Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Naughty Horse Part 2 in Which Reinforcers and Punishers Are Analyzed

So now I had a horse who was jumping out of of his paddock whenever he wanted. If they had been given a new section of grass, which happened every day or two, he was happy to stay and eat. It didn't take long for "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" to set in and he'd hop out. There was a particular strip of grass near the house that was incredibly thick and lush. It's where the runoff from the barn paddock occurred, so it was heavily fertilized. That is where he would go to as soon as he was out. It was conveniently located beneath the house window and so I knew as soon as he had escaped. This only occurred a few times over a day or two while I wracked my brain for a solution. 

I raised the fence as high as I could without risking the ponies escaping underneath it. Scaling height was not a problem. Giving him fresh grass only kept him busy for part of a day. Finally, I took a chance and relocated their grazing to the far end of the field. It meant giving up on a section of grass I really wanted them to clean up, but I started them over on regrowth as far away from the tempting spot as possible. I also left in place the border fences of the paddock they had been, so that he would have had to jump three fences and go a distance from his buddies to return to his desired grazing. That did the trick. I was on overwatch for several days before I could relax, while realizing that it was only a short term solution.

At this point I had:

  • unwanted behavior- leaving a chosen confined space by jumping a single strand of electric rope over 3' high (with only 15' of approach as that was the width of the grazing strips)
  • reinforcer- lush grass
I had to set it up instead as:
  • desired behavior- remaining in specified paddock
  • reinforcer- lush grass
  • making the unwanted behavior less desirable by 
    • adding distance to the previous reinforcer
    • adding more fences between him and the previous reinforcer
    • no reinforcement available for jumping the first fence (which put him in grass that had already been grazed down)
Problem solved. Temporarily. As summer turned to fall, I was careful in how I arranged paddocks and that he had plenty to eat each day so that we did not experience a resurgence of the jumping. He was eventually turned into the paddock with the lush grass and given free access to it. 

That solution lasted until all the fall grazing was gone. Once the good grass had been eaten from the rotational grazing, I opened the paddocks up to larger and larger spaces so that they could forage for spots they'd either missed or been too fussy for previously. They get a lot less fussy as the fresh grass stops growing. They soon had the entire field to play in and hunt around in. Which is when Percy realized that the hayfield which hadn't been mown since the end of summer had regrowth far better than what was in their pasture. And he jumped out again. 

At this time of year I had to realize that there was nothing I could give him as a reinforcer inside the pasture which could compete with the grass he was finding in the hayfield just on the other side of the fence. I could have made it harder for him by increasing the height of the fence, but that meant I would have also had to add an additional strand to the bottom for the ponies. I knew once we got snow that would just be buried and cause more problems. Hay kept him happy short term but before it was even cleaned up, he chose to jump out for dead grass on the stem over dead grass from a bale. 

I had to confine them to the paddock near the barn, as much as I hated to do so. Snow came and covered all the reinforcing grass. I gave it another try. He wasn't that easily discouraged. Whether he remembered, could smell it, or just took a chance, he jumped out and was soon digging through the snow for the grass underneath. 

This brings me to the other reinforcers for jumping out. Me. Leaving him loose just increased the value of jumping out. But preventing that by going out to retrieve him was also reinforcing. He'd hear the door open, pick up his head, and trot right to me. At that point I could have put a halter on him and returned him to his confinement...but that would have been connected more closely to being caught than to jumping out. Had I done that more than a time or two, he wouldn't be so foolish as to be caught. So yes, I offered him a peppermint or a piece of apple and he happily followed me to the barn, sans halter. We'd play a bit together before I put him out with hay (to bring the other horses back in) and I'd close the gate to eliminate access to jumpable fences. 

Finally we had enough snow that I thought he might think twice before trying to jump in the deep stuff. I put hay out far from the house (interestingly, he never tried to jump out from any other part of the fence) and after several days was relieved to see him staying in. Well, except for the days I was a little late getting out for chores in which case I'd look out the window to see him using teeth and neck to dislodge the fence posts so he could step out. And yes, he'd watch the window for me as he did it. There are advantages to being a reinforcer oneself, but sometimes disadvantages. 

Last week (we've made it to the middle of January), I was a little late writing up some behavioral follow ups for clients and it was dusk by the time I left the house to do afternoon chores. I hadn't seen him playing with the fence post so I was concerned when I only saw four, not five, equine figures waiting for me. I squinted. All I could see were white markings in the dusk. Rumer's paint body was easy to see, and Kizzy's blaze and even Ande's strip were there. Stowaway's spotted rump was visible. But no big blaze and stockings. Where the...

For the first time I hoped he had finally figured out how to do the snap combination on the barn doors and had gotten in there but when I hurried into the barn, no Percy. No one seemed upset so I couldn't believe he'd gone far and only hoped he wasn't lying out in the field with a broken leg. I dashed down the aisle to the far end of the barn and slid open the doors. 

Through the dark I saw him in the pony pen. The gate was wide open and he stood looking at me interestedly. 
"What are you doing out THERE?", I asked. 

Once again, I was faced with what to do now. I felt I had to reinforce him for coming to me, especially since it was dark and cold and he was oh-so-willing. I did not click and treat, but simply let him follow me into the barn and closed the doors behind him. I knew that being locked in his stall would feel punishing, when the others were still outside. Instead, I let him do one of his favorite things which was to explore the barn while I prepped stalls for the night. He wandered in and out of the different stalls, took a bite of a hay bale in the wash stall, poked his nose in places that interested him, and generally behaved like a dog until I had all the stalls ready. Then I put him in his own stall and quickly brought the others in. 

Did this reinforce his coming to me? Did it reinforce the fence escaping? There would be no way to know until I saw what he did next time. 

To Be Continued!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Real Life Reinforcers, Punishers and a Story of a "Naughty" Horse

The naughty horse in this story is my own and I take full responsibility, as I must, for his behavior. "Naughty" is just one of many adjectives we hear when describe animals. Stubborn, willful, spoiled and even arrogant are just a few others. The more we learn about behavior, the less we need these labels, although I still need to stop myself from using them occasionally.

If I were to replace "naughty" with kinder and possibly more helpful descriptors, I'd say he's a good problem solver. The challenge is that that we have different ideas about which things are problems and which are solutions. I consider fences to be a solution to the problem of having a horse somewhere I consider unsafe: in the road, on bad footing, eating pasture too lush for his digestive system. He considers fences a problem to be solved so that he can eat tastier grass and explore places. I consider his penchant for escaping to be a problem. And around we go.

I do have one fence which contains him. It's a five foot high woven wire fence on solid posts set well into the ground and topped with one strand of electric. I don't like to keep him there because it's a small area and one I feel badly about confining him to. Also, if I confine him, I must confine everyone so they each have access to shelter and water.

The larger pastures are fenced with electric rope. That is sufficient for everyone else, as long as I make sure that the fence is on, no wildlife has gone through it, the height is appropriate for the individuals confined, and other basic maintenance.

Before last summer, that at least functioned to keep Percy (aka "naughty horse") in as long as there was grass to eat, which, after all, is a horse's natural behavior. Giving an animal appropriate natural behaviors and fulfilling their natural requirements of food, water, companionship and shelter goes a long way toward keeping the peace.

Previously he had several ways of conquering the fence problem. When he got bored in the winter he would play with the fence posts, taking them in his teeth and pulling them out if he could. If not, he'd rub his neck gently on them until they loosened and tipped. While playing with them, he'd discover that in the winter, the fence wasn't as "hot" as in the summer. With the earth solidly frozen, there was no moisture to provide a "ground" for the electricity to go to, and the little tingle it gave off didn't deter him from playing with the rope itself, sliding insulators up and down and removing them entirely with his clever lips.

As if that wasn't enough, last summer I taught him how to jump out.

That wasn't my intention of course. With my history in eventing, I know that a horse can learn how to use his body over fences best without being encumbered by a rider. One can build a jumping lane of fences and chase the horse down through it so that he jumps the fences in his way and practices his gymnastics. Because it involves chasing, I came up with a reason for the horses to want to jump through, rather than needing to chase them through. I already had a lane for them to go out to pasture and back, so I simply starting placing things in their way. First it was a rail, then a couple, then a small jump, then a couple, etc. I've been working up to larger jumps over the past couple years and pleased to see them each becoming more and more comfortable. They seem to enjoy it and I don't leave the larger jumps up for them to need to do multiple times a day. I usually set them up for them to go over on their way out, then lower them to smaller obstacles for their trips back and forth. Percy showed a knack for clearing the jumps I set.

step one of teaching Percy to jump out
I also taught him to jump in a more thoughtful and controlled manner by doing some agility with him. A somewhat new sport with varying levels of contact and liberty work, it was the theme of the August clinic I hosted last summer, along with Katie Bartlett, Cindy Martin and Marla Foreman. So I spent the earlier part of the summer playing with Percy on the various obstacles to become acquainted with them: a tractor tire filled with sand, weave poles, hula hoops to station in, etc. Oh, and little jumps. While all the horses and ponies liked to race out through the lane to pasture, Percy took a much more casual approach to our agility jumping. He really didn't think he should get ahead of me and I can't go as fast as he does so he learned to jog up to jumps carefully and hop over them, not leaving me too far behind. That, apparently, was phase two of teaching him to jump out.

The first time I looked out to see him grazing, alone, in some deep and lush clover on the opposite side of the fence from the others, I searched to see where the fence was down. It wasn't. No one else was out. I thought he must have been reaching underneath the fence to graze, and mistakenly pushed through it, somehow allowing it to spring back. I put him back with the others, checked to make sure the fence was on and watched from the barn.

He trotted down to the narrow strip of grazing they have each day and walked carefully up to the fence and reached out to test the fence with his whiskers (this is how he assesses whether it's on or not). I saw him pull back quickly and then buck several times in place. Aha, I thought, now he won't try anything again. But then he backed up about four steps, did a lovely little lift of his forehand off the ground, trotted forward...and jumped the rope.

I won't tell you what I said.

So that's the background for this past week's tales of naughty.

To Be Continued

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hay Net, Bag, Feeder Review

Hay pillows in front.
Busy Horse feeders in rear

This year I'm trying some new hay pillows. It's not because I'm unhappy with the Busy Horse hay feeders I have. Quite the opposite. I am really impressed with the Busy Grande regular feeders that I have had for many years. In the winter they get almost daily use and they are holding up beautifully. I have three of the Busy Grande hay feeders which are big enough to stuff two or three good sized flakes of hay into and have holes that are about 2 1/4" square. I also have one of the Busy Grande Slow Feeders. They hold the same amount but the holes are only 1 3/4" square. The horses definitely prefer the bigger holes, and choose those bags over the other, such that I have designed a system as to where I put the one with the smaller holes. 
the Slow on the left and the Regular on the right
For the past several years, I've had four places that I can hang the bags. Originally, my husband put four posts in for me but Kizzy snapped one right in half rubbing on it the year she got Sweet Itch so badly. And then we got the street sweeper for itching on and it was convenient to slide that down over another post. Which left me with two posts. The other two heavy duty screw eyes are in the shed attached to the barn. 
The shed is only two sided, and if the wind/snow/yuck comes out of the south, the warmest driest spot is on the western side of the shed. So that is where I put the bag with the smallest holes. My reasoning: whoever has to struggle with that bag, at least is in a cozy spot to do so. Whoever is out in the wind and the snow, can at least eat more in less time.


Stowaway got the slow one in the shed here. You can see how he works at it.
Let me back up a little as to why I use hay bags at all. I do believe that horses should do a lot of eating off the ground. Studies have shown that their nasal passages drain well that way and it helps prevent respiratory problems. However, the studies I am aware of were done ages ago and compared eating off the ground to eating out of hay racks or bags mounted high on the walls of their stalls. 

One of the reasons I chose the Busy Horse bags are because they have no strings to get
The heavy duty snaps I use...double ended ones just broke.
tangled in horse legs. They have two rings in the top which I use heavy duty snaps to attach to heavy duty screw eyes in posts or walls. My horses are all barefoot and so with no strings and no shoes, I am comfortable hanging these bags low enough so that the bottoms are at ground level once the snow comes. The one in the video above is higher, but I'm ok with that since the horses rotate from one to another. They spend some time with their heads at all heights. 
Horses are also browsers of leaves and brush, so eating at higher heights is not completely unnatural. If I only had one horse and one hay bag that horse ate all her meals out of, I'd be more concerned about the neck issues that some people worry about.

So why not just feed on the ground? I do, in the morning, when the weather allows. As long as it's not too windy, I spread one bale of hay out in the large field before I turn them out each morning. I spread the sections far apart so they have to walk a lot to get from one to another. However, there are some mornings that it is so windy that the hay blows away before it hits the ground, to say nothing of before the horses can clean it up. I don't like using good hay to mulch the next field over while my horses go hungry. So the hay bags keep the hay in place long enough for them to consume it!

It also keeps the horses busy longer. This morning I put a bale out in the field and they had finished it before I left the barn an hour and a half later. I then put another bale in the 4 hay bags and 2 hay pillows. Four hours later they are still picking at those: much better for the equine digestive system.

Finally, it's nice for my schedule to be able to fill the bags at morning chores, and then just hang them, not far from the barn, whenever I get a chance to during the day. It's much easier than putting another bale on the sled and having to hike out to the field while the hungry and bored horses are trying to pull hay off it. They can exhibit self control long enough for me to get a bag hung up. 

Note: Back when Mariah was here, she was big enough and clever enough that she'd stuff her nose down into the bag from the top, eliminating the "slow" from the equation. It was quite tedious, but I had to weave them closed with bale string each time to prevent her from doing that. 

And that brings me back to the hay pillows. They are designed to be thrown right on the ground which is more like grazing. I think I initially got them for the ponies when they are in their own round pen. I have other nets I hang for them but I didn't like doing it all the time. With no posts in their pen, I could just fill the pillows and throw them in. 

When they first arrived, I was disappointed. I thought there was no way that the zippers which held them closed would hold up to the job. In addition, the reality of the filth they could be in on the ground was disheartening. No matter how clean the pen was when I put them in, by the end of the day, there would be manure at the very least for them to be dragged through. If the ground was at all muddy, the bags would be too and if they got flipped over, yuck. A time or two they were so gross at the end of the day that I needed to hose them down and hang them to dry before I could use them again. They were hard to find, being brown, they were camouflaged into the brown muck. Then when freezing weather came, they froze into nasty smelly things so I quit using them. 
Hay Pillow zippers encased in snow
But when winter came, I decided to try again. And I'm amazed how well they are working. The ground is clean and snow covered (we get fresh snow quite regularly) so they stay clean. The zippers continue to work even when full of snow at single digit temps when being tugged on by my gloved fingers. They are frozen into shape when I bring them in at night, but 12 hours hanging in the wash stall with the horses warming the space thaws them enough that while they are still snowy and a little stiff, I can open them and re-stuff them the next morning. 

One of the greatest things about them is how easy they are to throw over a fence, without losing half of it to the wind! Admittedly, they are not used every day, and we are still in December (one more day!) of the first winter. So I cannot say that they will last as long as the others. The ones I got don't hold as much and they were close to the same price. But they do give me options so we'll see how they hold up. The horses do paw at them and flip them around a lot...part of the fun. 

This fall my husband put four new posts out in the field for me for those mornings when it's really windy AND I won't be home at noon. I've ordered more of the Busy Horse Grandes so I will be able to hang eight out in the morning which should keep everyone busy for the day!

Friday, December 23, 2016

12 Days of Christmas

In my recent blog for the dog training part of my business,  
swollen eye
(https://dogchapter.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/indoor-training/) I linked to a 12 Days of Christmas training series by Donna Hill. I also mentioned that working on husbandry skills is a great winter project. Since then I have been keeping a list of skills to see if I could come up with twelve for my own 12 days of Christmas project. 

Here is my list:

  1. deworming
  2. foot handling for simple picking as well as for trimming
  3. intramuscular injections
  4. intravenous injections or draws
  5. eye care
  6. ear handling
  7. leg palpation
  8. leg manipulation
  9. TPR (taking temperature, pulse and respiration)
  10. bandaging or applying boots
  11. tooth care
  12. sheath and udder care
wearing boots (NOT put on correctly)
I'll focus on each one of these per day, as both a review of how our skills are, and looking for ways to improve them. Each one can be incorporated into a daily grooming session or chore time.

As always, it's important to work on these before you need them. An injured horse does not need added stress of treatment and handling she has never received before. A professional (chiropractor, vet, hoof trimmer) does not need the added stress of working on a horse who is not familiar with what is being done!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bitless? My Thoughts on the Wide Range of What Is Acceptable to Different Trainers

Myler Level 1 Loose RingAll one has to do is pick up a hefty tack shop catalog to see the enormous variety of equipment available for working with horses. Or visit the website. Some of the equipment looks like medieval torture devices to me. But some of the equipment I use, like a plain snaffle bit, apparently looks like a torture device to others. 

"Pressure" is a loaded word in horse training circles. There are those who say it's the most natural way to train horses (a la "Natural Horsemanship"). There are others, like myself, who have found that using Positive Reinforcement instead of escalating pressure to train is a highly effective method which is also more humane. But the continuum continues. There are those who think that what I consider a "contact" cue is really pressure. They want to hang me by my toenails, even though I teach contact cues with positive reinforcement, rather than escalating pressure (and the irony of the highly aversive words and deeds these individuals bestow on fellow humans does not escape me).

Pressure is not just physical. As soon as an animal perceives your presence, there is pressure. And pressure can be a pull as well as a push; just ask anyone who has livestock..."pressure" will pull animals to a barn, to grass, up a hill, to a larger group, etc. 

So where do each of us draw our lines as to what is acceptable and what is not? 

If we start with truly wild horses, those who have never seen people (wow, is that even possible today?), then they experience pressure from humans miles away. Horses are horizon scanners; just ask mine. A person appearing in the distance is noticed. The horse is already considering its flight options. So, for those who don't want ANY AVERSIVES used in training, I would propose you leave them wild. Because your presence is initially aversive. 

Maybe you say I'm talking nonsense when I start with wild horses. So start with a newborn foal from a very domesticated line of horses. I posit that your first appearance will be aversive to that foal. Is that reason not to enter the stall? How are you going to train that foal if you don't get that foal accustomed to your presence? You may do it carefully, gently, with scratches (oh, but don't they twitch at that first touch of a human hand) on the chest and withers. But you have applied your hand to that foal, or mustang, or any other equine. That's contact. 

Where does contact cross the line to pressure? Is it a pounds per square inch measurement? Does it depend on the body part? Is a massage aversive? The answer is, as we so often say, "it depends". The type of deep tissue massage my husband likes makes me miserable. Everyone has different sensitivities. So we need to assess the individual at hand. 

Is pressure defined as aversive if the horse moves away from it? How do these folks who claim not to use pressure ever ask a horse to step away from them? I train a horse, using positive reinforcement, to step away by reinforcing the slightest movement away from my hand. Yes, if I can detect the movement away, I click and reinforce. Animals move. Even when they look like they are still, they move slightly, shifting weight. I can capture that little move when it happens away from me, and I can click and reinforce and my educated learners will repeat that. They will do it again, and I can shape more or less movement. So yes, my horses move away when I put up a hand in a certain way, but it is not because I have used escalating pressure (escalating pressure would be if I put my hand on the horse and intentionally added more and more pounds to my pressure until I got a reaction. Or if I got louder with my voice until I got a reaction. Or I kept kicking or pulling until I got a reaction).

So, in my life, I now have a horse who will move away from me on the cue of my using my hand in a certain way. I trained it using positive reinforcement, not escalating pressure. But because the horse moves away from it, do others consider it aversive? I don't think that assessment can be made unless you know how it was trained. 

How would we put any equipment on a horse if we never used contact/pressure? I would say the ethology of the horse does not include wearing a halter, or a blanket, or a cordeo (neck rope). Therefore, if we put any of these things on a horse, we are applying something inherently aversive. When I do this, I initially click and reinforce for any interest (looking at, sniffing, touching) the object. Once they make voluntary physical contact with the object, I can progress to touching them with it, gradually, and with reinforcement for every approximation along the way. The formerly aversive object is no longer something they move away from. In time, I can help them become comfortable with that object. Why would I do that? Because I feel that there are times when halters and blankets help keep horses safe and comfortable.

And what about riding a horse? Well if we look at the painting below and read a little about equine predators, it isn't too big a stretch to know that the "natural" horse might consider other creatures on his back to be quite aversive.

So we train. There are many, many, many steps I take to help the horse be comfortable with having first my hand, then a brush, then a pad, then a blanket, then a saddle on her back before I stand above her on a mounting block and lean over, lean on, put a leg over, rest on and finally sit on a horse. 

If one doesn't believe in desensitizing or counter conditioning a horse to inherently aversive stimuli, how does one ever get to the point of riding a horse? 

Note! Desensitization as I refer to it means working under threshold; one exposes a horse to potentially aversive stimuli in an incremental progression so they are not stressed. "Sacking out" in a traditional method is not desensitization; it's called flooding. 
Counter conditioning is when you take a stimulus which was formerly aversive and change the response to a pleasant one. An example would be the halter which was initially aversive to a young foal can be conditioned to be a sign of an enjoyable training session with treats. (some say that the item must formerly have been conditioned to be aversive. I'm not clear on that.)
And this brings us to cordeos vs. bridles vs. bits.  If we put a rope around a horse's neck and a halter on her head, why not put a bridle on her head? I am going to assume we all know the proper fit for said pieces of equipment, including the sensitive areas (where the nerves run) of the face and that we are not using nosebands to tie the mouth shut, etc. I'm also going to assume that we all know that some of the bitless bridles are much, much harsher than a snaffle bit. Poll pressure and nose pressure can be quite aversive to horses and many of the bitless bridles are designed to exert a lot of pressure on these areas with very little pressure applied to the reins. Novices beware. I've also heard that some of the pretty little neck ropes include barbs. Nuff said. Looks can be deceiving. Oh and that a properly fitted bit hangs in the horses mouth, not resting on the bars. It should not interfere with chewing or physiology of the teeth, bars and tongue. 

If the above are true, can we not help a horse be as comfortable with a bit as with a blanket? If we train the contact cue from a bit/rein combination with positive reinforcement, can it not be an effective and kind way to communicate with the horse? A bit offers subtlety of communication that can be difficult to achieve with a loose fitting halter or bitless bridle. Loose fitting means it can move around. That can be more aversive to a horse than a securely fitted bridle which stays out of eyes and minimizes chafing from the movement. 

I think the final question which remains is why? Why do we use any of this? Why do we have a domesticated horse (or 2 or 6) in our lives? Why do we want to train them at all as opposed to having pasture pets? Why on earth do we want to sit on their backs?

In the Introduction to Animal Training, by Ken Ramirez, he states:
As teachers or trainers, we must know why we are training...important reasons for training are those that directly benefit the animal being trained. 
He lists the primary reasons for training an animal are to benefit its physical exercise, mental stimulation, and cooperative behavior (husbandry skills to keep the animal healthy). I think if we start there, we can also end there. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Jackpots and High Value Reinforcers: Riding the Swing of the Pendulum

When I first started clicker training over 15 years ago, jackpots were somewhat popular. Examples of jackpots were a larger number of treats or a special treat. Since my standard treat was 2 hay stretcher pellets, the jackpots I used were a full handful of pellets, a couple peppermint horse treats or a human peppermint candy. My horses really like the peppermint horse treats and loved the candy. Sometimes I also used cut up carrots or apples, but I liked being able to keep the peppermints on hand when the carrots and apples didn’t keep well in my pocket. 

The way I understood their use was that when the horse offered extra effort, you could give a jackpot to communicate that was a really good try. Over time, however, jackpots fell out of favor. A study done with dogs and conducted by Dr. Jesus Rosales Ruiz and his grad students indicated that jackpots interrupted the flow of training, thereby actually slowing training, rather than aiding it. I could understand how this could be, as my horses savored the peppermints to say nothing of the time it took me to unwrap the candies. I felt badly fading them out at first, but over time, found that my horses worked just fine for the hay stretcher pellets alone. I stopped using the peppermints...well, except for one particular learner on which they continue to be very effective, that being my husband.

Several years later, I took Susan Garrett’s Recallers course for dogs. I did the course both with a horse and dogs. Susan
speedy recalls: a result of high value reinforcers and slow progression
stresses knowing what your dogs consider to be high value reinforcers and using them carefully, but definitely using them. So back I went into experimentation mode. Susan’s course helped me understand a different way of using them. Rather than using them to point out good effort in shaping, she used higher value treats as a balance to distractions. The world is a fascinating place to dogs and in order to gain and keep the dog’s attention, we used cheese, hot dogs, tuna fudge and other delectable items to reinforce the dog for doing what we asked, as opposed to sniffing in the grass or leaving to say hi to the neighbor.

This is when I developed my own foundational concept that while for dogs, distractions are usually things they want to get TO; for horses, distractions are usually things they want to get AWAY FROM. Yes, this is a generalization; dogs have fears and horses have interests. Professional dog trainers certainly see our share of reactive dogs in one end of the spectrum or another. Probably ponies are most notorious for being distracted by wanting to get TO something (GRASS!). But as a whole, horses’ problems with distractability include the wind, the leaf blowing, the scary plastic bag: all things which may result in spooking and leaving the premises. This was the reason, I thought, that high value treats won’t work for horses’ distractions. If I want to work with my dog’s distraction, all I have to do is become more interesting than the distraction. But for a horse, it doesn’t matter how good a treat I have. If that horse is afraid, he’s not going to be dissuaded by something tasty. I love chocolate and you can certainly use it to train me, and you can use it to reinforce me for staying away from the computer. But if I think I’m about to be chased by a bear, you aren’t going to get me to stand around just because you’ve got chocolate. (note: so instead of using high value reinforcers, one needs to be more skilled at breaking things down, reading the horse's emotional responses, and becoming more trustworthy than the "distraction" is scary)

So I continued to use high value reinforcers for dogs, but not for horses. 

This brings me to the present when I am starting to hear criticism of using high value treats for distracted dogs and I am considering using high value treats with horses again. 

The criticism I hear in the dog world, and so far it’s been second hand, sounds like what I would call inappropriate use because people are using them in situations that are more horse-like! If you have a reactive dog, and a strong stimulus is present, pulling out liverwurst and waving it in front of your dog’s nose to keep his attention is not addressing the problem of reactivity. Maybe your dog responds and maybe he doesn’t but in my view, the issue isn’t being properly addressed. It’s as if you were using peppermints and apples to get a horse past something scary. It might work, but unless it was a very minor stimulus, you likely haven’t changed the way the animal feels and you may need to do it each time to get that horse past the scary thing.

The way I use high value treats with dogs is to begin training where the dog can be successful and I use the lowest value treat available which the dog will respond to. This varies with the individual. Some dogs, represented as “not food motivated”, can only be enticed with the finest of cheeses at first. But as Ken Ramirez says, “if your dog isn’t food motivated, then he’s dead!”. In time, by building a relationship and understanding, those fussy individuals can be trained with plain kibble. 

But once behaviors such as attention, loose leash walking and sits, for example, have been taught in a quiet home environment, we need to slowly introduce distractions. That’s when I pull out a higher value reinforcer. Following Susan Garrett’s guidelines, I rank the distractions for the dog in addition to ranking food (and activity!) reinforcers. Then I balance them. For one dog, a tennis ball on the floor might cause mayhem, so I wouldn’t use that as an initial distraction. For other dogs that ball might be interesting but not highly distracting. If they showed interest in it by looking at it, and then looking at me, I’d reinforce with some cheese. In my mind, the dog says, “ooh, she’s much more interesting than that silly ball”, and we continue to work together. Then I transition back to kibble, even in the presence of the ball. And I find a slightly more distracting item, such as someone slowly rolling the ball back and forth as we walk by. Movement is always more interesting so the dog might look at the rolling ball, but then remember how interesting I am so look at me and stay close on the leash. Out comes the cheese again. Through this slow and steady progress up to more and more distracting things, I teach the dog that I am ALWAYS more interesting than whatever else he might see. Through this process, the dog actually becomes desensitized to distractions in his environment. Personally, I'm not a fan of a dog who stares at me obsessively, but checking in with me and being able to respond to simple requests in the presence of distractions is a goal. Only when the dog is this responsive, even working with kibble, is he ready for me to raise the bar again, when I pull out something special to maintain my special status. 

So why would I ever need anything even higher value? Well, life and the environment can only be controlled to a certain point. Once we step outside of the home environment, we are subject to unplanned distractions. I want to have a really, really good base before I risk outings with potential for the unexpected. When that Rottweiler comes around the corner unexpectedly and barks, or when the UPS man suddenly comes screaming in the driveway, or when that rabbit streaks across the road in front of us, those are times I want something incredibly valuable on me so I can reinforce good responses. I’m not using them to prevent my dog from looking. I’m using them because our incredible history has allowed the dog to respond to me even in the face of a barking Rottweiler, a UPS truck or a bunny and I want to have something that demonstrates how amazing that response was! 

Using high value reinforcers in this way is not interrupting a shaping session and it’s not using the food to distract the dog from something. The way I see it, it’s simply reinforcing behavior I want to see repeated and using a reinforcer worthy of the effort of the behavior. 

So, back to horses, why would I start using high value reinforcers again with horses? Part of my thinking comes from my experiences at NEI (see here for more on that), and partly from one memorable experience with an equine and a high value reinforcer.

When we were at NEI, our instructors stressed the importance of being aware of where the animal was when we reinforced. Now both dog and horse trainers know how to feed for position and to set up for the next rep. But the birds were excellent trainers on more careful thought of this...of being aware of where the history of reinforcement was delivered. If you reinforced a bird on a small board “station” on a perch for just one session, that bird would go directly to that station the next time he was out. If that’s what you want from that bird, that’s great, but if you want flexibility in the behaviors, it’s not so great to have him glued to that station. 

An example of this was one of my training sessions with the corvid. I was to train him to fly from one perch at the front of the cage (I’ll call this perch A), to another perch at the back of the cage (perch B). Through the use of prompting, it was pretty easy to get the bird to fly to that perch and put it on cue. But one time I marked his landing on B, and in bird speed, he hopped immediately back to perch A and then to a third perch which was right in front of me...and I fed him there. Big mistake. Even though I had marked the landing on perch B, the next several times I prompted him to perch B, he instead flew to the perch where I had fed him...once.

Now I do think there were some other factors, namely that the trainers at NEI rarely used verbal markers. Because the birds are almost always looking at them when they train (as opposed to horses and dogs when we want them going away from us or not looking at us at times), the NEI trainers simply feed when the bird does the correct behavior. So even though we conditioned the word “good!” in our early training with the birds, I don’t think it had the power that a click has on my dogs and horses. If my animals hear a click, you can be sure they will repeat that behavior, regardless of where I fed for it . That’s why I can click for a dog sitting and then toss the treat to reset. The dog will return to me to sit (which was where I clicked), not go sit where the food was tossed. 

But in other situations, it does make a difference. Feeding where the perfect horse would be is an example. If we click when the horse is in the correct position next to us, but then feed close to our bodies, that horse’s head is going to be more likely to be too close next time. Yes, it may be what happens between the click and the feeding, but that’s what happened with the bird as well and it affected his future behavior, not just his treat taking behavior. 

In any case, this has made me more aware of what places I may be building up a history of reinforcement for. The story it made me think of was when I first taught Rumer to load into a trailer. At the time, I was still using peppermints as jackpots. In this case, she had never seen the trailer before but had a good history of being reinforced for approaching and touching items which might at first have seemed scary. 

Rumer's comfort with the trailer is maintained by careful driving and not trucking her before she was ready
I used hay stretcher pellets for reinforcing each step up the ramp, allowing her to back off when she wanted. But the next time in, she didn’t get treats at the bottom of the ramp, only when she had progressed beyond the previous attempts. I was building a history of more reinforcement inside. When she got all the way into the trailer, I pulled out a peppermint candy and gave it to her. There was no interruption of shaping; she was where I wanted her to be. Then I asked her to back off (there were many steps through this process which I’m glossing over) and we walked around in a little circle and approached the ramp again. Well that little pony just about dragged me onto the trailer. It was as if she was saying “The good treats are inside!”. All the way in she went, and she did indeed, get a peppermint candy once inside. 
So in that case, it was pretty obvious that place equaled high value reinforcer, and that in time, the value of the reinforcer could transfer so that it was a high value place. Now obviously, just getting in the trailer is only the very first step. She still needed to learn about the butt bar, the ramp, the trailer moving, longer trips, etc. But her enthusiasm of going all the way inside has stuck with me and seems to be a good reason to consider what and where we are giving treats.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Clicker Expo Cincinnati 2016 (part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post, much of  my time at Clicker Expo was spent on talks which weren't directly about training but there were a few! The first was "The Sound of Silence: Accessing the Power of a Withheld Click" with Michele Pouliot. 

I like the term withheld click because it describes a moment when you could have clicked but didn't. We aren't talking about missed clicks here, but when one intentionally chooses not to click. In the talk she discussed guidelines for how to do this effectively and what to watch out for. 

Various reasons people withhold a click include shaping successive approximations, extinction, differential reinforcement, inducing resurgence and others. Using it inappropriately or without developed skill can certainly lead to problems. 

Withholding a click can lead to frustration if we don't, at the same time, set it up so that the animal makes a good guess as to what we're looking for in more behavior. It can also lead to an animal giving up because nothing seems to be working or they just can't get it right. More intense individuals may start throwing other behaviors at you in an attempt to get you to click something. For these reasons, we need to think carefully about how we are going to do this.

A key aspect to when you can withhold is the history of that behavior. If there is too little history, you have nothing to fall back on if the animal doesn’t understand. If you have spent a lot of time clicking for a behavior, then the animal thinks that behavior is good just as it is and also won’t understand if you stop clicking for it. Michele mentioned that handlers tend to fall into either side of this challenge: raising the criteria too fast, or staying at the same criteria too long. I know which I do and when!

She did say that if you use a well conceived training plan initially, and you want to change an established behavior, you can go back to an earlier stage and reestablish a history of clicks before withholding to ask for variety. 

One thing I see people do fairly frequently is to build duration into a behavior, and then if the behavior falls apart for some reason (possibly due to poor information during the shaping process), they try withholding a click, but the animal simply thinks it’s about duration so they don’t offer any changes. This leads to frustration on the parts of both learner and trainer.

In addition to the animal being sufficiently prepared to benefit from withholding, the trainer must have a plan. She listed four pieces. The first is anticipation of what the change will be (you should have your training session and environment set up so that you are pretty sure that your learner will offer what you want, rather than something in the other direction). You must then be prepared to click that! If you don’t really know what your learner will offer, it’s hard to catch the right effort that first time. You must also be ready to to back to clicking previous criteria if things start to go awry or else your moment of silence will extend into more than a moment and the accompanying frustration or giving up. And finally, know yourself. Is your tendency to ask for too much too soon? Or is it to allow the animal to get stuck by not inviting variety?

Something else she mentioned which I feel requires time for a trainer to develop is how to assess the animal’s response to withheld click. She said there can be “thinking moments” and she looks for the animal to remain engaged mentally, even if physically still. So if you withhold a click and your animal then looks off into the distance or frantically starts trying things, those aren't thinking moments. Then when your animal does offer something and you click it, does he offer that new variety again and does he offer it quickly? If so, he probably made a conscious decision about what to do and understood the new click. If not, it may have been a random movement and the click not understood by the animal.