Sunday, December 30, 2018

Training Goals and Planning for the New Year

Yesterday was a miserable day to be outside, making it a good day to be indoors with a hot cup of tea (or several). I chose to do some reflecting on 2018 and planning for 2019.

Training plans and logs or journals come in many forms and I've tried several: from digital spreadsheets to long hand journaling. I've had the benefit to work under some amazing trainers who shared their approaches and I played with those options. Over time, I've developed a template I really like for daily training of complex behaviors but am still fine tuning my big picture approach. 

This post is going to focus on the big picture stuff since that was my focus in looking back and looking ahead yesterday. I've gotten a lot of ideas from the Bullet Journal community.  If you are unfamiliar with bullet journaling, I recommend looking at the website of its originator, Ryder Carroll. If you look up Bullet Journal on google or social media, do not be dismayed by what has become an obsession with making pretty pages. Diagnosed with learning disabilities early in life, Ryder was forced to figure out alternate ways to be focused and productive. Isn't focus and productivity what we want from training journals?

I started yesterday by reviewing my daily logs from 2018.  I will freely admit to falling off the wagon with this on occasion, but my training is better when I do keep up with it, so those are worthwhile reviewing.  Doing so, I was reminded of things I tried which didn't work and how I resolved them. I was reminded of projects I worked on and dropped for one reason or another. Some were dropped for good reason (certain things make lovely noises when chomped on and therefore are not good subjects for being fetched). On the other hand, one thing I was reminded of was that I did some (very minor) TTouch work with Percy for a while and he really liked it.  I asked myself why I had stopped and saw that it was when I went away to meet a new baby granddaughter for a week.  When I returned, I got right back into training, but forgot all about the TTouch. That brought me to another realization which is that I don't look back often enough. I tend to plan and record, but I was missing a big advantage by not reviewing my records often enough. I hope to make a change in that in the coming year. Yesterday was certainly a good start. 

While reviewing my journals, I did something known as a brain dump. I made a different section for the different individuals (horses and dogs) and just wrote things down as I thought of them. They ranged from skills such as training a new way to deliver reinforcers, to wanting to try the TTouch some more, to books I wanted to read (in a section I added at the bottom for me) to long term goals. In a brain dump, you just try to get all the things that are swirling in your head out and down onto paper. 

Once I had done that, I picked one individual at a time and studied the list.  What could I work on in January? What did I want to work on in January? While trail riding more with Walter was on the big list, it was not something that we could do in January. But here's where I could miss out if I don't look back on this list.  Just because I can't work on it now doesn't mean I want to forget about it when the weather and footing improve. I could get so wrapped up in other things that I neglect to make the time in future months for that. This is something that my personal Bullet Journal can help with. Ryder recommends a Future Log where you set aside a page and section it out for the next six months. I now have a note for April which reads "make a plan for trail riding". On April 1st, when I look at the future log, I will be reminded of that.

Percy's and Walter's lists look very different.  I have several different things to work on with Percy. Winter is a good time to experiment so in addition to doing some more TTouch with him, I am going to see if that functions better as a warmup to other mental work, as a calm down afterward, or as something that is better to do all by itself in a day just as a way to spend time together.  I can use the findings to my benefit when warmer weather and more focused arena work returns. 

Walter's got one main theme which is to keep him physically flexible. He arrived with various stiffnesses and habit patterns in his body. He's made good progress in warmer months with regular work, but this time of year his body and mine react the same way. We move less, tense up from cold, take tiny steps on questionable footing, and our physical structures get tight and stiff. I have developed a pattern of movement for him using the barn aisle and the stalls. The footing is solid and I can click and treat for lateral steps turning through the stalls and big steps down the aisle. He also benefits from stepping over raised rails which I can set in the aisle. Finally, I have some new things to play with such as a pedestal and Sure Foot pads to add to our work with hoof placement. I will be confirming all this with his chiropractor. 

Once I had things which I wanted to work on in January, I had to make a plan. I have found I work well without having to think about "what to do today". So for Walter and Percy, I set out a list of five things to rotate through. For Percy I varied active thinking days with more relaxing days. I like winter to be a time that we practice our down time. Not every minute together needs to be on his Type AAA mentality. We'll do husbandry skills one day, explore the Sure Foot pads together another day, and try to keep things interesting but relaxing. 

For Walter, I set up a rotation that involved working his legs and back in different directions, at his intention and at mine.  Some days we'd use props to help him explore different ways to move and stretch and other days we'd use behavior. 

I don't get to work with the horses every day due to temperatures and my behavior consulting work schedule with other people. I set out a five day rotation for each horse, thinking that if I got five days per week with each, that would be great. If not, the rotation would continue in order, even if it was only every other day or I skipped several days in a cold snap. I have yet to find gloves that I can extract and feed treats with (that are at all useful for keeping fingers warm) so my training is done in snippets when I remove gloves of the feeding hand. 

To track what I have actually done, in the winter I use a calendar layout. In the summer I tend to use more detailed training plans and write them up in individual training journals for each horse. This time of year, it's less about creating and developing complex behaviors and more about mental and physical maintenance so with the plan I outlined for each horse above, I mostly just need to log what I've done.  If I want to add more detail, I make a note referring to the journals and I have room to write as much as I want in there. 

So what about the ponies? They, alas, do not get the training focus that the others do.  They  get out in haphazard fashion when other people come to train with me. They work on what the people need to work on, usually the Foundation Lessons in some form. I always have, as a goal, to work with them somehow and what I find is most successful is to choose one of them each day to focus on. Sometimes there is a particular project to work with. Kizzy is learning to ring a bell to ask to be let out when she is through eating her breakfast. She gets that almost every morning right now so that's nice for her. 

In order to keep the ponies in rotation and keep skills in rotation, I have used another Bullet Journal technique called a habit tracker. In order to track all the aspects that I want to, I have even incorporated color. This may seem over the top to some people but it works. It's an inexact system, without the detail I am using for the horses, but functions on the basic level I need. I make a chart, listing the days of the month across the top and the horses listed vertically on the left. I have assigned a color to various training topics and I fill in the corresponding block(s) each evening. By looking at this, it's easy for me to be sure that each pony is getting some attention, and that I am varying what we work on, even though it's in sporadic bits. 

If I only had one animal to work with, it would be a lot simpler.  With six equines and two dogs to keep busy, it has taken me years to work out this system. I am glad to be reminded to look back as well as forward.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Training for the Holiday Card Photo

Trying to get photos of animals for holiday cards is not as easy as it might seem. I am always impressed when I see well-posed photos with happy looking animals. I never start preparing for the photo as soon as I should and this year was no different. With some luck from Mother Nature which extended my training period, I squeaked out another. 

I started with an idea my head of what I wanted the picture to be. I was struck with this idea watching Wilder wagging his tail. In the winter, I use a sled to drag a bale of hay out to pasture to feed the horses. The dogs come with me and one day Wilder put his front feet up on the sled, looked up at me and wagged his tail rapidly.  He is the first Jack Russell I’ve had who has a full tail and it’s such different look that it gets my attention frequently. He reminded me of the Grinch’s dog, Max, when he is riding on the back of the Grinch’s sled as it races down the hill: the happy version of Max.

Back in the house, I googled to see if I could find some antlers that Wilder could wear. Lo and behold, Barkbox was including them in their December subscription box and I ordered it. Googling brought up many photos of dogs wearing antlers and sadly, many of them were not the happy version of Max. I’m sure people thought they were adorable but those of us who work with dogs and have been taught what stress looks like see it a lot more easily than others.  I did not want that sad stressed look on his face when I put antlers on him.  I knew I would need to do some conditioning so that he’d be able to show a happy face when he wore them. 

I felt I needed to have a “Grinch” in the photo as well.  I often try to have both dogs and horses represented on my card, as my training business includes both.  Who better than Kizzy to be the Grinch?  She too, would be the happy version, Grinch with a full grown heart. 

When Kizzy came to Bookends Farm, she’d had a nickname which sort of rhymes with Grinch but is worse. Obviously I renamed her (which is another story). She was hard to catch in the early days, and not easy to work with, but over the years she has become such a big hearted pony that she is a great example of a heart which has expanded many times over. She, I decided, would wear a big red heart. I wasn’t too concerned about her comfort level as she’s worn many things on her neck from halters and lead ropes to a bridle and reins, to a winter blanket with a neck attachment. 

It was December already and luckily I have a friend who was willing to take pictures for me.  I have always taken my own in the past and it is very challenging to set the scene, get the picture, and click and treat the right behaviors!  This year, I told myself, I’d remove that photography duty. I set a date for the photoshoot which gave me about 10 days to prepare.  I knew it would be tight but also that it would light a fire under me to work on it with dedication. 

I started my preparations. First I needed to think about all the component parts, as we call them.  What different things would be required for my mental image to become reality? I made a list:

  • Wilder wearing antlers
  • Wilder standing with front feet on sled 
  • for duration long enough to photograph
  • Wilder and Kizzy comfortable together
  • Distraction of some sort of Santa’s sack
  • Kizzy wearing hat
  • Kizzy wearing heart

Two other components I needed but that I thought were well established already were:
  • Kizzy standing on mat
  • Kizzy staying on mat long enough to photograph

Three things which came up that I hadn’t foreseen were
  • distraction of new person as photographer
  • unexpected wobbling of things I asked Wilder to put his feet on.  I’m glad this came up as during the actual photo shoot, the sled slid. It hadn’t during any of our practices but because I’d practiced with putting front feet on many things which did wobble or slightly collapse, or moved, this did not bother him for more than a couple seconds. 
  • Wilder’s concern with Kizzy’s proximity. He has spent a lot of time in the barn and around the horses and until recently showed no concern about them.  But one day he was in the wrong place at the wrong time (I take complete responsibility) and although the horses were not chasing him, they were just going where they wanted to go, he happened to be in front and so he thought he was being chased. I was glad he’d had a previous comfort level for me to regain. I would not have tried to get a generally fearful dog through that in 10 days which is all I had.


So, how to do all this? 
Antlers- Wilder had “worn” other things on his head and neck.  He knew how to poke his
munching down a treat while wearing his antlers
nose into the head hole of his harness or collar. He’d practiced putting his nose in a muzzle. So he already had that behavioral skill.  Wearing something that wiggled above his head would be new though, so I’d need to start with less than a second and work my way up. 
I began by refreshing the behavior of poking his head into anything which I held in front of him: collar, harness, and muzzle. (to see a video, go to my Instagram page) In the same session, I introduced the antlers.  The neck piece was nice soft fabric and adjustable with velcro.  I wasn’t sure exactly how it would sit or stay in place but I waited a few days before worrying about that.  To start with, I just wanted him comfortable poking his head into it. Each day, I wait another second before clicking and removing it so he got used to the feel of it, even if I was still holding onto it.  
I needed to prevent him from being frightened by it at any stage (“augh, I’ve got something stuck on my head!”) which could cause him to panic and/or try and possibly succeed in getting it off. Again, I needed to PREVENT that. That meant going very slowly so that he never had reason to worry. 
Once he was holding his head still for several seconds as I held on to the antlers (so that I could whip them off quickly if needed), I removed my hands for just a second, clicked and removed them before giving him his treat. He was fine with that and over time, I then could leave them on for longer periods, increasing the time by only seconds each session. 
Once he was comfortable with that, I tried backing away from him, as he’d need to remain still while wearing them, again, not trying to get them off.  At this point, he was on the Klimb platform as we practiced this and he has history staying on it when I walk away so that’s how I introduced that piece.  I would not ask him to stand with his front feet up while wearing the antlers until we had worked on that component separately.
anticipating his treat for "toes up" on a stool

“Toes up”- that became my eventual verbal cue to ask him to put his front feet up on something. I started with a rolled up yoga mat. I thought this would be easy for him to grip with his toes so no worry about slipping.  I didn’t have it rolled tight though and so it gave a little under his weight which he found initially worrying.  Of course he had no idea what I wanted at first. I used hand targeting to encourage him to put his feet on the roll. Initially he did everything BUT put his front feet up.  He jumped straight up, went around it, and stepped over it. But all that got clicked and treated.  Why? Because I asked for a hand target and he touched my hand each of those times. Over time he realized it was easier to touch down on the mat for a moment, which led to resting there longer, which resulted in a rapid succession of clicks and treats, and then we had what I was after. 


After this, I asked him to do the same on several different things.  Things which he could get onto were most difficult because he wanted to jump on them completely.  I thought this was an important phase for him to learn that it was distinctly different for him to put his front feet onto an object, rather than all of him.  Pretty soon he was offering to put his feet on things I approached so I knew he had the behavior solidly. At this point, I started working on duration (the amount of time he remained there before the click) and distractions (I needed to be able to walk away from him to get out of the picture.  This was distracting to him as he wanted to follow me as I stepped away). We made steady progress in both these steps, by only asking him for tiny approximations toward our goal, and repeating the easy steps frequently to keep him confident. 
Adding a little distance between us
Eloise in the background for moral support. 






















In order to have Wilder be comfortable with Kizzy, I started by spending time with them both together. Kizzy gets hot mashes three times a day which she loves and which take time for her to eat.  This was a good opportunity for me to take Wilder in the stall with her.  She was busy eating so paid no attention to him and he could get used to being near her without being approached.  Since Kizzy was eating, I needed to make sure she wasn’t at all threatened by Wilder’s approach. Dogs do like to eat grain and if he had started to clean up any spilled grain near her tub, she could have wanted to resource guard it.  To avoid this, I made sure that Kizzy got extra treats dropped in her tub as Wilder and I were in there.  This taught her that having us around while she ate was even better than eating alone. 

Once Wilder’s body language told me he was relaxed in her presence, I asked him for some simple behaviors in her presence to see if he could focus and respond to me.  He could and did: sits, downs, and hand touches. He was so focused on me that I began to put some distance between us until he and Kizzy were closer to each other than either one was to me.  Kizzy was still busily eating and every time I returned to treat Wilder, Kizzy got treats in her tub too. This would eventually allow us to have them in the frame without me. 

Now it was time to start working with them together. Here I made a mistake in when I chose to work with them.  First thing in the morning, I turn everyone out except for Kizzy.  She stays in to get her first hot mash of the day and is perfectly happy being left in the barn for this.  I assumed (always a mistake) that she’d also be happy to stay in for a very brief training session when she was through eating.  It worked conveniently into my schedule as I was cleaning stalls so as soon as she was done, I could let her into the aisle and work with them together.  I should have spent a couple sessions with just Kizzy to get her into that routine.  She was pretty convinced that after eating, it was time to go OUT.  If I’d been training her alone, I think the rate of reinforcement and general rate of training would have been high enough to keep her happy.  Instead, I assumed she would stand on her mat for short durations since she had a long history of doing that.  Instead, she showed me that she'd rather go to the door and when she stepped off the mat making mistakes, Wilder immediately left too.  
working together was a blur! 

By this time, we were within a day or two of the photo shoot date and I caught a break when the weather turned very cold so that my friend said her camera wouldn’t even work (down around zero).  So we delayed one day at a time until the weather warmed up and I got an extra two and a half days training which I needed! During that time I also found a hat for Kizzy to wear and so had a couple days to be sure she wasn't upset by that.

It was only on the day my friend was due to arrive that I thought about how excited Wilder gets when people visit and how he loves to leap and solicit attention.  I did not know how I was going to address that if he wanted to spend all this time checking her out. Luckily, having had an opportunity to wrestle with her for a few minutes when she arrived, he was able to focus on the task at hand.


Because of the cold and scheduling, the final thing which I should have done but hadn’t, was to practice in the spot I actually wanted the photo.  All our practice had been inside the barn where it was warmer!  So the distractions of being out in the open added to the challenge and my friend got a LOT of pictures of me feeding and just a couple without me in the picture. Luckily, one of those was good enough to choose for the card. 


Next year I'll start earlier. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Saying "Don't!" With Positive Reinforcement

Last week I wrote a post on my Dog Chapter blog about Saying No With Positive Reinforcement. This week I'll address a similar question I hear, which is how to prevent a horse (or other animal) from doing something. A common example is:

"I need to teach my horse never to go over the top of me"

Not only is this about wanting "obedience", but in this situation, there is definitely a fear factor.  Having a horse run over you is a very real and dangerous possibility when dealing with large fearful animals. People want to know how to prevent that from happening. And if it looks like it might happen, then what?

First we must be sure we are listening. By listening, I mean observing the animal's emotional signals so that we can respond in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy. In the case of horses, we must know what those emotional signals look like, and we must also know our individuals for more subtleties. Once I see that the horse may be getting worried, my positive reinforcement response is the same as saying "no". I teach what I want instead. In this instance, it must be practiced, practiced, practiced so that I can access that response when tensions are high. 

And remember, even humans who are panicked will run over other humans with disastrous results.  There are no guarantees in this life and if you choose to spend some of your days with horses, you must accept that it's potentially dangerous.

As a devotee of Alexandra Kurland, I look to five of her Foundation Lessons to assess my horses' responsiveness. These are behaviors that my horses know solidly and have practiced for years so their reinforcement history is strong. Each of the lessons can be used a safety net, IF they have a reliable response. 

I remember well the clinic I attended with Alex when she helped me begin to take the "make it happen" out of my cues. Alex's clinics frequently, if not always, use "human horses" in practice.  Having a human tell you how it feels when you grab the lead rope is very enlightening. I had no idea how forceful my requests were and I needed to work on changing my demands to requests if I wanted a quiet response from my horses. 

"Make it happen" demands only work when you are scarier than other things in the environment. If someone tells me to sit still when there is a large rock rolling down a hill toward me, it doesn't matter how forcefully they say it, I am going to get out of the way of that rock! Unless, I trust that person.

Trust is a messy word when it comes to horses.  I see so many people saying that horses trust their handlers: horses will lie down, or go into water, or jump big fences. In some instances it may be true. In other instances it may be because the horse has been taught that he doesn't have a choice. The fear of what might happen if they don't obey is actually stronger than the fear of doing what is asked.  So in the case of the rock coming down the hill at me, I need to trust that the person telling me to sit still knows the landscape well enough to know that the rock will bounce and go around me instead of hitting me! 

The more experiences I have trusting this person regarding bouncing rocks, the more my trust in them will build. I may sit still in otherwise ridiculous situations (almost as ridiculous as this example) because that person has shown me that trusting them keeps me safe. We need to give our horses similar histories of trusting us in low risk situations before we ask them to trust us in higher risk situations.

This morning I took my Percy horse out to an area he deems somewhat scary. He is not imagining things- as peaceful as it looks in this photo below, we have seen quite a variety of wildlife come out of those woods, from innocuous deer to coyotes and bears. I know his hearing and other senses are sharper than mine- I trust that when he alerts to something, something is really there.  This is because history has shown when I see him standing in his paddock on alert, I can run to the other side of the house and look out the window and see interesting wildlife. Trust goes both ways. 



This morning I was working on building trust that I won't ask him to do anything he thinks is dangerous. When we first got out here, I walked up to a mat which I had previously placed in the grass. My question was, "can you step right onto this mat in this environment?" 


He could. I noticed a slight lowering of criteria in the quality however. That is an important  observation.  In addition to the height of his head and his intense focus on the woods (which you can't see), his feet did not land squarely in the middle of the mat, nor did they stay square with each other. This could have been due to two different things (or something else altogether). Either he wasn't 100% focused on his behavior to the criteria he can exhibit in a more comfortable environment, or it could have been because of the placement of the mat- on a hill, on deep grass. It might have been a little unstable or he might have been a little unsure.  While I wasn't sure of the reason, it was important that I notice this lack of meeting criteria and proceed carefully, rather than just forging ahead. 

I proceeded through the other foundation lessons, cueing, observing responses and making mental notes. Could he back up at the slightest suggestion of a cue? 



Yes. 

Could he target my hand?



Yes. 

Could he stand with his feet still next to me for a count of 10? 


Yes.
Could he drop his nose to the ground and leave it there?



On the second try. He put his head down on the first request, took a bite of grass and picked it up again.  So here is another set of questions for me.  Did he pick it up because he was uneasy or because that bite was not to his liking (my rules are that you can eat when I ask you to put your head down as long as you don't move your feet). When I re-cued, I only asked for a duration of five seconds. 

So what all this tells me is that I have my horse in an environment that he might not be completely comfortable, but one in which he trusts me enough to respond to all my cues, rather than an "every man for himself" situation. Importantly, he responds willingly, immediately and for the most part meeting criteria. 

It's important to keep in mind that the behaviors he has done are behaviors that are very, very easy for him. I am not asking him to perform advanced trigonometry, but recite his A,B,C's (which he has known for years). Next I am going to ask him for something a little more difficult, especially in this environment, and in the way I ask him. 

One thing I know about this horse, and probably many others, is that he'd much rather be looking toward the potentially dangerous area than have his back to it.  Horses are horizon scanners. They want to know when a potentially dangerous predator comes over that horizon so they can be well on their way in the other direction. Asking Percy to turn his back on the scary area invites a scoot forward (or two or three) as he hears things behind him and can't see to determine the risk. 

In previous days, he has been fine as long as he is facing the woods, but each time he has scooted forward as we walk back toward the barn. Here is a situation where I want a "please do not go over the top of me as you are scooting forward".  If we are walking away, I know the scoot will just take him forward a step or two.  But it's that turning around where there is potential for danger. Horses are good at turning on a dime.  If he is to the right of me and turns on a dime toward me at a high rate of speed, that takes him over the top of me. So what do I want instead?  I want him to make a small arc around me as he turns. And I want him to stay balanced over his own feet, rather than leaning in (which if the footing is at all slippery could cause him to slip and end up on top of me). In comfortable environments, he moves around me just like that.  But in a situation where I am asking him to turn his back on the woods, I want to be clear in my cues that I want him to go around me. 

Fortunately, using another of Alexandra Kurland's lessons, I have taught him how to turn exactly like that. If I hadn't previously gone through a training process to train this, it would not be fair to ask him to do it. In this short clip, you can see the first time I ask him to pick his head out of the grass, wrap his neck slightly around me, and step toward the woods with his shoulders, taking those shoulders away from me and preparing him to turn in that arc around me. I only ask for a step or two this first request. I am not "making" him get out of my space.  I am asking him if he can do it. 


The answer is yes.  

So this is my process.  Are all these behaviors solid in a comfortable environment?  Yes. Are they solid in an environment where he is less comfortable?  That's what we are working on. His responses today are a result of training I have done on previous days.  Today's training prepares us for future days. Setting him up in a slightly worrisome environment gave us both needed practice.  I need to be able to reach for cues quickly and he needs to be able to respond to them. 

The next time we come out here, I will see whether asking him these questions today made the responses stronger or weaker. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Choice in Husbandry Procedures


I love it when something I post sparks questions and discussion. And when those lead me to a blog post, so much the better. Yesterday I shared this video, saying, 

“Start button cues are a hot topic these days and rightly so. About eight years ago, I taught Percy this specific target (with a red cross!) for medical procedures...potentially painful ones. In this video I'm just following up with practice after a vaccination last week and in preparation for another this week. When he touched the target, I poked him with a sharp object. If he didn't want me to, he takes his nose off the target. That's why I'm watching his head so carefully. If he removes his nose from the target, I immediately stop what I'm doing.”

One comment remarked that this was like The Bucket Game, which is a name coined by Chirag Patel a couple years ago for doing cooperative husbandry with dogs and uses a bucket as a cue.  As I mentioned in my post, “Start Button” cues is another term being used to indicate that the animal chooses when to start a given behavior. There are certainly many trainers using this approach, which boils down to giving an animal choice. The animal can choose to participate in the training session or not. The animal can give a general cue, such as standing on a platform, to indicate he is ready for training, or it can be a more specific cue, such as opening the mouth, to indicate the animal is ready for something like a dose syringe or dental exam. 

I like to give the animal a good idea of what’s coming. Not long ago I went to the dentist (which I am not fond of doing) and the dentist actually tried to sneak the needle of novocaine into my mouth without me seeing it. I jumped reflexively when I saw it out of the corner of my eye and he said that my concern was all in my head. He didn’t think I’d notice if I didn’t see it. Well, yes I would have noticed when the needle was stuck into my gum! I did not trust him for the remainder of that visit and specifically asked never to have that individual again. How must our animals feel when we trick them into something like that? Some shut down and some learn not to trust us and become “difficult”. 

This is why I use a specific target for potentially painful situations.  I want them to know that ahead of time so they can make the choice to stay or leave based on that knowledge. When I bring that target out, I then do some practice runs so the animal knows exactly what it is that will happen.  In the case of a horse, will it be an IM injection in the neck? A prick for a blood draw in the jugular? A wound treatment? Even if the animal has agreed to participate, suddenly being stuck with a needle somewhere unexpected can be startling. Practice runs are what you see in the video. There are many, many practice runs for each real event. The intention is not to trick the animal by not doing anything painful.  I am trying to simulate the real event to give the animal information, for instance by pricking the skin surface with a pen or something sharper. I have been amazed at how much a a horse will stand quietly for when it is introduced in this manner. 

Another commenter said that she likes to have the animal target the object being used, such as a saddle or syringe.  I’m not sure whether she meant with the applicable body part or just in general. Anything an animal can do to participate in husbandry is always a good approach. Picking up a foot to offer it for cleaning or trimming is an example.  If I am using a dose syringe, I can offer the syringe and the horse can take it in his mouth. But even a dose syringe is something I prefer to place, so that the medication is more likely to go to the intended location (swallowed, rather than spat out all over me). If I intend to give an IM injection, I don’t expect the horse to throw his neck on the needle. Nor do I want him trying to turn around to touch the needle with his nose.  So this is why I use this nose target. It says, "put your nose here, hold very still (except that wiggly lip), and I'll let you know what is going to happen". 

With all training, the "how" is far more important than the "what". Horses will do a lot of things if forced to by equipment or training methods.  What may look like “trust” may actually be a horse that has just given up. So I want to mention that when I initially trained this, it was more at liberty than you see here. Even though the horse is loose in his stall, that doesn’t give him a lot of options and it certainly could put me at risk if the horse decided he didn’t like what I was doing. As I mentioned, I trained this many years ago and so feel both he and I are comfortable in the stall.  When I initially trained it, there was a round pen panel between us. I was in the barn and he was in his paddock. He could have gone far from me if he chose. So his choice to participate was clear. 

Yet another comment was about where the reinforcement was coming from and if taking his nose off the target reinforced that.  Remember, we don’t know whether something was reinforcing until the next repetition. Only then do we see whether that behavior is strengthened, repeated, or lessened/weakened. I was told that is why the abbreviations begin with the letter and are then followed by the plus or minus sign (R+, R-, P+, P-).  First, you have to see whether the behavior increases (in which case it was reinforced) and then you decide whether it was the addition or removal of a stimulus. 

This can be tricky because we so often say “I am going to reinforce that”. That may be our aim, and hopefully it’s based on the history you have with the animal or the species, as well as knowing the environmental conditions you are training in. All those have an effect on what we hope will be reinforcing. In this situation, my history with this horse in this environment with this behavior caused me to believe that 2 hay stretcher pellets would reinforce the behavior of leaving his nose on the target. Had he not put his nose on it, that would simply have told me that under these conditions, those two pellets were not reinforcing enough. 

What do I mean by “under these conditions”?  I mean that in approximately eight years of doing this, I have seen many, many successful trials.  However, this day was after having an actual injection, as well as a blood draw, from a stranger (veterinarian). What I know about this individual is that having another person do anything to him sucks a lot of pennies out of his trust bank. This session was one of many in which I was refilling the account. There were three or four instances when he did not put his nose back on the target.  I simply waited. Each time, it was less than five seconds before he offered to target again. When I saw this, it told me he was hesitant and so I knew I was going to need more, not fewer, repetitions before another actually injection. 

As a follow up, this morning I did this again but used an actual needle.  If you noticed my movements in the last two reps in the video, I tried to model the arm movements I would do to pull the syringe plunger back and then push it in. That did not faze him.  But simply taking the lid off the needle this morning was different.  He knows that movement, sound, etc.  He hesitated. I waited.  This told him it was his choice. When he placed his nose on the target, I just barely pricked his skin and he tensed and twitched but did not remove his nose. Click/treat. I repeated that again. This time he tensed but did not twitch. Click/treat. After that, he didn't even tense and I did several more repetitions as he got more and more relaxed. And then I ended the session.  I don't want him tensing because he things that eventually he'll get poked in any given session. 

Finally, there is the classical conditioning and CER (conditioned emotional response) which is so important to all of this. The reason it works so well is not because the animal learns to grin and bear it through the pain, all for a measly two hay stretcher pellets. Instead, we are conditioning the animal that this is easy and fun.  You don't need to stand there with muscles tense waiting for the prick. That would make the prick worse! Instead, just hang out here with me, put your nose on that target for while and relax.  When I do prick you, your muscles and your mind will be relaxed so that the pain is less severe. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pony, Cat, Child: a Snapshot of Behavior


I posted this photo to my Instagram and Facebook accounts yesterday and only afterward wondered if I was contributing to irresponsible behavior ("let's put the cat up there. hahaha!"). So now I will give the background and explanation, hoping to exonerate myself.

The "training plan" for the day was simply to give the child an experience on a pony. As is often the case, training plans need to be adapted.  Sometimes that means you put the learners away and rethink your plan.  Other times, if you have enough experience and knowledge of the individuals, you can adapt the plan in the moment and keep going.

While it may seem silly to discuss sitting an 11 month old child on a pony as a "lesson plan", I do so to underline that I don't do things like this without thinking about them. I do not see horses, dogs, cats or any other animals as "tools" to be used by us or as entertainment for us.  When we share our lives with them, it is our responsibility to care for their physical, mental, and emotional needs as much as our own- probably more since we had the choice to bring them to our home and they did not.

There are three learners in this photo of three different species: cat, pony, and child. The original plan was to sit the child on the pony. She has a mini-donkey at her house and has sat on him before so this was not new. This pony has had many children on her back in her life so it was not new for her either. The only thing which was new was the combination of these two particular individuals. They had met in recent days and both decided they preferred hand to back contact rather than face to face! After grooming the pony to be sure she was comfortable, we put the bareback pad on so that enthusiastic little child feet didn't cause concern to the pony.

The training plan needed to be adapted when the child's body language (clinging to my neck and hiking feet up!) indicated she was not comfortable with the situation. When a learner is showing discomfort, we back off, assess, and either wait for another day or try again with an adapted plan.

It was at this point that the cat showed up.  This child loves cats.  She has several at her house.  Most live outdoors but one lives indoors and while her parents carefully manage any interactions, she has become conditioned to love cats as much as much as she loves dogs, chickens, horses and donkeys. In this situation I am operationalizing "love" as smiling widely, squealing, kicking feet and wiggling fingers when she sees them. She'd had several (well-managed) interactions with this cat in recent days and that's when the idea popped into my head to put the cat on the pony to see if that would help the child think it looked fun.

Cat history- this cat is 10 years old, lives in the barn and is very familiar with the horses and ponies.  Admittedly, I had never put him on one before but just this Spring he learned to ride on top of shavings bags in the wheelbarrow for the first time. I thought it might be similar enough that he'd be ok with it.  I didn't plan for the pony to move, just to show the child that the kitty was up there. None of the humans were small enough to demonstrate that sitting on the pony's back was ok.  But the cat was. The bareback pad would give George the cat something to hold onto (with his claws if necessary) without Kizzy the pony ever feeling it. George jumps in the barn doors, climbs over the stall walls, walks up and down the aisle and hides under things in the arena.  All the equines are very accustomed to his presence next to them, under them, and above them.

Handlers- each individual in this triad had a handler focused on them.  The child's mother (who is also very familiar with both feline and equine behavior) had the child.  While barely visible in this photo, my husband (very familiar with equine behavior) has the lead rope of the pony, and I was the one who picked up the cat, and carefully placed him on the bareback pad.  I did not immediately step away to take a picture, but stayed to give the tactile reinforcement he loves until he looked confident and his purr was at its usual dull roar.

In the photo you see can see both the reinforcement being used and the body language of each learner. The child is looking at the cat and is not pulling away, nor toward, the animals.  Mom is clearly keeping her naive fingers away from hair or skin that could be pulled or pinched, while holding her close and talking to her. Being held and talked to by mom is very reinforcing. Mom is also scratching the cat's back and you can see him arching up to get more of this reinforcing tactile contact, although the camera caught an odd expression on his face. I can attest that he stayed there when he could easily have jumped off. Finally, if you look closely, you can see the pony's head down to the ground.  She is normally only on grass with a grazing muzzle which drastically limits her ability to eat.  Here she has been given a few minutes of muzzle free grass and she was eating as fast as she could.  One of the first things a horse does when nervous is pick up their head. Kizzy pony's head never left that grass.

After taking pictures, I returned to lift George off of Kizzy's back. His performance had the desired effect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Week at The Karen Pryor National Training Center

The view of Mt Rainier from the house
From May 7 to May 12, I was very fortunate to spend a week learning from world-class trainer and teacher, Ken Ramirez, at the new Karen Pryor National Training Center in Graham, Washington. I was one of 18 participants in the course called Dive Deep: an Advanced Training Course. The week was packed with information on topics which included non-food reinforcement, Aggression Treatment and Context, and Simplifying Complex Training Tools. But there was more. Much more.

Ken said that he struggled for a while trying to figure out what would be in an "advanced course" that people repeatedly suggested he should offer. He said "advanced training is just the basics done well". Everything he covered did require that the basics be understood and done well. His consultations and training for scent detection, recognizing quantity, conservation training, and more built on basic clear cues and criteria, as well as being very sensitive to his learners' emotional cues in return. And that includes human learners.

The Training Center's occupants are goats, alpacas, donkeys, and of course a couple dogs. The Dive Deep course was weighted heavily on classroom presentations but we also had a few brief training sessions with these animals daily. Focusing on the basics, we trained under the supervision of Ken or one of two other experienced trainers. We shared plans before going to the animals and then wrote brief reports of the session afterward.
working with the very sensitive alpacas to get them comfortable with touch

Participants in this course included trainers of dogs, horses, and zoo animals. Trainers focused on husbandry, human education, sport, and helping pet owners. The questions which were asked during talks and discussions that were held during meals revealed yet more views with which to look at these training topics.

One of traits which makes Ken a phenomenal presenter is his storytelling ability. With decades of experiences to draw on, training species from butterflies to killer whales, he has a story to illustrate every topic he covers. He masterfully crafts his tales so that they are entertaining as well as educational.  His humility is remarkable and each day I learned new things about his explorations into animal behavior.

Alexandra Kurland frequently refers to our continued education in animal behavior as peeling back another layer of the onion. This is apt as there is always more to discover and more to peel back. You never quite reach the middle but instead, realize how much more there is inside. But at the conclusion of that week at The Ranch, I felt like I needed a different analogy. I didn't just see another layer, I saw...3D.  It was as if I'd been looking at layers and layers of two dimensional pictures and someone had shown me an MRI. The scan allowed me to see the depth of field and how the different organs overlapped and interacted. We'd probe deep into one topic as he helped us examine it (always inviting questions and discussion) and then we'd look at the same topic from a different angle.  And then we'd look at that angle with a different topic!

We heard how the basics were used in different fields, different sports, different species. We learned how the concepts were applied for different purposes. Ken believes that training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  His primary reasons for training are for physical exercise, mental stimulation, cooperative behavior, and animal welfare. He advised us to keep it as a shared process, with the animals as willing participants.

My decision to attend this course was because I always wanted to attend all of Ken's talks at Clicker Expo and would force myself to skip some of his in order to enjoy many of the other wonderful presenters.  The opportunity to have a full week of Ken was too good to pass up. And after that full week, I will continue to pursue opportunities to learn from him in the future.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Training Intensive- Shaping

For the past several years I've had the honor of hosting a Training Intensive with three other coaches. Katie Bartlett, Cindy Martin, and Marla Foreman have joined me here at Bookends Farm and we invite up to twelve people to come for a full weekend of clicker training. Participants use Bookends Farm Equines to learn with and we choose a topic to focus on.  This year's topic is shaping.

It could and should be said that all clicker training is shaping: the process of breaking a learning task down into successive approximations at which the animal can easily succeed. But there are many different types of shaping, from free shaping to guided learning and many options in between. Knowing how to choose from these many options is one of the things we will explore on July 6-8. For more information on the Training Intensive, click here.  Vermont Training Intensive 2018

Wanting to do a little video to advertise the clinic, I played with some shaping this morning. I purchased a new mat late this winter, thinking it would be one I could use on frozen ground. I never actually got to use it before mud came but decided to work with it in the aisle with Walter horse. Walter is the newest equine resident and newest to clicker training and the foundation lessons. I'm quite sure if I had put it out for any of the others, they would have immediately stepped onto it as they know all about mats and will frequently search out things to stand on in hopes that it might count as a mat. But Walter is a bit of a worrier.  Which is odd because he's also a very solid citizen and just an all-around good guy. My guess is that his early training history did not involve a lot of nuance. Like many Thoroughbreds, his career began as a race horse. So while he has seen and done a lot, one thing I have noticed about him is concern about what is under his feet.  Not one to refuse to comply, instead he just strikes me as worrying about things.  We've done a lot of mat lesson work, and if he sees one (my standard plywood ones), he will lead me right to it but even then he is just a little cautious about stepping right on and likes to test how solid they are with a toe a time or two before venturing on.

I started with some free shaping, where I just let him loose in the aisle where the mat was, and I was going to click for any interest in the mat including looking at it, sniffing it and ideally, stepping on it.


As you can see, he sniffed and then pulled away. I managed to click while he was sniffing so I reinforced that, but he carefully stepped around it to come to me afterward.  We did a few more rounds of that: me backing up, him carefully stepping around the mat to come to me and I'd click for any interest he showed in it.

I decided to manipulate the environment a little. I tried moving the mat to one side of the aisle since turning in that narrow space positioned him to one side, but he still walked around. If free shaping was going to work with this, it was going to take a long time. There are reasons for doing that, which we'll go over at the clinic. But I decided to give Walter a little help in this shaping plan. I would use my hand as a target to encourage him to step on.


What we have here is the classic stance of a horse you are trying to lure into a trailer with a bucket of grain.  Feet bunched together at the edge, stretching the head and neck waaaay out to grab the grain, but not putting his feet on the ramp. But there's a big difference here.  There is no physical pressure on Walter as he is completely loose in the barn aisle.  He can leave if he wants to.  He can go interact with the other horses, eat hay out of the hay cart, go back in his stall or anything else.  He's only getting two little hay stretcher pellets for each click. He is choosing to stay and interact with me even though he's getting a lot less food this way than he would if he went and ate free choice hay.  This indicates a big step in his understanding and trust. And for me, it's important that he be given the time to decide that he wants to step on the mat.  I know if I put a halter and lead on him and lead him to it, blocking his ability to go around it, he would do it.  But that is not the point.

I want him to become aware of his feet and become confident about placing them securely down, with trust that I won't ask him to do that if it's not safe. My goal is to see him as confident as all the others here.

In this final video, he finally places one foot on the mat.  It would be so easy to say, "OK, now you can see it's safe, just get on it the rest of the way." But watch what Walter does.



Stepping completely onto the mat is not something I expected to accomplish in one session.  We'll keep working on it, allowing him the freedom to explore with his feet and his mind. There isn't much room for a horse's creativity and exploration in traditional training. This is a whole new world for Walter.

How do I choose when to click?  What to ask for next? How to set up each training session and how to set up a long term training plan?  These things could fill a book. But we'll cover a lot of them in July. We'd love to have you join us at the Vermont Training Intensive 2018.