Sunday, April 17, 2011

Crate Games for Ponies

I have been having great fun transferring one of the dog games onto my horses.

The game is actually part of a whole group called Crate Games. Susan Garrett sells a DVD by this name which I bought last summer after getting Eloise. She'd spent a lot of time in a crate before I got her and while I don't keep dogs in crates, she was not reliably housebroken so I had to put her in one if I left her in the house for any reason. I wanted to change her feelings about the crate and I thought this looked like a fun way to do so.

The Crate Games are in the Critical Core exercises of the e-course and therefore the lessons from it reverberate on into many other behaviors. One of the criteria in this game is that the dogs pop into a sit whenever you touch the latch on the crate. I had this in my mind when I went out to the horses one day and as I watched Percy give me his now-standard three steps back as I approached the fence, it occurred to me how useful it would be to teach all the horses to back three steps whenever I touched the latch of a door or a gate handle. Rather than asking them to back, touching the handle itself would become a farm-wide cue for backing. No more heads popping out of doors as soon as they opened, no more crowding at the gate, no more rushing to get out...the benefits were endless. The beauty of course, is not only the vastly safer behavior, but the mindset which would result! Instead of "I wanna", I'd have a conscious polite waiting to be released from three steps back (as this is also part of the behavior- it's not a three steps back and then ricochet forward again). I LOVE it!

I began with Percy as my test case since he was already familiar with his three steps back. He is offering backing regularly now and so when I slid the latch on his door and hesitated, he backed right up. That was easy. Now I must say, there is some punishing that goes on here and I'm curious to see the results. If the dog tries to leave the crate before being
verbally released , the instructions are to shut the door, blocking him in, wait a bit and try again. (there is more detail to all this with plenty of reinforcing going on for staying in). It's very effective but I don't kid myself that this is all positive. Unfortunately it was aversive to Eloise because the noise of the latch scared her but that's a different story and she's much better now. But how aversive to a horse? From three steps back, if Percy tried to come forward as I opened his door, I had time and room to slide it shut again before he got to it. This wasn't terribly different from when I approached him at the fence and he stepped forward before I ducked under. If he did, I would back up. So in both cases, I was removing myself (and my attention), to stop the behavior of him coming forward...negative punishment. I could have done it all with the clicker and +R...simply building duration and adding the "distraction" of my entering the stall. But it's really no different than the "you can't make me eat that" game where the food is removed if the horse reaches for it. So I accept that it's not all +R, and am watching each individual to see if I see any unwanted consequences. By the way, I don't verbally release the horses from their position, I approach and ask them to put their halters on where they are or else cue them for something different if I'm not taking them out.

Mariah was the next one I tried it on. It was like falling off a log. She's had so much training that she's a quick study in any situation. She already knows her grain won't land in her tub unless she turns away so it was a very short step to get her to offer to back away from the door when I had hay, and on we went to backing away from the door in all situations. She does not need the reminder of me hesitating at the door like Percy sometimes does.

Next were Rumer and Ande. They are trickier because they share a paddock and this is where the jockeying for position happens as they push each other to be first to me. I had some help from someone else one day and we both worked on "you can't make me eat that" while they were several feet from each other so they could each be reinforced individually but while having the distraction of the other nearby. I am continuing to work with them singularly before expecting much cooperation while together.

The lesson ponies don't crowd the gate, but tend to go up to the top of their paddock and wait where I feed them so I simply ask them for a step back before putting their hay down to introduce the idea, if not the cue.

Conceptually, I have also begun to see if Percy can figure out how to back out of my space regardless of how I approach him. He will easily back if I approach him head on, but I'm also playing with approaching him at an angle to see if he understands that I have a line that I am walking, and if he intersects that line, he needs to back away. So far, so good!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Transferring Value

I might do a complete review of this dog training e-course when I'm done but just for clarity's sake now, I should point out that there isn't a lot of explanation in the course. There aren't reading assignments or discussion of operant training. It's stated as a self-directed course; the format being these daily games. Each day, another game is described on the site and we do it with our dogs. She does explain what to look for, troubleshooting tips, her recommended number of sessions and environment etc as well as the ultimate uses of each. I think that may be what I'm enjoying most. The instruction isn't highly analytical...I'm exploring the various games and mentally comparing them to work with horses and seeing what gets results; what is easy, what is difficult, etc.

So today I'm thinking about "transferring value". Susan talks about "high value rewards" and "low value rewards". You can probably figure out the difference and this goes back to ranking your animal's rewards and using them appropriately depending on the difficulty of what you are asking for. What's interesting is Susan's focus on our ability to change what an animal finds valuable...transferring the value of one thing to another. This is something we do with horses all the time, but again, just working through this with dogs, a new "trainer" and the corresponding different vocabulary helps me to look at everything from a different angle and explore its uses.

Working with our horses with positive reinforcement changes our value to the horse. We love to see our horses come running when we show up and that is because we have become high value to them. Even horses who don't like to work will come running if the bugs are bad or the weather is miserable in order to be put in a more comfortable environment. But when the grass is green and the day pleasant, our horses who come running to see us are showing us there is more value to us than just as caretakers.

Something which Susan advises that we put a lot of value in for our dogs is tugging. A lot of dog trainers use tugging as a reinforcer. Some dogs inherently love to tug and some don't. She has several ways of teaching a dog to enjoy and value tugging so that it can be used as a reinforcer. The best correlation I have for horses is the mat. Many horses are skeptical of putting their feet on any sort of mat at first, but every one I know of learns to love the point of going straight to it if given a choice. Once they love it, we can use the mat as a reinforcer, and Alex does this frequently in her work- the horse does some nice work and she says, "OK, you've done such a nice job you can go stand on the mat". We have, of course, built that value into the mat work by giving it a great reinforcement history- we have reinforced the horse many times for going to and standing on the mat.

A further correlation is that both tugging and mat work have associated emotions. Tugging winds a dog up and gets him ready to go be active in whatever sport we may be engaging in. Further, a dog who has done a great job racing through an agility obstacle can race right to the handler and be rewarded by grabbing the tug and engaging in a fierce game of it (certainly a predatory reaction). Conversely, we often use the mat as a soothing tool (or at least I do, maybe it's because I so frequently use it for young horses just starting under saddle!) When they get to the mat, they can stand and be quiet and relax for a bit.

Another example is grooming and this activity can mean very different things to different horses. Some horses love it and some horses hate it. Foals start life with some very itchy spots and one of the easiest ways to get a foal to stand still for you and learn to enjoy human company is by scratching those itchy spots. There are other spots which aren't itchy though and the foal will not appreciate your contact there. Adult horses have different skin types and hair quality which will affect their tolerance or enjoyment of being groomed (which we can respond to with different types of grooming tools) but a lot of it I think can be attributed to training- whether the horse over his lifetime attained any value for being groomed. Frequently this is one of the first things people do with a horse and as a result, a horse's reaction to it can be pretty ingrained. It can be very difficult to change the value of grooming for some horses.

Most of what we call default behaviors are behaviors that we have transferred a high value to. Behaviors such as mat work and head down can become self reinforcing if a horse finds value in their calming qualities. A horse who is consistently given his earned treats in the Grownups position will quickly find that to be a high value position.
So now I am thinking of what other activities I can transfer value to...
Here is a photo of Mariah, taken just a few mornings ago after a fresh snowfall. She still looked like the snow queen. Mariah LOVES to be groomed...her owner tells me sometimes her hand would get tired of scratching her and she'd go to the pitchfork! She's also one of those horses who loves to have you poke your fingers right down into her ears to scratch. Her head goes to the ground, her eyes close and she just leans into it. When I use the shedding blade on Mariah these days, I leave a fresh blanket of white on the muddy ground.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

ABC's: Critical Core and Foundation Lessons

Before even beginning the daily lessons in Susan Garrett's dog training course, we were supposed to work on what she calls her "Critical Core" games. From a training system standpoint, these bear a striking similarity to Alexandra Kurland's Foundation Lessons. I don't mean that they are the same exercises for both horses and dogs, but they serve the same purpose.
  • they are designed to keep both animal and handler safe
  • they begin to build a positive relationship with the animal
  • as their names imply, they are the foundation and core of all the other work to follow.
I have ridden with many different instructors over the years and observed even more. The good ones have a system. Some pieces may have been created by this individual but many are exercises which they picked up from coaches they rode under, although they may have tweaked them to their own unique format. The point is, they don't just start training willy-nilly without a planned progression for which each ingredient has been carefully assessed, measured and put into place.

For Susan, the safety leans toward keeping the dog safe while for Alex, it leans more toward keeping the human safe, although I'm sure they would both agree with me that they go hand in hand. It's just that with dogs, some of the most frequent dangers are when they get away from us- so two of Susan's Core games focus on getting the dog to come back to us and then being able to get a hold of them when they do. With horses, we're back to the size factor. Head down and backing out of our space keep the horse calm and prevent them from running over us.

Managing the food is another component for both of them. Each of these masters have a game to address teaching the animal self control around food and how to take food politely. Both horses and dogs have teeth! But self control carries through into so many other areas of our training and management that it isn't just about the food.

By beginning with these games, a relationship is budding. Animals love to think, to learn, to interact with others and certainly to be rewarded for doing all of these things (learning isn't fun when it includes punishment). They look forward to the lessons and will come running to their person for more. The importance of having this type of relationship cannot be underestimated whether the long term goals are to have a competition animal or a companion animal.

Many trainers use clicker training to teach tricks or improve the quality of certain skills, but the real genius in the formats of both these women (as well as other professionals) is how their introductions serve as substructures for everything they do after this. While I do not compete in agility, I have already heard many references to start lines, contact points, front crosses and other mysterious terms and how a particular game relates to these skills. Likewise, I continue to be amazed at how Alex's work builds a well-balanced and physically stronger horse which helps no matter the future career path of the animal. The physique of young horses who have been started under her program is amazing...and they've not had restrictive tack put on to accomplish it.

Both individuals stress the importance of revisiting these basics regularly. Many times we can (and should) build these basics into our daily routines. Certainly food manners are given ample practice opportunities. The problem is that I, for one, tend to get sloppy in my daily habits at times. I let less-than-ideal behavior slip by in an effort to get chores done and get on with life. Pretty soon, I see pushiness and impatience creep into the picture. A horse who grabs for the hay as I walk by, a dog who bursts out the door when it's open. I have no one to blame but myself. Fortunately, I have core foundation lessons to return to and if I'm smart, I'll not wait until things fall apart to do so.
Eloise showing self-control by staying in her crate with the door open and me lying on the floor with food! (sorry for the sideways...took it with the phone and too lazy to go through the hoops of importing it into a program to edit it!)

Sunday, April 3, 2011


One of our first assignments in this online dog training course was to make a list of possible distractions for our dogs- things which might take their attention from us and what we are asking them to do at any given time. After making the list, we were to rate them from 1 to 10 with a 10 being very distracting and a 1 being just a little distracting. We could then begin to test our dog's responses to our requests in the presence of a "1" distraction. If successful, we could move on up the list of distractions. If not successful at any point, then we knew we needed to put more "value" as Susan calls it, in what we are doing. This can be done by increasing the reinforcement history of the game and/or by offering a higher rated reinforcer (which was another list to create).

It was fairly easy to come up with a list for Eloise. It included: poop (poop of any specie is a fascinating find outside); birds (for chasing); food on the floor; good smelling food anywhere around; other dogs- playing, barking, etc; arrivals by car or on foot; the compost pile; bones, bare ones lower on the list than meaty bones; mice, rats, squirrels, and other creatures or even the scent of them, and so on.

When I decided to create a similar list for horses, I ran smack into the predator vs. prey issue again. I was first thinking that it's easier to remove the food element from a dog training area than with horses...grass is everywhere! But after that, I was thinking about what interrupts a horse training session and I realized that while dog distractions are things that attract a dog, horse distractions tend to be things which worry a horse. In fact, the vast majority of horse distractions could be subtitled "Things Which Appear on the Horizon". At our farm that includes: cattle, sheep, dogs, cats, birds, farmers, tractors, neighbors, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, cars, snowmachines, deer, turkeys, laundry on the line, plastic on the round bales, etc. These things could also be distractions for a dog but
rather than wanting to run toward these things, as a dog might, horses are going to want to run away from them, preferably back to their herd and/or barn.

So how does this affect our training? With dogs, we make the game more fun or the reinforcer more appealing. Eloise finds a dry bone of interest and if I call her and she comes, I can pull out a piece of meat or cheese so she finds it worth her while to have responded. (OK, it has to be said- dog treats are far nastier to carry around in one's pocket than horse treats) The dogs' decision is: which good thing do I go to? With horses on the other hand, they are looking for safety. Do they follow their instinct to, at the very least, watch that thing instead of paying attention to the handler's requests or do they feel safe enough to turn their attention from the scary object and focus instead on the exercise of the moment?

It seems to me that we have to have even more reinforcement history with our horses than with our dogs. When the dog gets his piece of beef, he knows he made a good choice. When the horse stays with us and gets his treat, we have to also make sure that he feels safe in the choice that he made, thereby building a reinforcement history worthy of his trust.

Below, Percy and Eloise share a little reinforcing quiet time- he with his hay, and she with a bone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Canine Correlations and Conflicts

I've been able to think of two horsepeople I know who don't also have dogs...and I read an amusing piece in the Chronicle of the Horse about Boyd Martin too. However, I think the vast majority of us have dogs as well as horses. Working with both has caused me in recent years to think more closely about training the two different species. I don't compete with our dogs (I did compete in Sheep Dog Trialling with some of our Border Collies for several years while I was learning and while my kids were very young but dropped it once I could start the dogs well enough and then got back into the horse thing...). So there's difference number one right there for some of us. Our dogs are companions and our horses are for sport. Not everyone- some people have horses as companions or for pleasure. But that affects our expectations of them.

Another difference is that one is predator and one is prey. Our horses' instincts call for flight first...the dogs not necessarily. That affects what our animals may find rewarding. Many dogs love to be chased around the yard for fun. I don't know any horses who enjoy that. I think it really helps to think about this In the big picture as well.

Another difference is that horses are bigger, of course (some exceptions with large breed dogs and minis). I know there are dog people out there who like to argue it but you can't make me believe that horses are not inherently more dangerous as a result. Put it this way, not many dogs can kill you by accident. Horses can. So their management and training has to take this into account.

Most of us also have our dogs sharing our living quarters (although in mud season, I wonder about the sanity of this decision). They come in the house, they snuggle on the furniture, they sleep in our bedrooms, if not our beds. When you believe that we are training all the time we are with the animals, this makes for a lot more training time (as well as the potential for a lot more screw ups) with our dogs than our horses. We can manage our horse's training time more carefully- when we take them out of their stall or pasture, the next 5 minutes or hour can be focused and then we put them away.

I have recently enrolled in a dog training e-course. Since dogs are not my business nor do I compete with them, I fought the urge to sign up (it was not cheap) but finally succumbed for a couple reasons. First, I had some surgery a month ago and was on "stall rest" for several weeks. I was going stir crazy. I couldn't do my chores, couldn't even get to the barn for weeks because of the icy footing and my condition. Once I could get around, I still had to avoid the horses for fear of getting accidentally bumped or knocked into. (side note- all is well and no long term repercussions other than a hormonal maelstrom). So I was ready for a diversion!

Secondly, Eloise the Jack Russell has been here a year now and has made great strides in becoming a farm dog. But Spring is a challenging time when all our dogs are enticed by creatures coming out of winter hiding. When the woodchucks start whistling, I get ignored a discouraging number of times. She's turned into quite the hunter terrier and I don't want to lose her down a groundhog hole without at least knowing what hole she's down. So- this course advertised that it would build a great recall into our dogs.

Last but not least, the horse connection. I wanted to explore more options for horses. Due to my surgery, I had to cancel my plans to finally attend Clicker Expo. That was a huge disappointment so this was somewhat of a training consolation prize. I've heard others, watched videos, read write-ups about the amazing things trainers were accomplishing with other species. One thing I have learned from attending TAG teach seminars is that stepping out of your own "specialty" can be a wonderful way to learn. Having spent a lifetime with horses, I sometimes have tunnel vision on how horses learn, what can be expected of them, what SHOULD be expected of them, etc. I want to really examine the pieces of this course through the eyes of a horse trainer. I'll use Eloise as my guinea pig. She's already showing great improvement.

The dog trainer who is offering this course is Susan Garrett. I've read her blog for a year or more and found some fascinating and fun ideas. Plus she has Jack Russells and Border Collies (she's had several World Champion Agility successes). While
she strongly advocates positive reinforcement, the course is not specifically clicker training even though she has experience with CT. So that's another thing which piqued my curiosity. I intend to share what I find either on this blog and/or my Facebook page, depending on whether it's a little "aha" or a big one. I would love to hear feedback from others and make this a conversation. Please share your thoughts!