Friday, November 21, 2014

When Can I Stop Clicking and Feeding? Building Chains and Sequences

A quiet and attentive Percy
I think everyone who has ever looked into Clicker Training has asked the question, "When can I stop clicking and treating?"  I know as a trainer, I have heard it more times than I can count and I also know I used to ask that same question myself.  I have heard, and given, many responses. Last week I had the opportunity to ask Percy that question. One of Alexandra Kurland's expressions is, "Go to people for opinions and horses for answers".  

Percy has learned everything in life with clicker training.  He learned how to lead, how to stand for grooming, how to get on a trailer, how to wear a saddle, how to take a bit- everything has been trained with clicker training.  Furthermore, everything has been maintained, at times, with the clicker.  I did not train him to stay by my side with a lead on and then stop using the clicker and treats for leading.  I know that behavior which is reinforced is more likely to be repeated.  I knew that if I was leading him out to the pasture, he was being reinforced by being turned out- no click and treat necessary for going forward with me.  There was, however, the occasional need for walking politely next to me rather than pulling ahead to get turned loose sooner.  If we are going somewhere new, or close to something which is scary looking, I click and treat steps forward- that's a more difficult behavior than walking with me to the pasture. I continue to refine all behaviors and that's one reason to keep clicking and treating.

I knew that by starting all grooming experiences with a clicker and treats had turned him into a horse who enjoys being groomed and so lots of times I groom him from forelock to hoof with no clicks or treats. I make sure the tools I use and the way I use them are reinforcing and so I do not need anything else.  On those days, the experience of being groomed even reinforces standing still on the cross ties.

Other days it is windy and there are noises which concern him.  Those days I click and reinforce head height as that is an indicator of his comfort level and I want him to learn that it's reinforcing to work toward relaxation.  I click and treat a slight drop of his head, then another.  I proceed to groom and watch his head.  Soon he relaxes, the grooming reinforcement kicks in, adds to the clicks and treats and he is calmly standing to enjoy his massage.  

Now it is winter.  It is cold and muscles are tight.  It's hard to stand still and he wants to move to stay warm.  There's a reason massage therapists have warm rooms and heated blankets on their tables.  It helps people to relax so they can enjoy the massage.  I do not have a heated barn aisle.  In the winter I use clicks and treats more to help him relax while I groom him.

But what about arena work?  What about ridden work? After people settle in their minds that yes, we do click and treat from the saddle, they fear they will never be able to just ride without constantly stopping to click and treat every step of the way.  When can we stop clicking and treating so often?  This is the question I asked Percy last week.  

I know I can reinforce one behavior by asking for another behavior that he enjoys doing- that's why I was able to reinforce walking with me to the pasture by releasing him to go play and graze.  One way I have ensured that I have lots of behaviors he enjoys doing, is by training them with positive reinforcement.  He likes to respond to my cues- he has had fun learning them and has gotten lots of reinforcement for performing them. This would not be so if he'd been forced, with pressure or equipment or fear.  That's why clicker trained horses offer behaviors- they like to do them, plain and simple.  

When I completed my training to earn my KPA CTP (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner), one of the things we had to do for graduation was demonstrate this by having our dogs perform 10 behaviors in a row, with each one acting as a reinforcer for the previous one- one click and treat at the end of all ten.  The key to doing this is to cue the next behavior at the moment you would have clicked the previous one.  What this meant was these 10 behaviors were completed in about 30 seconds!  I can't remember the exact behaviors I used for Eloise but as an example, if I cued "sit", then as soon as her fuzzy butt hit the floor, I'd cue "pop" for her to leap off the ground and as soon as her feet left the ground for that leap, I'd cue "down" so she'd land and lie down immediately and as soon as her fuzzy tummy hit the ground, I'd cue something else.  You get the picture. It was fast! But I got ten behaviors, all for one click and treat.

When we received this assignment and understood it, I couldn't wait to bring it home to Percy.  And I was thrilled to be able to come up with ten behaviors I could use, and even more thrilled when I tried it and he was successful.  Those behaviors included Alex's Foundation Lessons such as head down, following a target, stand on a mat, and Grownups, in addition to a "wait" and recall I had taught him.  

But still- what about riding?  How am I going to maintain a gait around and around the arena?  One step at a time.  I had built a quiet walking next to me behavior one step at a time. Then we'd go a few more steps before a click and treat. In working with him in the arena, I have defined the "walk on" behavior by using the criteria of ten steps.  I cued a verbal "walk on", and after ten steps, I clicked and treated.  But then I linked those tens together, so that instead of clicking after ten steps, I verbally cued "walk on" so he would walk another ten steps.  Then I clicked and treated.  He was fine with that. Remember, this is a busy boy who is not just going to walk around with me ad nauseum because I say so.  He's perfectly capable of creating his own entertainment (grabbing a bite of grass, touching the electric rope with his nose just to show me he knows the part around the arena is not on, stopping to dig in the sand and roll…these are all things he likes to do and will do if I'm not clear about what it is which will earn reinforcement).  Creating his own entertainment is highly reinforcing. I don't stop behaviors or punish behaviors.  I avoid unwanted behaviors,  by being clear with my cues about precisely what they mean.  And reinforcing them when executed correctly.  

It was quite clear he understood the ten steps.  And quite clear he was comfortable with my cueing another ten.  So I added a third ten.  Not a problem, not a bobble.  No grass grabbing, no fence poking, just quiet steps.  I added other behaviors he likes.  We'd go ten steps and then do "Grownups", standing quietly at my side when I fold my hands at my waist.  We'd do that and then do another ten steps.  We'd go ten steps and then another ten and then step over a rail on the ground.  I mixed things up but stuck to clear and happily performed behaviors.  I began to build a 30 step unit of steps by leaving out one of the cues, and then another.  He did not get frustrated or impatient or bored.  He stayed mentally connected with me so that when I cued something different, he was right there to respond to a verbal or hand or body cue.  If he had not responded promptly, I would have known that behavior did not meet criteria and I would have needed to go back and do a better job of training it. 

At the end of our session that day, I had chained 6 behaviors.  Because one behavior could now be defined as 30 steps or a duration of standing quietly, it really could be several minutes between clicks.  I plan to keep building on this, working on the individual behaviors, keeping them clean, chaining more together and defining some by location rather than just duration, so we can go for longer and longer periods of time without a click and treat- but there will still be lots of reinforcement.  
Percy creating his own entertainment by stealing the fencing mallet.