Impulse Control

When I am working with any species of animal, I will work to balance instincts and responses. Reinforcing innate drives and motivations will make them stronger. This is not always a good thing. It is, if you are working them and need to develop that drive, but if you think about it, you develop a specific aspect and application of it, you don’t just reinforce it as a whole, or the animal is likely to perform it whenever he wants to, regardless of whether it is the right application or not. You want to reinforce the motivation when in the correct context, not generally. It’s about putting it on cue so that you don’t get it when it’s inappropriate. That cue may be anything, it could be a voice cue or visual cue from you, or it could be cued to an environment, particular place, or specific circumstances.

A racehorse will race when he is on the racetrack. A sight hound will chase when he sees small animals moving. If that drive is reinforced without any focus, how difficult is it going to be to interrupt it? Very difficult. The behaviour is self rewarding, and the more it is practised, the stronger it becomes. If that behaviour is tempered with training so the horse or dog can interrupt it, is taught where to perform it and where it is not safe to do so, then you can balance those motivations. If left unchecked, the behaviour will not be a balanced part of the personality, but an overriding trait that will be difficult to counter. It is not much fun if your racehorse thinks that a canter always turns into an all out race, and every long stretch is for running as fast as possible. That does not make for a safe or enjoyable experience. Neither will you enjoy walking your dog if he chases off after everything in sight, and you have to continually go and find him.

Teaching impulse control is a very important part of learning, and invaluable for being safe around any animal. This means that the racehorse can interrupt his instinct to run, and the sight hound can interrupt his instinct to chase, making both animals safer and more reliable. It also means that humans have the ability to keep him, and those around him, safe. The only way to achieve this level of safety, and control of the situation and the animal’s behaviour is if the horse or dog does it himself. You are not, and never will be in control of his mind.

There is no denying it, if your horse has taken it upon himself to race, you are going to have a hard time trying to stop him on your own. And by on your own, I mean without any input from the horse. Yes, you could use all your aids with increasing force, try to turn him so that he has to stop or run into something, but this should be an emergency situation, not a normal part of your interactions. It is not safe, has a created negative associations for the horse and the behaviour is not likely to change if it is regularly repeated. Besides, any horse is far stronger than the strongest human, so there is every chance that he will be sufficiently motivated to ignore whatever force you use to try to stop him. What options do you have if you are on a horse that is immune to all you do? One. And that is to teach him to manage his own behaviour, have awareness, and learn lots of exercises and routines that you can then employ to diffuse the situation safely.

The same applies to your sight hound. Off lead, this is imperative, as there is no chance of running after him and regaining control of the situation, he’ll be gone, and your two human legs will not keep up! On lead, it may seem as though you have control, but how many people have their arm pulled off every time their dog sees something and decides to chase? His chase is cut short, but only at the expense of your arm and his neck if wearing a collar, or body if on a harness.

Control is something you perceive you have over animals, but in reality, you do not. You cannot control their thoughts, instincts, motivations, or actions. You can shape, balance and guide these things, and the best way to do this is through positive reinforcement. The result is that they will find what you teach them enjoyable, which means they will be happy, even eager to repeat these behaviours. And that is what will give you the confidence to know you can successfully and reliably manage your horse or dog, whatever situation you both find yourself in.

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 26th April.

We haven’t done a lot this week. Partly due to various appointments, and partly due to making the farm safe for our new puppy, who arrives in about 5 weeks time. There are so many places where a puppy can get under the fence, barn doors, or into the fields. We’ve not had to consider this before, as Indie was 4 when we moved here, and far too big to get though any gap that wasn’t a gaping hole!! So, puppy proofing is the main activity.

I’ve found time to do some short sessions in the barn with them, but only two longer sessions this week.

Wednesday

Today we worked on balance. Being able to control each foot independently is a really good skill. Yes, I know that they control all four feet independently when they are moving, but it is just as important for them to be able to shift their weight so they can move one foot whilst the others are still. Take picking out feet as an example. In order to lift and hold one foot off the floor, they need to be balanced on the other three. And that balance is different to when they are walking. So, on the spot we do free shaping – ‘what can you do’? Click & treat for each shift in weight, foot or leg movement.

Friday

This is what I call an indulgence session, as it’s all about just spending time with the horses, doing nothing in particular. I don’t have a lesson plan, or anything specific to work on. I can just enjoy being with them. There is another reason for this type of session, and it is all about increasing our relationship, understanding and language between us. Your horse may enjoy grooming, just listening to you spend time talking to him, or going out for a lead walk. Whatever it is, the question is ‘what do you want to do today’? It is Charlie and Star who decide what we do in this session. If I try grooming and they are not in the mood, then we try something else. The only agenda is to make them happy. Charlie wanted a walk, so we wandered around the exercise yard, having a chat and giving Charlie head rubs. Star was content in the barn, so I spent time chatting to her, and she put her head into my chest so I could play with her mane, and she promptly dozed off!

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 19th April.

Tuesday

A good session today. Both Charlie and Star were interested and engaged.

May have got a bit of sunburn..

Star continued on from yesterdays session, and happily followed me around the exercise yard. She hasn’t quite got to grips with eating and walking at the same time yet, so we pause for a piece of apple. Charlie, however, has long since mastered that particular difficulty, and doesn’t miss a stride.

Wednesday

Too hot, and I definitely have a sunburnt forehead!

Charlie was far too interested in munching the grass and hedgerow today. He did really well at interrupting himself and showing me his Ready, and Head Up exercises, but that was about it.

Probably just as well, or I’ll look like a lobster if I stay out in the sun much longer!

Thursday

Hmm, a bit of intolerance in the barn this morning. Star is being quite clear that she doesn’t really want Charlie near her. Change of training plan then. Work in barn on exercises whilst they are standing still, rather than have disagreements in the exercise yard. We have started taking out the visual cue (hand signal) for some exercises, so that they can do them just by voice cue. A good day to practice that I think.

Saturday

So far I’ve taught left and right through targeting. I hold my hand out and say touch left or touch right. Now it’s time to change that to looking left and right, as I don’t just want them to target, I want to progress to being able to tell them which direction to go in without any aids. I’ve been making my hand signals for left and right less of a target and more about just pointing them in the correct direction and click and treat (C/T) for when they follow my hand and look that way. At this point I have dropped the word touch, and just said left, or right. This is the start of changing the touch exercise to something else. We’ll see how we get on with this next week.

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary.

To get up to date, this is their clicker training journey so far.

We have worked in protective contact, which was me the other side of the fence to their paddock, so if things got a bit excitable, I was not in danger of being trodden on or ran into! Then we moved training to their stables where Charlie and Star could wander at will.

They have learnt step back, step forwards, turn around, this side, wait, targeting, look left, right, head down, head up and ready. We’ve done this standing still, not when they are wandering about.

Now we are at the stage where I’m working with them at liberty in their exercise yard, putting all these exercises into practice when walking around.

This morning was cool and misty. Despite the lack of sunshine we have been used to seeing this last week, there is no reduction in midges. They are everywhere!

I open the gate to the yard and both horses come up to me for a piece of apple or carrot. They know this is training and games time, but alas, I have no food. There’s a little grass in here, and I like them to go in and settle a bit before I start so they are not too excited about what we are going to do. Charlie, bless him, can be somewhat enthusiastic, and he’s quite a big horse, who doesn’t realise his size! So, sorry guys, no food yet.

I leave them to it and come back a few minutes later with the all important apple and carrot pieces.

I’m working with both of them at liberty, in the yard at the same time, so space management is important. Part of training is teaching them to be close to me and each other and not compete over the food, along with not getting over excited. Being with mum means being calm and balanced. Whoever comes up to me first gets to do something. Today it was Star. She is the kind of horse who likes to stand where she is, and all attempts to entice her to move are met with failure. She needs to feel comfortable and in control, not be manipulated. The more you try to get her to move, the more she is an immovable object. So, it’s great to see that her feet actually do work! Up to today, she has pretty much remained standing still whilst I’m teaching her, only moving to graze. But, this morning we have a breakthrough. She is following me around really happily.

Keeping an eye out for Charlie, I finish with Star when he shows interest in coming over, and move to working with him. He goes steady to start with then gets a little more enthusiastic. Calm and balanced he is not! Time to put some slow exercises in to offset this. I might change who I’m working with a few times, depending on who is more actively asking to do something. Back to Charlie, and we are working on voice cues to turn left and right, wait and off we go again. He’s doing really well, and likes this so much I get a good head rub halfway along our walk.