Sunday, March 31, 2013

Side trip

I'm going to step away from Percy and his Hyena Project for a minute.  But, everything is everything else, so I'm sure this will be relevant in any case.

I've been loosely following a friend's progress all winter as she worked with getting one of her horses to back onto a pedestal.  Her blog is here.  She's been amazing at videoing her progress almost daily- I will admit I have not watched all her videos and don't want my own experience related here to be anything other than "this is/was my experience".  

Last winter I played a lot with getting Rumer to back in various situations.  I still haven't actually hitched her to the cart because I'm too chicken to do it alone and don't have anyone to help me.  But as part of the process, I wanted to teach her to back between the shafts...not that I'd necessarily ask her to do that for being hitched, but I thought it would be a good experience for her to be aware of them, be touched on both sides by them, be willing to back into them, etc.  

I can't even remember how I started at this point, but I learned that trying to free shape backing when it involves an obstacle can be very difficult depending on how you set it up.  First off is their eyesight.  Most of us are familiar with that arc that is drawn around a horse which shows they can see everything except a tiny space in front of their nose and a larger pie slice right behind them.  So unless you have a really wide obstacle behind them, they can't see it.  Furthermore, horses are protective of their hind ends.  They use their sense of smell and sight to check out everything they come across, then the front feet test it out.  If the front feet decide it's not safe, the horse can either rock back on his haunches and lift himself off it, or push off with the hind end and leap over it.  In both cases, the hind end is firmly attached to solid familiar ground.  I found that Rumer was much more willing to back over or onto an object if she had JUST stepped over it going forward.  I think in that case she knew what it was, where it was and that it was safe so she was comfortable stepping backward over it.  So I would do a little circle of stepping over or onto something, then turn my body toward her as a cue to back (although initially this bit was shaped with guidance) and she would back over or onto it, then we would go back over it forward, circle around (taking turns left and right) and do it again.  

When I say shaped with guidance, I mean that I stood still and clicked for movement backward but if she got out of line, such that she was backing but not in the right direction, I would either ask her to step over to get straight or we'd circle around and step over forward again to get her lined up right.  True free shaping would have been if I'd sat in a chair with Rumer loose in an area with an obstacle, giving no hints and simply clicking for her backing toward the obstacle.  Quite a feat that would have been!

So today I put three obstacles in the round pen: a rail (a short one, probably 4-5 feet long), a mat (plywood probably 2' x 3') and two cones (the tall pointy kind, spaced about 6 feet apart).  I'm pretty sure she could see the rail and both cones when they were behind her because of the length/distance.  The mat I'm quite sure she couldn't see so I put that along the fence as a guideline...she'd walk over it first and the fence was a landmark.  Granted, it also physically prevented her from swinging in one direction, but not the other. 

I set up a "training loop" which ended up including more than I originally intended.  We've just lost our snow so I haven't done much with her in a while and she was very excited to have a training session again!  This meant very forward marching right to all the obstacles, not exactly using her body well or being respectful of the person on the other end of the rope!    I have to try hard not to collapse into giggles when little ponies are so determined.  So we did a few reminder steps of bend-toward-me, step off to the outside and calm steps.  I set it up as 3 steps like that and then C/T.  Oh, with a verbal "walk on" to mean step forward.  I use verbals a lot with her as I want her to be very familiar with them for work in harness (some day).  

So the loop was: walk in 3 step increments to an obstacle, step over it, back over or onto it, then forward over it again to the next obstacle.  The cones were in the middle of the round pen and I did a figure 8 switching directions when she backed through the cones.  The clicks at first were after three steps, then I built to 6 steps.  If there was an obstacle directly ahead, I created a chain whereby 3 or 6 steps was reinforced by the opportunity to go forward over an obstacle which was reinforced by the opportunity to back over an obstacle which was clicked and treated.  I had checked first to be sure she still enjoyed both forward and back over an obstacle before using them as reinforcing behaviors.  I also clicked for every step back at first to give her confidence but then dropped to either all four feet over the rail or through the cones or both hind feet on the mat.  

3 (or 6) steps -> CT -> repeat to the ground rail -> step over rail -> I turn as cue to ask her to back -> she backs over rail with all 4 feet -> CT -> "walk on" -> 3 (or 6) steps bending left -> CT -> repeat to cones -> forward through cones -> turn toward her to ask for back -> she backs all four feet between cones -> CT as I switch sides so I'm now on her right -> "walk on" -> 3 (or 6) steps bending right -> CT -> repeat to mat -> she walks over mat (no stopping) -> and I turn to face her to cue back -> she backs two hind feet onto mat -> CT -> "walk on" ->3 (or 6) steps bending right -> repeat to cones where I switch sides and go back to the beginning at the ground rail. 

She remembered quite well and in short order we were progressing around the obstacles smoothly.  Only twice did she swing out of line.  Once on the cones and once on the mat.  Both times I was on her left and she swung her butt away from me.  Both times I simply turned and walked forward (no click) on to the next obstacle.  She didn't repeat the error.  And when she did it on the mat, she swung her butt into the round pen panel.  To me that means she wasn't afraid of hitting it and it didn't really physically prevent her from swinging out of line.

Monday, March 25, 2013

"ouch" duration

Percy's Red Cross
I decided to make Percy a special target for this project of standing still for veterinary procedures.  What better than a red cross?  I also introduced a new cue "ouch".  Things like this help me remember just what cue and target I've used for something when I put it aside and don't use it for a while and then need to dust it off again.  "Ouch" sounds enough like "touch" that he may not have distinguished the two but at this point, I think that's ok.  When I first introduced it, I asked for other things between the targeting- back, head down, etc and when I said "ouch", he went right for the target so he definitely knows what it means.  

Yesterday, I did some more work on duration on the target.  This time I didn't use any distractions such as moving around.  I simply started increasing the amount of time I asked him to stay at it.  I have made up a spreadsheet of the different criteria I have for this project which includes the component parts, the cues and the specific details I am looking for in each behavior.  Percy loves to play with things in his mouth and I knew one of the difficult parts would be to get him to simply stand with his nose on the target rather than playing with it, tearing it off the fence, chewing on it, etc.  I decided my criteria was that his nose had to touch where the two red lines crossed.  That way, he couldn't bite it.  We worked on that, with no clicks for touching the target unless the nose touched the specific spot.  That was successful although he showed me he can still LICK the target like that.  

In this video, he does move his nose around a bit but I have relaxed the criteria of specific nose placement while I increase the duration.  I vary the time before the click, sometimes clicking immediately, sometimes after a few seconds and once I work up to 15 seconds.  I don't want him to think this will always be a long boring process and clicking for short duration keeps him guessing and keeps the rate of reinforcement up.  I think I should make up a chart of how many seconds to do each time because I want to know what the average is and want to keep my expectations increasing regularly.  Because of my own personal dislike for this process, I tend to go easy and not ask for enough.  But there are a couple times you can see him stand still and I can see he knows not to move. Occasionally he loses contact with the target but again, I've relaxed that criteria while we work our way up in time.  On the shorter durations, I do require a full contact with that specific spot. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Hyena Project

Ever since seeing what zoos are capable of doing with Clicker Training, I have been inspired to believe we can do more with our domesticated animals.  The photos, videos and stories I've seen and heard over the years of veterinary procedures performed on zoo animals which they have volunteered for makes me really question why we need to use chains, twitches, tranquilizers etc to perform routine procedures with our supposedly trained and tame horses (same goes for muzzles and physical restraint of dogs of course).  

This year at Expo was as inspiring as ever.  Dr. Susan Friedman's slides were full of examples but for personal reasons, it was one of several video clips which Ken Ramirez showed that got to me this time.  It showed a hyena- a freaking hyena mind you- with his head held up in the air and pressing his neck against front of his enclosure for a blood draw. Ken said he'd held it there for 3 or 4 minutes for the draw.  Then the needle was withdrawn and he was to wait while the gauze was pressed on the spot.  He actually pulled away when the needle was withdrawn and the trainer said "ah-ah" and the hyena immediately returned for the gauze.  The point of the talk was about what to do when mistakes happen such as the hyena pulling away too soon. Ken does not like NRM's or No-Reward-Markers such as the "ah-ah" but that's not the point here.  I just didn't want anyone to think that using one was something Ken (or I for that matter) was espousing.  

The point for me was, here I am trying to get my little red pirate to stand for a Coggin's draw this Spring and I decided right then to jump tracks and see what progress I could make in getting him to volunteer for it in protected contact.  Last year he stood for his vaccinations but I had neglected to prep him for a blood draw and we ended up with airs above the ground as a result of simply running fingers down his neck to hold off the blood.  Sensitive boy, he is.  I have worked with him to desensitize him to both the hand contact and the poke- I actually did that in progress of getting it done last year.  But my concern continues to be that Percy just doesn't like my vet- or very many other people for that matter.  So even if I could keep him quiet for the process, I really wasn't confident that he would remain so when the vet showed up.  And considering the airs above the ground, my vet isn't terribly fond of working with Percy either, though he is amazingly wonderful about doing so anyway.  I am thinking if I can keep Percy inside the round pen, completely loose so he does not feel trapped or threatened in any way, and the vet and I outside the pen where we won't feel threatened or trapped, everyone might stay a little calmer.  And calmer is always better.

I decided my component parts would be:

  • holding his nose to a target for a long duration
  • holding his shoulder to a target for a long duration
I think if he does those together, that should hold his neck in the required position.  The other thing of course is to desensitize him to various people approaching and holding off his vein and poking him.  

He has known nose targeting practically his whole life so that's a solid behavior.  Duration work is one of MY weak points.  I never do it enough.  So I have begun working with him to hold his nose on the target for longer periods.  When we got to about 10 seconds, I started moving around as he held it there.  I wanted him to understand early on that my position was not the cue.  I did things like run my hand down his neck, pick up a foot, etc.  Not having eyes in the back of my head, I couldn't see if he kept his nose there while I picked up a foot, but I'll get some video of it before I do much more.  I did watch to see that he held it still while I ran my hand down his neck and held the vein for a second or two.  Now to work on longer durations.

His shoulder target came about by coincidence.  Or should I say, as Alex does, "cues evolve out of the shaping process".  A year or more ago I was working on desensitizing him to a tarp.  He was ok with me touching him with it and since I was clicking, he started "helping out", by leaning into it with his shoulder.  Now I had a horse who would come over shoulder first when he saw the tarp come out.  I set it aside but now I can use the simple presentation of the tarp to get his shoulder.  I am now trying to transition it to a voice cue...not sure if I'll need that but it can't hurt.  

In this video, I put the tarp onto the round pen panel and he so he comes and targets his shoulder to it.  There is also some nose targeting for a warmup first.  As you can see, he really throws his shoulder into it, resulting in his head going the opposite direction.  So I start to chain the nose target after the shoulder target.  We'll see if that gives me the position I want.

One of his favorite behaviors is fetching, so I use that to break things up a bit and reset him so he can find the shoulder target again.  My hat got a little soggy in the process.  Something also got distracting behind him- so I finished up.  Here's the link to the youtube video.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Saturday Connections

This was the dog and handler I was assigned to
"coach" for Kay's lab on Connected Walking.
It was interesting to see how he had learned to
take the pressure off the leash to be allowed to
go forward, but the visual check-in was missing.
The owner clearly loved her dog and it was easy
for her to adapt to Kay's instructions.  I think they
will be very happy with the change.
After Emma's talk, I attended Jesus Rosales Ruiz's presentation on Cues in Context.  Jesus's talks always make my head hurt.  He makes me think too hard!  Partly because his notes/slides are like Algebra, using all the discriminative stimulus shorthand with Big s's and little D's and vice versa and then I have to try to follow the topic on top of all that!  None of this is to say that I don't love it and learn from it...I just whine because he makes my brain work so hard.  

His talk meshed nicely with two others- Ken Ramirez on What to do when Mistakes Happen and Emilie and Eva's on What Happens after the Reward.  So I'll try to explain my experiences with those later.  

For now- Kay Laurence and Connected Walking.  Kay is a huge advocate for dogs being dogs, in my opinion.  Mind you she trains dogs for everything from obedience to sheep dog trialling but she keeps respect for dogness at the forefront.  Her Connected Walking talk and lab highlighted this topic.  I came away thinking that she had just spent 3 hours or so teaching people how to walk their dogs!  People get so busy training, or exercising, or multi-tasking, or caught up in their daily lives, that they either never learn or forget how to go out and enjoy being with their dogs.  Some of us are lucky in being able to have our dogs off-leash much or all of the time and so our dogs have a little more opportunity to be dogs.  They can sniff around while we work in the garden, or roll in manure while we work in the barn, or chase birds while we walk, etc.  But for dogs who spend a lot of time on a leash out of necessity for safety, I see way too many being dragged along or doing the dragging themselves.  

Kay's method allowed for giving the dog time to be a dog.  If he or she stops to sniff at something, we should allow that.  She made the comparison to walking with a friend and stopping to wait when the friend looked in a store window.  Once again, if you have a dog, you should expect that it's going to want to sniff things.  That's what dogs do.  But she actually had a process for helping people to do that- specific points to respond to and instructions on waiting the dog out, waiting for him to look at you- connect with you- before proceeding.  And the dog can only connect with you if you are available to connect with.  

And so my mind goes to our horses.  What would the ideal walk for a horse include?  Grazing of course.  Permission to look at things which catch their attention.  The opportunity to move freely in their bodies.  And a similar emotional connection- checking in between horse and human so that each is ready to move off together.  

Kay had an interesting viewpoint on the equipment for dogs which is popular today- head collars and harnesses.  Purported to be kinder, they give a person more control over their dogs.  Less pulling is advertised as being less aversive which I agree with.  Kay's point was the physical stress this equipment can put on the dog's structure if used over a long period of time.  They start to move differently to accommodate the equipment.  Pressure is applied to muscles and nerves.  Sound like anything familiar in the horse world?  Wouldn't it be nice if we could be a warning signal to the canine world- don't go there!  Steer clear of the flash nosebands and martingales and poorly fitting saddles!  Let your dog be a dog and let your horse be a horse.   

Expo Inspiration- Saturday reactivity

Saturday morning for me began with the learning lab "Teaching a Reactive Dog Class" with Emma Parsons.  Emma is the author of the popular "Click to Calm" book.  "Reactive" is a term that can apply to both dogs and horses and therefore a very useful topic for me to learn more about.  One of the sayings I heard from various people over the weekend was "it's just behavior".  This is in contrast to "OMG I have a ______ dog!"  (fill in the blank with some dreaded, descriptive word). The featured speaker, Susan Friedman, handed out stickers:

Rather than labeling individuals, it is more helpful to look at the specific behavior that is troubling and address that.  How often do we hear "snarky", "crazy", "difficult", or "neurotic" to describe horses?  Those labels seem to be an excuse to ignore the behavior and just push on through.  Labels for dogs on this list include "dominant", "shy", "loyal", or "stubborn".  What good do these labels do?  

What we do know is that there is an A -> B -> C formula in behavior.  A is the Antecedent, B is the Behavior and C is the Consequence.  Behavior does not occur in a vacuum.  There is always an antecedent and always a consequence.  The challenge is figuring out what those are for any given behavior.  Without practice, education and a very observant eye, people are often wrong about what the triggers and consequences are.  When you know them, you can change the antecedent and/or the consequence, and that may change the behavior.  

An example of a dog being reactive is my own Eloise who used to bark more than I liked.  She still barks more than I like but a lot less than she used to.  Now she "boofs"...soft little woofs that if I'm not careful, I can easily ignore because they are not at all irritating.  Why not ignore them?  Because I want to reinforce them.  I much prefer boofs to YAPYAPYAP YAP! So when she boofs, I say "what do you hear?" which of course she doesn't understand at all, but it helps me if I talk my way through things!  I treat her and say "thank you for letting me know you heard something" which again, she doesn't understand but now she finds that boofing = treats.  Boofing is good.  Sometimes if the boofing continues, I pick her up and we look out the window together (she is a very small dog) to see what might be triggering her.  Usually it's the big Ziva guard dog barking at coyotes.  Maybe Eloise even hears the coyotes.  I don't know.  What I know is that I can't stop the antecedents in this situation- I have no control over coyotes at the fringes of the property.  But I can help her learn that her triggers can have different consequences.  I skip the behavior piece entirely.  Her behavior is up to her.  But if Ziva barking (and the UPS man arriving and the plow driving by, etc) results in treats raining down all over the kitchen floor, then Eloise decides that Ziva barking is not a reason to get alarmed, but rather a reason to head for the kitchen!  The power of association has lowered her reactivity and that, in turn, changed her behavior from yapping to boofing.  I can accept boofing.  After all, she's a dog.  Dogs bark.  If you don't like barking, don't get a dog.  That would be like getting a child and expecting it not to talk.  We teach kids to talk in a way that we can deal with- we can teach dogs the same. 

The dogs who sign up for Emma's reactivity classes have much bigger issues than barking at the UPS man.  These are frequently dogs who lunge, snarling at other dogs on the leash or attack the front door when visitors arrive...possibly worse.  Her talk explained how she progresses from dogs like this to dogs who, at the end of 6 weeks, can walk on leash around a room with other reactive dogs while maintaining focus on their people.  No choke chains or other aversive methods- all positive reinforcement (can you imagine what it does to a reactive dog to be choked by a chain or zapped with a shock when they are already alarmed??)  

So how can we use this knowledge with our horses?  Remember, it's just behavior.  Find the antecedent, find the consequence, and start making adjustments.  Both Emma and Karen Pryor related the wonderful tale of how Emma completes one of these series of classes and calls Karen to say "it worked again!"...marveling over the power of positive reinforcement. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Expo Inspiration- Friday

one of the stations for exposing puppies to new things!
 Click for interaction, sniffing, touching or just toss treats in
and around them to encourage exploration.  I have to show
Percy a mirror now!!
Clicker Expo has again filled my mind with training plans!  Each talk and lab I attended triggered ideas for animals I work with.  On my Facebook page I listed many of the different species I saw being trained with a clicker- fish, birds, big cats and little cats, primates of all sizes, marine mammals and the most inspirational of all, a hyena.  Percy has yet another nickname little hyena.   I started that training plan yesterday.  Regardless of the specie being discussed or shown in a video or photo, I was able to make connections.

I spent the first day focusing (unintentionally) on the dog branch of my business.  I attended Debbie Martin's Puppy Start Right! talk about teaching puppy classes.  After that I had the honor of coaching during her Learning Lab on the same topic (an honor bestowed on graduates of KPA).  Much of her focus is on socialization and exposing puppies to new sights, sounds, smells, tactile stimuli and experiences.  There is a direct connection, of course, to this same issue in the horses.  I don't know of any concrete research dedicated to finding the ages at which this is most effective in young horses (for puppies it's 3-12 weeks).  The point I came home with is how creative one can be with new exposure even on your own property.  Yes, traveling to new places is important but the more you expose a youngster to at home, the more comfortable he will be to new experiences in general.  And of course "exposure" can be done in many ways.  The old "sacking out" of the cowboy tradition misses the mark for those of us who want confidence and a partnership.  Debbie demonstrated the skills required to keep puppies happy, not stressed, when being introduced to new things.

The other talk I attended on Friday was Julie Shaw's First Impressions- The Vital Intake Assessment.  Julie is a vet tech and has been the animal behavior technologist at the Purdue Animal Behavior Clinic.  Her talk focused on how to zero in on the pertinent details when talking to a pet owner who calls in with a behavior issue.  She listed the information she gathers during a phone call which she uses as triage. Does this person need veterinary and/or pharmacological help with their animal or is it simply a behavioral issue which can be addressed by a trainer?  She explained how dogs can be put on medication to get them to a state where training can take place, after which the meds can be removed.  Again, I was left with equine comparisons.  Medications are heavily used in the equine industry to enable and enhance performance.  Even if we ignore the physical masking which occurs, there is plenty that goes on which affects a horse's mental state.  But rather than using these meds as an aid to help the horse and train more effectively, I think they are used to avoid training.  I wonder how this can be changed and have some plans in mind.