Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 8th June 2015

Well, there has not been much training going on recently, other commitments have kept me busy these last few weeks. Also, we have just picked up a 9 week old puppy, so I don’t expect to have much spare time for the next few weeks.

It’s a good time to take a break from training anyway, as we have just moved Charlie and Star from their winter paddock to their summer paddock. This results in great excitement, and no motivation to come down to the exercise yard for several days! So, instead of a training diary, here’s a short video of Charlie and Star enjoying themselves galloping around the summer paddock.

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.

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 10th May

Monday

Today we practised with distractions. When out and about their behaviour needs to be reliable, and I need to know what their reaction to various interesting or scary things is. It’s a busy morning, and people, horses, cars and tractors are about. Quite unusual, as we live in a very quiet area and nothing much happens. We practice ‘ready’, ‘look up’, ‘lets go’ when there is a distraction, adding in other exercises once their attention is back on me.

Wednesday

Charlie and Star are doing really well. Star was really interested today, and I worked with her most of the time. Charlie decided that he didn’t want to play and spent most of his time eating the hedgerow! No problem, it’s quite a straightforward matter to build up length of attentiveness, whereas if I try to get him to do more than he is able he is not going to enjoy it, and will be more reluctant the next time.

Thursday

Charlie has decided that he doesn’t want to miss out on training games today! He’s happily following me around like a shadow. I do a little more with him and leave him eating grass to work with Star. She’s doing well, and we’re back to balancing movements. I often talk out loud to myself, and I was deciding what to do next, when I said, ‘Right’. Star immediately turned right! Clever girl, she was listening to me when I wasn’t talking to her.

Saturday

A busy weekend for us, so not much training time. I did find time to just be with them, and give them a nice brush, which as usual results in a good roll in the grass. I also now have Chilli the cat asking to play. She tears around the exercise yard when we are out there, playing with anything she can find. Once I finish with Charlie and Star, Chilli runs into the barn ready to ambush me! She’s not ambushed Charlie and Star yet, but it’s only a matter of time..

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.

Introducing the emotional aspect

Emotions influence everything you think, and everything you do. For some, they are at the forefront, the driving force behind every response and action, for others emotions are in the background and are more of a guide. Every person and animal is subject to the influence of their emotional mind. So working in a way that enables the emotions to be balanced and calm, is optimum for reliability, safety, and learning. That said, emotions are often overlooked, not adequately appreciated, or dismissed entirely. This is particularly apparent when considering our equine friends.

There are always potential risks to being around animals, but the size and weight of horses is a substantial risk, before we consider anything else. Getting stood on, walked into or squashed against a wall by a horse is going to be somewhat more of an issue than if it were a dog. Although, living with a Great Dane can result in dead legs when he sits on your knee – at least the horses don’t do that! Add to this that horses are a prey species, and however calm, they can all spook and flee before you’ve had chance to register what is happening. Therefore it makes sense to include their emotional state in your decisions when around them and in training and work situations.

What are the benefits to including emotions in how you interact, train and work with your horse?

Health & Safety

What you do with your horse should keep him healthy, and not cause injuries or illnesses, bruises, scrapes or anything else if it could be avoided. Horses do seem prone to scrapes and scratches, so it makes sense to check stables and fencing to minimise this possibility. The same goes for how your horse interacts with you. You should come away without squashed toes, fingers intact, and no bumps or bruises.

You should also set things up so that both of you are safe, and aside from accidents, you both remain so. This means that the horse is in an area where the ground is suitable for the activity you are doing. That he is not going to get caught up in loose wire, ropes, or anything else that horses are so good at getting wrapped around their legs. There are not sharp edges, or things sticking out to catch his skin. It also means that you are in an area where you can move away from the horse should you need to. The ground should also be suitable for you, so you will not get injured, or be compromised if you need to move quickly.

On the surface, none the above has anything to do with emotions, but the emotional state of the horse makes quite a difference. A healthy horse is one who is able to give his full attention when learning. A horse with an illness or injury, will also be a stressed horse, and the combination of these will mean he is less able to focus and concentrate.

Despite our best efforts, many horses do seem to be accident prone, and unusual incidents can happen when we think we’ve got everything covered. A horse who is emotionally balanced and calm, will be a far safer horse should something go wrong. If the worst happens and he is injured, a person is going to have to get close enough to help him at some stage. A necessary risk, but how much of a risk is down to how well the horse can manage his emotions and instincts.

Being on the ground in the same area as a horse also has its risks. If the horse spooks, or is frightened, he may not even register you are there if he is compelled to flee. Being ran into by a fleeing horse is not a good place to be. If he has an emotionally balanced mind, he is less likely to panic, and any response will be less intense than if he was in an emotionally unbalanced state. You can never be 100% sure of the response he will give, so your safety dictates that you should always be in a position relative to the horse where you can move out of the way if necessary.

Reliability and Predictability

This links in with health and safety. A more reliable horse is a safer horse. A horse with a mind that runs from one emotional extreme to another is not at all reliable. He is unpredictable, and his behaviours and responses will seem to happen out of the blue, with no warning. He is also less tolerant. A horse with a balanced mind is reliable and predictable in most situations. You will know what his responses will be, and how much or little he will act on them. There will be situations where he reacts in a way you did not anticipate, but it is easier and quicker to bring him back to a balanced state.

Improved learning

it is scientific fact that optimum learning conditions are achieved when the learner is in a balanced state of mind, engaged, and able to focus on learning. I don’t see the point in working through difficulties that could be avoided. Train smart and your horses progress will be that much better.

Enhanced performance

All of the above things contribute to this. Athletes pay close attention to every aspect of their mind and body in order to be at their very best. Even those of you who don’t compete will know that if you feel down or stressed it impairs your performance, as does being ill or injured.

There is no point in ignoring or pretending emotions don’t exist or that they have no bearing on what you do, they are still there and influencing your horses behaviour, whether you want them to or not. Starting out with sound ethical principles and including the emotional aspect in your approach and methods will set you and your horse up to achieve great things.

© Copyright Kathie Gregory 2015

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog and my first post.

Where to start? I thought about explaining who I am and what I do, in the first paragraphs, but that’s covered in my about page. If you haven’t seen it, hop over and have a read. I don’t want to jump straight in with learning theory, or in-depth techniques, so I guess I’ll start at the start. Which is with the principles of the behaviour and training of animals.

I mostly work with horses, dogs and cats, but there is the occasional bird, sheep or other animal in the mix. The first thing to say is that I do not have a different ‘hat’ for each species, or have different values and ethics. The same guiding principles, which form my philosophy, are adhered to for every animal I work with. Obviously one species is not the same as another, but the underlying mechanisms are the same. The principles of how we learn, where in the brain motivational drive, emotions and responses are formed, how these are executed and reinforced are the same for all mammals. What is different is evolutionary development, natural environment, prey or predator role, and what is important for survival and living. All these things make up the unique perspective of how each species sees and interacts in the world. I account for differences in species by understanding what is called species specifics. This knowledge gives me the ability to adjust techniques and methods for the unique outlook on life each species has.

So, what you will find on my blog?

You will not find negative, aversive or punishment methods here. This is a strictly positive blog.

You will find up to date, scientifically proven positive reinforcement methods and techniques, theory and hands on knowledge, all applied with compassion and understanding, ensuring that high standards of emotional and physical welfare are always maintained.

Which leads me on to how important and often overlooked this concept, and one of my guiding principles, actually is;

To always leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him.

By using positive reinforcement methods you have made a really good start, but there is more to it than just using the correct techniques, you have to look at how you apply them, how they affect the emotional state of the animal and what is actually reinforced.

When you teach and train you want the animal in question to be successful, but you also want to be successful yourself. You feel as though you know what you are doing if the animal does what you ask, and feel like a failure if he does not. It is immediately obvious that there are two aspects to every encounter with an animal. That of the animal, and that of the person handling him.

What does this actually mean? It means that you have to be able to separate your own emotions and drive for success from the situation, and not let it influence your judgement as to what is right at that particular time for the animal you are handling. And that is not easy. There will be many instances where my advice is to go and have a cup of tea, think about how to solve the particular problem, and start again when you have a plan.

Time out for tea is an invaluable training tool for you, although I would caution against too many biscuits accompanying that cup of tea! It gives you a different option to carrying on regardless, or quitting completely. First you have to train yourself to recognise when you are losing an objective viewpoint, and do so before you make training mistakes with the animal. Then you have to choose not to continue if you have lost your objectivity and are feeling frustrated, angry, or irritated. The decision is made to take the tea option; go have a cup of tea and think about why something didn’t work and what you can do differently to resolve the issue.

This takes us to the next concept, and guiding principle;

It is always the handler who needs to adjust if something is not working, not the animal.

You are teaching that animal, and if he doesn’t understand, then he doesn’t understand. Continuing to do the same thing will not necessarily improve this, you are likely to continue getting the same result. To achieve a different result you have to change something in how you present the data. It’s no good expecting the animal to spontaneously change his response to the same stimulus. It is up to you to make the change in order to facilitate a new response from the animal.

So does this mean that the animal is always right? And you are wrong? Aren’t you teaching him that whatever he does is fine, even if it is not what you asked for? How will his behaviour ever be controlled by working in this manner? Besides, he can give the correct behaviour, so he is just being difficult.

All valid questions.

So does this mean that the animal is always right? And you are wrong?

Yes, of course the animal is always right. How can he be otherwise when he is responding as his species, instincts and prior experiences tell him he should? He does not have the cognitive abilities of a person, he does not choose to do something out of spite, to annoy you, to be deliberately difficult, especially when he knows you don’t have time for it. An animal is not aware of these things, and not capable of such forethought.

As for you being wrong, you are not, you are fact finding. If what you do has not had the desired effect then something was not understood. What you thought was a sensible approach was not viewed as such by the animal, so use that information to adjust what you do. As much as it would be nice to get a great result every time, nobody does. You have to do all you can to enable the animal to respond and learn what you wish to teach him. After all, he would not choose to offer a different response to the one he already uses if there is no reason for him to do so. He would continue to respond from his individual perspective, within the parameters of his species.

Aren’t you teaching him that whatever he does is fine, even if it is not what you asked for?

Whatever he does is fine, again it comes down to cognitive awareness; as far as he is concerned he is behaving in an appropriate manner. Now that may be completely inappropriate in a human environment, but he doesn’t know that. Your job is to teach him how he should behave in the environment he is in. Also, you are only reinforcing that whatever he does is fine if you respond to it in a manner that reinforces the continuance of it. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but behaviour can be reinforced by both positive reward based actions and negative aversive/ punishment based actions. It can also be stopped by both methods. You may view an action as a positive or negative action, but that is only true if the recipient interpreted it that way.

The result of behaviours you want usually gets a reward, so there is a positive reinforcement for the animal to repeat it in order to receive that reward again. The result of behaviours you don’t want usually gets a negative response or a punishment, which on the surface may seem like a deterrent for the animal, so he is less likely to give you that behaviour again. However, what we see as a deterrent is often perceived as confirmation that the behaviour was correct, which acts as reinforcement to continue it. So it is just as easy to reinforce that a horse nipping, or a dog growling was the desired response, as it is to reinforce that it was not the desired response.

How will his behaviour ever be controlled by working in this manner?

By taking things one step at a time, and not rushing to get to the end result. You are both learning to understand each others language and how to communicate effectively. This is no different to learning a foreign language, you would not start learning Italian and expect to hold an in depth conversation in Italy when you are still learning the language. It is the same with animals. You have to learn their language well enough to converse effectively, and once you’ve done that, you have to get to know the personality of who you are having that conversation with to get the best out of it.

It’s very quick and easy to hit your dog or horse to stop them doing something you don’t want them to do. And you will get a fairly immediate response to this method. But, whilst this has no place in my strictly positive blog, and neither does it have any place in modern teaching methods, it deserves the following explanation.

Whilst I do not consider aversive, negative and punishment based methods as teaching, technically they are, as the recipient will learn from them. However, what they learn does not produce the same results as positive reinforcement methods. The results of aversive methods are avoidance, suppression of behaviours and emotions, and a fear of the handler, which going back to my first guiding principal, most certainly does not leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him.

You can never truly control another beings behaviour, and there is rather a misplaced perception that a person can achieve total control through these methods. The reality is that behaviour is subdued, and so perceived to be under control. In some situations, this is a time bomb waiting to happen, and quite honestly, I would not want to work with an animal under these conditions. They are far too unpredictable, there may be little or no warning that the emotions are about to explode, as they cannot continue to be subdued, and the result is likely to cause significant injury or even death to themselves or those around them. Of course there are other outcomes such as perceived helplessness, shutting down, and heightened reactivity. None of which are anywhere approaching acceptable standards of emotional welfare.

To me teaching means to improve awareness and understanding to achieve greater ability, confidence in oneself, and a sense of contentment. This reflects the first guiding principle in this post – to always leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him. When done properly positive reinforcement methods do just that, whilst maintaining the highest emotional welfare standards.

By making the decision to adopt this philosophy, and work within the guiding principles will be the best thing you can do for yourself, and the animals you live or work with. You won’t have all the answers – does anyone? And there will be many necessary tea breaks as you start your journey, but there is support and advice, from me and those who have already embraced this way. We all have to start somewhere. Your might be taking the time to think about this philosophy, what it will mean to the animals you handle and how to begin applying it. You may be on your own positive journey already, and are progressing to using it in all interactions. Wherever you are, you are not alone, and there will always be help available and a way of finding a solution if you get stuck. The last thing to say is that your animals will thank you for it. In fact, you will thank yourself too. The differences you will see in your animals personality and your relationship really will warm the heart, and keep you on this path for life.

© Copyright Kathie Gregory 2015