I have been having some discussions with some other clicker trainers recently about how much of one's daily interactions or training should involve a clicker. Should we click for everything? For new things? Only for things which are difficult? Is there such a thing as clicking too much? Does it minimize its effect? Does it have a negative affect on any training?
Now none of us really click for everything- once you train a behavior, you "fade" the click, and the horse has learned it, so it doesn't require clicking. If the behavior deteriorates, you might need to do a little reminder lesson. I compare it to teaching a child to say please and thank you. Sometimes 2 year olds are the most polite because they have just learned it and they get lots of reinforcement for being polite! Then we expect them to continue it for the rest of their lives but they go through plenty of stages and new situations (ie strangers) where we need to remind them that we expect them to continue their please and thank you's.
One situation we have discussed that we wondered if it had a negative affect was when we want a horse to just "chill". This has come up for me a lot because of the amount of daily interaction I have with my young horses. Every day there is something new to teach or reinforce in daily handling. Whereas with an older horse, they have their manners down pat and you may go out and school them in the arena while you ride, you may or may not introduce a new dressage movement. Therefore, if you are only clicking for training new things, there might be very little clicking going on. But with young horses, I am constantly exposing them to new things and asking them to expand their repertoire of skills. As a result, they are tryers...always trying to impress me with what they can do so that I will reward them. While this has tremendous benefits, there have been times when I wanted them to just relax and not DO anything. On crossties for instance. Once we have been through touching all the various body parts, grooming with all the various grooming tools, moving in response to light cues, etc, then really, there is no more to learn. Percy, at one year old, is still reinforced for certain things like holding his feet up, or standing while I groom an opposite leg, etc. Rumer, at 2, is a fidget and we need to regularly go back to getting her to stand still- not so much while I am working on her but when I leave her to go to the tack room, she tends to go into a little dance routine until I come back.
But Ande, at three, has been through it all. What came up as a result of this is that there was nothing to click for while I groomed so he started trying to figure out what he could do to earn a click. Head down has always been a default behavior for him (won't do that again but that's a different story) and so he tried that. I figured that was a calm behavior so for quite some time I clicked for it. He'd actually hang his head on the crossties, as low as they'd allow him to go, and I worked on duration for that while I groomed. After we reached the amount of time it took me to groom one side, I faded even that out. But he got frustrated at that point because he wasn't working on anything. He'd try to push his head lower, straining at the cross ties or move a little, etc. I finally just decided to ignore his efforts and keep grooming. I would not even take treats with me when I groomed. I wanted him to just go to sleep like a "normal" horse. (in fact, many horses don't sleep but show all kinds of unpleasant behaviors while being groomed from pawing to ear pinning to worse!). This did seem to work. It took several sessions, but now he seems to understand that he just needs to hang out while he's being groomed. We have been through all the steps, so he has been taught everything with the clicker, but unless I come across a problem, I don't want to use it any more while grooming.
One of the comments about using a clicker for these quiet behaviors is not only that the horse keeps trying different things, but also that is sort of startles them out of quiet mode when we click. Yesterday, the farrier came and I decided to play around with it with the intent of seeing if I could effectively improve calm behavior with the clicker without creating an animal who was trying to do something. I tried it with the little fidget and the big fidget- Rumer and Zoe (hmmm, the two females...).
Rumer's little head is very busy even when she has one foot up in the air. She's either actively trying not to mug (head toward me a little, no I'm not supposed to do that, head away, but can't hold still so then head down and then I can't stand still so she looks back at me, etc!) or trying to put her head down. I think it must really be difficult for the farrier when they are putting their head up and down so I try not to have them go lower than knee height. So that was my first criteria to work on. I wanted her head in that spot: in front of her and at chest to knee height. Once she figured that out, I focused on her ears. I wasn't after ears up, but ears to the side. I also stood very close so that I could quickly deliver the treat right to her mouth just as soon as I clicked so she wouldn't be tempted to come looking for it. That actually seemed to be pretty successful. The criteria was easy enough that she didn't have to TRY to do anything different and I didn't push the duration. I just wanted her standing there quietly for the farrier. Not sure what will happen if I push it longer.
Now the big fidget came out of her stall breathing fire. Ah Zoe. She was chewing on her tongue before I even got her to the crossties. That is Zoe's coping mechanism but it has always bothered me because it doesn't really seem to calm her- it's just what she does when she's wound up. So when I have worked on head down with her, I don't allow tongue chewing. If she starts at any point, I leave her stall. And if I go to her stall to feed her or take her out, if she chews on her tongue, I stop all movement. Since what she wants is me in there, she has learned that she needs to quiet her mouth in order to get me in there. So that has at least opened the door for her to learn to try a quiet mouth. Before, tongue chewing always got her through stressful situations so when she wasn't getting clicked, the chewing started. So it was difficult to break through that.
As soon as I got her to the cross tie area where the farrier was, I asked for head down. That stopped the tongue/jaw fussiness, I clicked and treated and immediately started clicking rapidly before she could start up again. I was basically just shoveling treats at her so fast that she didn't have time to fuss. That got us started so I could start to build duration by the tiniest of increments. I'd wait for her to chew twice, C/T. Then wait until she chewed three times, C/T. Each time she only got 2 hay stretcher pellets so pretty soon she had chewed them up before I clicked. So there was a tiny moment of quiet mouth. I clicked there for quite a while until I thought she was pretty clear that the quiet mouth was what I was after. Then I lengthened that time out. Not for very long because I wanted to keep the rate of reinforcement very high in this otherwise stressful situation. But after a bit I also began playing with where her head was. I dont' know why I did it, but I started free shaping her head in different positions. If it was chest height she got clicked (quiet mouth too) but then she rocked back a bit and I clicked that too. Soon we were playing with microshaping and she was experimenting with all kinds of positions. The side effect was that she was relaxed and so no tongue chewing, but also I was reinforcing her for standing balanced. By microshaping her stand, I could help her be more comfortable so it was easier for her to stand quietly. And then I focused on her ears, just as I had with Rumer. Out to the side in a quiet way.
Now we got plenty of chances to start over because one thing I do with the farrier is not click when he puts a foot down. I want them to look forward to him picking a foot up because that is when the game is on. So Zoe would get fussy and start chewing on her tongue when he stopped and we'd start all over again when he picked one up and she caught on pretty quickly and it took less each time to get her into it. This even got her through front shoes. She's been barefoot for almost two years while pregnant and after but she is about to embark on a long journey to a very dry place and with her feet, shoes were called for. I would say that she was quieter when we finished than when we started and that is always a good sign!