Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sparkle and Drive

Whenever my daughter and I heard words like this paired, we’d immediately think what great names they’d be for a pair of driving ponies. I’m not thinking of anything nearly so concrete with these words. 
As a science based trainer, I have been taught by many that behavioral criteria must be definable, measurable and observable. What exactly are we looking for when we ask the dog to stay: can he wander around the area we’ve left him; or must he be statue-like still; or somewhere in between (in which case define that!). If we ask a horse to trot, is transitioning upward with one trot step acceptable (ideally that is what is reinforced at the beginning of training) or must he maintain a certain number of steps? Is there a certain amount of time in which he must respond? Clarity is critical for shaping better performance.

Drive is a word that is not defined with clarity, yet it is used all the time in dog sports. When I took Susan Garrett’s Recaller course several years ago, I found myself wondering how drive related to horses. I came up with the same ambivalence. The clearest example would be a Thoroughbred breaking from the starting gate and digging into the dirt as he or she raced down the track. Similarly, an event horse in the start box, fidgeting as the timer counted down to “Go!” would then leap out of the box with great drive to attack the course ahead. It is more than speed, which is something which could be measured. It is a readiness to respond and a willingness recover from a stumble on the course and fight on.

But it’s even more than that. I think Dressage horses, trail horses, and even horses being clicker trained in a barn aisle can have drive. For these it seems more appropriate to transition to “sparkle”. The word sparkle is from a conversation I had with Alexandra Kurland last Fall.  We were actually discussing horses with whom the clicker had been used, but sadly these horses were missing the clicker sparkle. Just as some people “train with a clicker” while others are “clicker trainers”, there are horses who understand the clicker, but do not have the clicker sparkle. And they are related. 
A sparkling morning

There are some really good trainers (of many species) out there with young children. I’ve seen the kids on Facebook and oh, those lucky children. They have a clicker in their little hands as toddlers. Their parents are serious trainers so no animals are having to endure ill-timed clicks.  These kids are rock stars who are learning from the beginning how to be a clicker trainer.  The positive reinforcement mindset is how they are being raised themselves. Those kids will be able to say they truly started as clicker trainers. They will sparkle.

The rest of us have baggage and we have to start by “training with a clicker”. Regardless of how much training, with whom or for how long, we probably have a history of something other than positive reinforcement. Then we may meet “the horse” who inspires us to explore something different. Or as with me, it might be a more gradual crossover as I tried it, stepped back, and then tried again over many years. It takes time to get oneself living completely under the clicker umbrella, which is when we become “clicker trainers”. Even when we are willing, we have all these punishing habits and self defense mechanisms popping up like monsters on a carnival ride. 

Horses respond to the crossover process differently. Some start to sparkle right away, happy to offer little behaviors and be reinforced for it. My retired event horse Smarty was one of those.  He caught on quickly and would give a little nicker when he heard the click. It warmed my heart every time. Other horses are more cautious. They suspect a trick or simply cannot really believe this is true. This may be due to their history or temperament. Or it may be trainer related.  A person who teaches his horse with a clicker but will still use a stick or a yell or a sharp movement in certain situations, will create a horse who decides she just cannot trust. It sounded good for a while, but if punishment is still used, the sparkle cannot emerge. And the longer this goes on, one moment getting treats for one thing, the next moment getting punished for another, the less hope the horse has. The fear of punishment runs deep.

Don’t get me wrong, punishment happens.  It happens in the environment, it happens from other horses, it happens by accident. Dr. Susan Friedman says that it’s the ratio of reinforcement to punishment which is important.  If we strive for 100% reinforcement in our training, the occasional unavoidable punishment can be overridden. By unavoidable, I don’t mean planned punishments for something we perceive as “unacceptable”. I mean things like veterinary intervention. We can train and train in preparation for vaccinations and blood draws, but the fact is, when it happens, it might still hurt. Ken Ramirez says the protocol for his trainers is one hundred reinforcers in a training situation for every one actual veterinary procedure. Those animals sparkle. They have one hundred times the experiences of reinforcement to punishment (the punishment being the possible physical pain of an injection).  

As someone who teaches others how to train, I can’t count the number of times I have heard “but what do I do when...”? The problem with this question is that people are planning to fail. They want to know what they can do when the horse or dog is “wrong”. Guess what? The horse or dog is never wrong. They do what they have been trained to do. Period. A behavior which is reinforced is repeated. If a horse has been reinforced many times for biting someone (perhaps the horse preferred begin left alone to unpleasant training), then adding a little reinforcement isn’t going to magically change things. You need to overwhelm the previous history with reinforcement for what you want.  This takes time. Training requires planning. Rather than planning to fail and asking what to do when that happens, it is our responsibility, as trainers, to set things up so the animal succeeds and we can reinforce that. Keep yourself in protective contact if you need to feel safe but don’t ask what to do when the horse does something “wrong”. Train “right”! 

It can require a lot of creativity to set up a situation in which we can be safe and the horse can keep learning what we want. If our brains don’t have practice, it’s even harder. Luckily, these days there are more and more positive reinforcement trainers out there from whom to learn. Ask for help, get some coaching from a reputable trainer, reach out to peers to brainstorm.  It can often feel like the cards are stacked against us due to our environment. Not everyone has their own ideal training facility with staff (oh, how we wish we did). But we have each other to look to for support.

While removing Ed's hat is reinforcing to Percy,
 it does not reinforce my husband for helping to shovel the run-in!
Just be sure that have a good long think about the responses you get. Play it through in  your mind and ask, “Am I trying to stop a behavior or teach a behavior?”  If someone gives you a suggestion that will stop a behavior, it is not a “clicker compatible” method. You are risking the sparkle. Toss that suggestion out the window and look for one which is clickerly; look for the suggestion which is a creative approach to train something incompatible with the unwanted behavior.  You will be training your horse what To Do and you will be polishing your horse’s sparkle, not dulling it or throwing dirt on it.

It’s easy to fall for the folks who say “I’ve been there and I had to do “x” to stop that”.  That’s exactly how we feel and we feel vindicated when someone else offers a solution. But if all we want is someone to validate punishment, well those are a dime a dozen.  As true clicker trainers, we instead need to challenge ourselves not to fall for the easy out.  

And remember that punishment is defined by the learner. I still find myself having the occasional accident. Percy loves to nibble on my clothes in the winter.  I trained that when he was a youngster by finding it amusing when he fetched gloves, tugged at my zipper and took off my hat. My physical expression of amusement was reinforcing to him. He’s gentle: there is no danger involved, but it’s annoying to have an adult horse grabbing at my clothes. I have to own that, however. 

I did not want to punish him, so I simply pulled away quickly and left. He showed me that’s still punishment. It’s negative punishment (removing something the horse wants to stop a behavior), but it’s still punishment. And Percy began to respond. He’d nibble at my coat and then pull away quickly. Not the goal I was after.  And no sparkle. There was always sparkle when he played with my clothes. I need to substitute one sparkling behavior for another. If I don’t want him tugging on my sleeve, I need to train him what To Do instead. He’s a smart horse. He’ll figure it out. Just as long as I come up with a creative solution. 

Please, set up your environment and training sessions so your horse can sparkle. 
Sparkle is not always easy to catch in still photos, but this young horse has it in spades. You can see it here in his attentive ears and curious eyes, even though this was his first introduction to flexions. The tilt of his head shows he is still being shaped for a correct flexion, but he has not been told this effort was "wrong". He was clicked for his effort and asked again.