horse, but there was no grabbing for them out of turn. Both horses heard the click, but only the horse I was addressing looked for the treat. It’s easy watching this clip to focus in on the colour discrimination and to miss what to me is the more important training – the polite sharing.

Good manners emerge over time. They emerge with consistency. Through the course of the day in dozens of small interactions I ask for and get polite responses. Someone watching Robin politely waiting his turn might say he respects me. I would say our relationship is built on something very different and much more solid. Robin likes me. He understands patterns of behavior that let us move comfortably together. He knows how to yield out of my space, to zig when I zag, to wait his turn, to politely allow other horses into his space. I listen to him and he has learned how to listen to me. So yes, we do respect one another – but I use that term as the dictionary defines it: we have a feeling of deep admiration for one another. Respect is a regard for the other’s feelings and wishes. And that shines through clearly in the relationship that we have.

We are in the Holiday season, a time of gift giving. I think of all the clicker delights my horses give me on a daily basis. I love how much they want to be with me. And I love how much they have learned to share. At the end of the video session I asked Robin to lie down. He had to sniff the entire arena before settling on the perfect spot. Again he was positioned perfectly for the camera. I sat down facing him, and Peregrine came over and stood over us. They took turns again as I asked them to target my hand with different body parts. It was a perfect family portrait with Peregrine standing above us both.

I could not have sat in such a vulnerable position if either horse had any issues around the food. Grown-ups grows into gifts like this. My advice to everyone starting out with clicker training is to take your time over these foundation lessons. Don’t be in a hurry to get it all done yesterday. Good manners are cumulative. Anyone who has raised small children knows this. Trust the process. Enjoy the process. And enjoy your horses.

For more details on the Grown Ups lesson please see the Lesson 1 DVD; Getting Started.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com

About theclickercenter

Clicker Trainer
This entry was posted in Clicker Basics, Ground Manners, Grown Ups, Horses Mugging and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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