Sunday, February 21, 2016


On our first evening at NEI, we went around the room with introductions. Steve asked us to briefly introduce ourselves with name, where we were from and what our goal was for the week. He also added the fun option of naming the superpower we would choose if we could have one or telling about our favorite scar. I cringed a little at the scar because I have a big one but I never would have called it a favorite. However, when I heard that Steve refers to scars as “badges of insensitivity”, I knew it was appropriate. My own scar is from being kicked by a horse and it certainly was due to insensitivity on my part. It wasn’t a training incident or some cowboy move I tried to pull, simply a situation that arose while doing chores at a job I had fresh out of college. I also heard a great story about one of Susan Friedman’s scars, though it had nothing to do with animal training.

I said my hope for the week was that working with a new and completely unfamiliar specie would help me think outside the box. When I went through the Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner program, working that extensively with dogs really helped open my horizons to new ways to approach horse training. I was ready (or thought I was) to shake that up again.  

So when I found myself with a bird acting like a horse afraid to go near a trailer, I wanted to try the same methods. But Wouter knew I was there to learn something new and he gently redirected me, time and time again, to looking at things differently. I wanted to get the bird comfortable and relaxed; he wanted me to ignore that and focus on the behavior. An internal struggle ensued (in my head). I described it afterwards as having spent the first 2 1/2 days trying to put the bird in MY box, rather than being willing to step outside my box. I had little comparisons for everything from the cages being stalls and pastures to approaching that towel being just like putting a horse on a trailer. I have spent a lot of time in recent years taking the emotional signals of animals very seriously. After all, that was one of my favorite quotes of Susan’s: “Effectiveness is Not Enough”. Just because you can get the horse on the trailer or over the jump doesn’t mean it’s good training. I had new criteria and that was having the animal be comfortable and a willing partner through all training. It’s what choice was all about.

So when Wouter would point out the bird’s emotional signals and his “hesitancy” but at the same time kept me focusing “only on the behavior”, I was lost at sea. I struggled through that afternoon and it was late, late that night that I pulled out pen and notebook in my hotel room and the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. It all came back to the ABCs. 

antecedent -> behavior -> consequence

I’ve known the process for years, but being immersed, as we were, in Susan’s thorough coverage of boiling down complicated behaviors into the simplest form possible, I was able to shift gears. 

Previously, I had lumped physical behavior with emotional signals into the B of behavior. “Can you approach this scary tarp while keeping your head at wither’s height”. If so, then I determined that to mean the horse was “relaxed” enough to ask him to go a bit further. Wouter had me ignore the emotional signals as part of my criteria. If the bird moved, criteria was met, even if he then hastily retreated. The emotional signals the bird showed became, as I quoted Steve in a previous post, antecedents for the next behavior. It was part of the motivating operations. So I asked for less the next time, even if it meant we did not get as far. This was different from staying at one stage repeatedly until the animal’s emotional signals were showing comfort. I chalk this up to the capability of a horse being able to consume reinforcers for a long period of time compared to a bird who fills up in a matter of minutes. I’m not sure if that’s a fair analysis of the situation or not. I wanted to ask the bird to go to a certain point, reinforce, and then ask him to go back to a comfortable spot and do lots of easy behaviors to increase the ROR before asking him to approach the towel again. I’ve had great success with this tactic with horses. Wouter stressed that to do that would make the reinforcement history very strong at the starting point and that’s not where we wanted the reinforcement history to be. We wanted it closer to the towel. Either way, I had committed to letting go of what I wanted to do at this point and learning a new way. 

I targeted the bird toward the towel and watched the size and speed of the steps. If they were quick and large, I’d reinforce and ask for more. If they were small steps or latency between steps, I’d reinforce but not expect as much on my next request. There were many times when he’d get his reinforcer and then retreat. Previously I would have seen this as a failure in my training plan because I didn’t have the animal relaxed enough to stay. But I stayed with the new plan and we started making progress toward the towel. 

Wouter had a saying “the success is in the back end” which does correlate nicely with my horse training experience. The point is to observe where the animal retreats to, or is comfortable retreating to. Initially, this bird would hustle all the way back to the far end of the perch. As we progressed, he might still retreat quickly after getting his reinforcer but each time, he retreated less until he was retreating to points which had initially been difficult for him to even get to. 

The perch was a natural tree limb so I used the various knots and twists in it to mark how far we’d made it. Both the bird and I exhibited superstitious behaviors. There was one knot which seemed to function as a bit of a wall he had trouble passing (my superstitious assumption). When he did finally pass it, he did so by crossing his right foot over his left very slowly, rather than shuffling sideways. I immediately marked it, reinforced, and he shuffled his way quickly back down the perch. We did that again. Again, he changed his foot pattern when he got to that knot and again I reinforced because he made it past the knot. For the rest of our training days, he changed his foot pattern there, whether because it was easier or felt safer; or because I had reinforced it, I’ll never know.  

Carefully watching his feet- that is a good sized step!

This photo shows how close the bird was able to get to the towel at the end of several training sessions. At this point, both Wouter and I noticed that the bird seemed to shy away from my hand as I reached up to give the treat. I tried to move slowly and he hadn’t shown any concern previously so it was a puzzle until we both realized that it was my hand passing the towel that made him pull back. He was so worried (there I go again, talking about emotions), that my hand near the towel made him even more concerned. I tried touching the towel and then feeding but it was close to the end of the session so I only did a few reps.

The final morning we swapped the towel out for a washcloth to see if the smaller size would make a difference but it didn’t. I picked up the washcloth and tucked it into my sleeve with only a tiny piece (less than an inch) protruding in an effort to desensitize him. But when my hand approached to treat, he scampered away rather than taking it. I asked Wouter if he’d have that reaction if I just had a white shirt poking out of my sweatshirt and he said no. The bird had watched me tuck the washcloth up there, and he was not about to be tricked. 

The final afternoon we were all free to wander and watch each other train. Since the towel had been placed on the perch near the front of the cage, I did not feel that we would make any progress with all the activity near the towel (people walking back and forth). At that point, I took Wouter up on the offer to do some nail/claw trimming with the Dremel. Both the bird and I redeemed ourselves by progressing rapidly in this behavior. I started by capturing his foot on the wire, used the running Dremel as the cue for him to put his foot there and proceeded to buff each toe on the left foot, then the right. I’m sure he’d had it done before but Wouter said the Dremel as cue was probably new. In any case, it was a nice place to end our training. 

No comments: