Thursday, January 21, 2010


SEEKING (intentionally capitalized to differentiate it from the simple word) is a term and concept credited to Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University. I first read about it in Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation and later in Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind. I won't try to explain it here other than to say it is what motivates animals to do things...and it has a large part in everything from why an animal goes foraging for food, to drug addiction and gambling, to clicker training.

The reason I bring it up is because Kizzy demonstrated the concept beautifully today. If Clicker Training was really about food, then it would make sense that an animal would work for the food as long as there was no "free" food available. Today, I absent-mindedly threw Kizzy a flake of hay when I went to the barn before thinking about the fact that I was planning on working with her. Certainly a Welsh type pony knows the value of free food. Nonetheless, I picked up the wooden mat I have been using to teach her Mat Work, filled one pocket with hay stretcher pellets and the other with a few peppermints and went in her stall. I had to walk around Her Fuzziness to plunk the mat down as she didn't exactly step back away from her hay pile when I entered. But when she saw the mat, she lifted her head, turned, walked to the mat, and stepped onto it. I clicked and gave her a peppermint because I was so pleased that she had chosen to work with me. The younger horses will always leave food of any kind to come and play but I thought Miss Kizz might be a little too jaded for such nonsense. I continued to work with her for a little while and after the initial peppermint, I just gave her the normal 2 hay stretcher pellets per click. She was choosing to stay, stepping on and off the mat upon request, in exchange for what amounted to a total of about a handful of hay stretcher pellets. Since there was a large flake of hay right there in her stall, free for the taking, it had to be something other than the food motivating her to work with me. What is it? Temple Grandin:

Dr. Panksepp says the best he can come up with is intense interest, engaged curiosity, and eager anticipation.
Recent brain research has indicated that the

part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might be nearby but stops firing when the animal sees the actual food itself.
(again from Temple Grandin). So it isn't the food (or drug or coins coming out of the slot machine) that is exciting, it's the....SEEKING.....of it. It's the puzzle, the challenge, the game that is fun. And that is why Kizzy was willing to leave her food to come see if she could figure out how to make me give her treats. It truly was the training which was rewarding because she had to figure it out, not just be pushed or pulled into place.

To quote Karen Pryor, it is SEEKING which differentiates Clicker Training from traditional training.

In traditional training, animals learn what to do and what to avoid around people from the reactions of people. It's the same way animals learn what to do around other animals in the wild, from the reactions of other animals.

In OUR kind of training, animals learn how to find food, increase their skills, and discover new ways to have fun the same way they learn in naturefrom exploring the world itself.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with this. All of my boys willingly leave their hay (and lush grass) for that matter to come play with me.

Minnow always wears a muzzle when the grass gets really green and I had a performance to do in a grassy arena last summer, so I attempted to see if he would work for me in his pasture with all the lush grass. Here's a post and video I did on how he chose "working" over the tempting grass incase you are interested.

Emma said...

I also have experience of this SEEKING behaviour. I have an Irish Cob for whom grass is simply the most wonderful thing in the world.........and I only have a field to train in! Since I've been doing clicker with her, as soon as she sees me getting ready for training she will come up the paddock on her own to join me. I rarely need to get her, or halter her, she actively wants to participate. I'm sure a few herby treats can't be nicer that the grass that she chooses to leave. Yet obviously there is something very motivating about the training as I always give her the choice to leave at any time and she rarely does.

Bookends Farm said...

Grass is a really tempting (reinforcing!) food for horses (and more so for ponies). I have found you really need to be on top of the game to keep things interesting enough for the SEEKING circuit to override the desire to graze. It is certainly reinforcing to us when they leave their grazing to see what fun we might have up our sleeves isn't it? That is a really cute session with the trick ponies :)