Thursday, April 1, 2010

When Can I Stop Treating?

This and other variations of this question are things I hear frequently with people new to clicker training. "He's only doing it for the food", "I don't want to carry treats with me everywhere", "but he knows there's a cookie coming", etc.

The important thing to remember here is that clicker training is training process. All good training should progress from one step to the next, and not get stuck in one place. However, I do not believe in timetables for training. All horses and handlers are different and so each pair will progress through different stages at different rates of time. Sometimes we think we "should" have this horse going better by now...or that another person in the barn "should" be doing more with their horse. But we are all individuals. Safety first, happiness second (I didn't think that through very far, but I think it will hold up), and who cares how far you get how fast? If my horse and I are safe and happy, that's a good day!

Once we let go of the "shoulds", then we can focus on each step and be sure we are clear in our requests, reinforcing in our responses and take the time to solidify behaviors by repeating them many times to get consistency. We want to make sure that the horse has really learned, and not just been lucky a couple times. Think about driving a car. When you drove around the school parking lot the first time, or even several times, were you then ready to hook up to a trailer with a horse in it and go out in traffic? Of course not. You graduate from the parking lot to back roads (although I pity people in urban do they do it??), then slightly busier streets, then highways, etc. You progress steadily but you don't leap from one stage to the next without practicing a fair bit at each stage. Similarly, just because our horses can walk, trot, canter quietly in the ring doesn't mean they can do it out on the trail...or vice versa. The environment presents different distractions and physical challenges (hills on a trail, tighter turns in an arena).

When we learned to drive, we had someone else in the car with us explaining what to do. That doesn't mean that we needed someone doing that for the rest of our lives. The same is true for the clicker. I use the clicker to train something new, refine it to the stage I want it, use it for lots of repetitions to gain fluency and consistency and then I can fade it out for that behavior. I don't just drop it completely.

Sometimes I need to even remind myself to drop the clicker out of things. Because I use it so much, with so many horses, it becomes a habit for me to click when a horse does something well. But it can become like the parent who says "good job!" to a child for every little thing. Pretty soon it loses it's effectiveness and/or when you neglect to say it, the learner thinks something is wrong! They become a "praise junkie", constantly needing that feedback.

I have found that the change of seasons can be a good time for me to reassess where the different horses are in their abilities. Poor Ande, who is the oldest of my homebreds, is the guinea pig. I think I tend to err on the side of babying him along rather than pushing him too fast. Last summer, I decided I was no longer going to click him for standing still while he was on the cross ties. Once I saw how easy it was, I did the same with both Rumer and Percy who were much younger! I had taught them to stand...job done! Sort of. I do keep an eye out for any backsliding in behavior AND respect the huge effect that distractions have on behavior.

Rumer has ants in her pants. That little girl in pink has graduated out of kindergarten and is in 1st grade now but she's still a very busy little girl. She knows the rules (four feet quiet on the mat) but a guest in the classroom (like the farrier coming) and oh boy, let's see what he smells like and what's in his toolbox and watch what he's doing and pretty soon she's doing the hootchie cootchie all over the place again. So I bring out the clicker and we do a little remedial work as a reminder. I hush that little voice in my head that says "she knows better" and instead use it as an opportunity to show her that she will be reinforced for behavior she knows in challenging situations.

This Spring, I decided that Ande really is proficient enough in his basic ground work exercises that I can drop the clicking for that. He walks off promptly from a voice (a cluck), hand (drawing forward lightly on the rein or rope) or whip cue (simply pointing a dressage or longe whip at his hip). He bends to a very light touch on the rope or rein and is quite adjustable in that. He willingly continues his forward motion while bending. He steps under himself with his inside hind to come to a one rein stop at the lightest touch. He will do all these things from both sides. So I have checked them off my list and am now working more on his longitudinal flexion. I am still shaping this behavior so I am still clicking for it and will continue to do so until he becomes proficient at it.

So am I STILL using the clicker with these horses? Yes, I am teaching new behaviors all the time. Am I still using it with the same behaviors I did at the start? No, all three babies are expected to lead quietly from either side, stop from a rein or body cue (stop when I stop) and stand quietly on the cross ties. None of them get clicked regularly for any of this. Once we have good grass, and they start getting led out to distant pastures for the first time in the Spring, I will not be surprised to see that I need to use the clicker as a reminder to any of the three. Yes, "they know better", but it's Spring! I won't need to use it all summer...just for the first days of turning out.

I do continue to click some old behaviors randomly, depending on how much I appreciate them and how much the horse gives up in return. When I go to a pasture gate, and a pony leaves green grass to come put his or her nose in a halter, that is greatly appreciated by me and I reinforce it regularly!

The photo above is Ande, last summer at age 3. He is standing on his mat, with his head down, long enough for me to walk away and take a photo! Anybody want to buy a nice little Quarter Pony?

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