Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Face Time

Percy has always loved to learn and has caught on quickly to new behaviors, loving them all. So it was rather a shock to me when I found two things in the last couple weeks he didn't like to do. One was backing away from me and the other was stationing (defined as staying put in a particular place while I walked away...to lead up to going to that spot on his own). It's important to point out some fine lines in these behaviors that it took me a while to figure out and that helped me solve the problem. He learned to back from a very light cue when he was still a foal and he learned to stand for grooming, feeding, etc at a younger age too. So it wasn't the idea of either behavior he had trouble with but I was adding further criteria to them both. I wanted him to back from a pointing cue, rather than a touch cue so that I could cue him to back from a distance. With the stationing, I didn't simply want him to hold still while I did things to him and around him...I wanted to be able to go a distance from him while he remained in place.

My motives for these behaviors were to get him out of my way when I am doing things. Being the very friendly sort, he comes running to the fence when I go to the barn, stands and nickers at me while I approach and then enjoys a very physical greeting- tasting my hat, unzipping my coat, etc while I rub his face and neck, etc. This became difficult when I wanted to go through his paddock with hay or water buckets for someone else. He didn't even try to steal the hay but he would be very much in my way, helping with the gate handles, etc. Bad enough in warm weather but when I'm dealing with gloves and dicey winter footing, etc, it was just too much. I wanted to be able to stand outside his paddock, get him to back out of my way and stay out of my way. The stationing also, was because he'd hang his head over my shoulder as I tried to open panels and squeeze through with a wheelbarrow or water. When I found myself wanting to ram him with the wheelbarrow just to get him out of the way, I knew instead I needed to teach him something different (not that people haven't suggested this before...nothing like necessity to back me into training something). I did trust him- probably too far considering his young age and breeding...ducking under an electric fence right into the chest of a 2 year old is not exactly safe management practice.

I began teaching him to back with a pointing cue at his chest by simply swinging my arm up before touching his chest until he associated the arm swinging from my side up to his chest as a precursor to the touch and in no time he was backing happily for his treat...until we proceeded to the point where I was far enough in front of him that my finger ended up by his nose and he was actually backing his bubble out of mine. Then he wanted to take my glove off instead. I upped the rate of reinforcement and did many repetitions until I was sure he understood and he was rock solid at responding when I was close to him, then I increased the distance incrementally. Again, when we got to the distance where my finger ended up near his head, instead of somewhere behind his head, he reverted to playing with my coat or anything rather than being willing to back further.

At the same time, working with the stationing, I found he would stand for a loooong period of time if I stayed in arm's reach of him. I could step one step away and stand there and he wouldn't move. I could go around behind him and come up the other side. I could go and pat him on the rump and he stood still. But if I increased that distance to a step and a half away from his head even, he wanted to follow me.

I think I was probably lucky that both these happened at once since the two together helped me see the problem. What I was asking in both situations was difficult and the reinforcer wasn't high enough. This occurred to me when I thought of pulling out something more valuable like carrots and I realized as much as he loved peppermints and apples, he has always been perfectly happy to work for hay stretcher pellets until now. Why was this different? I realized that when I asked him to back out of my reach, or when I tried to leave his reach...he did something to get back in contact with me: either nuzzled my hand or arm, or followed me.

Percy likes face time. Getting out of his reach was punishing for him. Why would he want to go away from the fun person or have the fun person leave him? The reinforcer I needed to give him was ME, not better food. Rather than asking him to back away and then step into to hand him two pellets and leave again, I asked him to back away and then walked to him wrapped his head in a bear hug and told him how clever he was while he was chomping on his 2 little hay stretcher pellets. Then I went a little further and repeated. He stepped away from my hand and I immediately clicked and went to him and rubbed his face and neck. Aha! That was the ticket. Once I understood, I applied the same reasoning to the stationing. If he let me step one step away, I returned and gave him attention for a half a minute rather than just treats. This seemed to reassure him that I wasn't walking away so that the game was over, but that I would come back.

Realizing how difficult these were for him, I have decided to spend a lot of time working on them in teeny increments rather than asking for anything involving big distances too quickly. I have incorporated them into the daily routine. Now when I approach his paddock, I ask him to back away from the fence and when he does, then I duck in and greet him inside, spending time with him before walking on to the barn. I work on stationing just before I leave the barn, asking him to stand by the door while I yo-yo back and forth, clanging the panel and disappearing momentarily out of sight into the barn and then returning to play some more. I end by dropping some nice second cut hay in his paddock and having him target my hand over to it before I leave...so that I'm not walking away while he is being good at his station.

It's made a huge difference. I was a little worried we were getting into some difficult age/stage where I was losing my cooperative boy. Luckily,
I have figured it out and am relieved!