Monday, April 26, 2010

Ande's Loop Part 2

The day after I posted last, I tried the same loop from his back. While he was still hesitant to step off the mat (so I need to work on that more), his willingness to trot was much better than previous. Previously, I wasn't sure which cue would be most effective, and when he did trot, it was grumpily. This time I only used a voice cue and each time he trotted right off because he was headed for the mat. He didn't always maintain the trot (he tended to break into a walk when we reached the ground pole) but would willingly jog off again when asked.

I think I might experiment with a Keep Going Signal (KGS). Someone wrote a response to the blog on a list I am on and asked why I wasn't using one. She explained how she uses it with duration behaviors such as going over trotting poles and also for something in a series of behaviors like a canter depart or flying change. The reason for using it with going over fences or a flying change is that you don't want the horse to slam on the brakes when he hears the click. Many times that is acceptable because you then can ask again, giving the horse several repetitions of successful behavior. But slamming on the brakes when landing from a jump is not good for the structure or a KGS would mean "good job but keep cantering until I ask you to stop or you hear a click".

To use it to keep the trot going, I would first condition a KGS by using it right before the click and primary reinforcer (treat). Ande would then learn that the KGS (I'm thinking of using the verbal "gooooood" which just kind of oozes out of me when a horse is trying hard) means that a click and treat is coming and he needs to continue what he is doing to get it. That is why it's called a "keep going" signal. Rather than getting frustrated and quit because he isn't reinforced, he would know to keep trying.

I looked up KGS on Karen Pryor's website and this is what it said:
A signal, verbal or otherwise, given in the middle of a behavior to tell the dog he is doing the behavior correctly and should keep doing what he’s doing. Keep-going signals add an unnecessary level of complexity in training.

So, obviously some consider KGS to be unnecessary and complicating. I think the reasoning is that simply withholding the click has the same affect. Has anyone else experimented with them and found them to be helpful or complicating?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ande's Loop

Yesterday I tried a somewhat complicated loop of behaviors with Ande. I'm not sure the serious behavior people would justify the way I did it, but it was a fun process and he seemed to enjoy it, as well as benefit from it. It also became a bit of a behavior chain.

He did know all the individual behavior pieces and so my process was simply to connect the pieces and see where I needed to click and where I could use the next behavior in the loop or chain as a reinforcement for the previous behavior. In the round pen, I laid out one ground rail and about one horse-length beyond that, I put the plywood mat. Ande loves the mat and sometimes when I ride him we get stuck on it...he willingly goes to it and stands on it but does not want to leave it (not at all uncommon with horses who have done mat work). So one of my goals was to lighten him about leaving the mat. But I also wanted to use the mat to encourage him to go forward over the pole. I did a fair amount of longeing and riding him over ground poles last season and in the process, he found he got clicked for stepping over...and he would anticipate the click and slow going over the pole. Initially, I thought this was fine, having ridden many Thoroughbreds in my day who quicken over ground poles! I want him to learn to do rails and then on to jumps with a quiet and careful attitude. But I didn't love the way it took the forward out of the picture.

A third criteria and the weakest of them all, was his ears. I have written before about my frustration with the way he seems to go around with his ears back so much of the time. He is so much more attractive with his ears up, as I guess all horses are. He just hasn't really embraced the ears up thing so I continue to peck away at it. If that is all I focus on, he will do it. But when I am trying to work on something else, the ears go back and I have to choose between the new behavior or the ears. Grrr.

I began by simply walking next to him (he was wearing a bridle and longe line; I was carrying a lashless longe whip). The first time around, I clicked when his front feet went over the rail (this was the first time with rails this spring). He stopped, took his treat, and then we proceeded directly to the mat where he got clicked and treated for stepping onto the mat. Oh- a couple more criteria I was working on: staying out on the longe line and responding to voice cues...both of which he does well, but I wanted to be sure that I paid attention to all the pieces as I built this loop. So after our first trip around the pen, I stepped back one large step and cued him forward with "walk on". Since he was on the mat, he did not want to go forward and I followed the voice cue with pointing the whip at his hip. When he stepped off, I CT'd. Leaving the mat is hard for him and I wanted to initially reward any leaving of it even if it took the two separate cues. So we went around again but this time I was doing more of a parallel longeing technique: walking with him but about 3 feet to the inside. I CT'd a few times when he was right next to the rail because I wanted him to know that he was doing the right thing by staying out on the rail, rather than staying at my shoulder, which is also something that I expect at times. This time when we got to the ground pole, I waited to click until his back feet had gone over the pole. So he had to keep going beyond the point of success the previous time and he did this without needing further encouragement.

After the treat, I stepped back again and expected him to stand still until he got the cue to go forward. The mat was right in front of him so it was hard for him to stand there and wait for the cue! I can't honestly remember which times he did it and which times he tried stepping off at this point, but it was excellent self-control practice. If he stepped forward before I asked him to, I simply put the whip in front of his chest which he knows is a cue to back up and in that way, I re-set him, waited a moment, gave the "walk on" cue, which immediately put him on the mat where I could CT.

Then I stepped back another large step so I was now about 6-10 feet from him, and sent him forward. If he stepped off the mat with a voice cue only, I CT'd immediately. If it required the whip pointing at his hip to walk off, no CT. But he did get clicked for staying close to the rail and flicking an ear forward at the same time. So there were reinforcers coming when he left the mat. I wanted him to keep this loop going and be willing to go from one piece of it to the next, never wanting to get stuck at any one place. This time around, I held out on the click for the ground pole until he was on the mat. They were close enough and the loop was set so that I thought he could see stepping on the mat as reinforcement for going over the rail. This set him up so that the next time around, I had him trot over the rail. Seeing the mat right there in front of him kept his trot forward as each foot went over the rail.

My next step was to move the mat out further from the ground pole until it was about 2 horse lengths from the rail. Using the mat as a reinforcer for the rail meant that he would trot over the rail in a nice forward trot in his enthusiasm for going to the mat. This worked well so I threw in a change: I clicked right as he went over the rail again....meaning he stopped and showed self control by not going right to the mat. And he had to again wait while I backed away (and by this time I had graduated to the center of the round pen), not going forward until I gave the voice cue.

All in all I was really pleased with the session. Giving him lots to think about minimizes the ears back and keeps him guessing. Not guessing in the sense that he's frustrated or worried, but always working to figure out what will earn the click...trying to figure out what I want and being happy when he gets it right. That's a pony I'd like to train.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

When Can I Stop Treating?

This and other variations of this question are things I hear frequently with people new to clicker training. "He's only doing it for the food", "I don't want to carry treats with me everywhere", "but he knows there's a cookie coming", etc.

The important thing to remember here is that clicker training is training process. All good training should progress from one step to the next, and not get stuck in one place. However, I do not believe in timetables for training. All horses and handlers are different and so each pair will progress through different stages at different rates of time. Sometimes we think we "should" have this horse going better by now...or that another person in the barn "should" be doing more with their horse. But we are all individuals. Safety first, happiness second (I didn't think that through very far, but I think it will hold up), and who cares how far you get how fast? If my horse and I are safe and happy, that's a good day!

Once we let go of the "shoulds", then we can focus on each step and be sure we are clear in our requests, reinforcing in our responses and take the time to solidify behaviors by repeating them many times to get consistency. We want to make sure that the horse has really learned, and not just been lucky a couple times. Think about driving a car. When you drove around the school parking lot the first time, or even several times, were you then ready to hook up to a trailer with a horse in it and go out in traffic? Of course not. You graduate from the parking lot to back roads (although I pity people in urban do they do it??), then slightly busier streets, then highways, etc. You progress steadily but you don't leap from one stage to the next without practicing a fair bit at each stage. Similarly, just because our horses can walk, trot, canter quietly in the ring doesn't mean they can do it out on the trail...or vice versa. The environment presents different distractions and physical challenges (hills on a trail, tighter turns in an arena).

When we learned to drive, we had someone else in the car with us explaining what to do. That doesn't mean that we needed someone doing that for the rest of our lives. The same is true for the clicker. I use the clicker to train something new, refine it to the stage I want it, use it for lots of repetitions to gain fluency and consistency and then I can fade it out for that behavior. I don't just drop it completely.

Sometimes I need to even remind myself to drop the clicker out of things. Because I use it so much, with so many horses, it becomes a habit for me to click when a horse does something well. But it can become like the parent who says "good job!" to a child for every little thing. Pretty soon it loses it's effectiveness and/or when you neglect to say it, the learner thinks something is wrong! They become a "praise junkie", constantly needing that feedback.

I have found that the change of seasons can be a good time for me to reassess where the different horses are in their abilities. Poor Ande, who is the oldest of my homebreds, is the guinea pig. I think I tend to err on the side of babying him along rather than pushing him too fast. Last summer, I decided I was no longer going to click him for standing still while he was on the cross ties. Once I saw how easy it was, I did the same with both Rumer and Percy who were much younger! I had taught them to stand...job done! Sort of. I do keep an eye out for any backsliding in behavior AND respect the huge effect that distractions have on behavior.

Rumer has ants in her pants. That little girl in pink has graduated out of kindergarten and is in 1st grade now but she's still a very busy little girl. She knows the rules (four feet quiet on the mat) but a guest in the classroom (like the farrier coming) and oh boy, let's see what he smells like and what's in his toolbox and watch what he's doing and pretty soon she's doing the hootchie cootchie all over the place again. So I bring out the clicker and we do a little remedial work as a reminder. I hush that little voice in my head that says "she knows better" and instead use it as an opportunity to show her that she will be reinforced for behavior she knows in challenging situations.

This Spring, I decided that Ande really is proficient enough in his basic ground work exercises that I can drop the clicking for that. He walks off promptly from a voice (a cluck), hand (drawing forward lightly on the rein or rope) or whip cue (simply pointing a dressage or longe whip at his hip). He bends to a very light touch on the rope or rein and is quite adjustable in that. He willingly continues his forward motion while bending. He steps under himself with his inside hind to come to a one rein stop at the lightest touch. He will do all these things from both sides. So I have checked them off my list and am now working more on his longitudinal flexion. I am still shaping this behavior so I am still clicking for it and will continue to do so until he becomes proficient at it.

So am I STILL using the clicker with these horses? Yes, I am teaching new behaviors all the time. Am I still using it with the same behaviors I did at the start? No, all three babies are expected to lead quietly from either side, stop from a rein or body cue (stop when I stop) and stand quietly on the cross ties. None of them get clicked regularly for any of this. Once we have good grass, and they start getting led out to distant pastures for the first time in the Spring, I will not be surprised to see that I need to use the clicker as a reminder to any of the three. Yes, "they know better", but it's Spring! I won't need to use it all summer...just for the first days of turning out.

I do continue to click some old behaviors randomly, depending on how much I appreciate them and how much the horse gives up in return. When I go to a pasture gate, and a pony leaves green grass to come put his or her nose in a halter, that is greatly appreciated by me and I reinforce it regularly!

The photo above is Ande, last summer at age 3. He is standing on his mat, with his head down, long enough for me to walk away and take a photo! Anybody want to buy a nice little Quarter Pony?