Teaching the clever way

The animals we work and live with do not know the dangers of our human world, yet we often expect them to behave as if they are fully aware of such things. We expect them to give us an appropriate behaviour for the circumstances they find themselves in, often without thought for the fact that animals are a different species and so will have different instincts and behaviour to those we want them to express. A human behaviour trait is to try harder if the first time we ask doesn’t work. You ask your dog or horse to do something, and they don’t comply with your request. One of the first instinctual responses you have is irritation, and so repeat your request in a stronger manner. Our first choice is often to apply more pressure, in the form of force and coercion. It’s all downhill from there, as you employ increasing pressure to make the other party do what you want. Again, a human trait, that you must not back down, you must show strength or you will be considered weak, and whoever you were trying to tell what to do will then be in charge of you. This piece of advice is often given to horse and dog owners, with the label of dominance. However, dominance is a human concept, inappropriately applied to how we interact with animals.

The best piece of advice to give to people regarding this, is to forget you heard it, stop thinking you must do what someone else says you should, and instead, start using common sense and genuine care for the animals you are with.

You do not need to make your animal feel scared or unhappy.

You do not need to follow rank reduction programmes, or dominance theory.

You do not need to continue until the animal does what you want.

You do not need to listen to advice that you should not let your animal get away with anything, they must obey at all times.

You do not need to listen to advice that you should withhold love, affection and comforts as your animal will come to expect them, and think he is in charge.

Some of my clients actually sigh with relief when I tell them this.

It is said that doing everything before your dog will show him you are dominant and the alpha. You must eat first, go through doors first, etc. IT WILL NOT.

Your dog will just get hungrier whilst you eat, usually resulting in attempts to secure some of your food! Your dog does not understand that whoever goes through a door first is considered to be the most important – he just wants to get out in the garden.

That continuing to force your horse until he gives a behaviour will show him you are in charge and dominant. IT WILL NOT. Your horse will become increasingly anxious and learn that you are a source of pain, and to be avoided.

If you don’t show him who is boss he will run rings round you. HE WILL NOT.

Allowing an animal to do something different to what you have asked, or choose what he wants to do will lead to chaos. IT WILL NOT. A lack of teaching will lead to chaos, plain and simple.

There is a better way, and that is teaching with positive methods, giving a choice, and using positive reinforcement for the best conditions for learning, improving confidence and self awareness. This in turn gives, safety, reliability, and contentment.

When I am with animals, I am not the alpha, leader, or in charge. I am part of our group, whether that is me and my two horses, me and my dog, or another scenario. We each have strengths, preferences, things we enjoy, and whoever is best for the task at hand is the one the rest of the group is guided by. A true partnership is about giving all members of the group the ability and freedom to express themselves and choose what they do or don’t do, as long as everyone is kept safe.

So how do we achieve this?

I am their teacher, helping them understand how to interpret this human world they live in.

As they learn, I become their guide, suggesting a good course of action.

As they become aware, they become my guide; I go along with their choice as long as it isn’t dangerous, or completely wrong for the situation we are in.

As our relationship of trust, understanding, and awareness develops, we each contribute to what we do that day, and how we solve any difficulties along the way.

Cas

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Don’t want to rug your horse? Here’s how to go natural.

Autumn is here. It’s getting pretty chilly at night, and time for many people to think about rugging their horses. Horses are rugged for many different reasons, and for some it is a necessity. If it isn’t, you may consider allowing your horses body to do what it does naturally – grow a winter coat, so there is no need to rug him.

The first step is to teach your horse to be aware of his body and manage his comfort accordingly. This involves showing him how to find shelter from wind and rain, rather than stand out and endure it. He is far less likely to need a rug if he does not stand out in howling wind or driving rain for hours on end! The other reason for teaching him to find shelter is that as you don’t need to rug him, it gives his body the ability to respond to the drop in temperature and stimulate hair growth, starting the process of growing a winter coat.

The next step is to only rug when absolutely necessary. Each time you do rug, you interrupt this process, so in order to have a really good winter coat that is capable of keeping your horse warm, the horse needs to manage his comfort so he doesn’t require rugging, other than the odd occasion.

The first year, his coat may not reach it’s full thickness, and there may be occasions when the weather is particularly bad, that he does need a rug. If this is the case, he will only need a lightweight one, or he’ll be too hot. In year two you will find that his coat develops more thickness, and you will probably not need to rug at all.

The final step is to relax and not worry! If your horse is out when the weather is bad, there is a tendency to think he must be cold. However, the combination of teaching him to manage his own comfort, and having a full winter coat, is good protection against the elements, and when you check, you mostly find that he is not cold, or wet underneath his coat. More likely is that as he is comfortable, he would rather be out grazing.

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 5th July 2015

Well, what an exciting week it has been. I’ve done theExercise Yard usual training sessions, but that is not what was exciting. I decided it was the right time to leave the yard, and go for a walk down the lane.

For those of you who don’t know, Charlie and Star arrived as very reactive and unhappy horses. It has taken a substantial amount of rehabilitation to get them to the point where they are happy, balanced and content. They are not reactive any more, are predictable and soppy!!! Although that might just be my interpretation – I can hear them saying, ‘ aw, mum, do you have to say that, it’s so embarrassing!’

Anyway, back to The Walk…

Head collars and lead ropes on. Check. Bag of apples and carrots at the ready. Check.

I walked with Charlie, and hubby walked with Star. Charlie in the lead (he’s older and wiser), and off we went out of the gate and onto the lane, with Star and hubby following. So far so good. Charlie was great, happily bopping along beside me.

We got part way along the lane, when the realisation that she was no longer in her safe, and familiar field caused Star to panic a little. True to form, she planted her feet and refused to move. On seeing this, hubby started talking to her to help her through. Charlie and I were a little ahead, so we turned around to come back to Star. Charlie, clever boy, executed a perfect turn around as soon as I said it. He was so calm and collected. Back we went to Star, who still was not at all compos mentis (being able to think clearly and be in control of and responsible for your actions)! No, Star was in emotional/ instinct mode and not at all able to think or listen.

The best thing to do in this situation is not push things, but diffuse. So, Charlie and I walked back to her, hubby continued talking and not reacting, but also not asking anything of Star. We walked past, with the cue, ‘this way’ to let Star know we were going back to the yard. Charlie was brilliant, waited when I asked so he wasn’t to far away, and walked on when Star started to respond. Star made it back into the yard, and had settled down in a few minutes.

A good first walk. Star was interested in going out, but got scared when she found herself outside of her comfort zone. She did panic a bit, but crucially, she was not manic and reactive. It was easy to get her to re-engage her thinking brain, it just took a few minutes. Considering she is still a baby, and has only had very limited experience, she did amazingly well. Charlie showed how reliable and clever his was. This now gives me my next area to work on and develop Star’s confidence, so, back to yard work, gradually progressing to the gate being open, allowing Star to be comfortable going up to it, out and back in, without going too far away.

Groundwork

What does it mean to you?

Groundwork

To me it means everything that happens when YOU are on the ground.

Most of you are familiar with teaching groundwork exercises for things like showing, teaching movements you will use in the saddle, for ground based activities such as agility and for lead walking.

Things such as just being around your horse in the stable or field, vets and farriers visits, mucking out, grooming and feeding are all part of groundwork. I take advantage of these activities and use them as opportunities to teach my horses more behaviours, movements and awareness.

If you have a reactive horse, you are more likely to have taught him to do specific things when you handle him, as this is a necessity. For those with an easy-going horse, there is no need, the horse will do what he is asked. But there is a false sense of security here. What if you need your horse to do something that he usually does at a different time? Or he simply doesn’t do what is asked. Relying on the assumption that he always does this, is fine, just as long as he always does. When he doesn’t, you don’t have any cue to fall back on if you haven’t attached one to the behaviour.

Putting existing routines and movements on cue will give you so many advantages.

It increases awareness, which in turn increases self-confidence.

This is important for all animals, regardless of species or whether they are prey or predators. It is a technique that is particularly useful in resolving behavioural issues in insecure animals. If a horse knows what he is doing, he is more confident.

You have a voice cue as a back up if your horse finds himself unsure for whatever reason. Reminding him that this is a usual routine and that he does know it can help him get over any insecurity he may be feeling.

It allows you a means of teaching him to apply the same routine or movement in a different context.

When something is learnt, it is done so in context. If a movement is only practised and done in one place, chances are that the horse will find it difficult or impossible to do it in a significantly different location. In order to truly know a behaviour, it must be able to be performed in isolation, without any associations or conditions needing to be present. The movement itself is the behaviour, not the context in which it is displayed. If he knows a behaviour in one context, it is a straightforward matter to teach him it in another.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that it is able to be applied to other situations. Modified, adjusted or the behaviour as a whole can be used to help the horse know what to do when he is in a situation he is unfamiliar with. Responses are chosen from previous experience. Where there is no similar experience to draw on, the horse does not know what to do. That can result in panic, fear, or anxiety, along with a response that is not appropriate for the situation. If you include awareness as an integral part of learning and training, you will significantly improve your horses ability to

  • manage his own behaviour

  • willingness to be guided by you if he doesn’t know what to do

  • impulse control

  • choosing an appropriate response

  • reliability

  • safety

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 14th June 2015

Following on from last weeks diary post, the upshot of all that galloping around after moving to the summer field is to lie down and relax. Charlie and Star have been intensely studying relaxation, and I can report that they do not seem to have moved for several days!

I expect to get back to some training next week, hopeful that they will have finished their research into relaxation, which is the best part of the field, and the best position to lie in!

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Positive Reinforcement – What’s it all about?

Simply put, positive reinforcement means;

Adding something the animal will work for to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behaviour.

It looks fairly straight forward, what’s the big deal?

Every being has a motivational system, so why would you not tap into that and make life easy for yourself? You can make training difficult if you like, but why would you, when there is a much more effective and easily understood way. The natural motivations for food, comfort, play and affection are already in place in the animals, you don’t need to teach them. I know that my dog will come to me if I have a bit of sausage in my hand. I know my horse will follow me if I have a carrot in my hand. This is easy. It uses built-in behaviours and emotional drives to great effect. And crucially? It is all positive reinforcement. Which means the dog or horse is very likely to want to do it again.

When you think about the various training methods and what to use, think of these sayings;

Don’t fix something if it isn’t broken.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Keeping things simple, straightforward and making the most of things that are already in place can be more effective than trying to invent it all yourself, and makes life easier.

It doesn’t make any sense to use aversion and force, as you have to teach these things. Yes, I know animals also have motivational systems for avoidance, but not as humans apply it. That is learned the hard way by the horse, through repetitive means until the horse complies. To make matters worse, it is not clear to the horse what the correct response should be, until he happens to stumble onto it. It is all very ambiguous, inefficient, and ethically wrong.

Give your horse an enjoyable motivation to do what is being taught and he will learn quickly. Not only that, what he has learnt will be reliable, and transferable to many other situations. This is very different to getting him to do something by giving him the motivation to avoid something else. This is also transferable to different situations, but who wants a horse that is conditioned to avoidance? Horses are quite good at this without any additional reinforcement from us! If this is his default strategy, this is what he will do in any new situation that he finds he doesn’t want to be in, and that makes it very hard for you to achieve a different response and outcome.

So what will motivate a horse to do something, rather than avoid something?

What will motivate a dog to do something, rather than avoid something?

Every horse or dog may have different likes and dislikes, so what have you found that works? Please leave a comment, I’ll discuss this in the next post.