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.

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