Friday, April 4, 2014

Citizen Science- Why Do Clicker Trained Horses Drop?

The guest speaker at Clicker Expo was biopsychologist Susan Schneider, author of The Science of Consequences. In her closing talk, she stressed the opportunity we all have in this day and age to participate in Citizen Science.  Citizen Science is defined by Wikipedia as "scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowd sourcing and crowd funding."
An example Dr. Schneider used is the Christmas Bird Count each year, where volunteers from around the country help do a bird census.  An experienced naturalist, she encouraged participants to observe the world around them and then share their findings with others via blog posts or letters to researchers or universities or any way one can think of to communicate and collaborate.

It occurred to me that an issue which would benefit from this sort of collaboration is that of dropping penises.  Many people find that having a horse going around with his penis dangling is a bit embarrassing.  And yet many male horses being clicker trained do this.  There are many guesses as to the reasons for this occurring, what to do about it and what it implies.

The important word in the previous sentence is "guesses".  They certainly aren't theories, which require a tested, well-substantiated and unifying explanation.  It would even be a stretch to call them hypotheses, since those are educated guesses and these guesses run the gamut on how educated they are.  

Some people warn that a dropping penis indicates Dominance.  The D word  has caused more trouble in animal training than any other I can think of.  I cannot follow the twisted logic that uses dominance to describe each problem every dog, horse or other animal exhibits.  I certainly cannot figure out any reasoned argument where it would apply to this situation.   

Other people think that there is a sexual component to it.  Perhaps the horse is too excited, over threshold, over stimulated by food.  Again, how does this line of reasoning proceed?  Where is the connection between food, excitement and the horse dropping his penis?  If there is a sexual component to it, why do so many the geldings do it?  I agree with those that say some real brain studies would need to be done to make this connection.  

I have also heard that somehow lateral steps initiate this and that race stables use stepping laterally to encourage a horse to urinate for a drug sample.  Others say their clicker trained  horses can do lateral work for a long time while keeping everything tucked away but this same horse will drop while being clicked for going straight.  And where is the connection between stepping laterally and urinating (and they don't always drop to urinate)?  

The time which I am most familiar with geldings dropping is when they are sedated.  They are relaxed, their heads drop, their eyes droop and their penises drop.  I would guess that this is due to loss of muscle tension.  Yet while clicker training can really help a horse relax, it also frequently perks them up and engages their minds.

Here is an interesting series of photos I just grabbed from a 55 second video I took of Alexandra Kurland working with my young horse Percy.  We had traveled to Alex's Clicker Center a year ago, fall.  Percy was very vigilant in his new surroundings- (I wrote several posts about this trip which you can read here if you like).  He looked, he paced, he worked himself into a sweat trotting back and forth, he didn't want to eat, etc.  At one point, Alex did some body work on him.  There was no special modality, just Alex doing what she felt Percy needed- and wow did it work.  As you can see in these photos, he completely relaxed- to the point of head hanging, yawning (photo 2) and finally dropping (photo 3).  There were no drugs involved, there was clicking and treating, he was free to express his opinion of the process, but he was soooo sleepy by the time she was done.  There were no lateral steps, no overstimulation from food and uh, no dominance.  

Percy being lulled into nap time by Alexandra Kurland.

I hope it's obvious I have no clue as to the cause of this issue.  But speaking with Alex about it, she brought up a very pertinent point in my opinion.  Lots of geldings who drop get punished for it.  Whether it's on the cross ties, working in hand or anywhere else, I've seen some pretty harsh punishment doled out.  So perhaps it isn't that clicker trained horses drop, but rather that all horses do, and we clicker trainers just don't punish, so the behavior persists, for whatever the antecedent and consequence naturally.

Bringing Citizen Science to this issue would include bringing the subject out of the closet.  We need to replace the embarrassment with curiosity, data collection, and sharing of our experiences and results.   I invite everyone to jump on this project.  I am going to create a table I can fill in quickly and easily when I observe this.  Horse, conditions (on cross ties, work in hand, being groomed?), any antecedents or consequences I can observe (what happened right before the dropping which might have triggered it?  What happened afterward that is reinforcing this?  Did the horse remain dropped or did something trigger him to pull it up again?).  And certainly note any erect component.  This is not as common but certainly does happen.

If anyone knows a graduate student looking for a thesis project, let's send them all our data and encourage them to research this!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Free Food and No Food- occasional training without the clicker

If you look closely, you can see that the fence is at fetlock height…an indication of the depth of the snow.
This winter has been long and cold in many places and this is one of them.  Now that March is officially over, they found that it was the second coldest Vermont March in history- the coldest one being in 1900.  All I know is that we still have feet of snow on the ground and it seems like a long time since I've done much training.  When the days don't get above zero, my hands don't last long out of mittens so clickers and treats are hard to navigate. 

Coincidentally or possibly not, I found myself working on two little training projects that didn't require the clicker, and one didn't even require treats. One was dealing with horses crowding at the gate to come in and the other was Percy's general attitude about people in his space.

While I love having multiple horses out together to be social here (at our previous farm they were more separated due to space limitations), it has meant that everybody wants to come in at once.  Having very friendly youngsters and not wanting to use pressure to back others off, I considered working on teaching them to "station" in different places (standing at a specific target away from me) but a) that meant spending time preparing that training and it was too cold for that and b) I have trouble with stations when anything put on the ground just gets covered with snow and electric fence doesn't really have rugged enough posts to hang targets on.  

Instead, I did the following.  Entering the paddock, I put a halter on the horse or pony closest to the gate, and then asked the next in line to back up a step (a known behavior for all).  I gave a tongue click and dropped a handful of hay stretcher pellets on the ground to keep him busy and back while I scooted the first horse through the gate and shut it behind us.  Then I would repeat with the next horse, and so on.  This quickly developed into a routine which the horses anticipated.  While I was putting the halter on the closest one, the next one would voluntarily back up and wait for me to come and drop treats at his feet (nothing like fresh snow, frozen hard every day to have a nice clean place to drop treats on the ground).  Since that is now being offered, I should probably put it on cue somehow…maybe a "wait" cue which Percy knows but the others don't.  In any case, it has made bringing horses in quite pleasant and calm.

The other issue was that Percy was getting quite cranky with people entering his stall.  I think partly it was the cold- everybody was cranky.  Another part was that he didn't like people moving quickly. Lastly- this is the first winter he's been locked in a stall.  Previously he could get in a stall but was not locked in, so he may have been feeling somewhat trapped and defensive.  And of course, he likes to be working all the time.  He got angry when someone just went in his stall to fill a water bucket and didn't ask him to do something that he could earn treats for.

I decided to initiate a new little ritual which did not involve any clicks or food.  I've done bits in the past of explaining to him that there won't always be treats when I show up, but this was a new situation and I wanted to be methodical about it.  If I approached his stall and his ears went back, I'd stop until the ears came up again.  I know him well enough to know that he didn't want me to leave- he just wanted to know what was going on.  But I also didn't want ear pinning to become the norm.  I needed a consistent approach that he could rely on.   Once his ears were relaxed again (usually pricked up to see me), I opened his stall door, which he knows as a cue to back up so he did.  Rather than click and treat that, I just reached out to rub his face gently.  Sometimes that irritated him so I'd freeze again until the ears relaxed.  At first I'd just barely graze his face and then proceed to fill his water bucket or pick his stall.  Any time he got cranky, I would stop all movement again until he relaxed.  

This has evolved into a new nighttime routine.  I approach his stall, he backs to let me in and then when I approach, he buries his head in my chest while I rub his face, play with his ears and stroke the sides of his neck.  He loves to lick the front of my coat while I do this…that could get soggy when I'm only wearing one layer of clothing this summer. 

While I did not use formal "clicker training" for these little projects, my knowledge of the rules of Operant Conditioning, as well as observation skills, did allow me to be successful.  

  • Animals will repeat what is reinforced. 
  • Use reinforcers the animal chooses
  • Break the training down into manageable pieces so the animal can be successful
  • Observe the emotions carefully
For the gate manners, the horses already knew the backing behavior and it was on cue and reliable.  All I had to do was ask for it.  They each love hay stretcher pellets so that was an effective reinforcer- a full handful was a jackpot.  Jackpots are currently believed by many to be an interruption in the training, but I was not in a training session, simply reinforcing heavily.  This, in technical speak, is a DRI...a Differential Reinforcer of Incompatible behavior.  If the horse was backing away from me, he could not also be crowding at the gate.   Thus, I could reinforce an incompatible behavior, rather than trying to stop the unwanted behavior of pushiness. 

The crankiness is a little harder to parse.  While there was no food reinforcer, there was the reinforcer of attention.  I had to know Percy to know that was reinforcing to him.  There was a bit of Negative Punishment going on as well as Positive Reinforcement. (my cheat sheet for those definitions are think math for Positive and Negative- one takes something away, one adds something.  Reinforcement makes something more likely to happen again, while punishment makes it less likely).  So when I froze my movements when his ears went back, I was removing something- the attention- to make it less likely he pinned them in the future- punishment.  When his ears came up again, I continued my approach, adding the attention (positive) to make it more likely he'd keep his ears up in the future (reinforcement).  

I certainly could have clicked and reinforced him for ears up on my approach…but that would have required removing my mitten to dig out treats.  Brr!

It was above 40 today and I have just returned from Clicker Expo- more stories to come.