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.

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