Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Click Ends the Behavior

That is one of the many mantras of Clicker Training. It came up yesterday during a demo I did so I thought I'd go into it in more depth here. The situation yesterday was a big beautiful Friesian horse who is new to Clicker Training, as is his owner. They had agreed to be the demo subject as he has become very difficult to bridle and due to his size and strength, it's a dangerous situation for anyone trying to put the bridle on him. Since I've written about "shut down" horses before, this guy is an example of the opposite! He's more like a hyperactive little kid who can't sit still while you approach with the tray of cookies. Once he gets taken off the crossties and his owner gets on, his halo appears and he is the most wonderful guy imaginable. But on the crossties he was non-stop movement. He varied between pawing and dancing left and right. Very food motivated, he was probably more wound up than ever by me standing there with pockets full of treats. When the cross ties were removed to put the bridle on, that big old head would swing on its full axis- up, down, left, right.

My thoughts were that before we could begin to address the bridling, we needed a horse who would stop the action. He needs to learn some self control on the ground: to stay out of people's space, to stand quietly and patiently whether tied or not, to stop "mugging" for treats, etc. I began with some simple targeting to show how that is done and he was one of those who picked it up like he'd been doing it all his life. I did that while he was still cross tied. I knew as soon as the ties came off, we were going to need to address the fidgeting and mugging so I went right into Grownups. That he picked up quickly as well, but got distracted by the bag of carrots he knew was in his brush box. When he couldn't get me to hand out free food, he decided to help himself to the carrot bag on his right. His owner removed that temptation (as a beginner, we needed to set him up for success in these first lessons). Now that he was standing quietly with me next to him, I began to step away from him slightly, clicking if he stood when I stepped away.

The host for the day- the owner of the barn where we were and an experienced horse trainer- pointed out that sometimes he was stepping forward as he got his treat. Her experienced eye had easily picked up this apparent inconsistency in my training. My answer was, "The Click Ends the Behavior". The "loop" I had set up (see my blog post on loopy training) was: step away from horse > if he stands, click > step back toward horse and treat > step away from horse again. Because this was a new behavior, not to mention a horse new to clicking, the loop was not yet clean...there were other behaviors thrown into the loop. Specifically, when I clicked, the horse would step forward as I reached to treat him. The other trainer saw this (quite understandably) as a fault. It looked like the horse was being rewarded for stepping forward! And in part, he was! But that was my fault in the training loop and not a reason to avoid treating him. The deal is: one click = one treat. (not 100% of Clicker Trainers follow that deal but that's a whole 'nother post). So because I had clicked, I had to treat. If I hadn't, I would have completely destroyed the whole meaning of the click for this horse. I want him to have a 100% positive experience with the sound of the click. I don't want him to hear the click and wonder "was that good or not?". I want him to hear it and think "YES! I got it!". That's where our enthusiastic learners come from. So I cannot decide to withhold the treat or make a correction after I click. I need to do something different with my training instead. The responsibility is with the trainer.

It is very true that what happens between the click and the treat is important. That behavior can get built into our treating experience. If a horse is allowed to reach for your hand or your pocket for his treat when he hears the click, then he will always do that and you'll have a greedy mugger on your hands. That is why we start by having a horse back away from us for his treats at first and we return to that if, at any point, the horse's manners deteriorate. I want my horses to automatically step BACK when they hear the click or at least rock back in their balance. This has all sorts of good repurcussions for their balance and musculature development as well.

So what did I need to do with this demo horse?
First of all I needed to respect the "Click Ends the Behavior" and treat him even if he stepped forward to take it . He had done the required behavior- standing still- to earn the click. Once he heard that click, the behavior was over and he had earned his treat. Secondly, I had to find a way to clean up that loop so that the stepping forward did not occur. I felt I had two options here. I could stay closer to the horse so that I could get the treat to his mouth after clicking and before he had a chance to step forward. That was probably the more correct of the two options. Instead, I felt like the improvement he was showing was SO huge that it was worth allowing that little step forward as a temporary measure in order to give the horse repeated and rapid positive experiences with standing still while I stepped 3, 4, 5 feet away from him. As we continued this exercise, the horse visibly relaxed. His head dropped, his expression changed and he had an almost constant supply of hay stretcher pellets in his mouth. What did this mean? Good things were happening while he stood still. Standing still was being reinforced- he would be more likely to continue standing still. I would not have continued to go further away from him without correcting that stepping forward, but really felt that the gain was worth it temporarily. I was confident that the more he relaxed while standing still, and the more times he experienced my immediate approach with his treat after the click, the more likely he would be to just stand and wait.

Note- I also want to point out that if he stepped forward before I clicked, I corrected him by making him step back.

Many times a horse gets reinforced for dancing on the cross ties. We approach him and give him attention in an effort to calm him. So he learns to dance to get attention. Dancing is reinforced. In the very least, owners frequently hustle to get back to a dancing horse rather than dawdling in the tack room. So the horse learns to dance to make you return quickly. And once this behavior is a habit- it almost always gets reinforced. Rarely do we drive off and leave a horse on the cross ties for the night! He keeps dancing and eventually his person returns. It takes conscious effort to wait until the dancing STOPS to suddenly step out of the tack room. And then we need to build up from there in the duration of quieter behavior. It's easier to start from right next to the horse to teach him to stand for a count of "1" for a reward, and then progress to 2 and then 3 etc. and then after that build in distance gradually until you can confidently go into the tackroom and leave your confident, happy and quiet horse on the ties until you return.

The photo above is Elly, who was great at escaping to vacuum the aisle just as soon as the halter came off and before the bridle went on until we did some clicker training work with her :)


Ark Lady said...

Training is an art AND a science so in the beginning you shape the behavior and then gradually get more picky as far as the parameters of the behavior.

I often incorporate a terminal bridge to a session but techniques can vary greatly depending on whether or not you are working a naive or veteran animal.

Nice post...

Bookends Farm said...

Thanks for the compliment. I think the fact that training is both an art and a science is why it trips my trigger- I have strong feelings toward both those fields. Challenge is to keep from tipping too far one way or another at any given moment. :)

Ark Lady said...

LOL Yes, it is a blessing and a curse to be so passionate about something.