Free Will Teaching Workshop

I was in Crewe this weekend to present a talk on Free Will Teaching at Rixton Dog School in Warrington. We started with looking at what free will teaching is and it’s four stages – Subliminal, Shaping, Active, Partnership, then moving on to the basics of FWT techniques to teach our animals.

When we can teach understanding and awareness, we can then teach our animals real choice and decision making about how they manage themselves in daily life, what activities they do, and also to know how to regulate their emotional minds, and when to rest and relax to keep their minds and bodies healthy and strong.

There are so many misconceptions and myths about how much dogs and horses can learn, that teaching is often kept at a basic level, when in fact they can learn so much more. I have worked like this for years and my own, and clients, dogs and horses show the amazing achievements that can be reached by teaching without preconceived limitations.

The day finished with some lively and interesting discussions about applying FWT to problems and to further teach the companions we live with.

Everyone attending was really welcoming, supportive and interested in how I work, it was a real pleasure to teach and engage people to show what heights our companion animals can reach when we allow them to reach their full potential.

I’m doing another free will teaching workshop in Wimborne in April, with more dates added later in the year. Please do get in touch if you’d like me to put one on in your area.

http://www.freewillteaching.com

A Matter of Perspective

Training

Assuming you are in complete control of another being, animal or human, is a false perception which can lead to errors in judgement and raises significant safety issues.

Firstly, we can only control another beings movements, not his mind. We may think we control his mind, when we exert our will over him and make him do what we want, but we cannot control his thoughts or emotions, which is of major importance when learning, and if we are to stay safe.

For example, you want your animal to learn to do as you ask. Humans tend to keep trying if something doesn’t work, so from our point of view, this may mean one of the following things.

Continuing until you do get the result you were after.

Not worry about how you get that result, just that you get it; the end justifies the means.

You can easily see that from our perspective, being successful means you have achieved what you set out to do. But what about the animal you are teaching? Were they successful? If they did what you wanted, then yes, you could argue that they were also successful.

However, that is not necessarily the case. In order to be successful you have to see things from the animal’s perspective, not yours. Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him? If you’ve continued a lesson far longer than was productive, so that you could finish on a high, you feel satisfied, and might sigh with relief that you have persevered and it was worth the effort. However, the animal may well have a different view. Is he likely to feel relief from finally doing what was asked? Or is he likely to feel relief for the fact that it has finished and there are no further demands on him?

Similarly, what will the animal take from a lesson that is conducted from the viewpoint of the end justifies the means? Again, you will feel relief that finally the animal has understood you and done what he was supposed to. And once again, the animal will feel relief that the interaction is over. By trying to make ourselves successful we have made the animal we are working with unsuccessful, as what he has learnt from engaging in the encounter is not a positive or rewarding experience.

Will he be willing to engage next time? Not likely, and certainly not with enthusiasm. He may also have learnt that avoidance or active defence is his best course of action to ensure he is not put in this situation again.

Coming back to the title of this piece – a matter of perspective – teach yourself to analyse everything you intend to do from the animal’s perspective, and you will set yourself and him up for fun, engaging teaching sessions that result in success for both of you.

Update & Choosing Priorities

Morning folks,

Deciding what to do first is not always easy, so today’s post is about prioritising. Life remains hectic here, and there is always so much to do. Updating readers is a really good way of looking at what you have on the go, and what needs to be done, when.

So, in no particular order, this is where I am at the moment.

Charlie and Star have just moved into their winter field after we’ve had some new fencing put up. They are very happy, and are spending all their time out there – I don’t think they’ve been in the barn for more than a drink. Training has taken a back seat, but I have a list of things that I want to teach them next.

My first book, A Tale of Two Horses, has gone to the printers, hooray! The last few weeks have been spent on final proof reading, adjustments and index writing, with not much time for anything else. Now this has finished, there is nothing more to do on the actual book, the next tasks will be marketing and promoting it.

Wolfie our Irish Wolfhound puppy continues to take up a good chunk of time each day. He’s now five and a half months old, his hormones have kicked in, and he is a teenager! He needs lots of time, patience and teaching to get through this difficult period. He is doing really well and mostly we have a calm and balanced puppy, who only occasionally loses the plot.

Puppy classes are busy, there was a quiet start to the year, but things have got a lot busier. I have three foundation courses on the go at the moment, all at different stages.

I’m part way through a series of articles on aggression for Kennel & Cattery magazine, which I am really enjoying writing.

I have also started my next book, which is about bringing up a puppy – as you can imagine Wolfie is providing me with lots of material for this, and reminding me of things I had forgotten. The last time we had a puppy was ten and a half years ago, with Indie our Great Dane.

I’m currently taking the writing101 course with WordPress, and am exploring different types of writing, as well as posting to this blog. I have some ideas about short stories, which is a new direction for me, as my writing is usually factual or technical pieces on animal behaviour and training.

Added to these things, I run my behavioural business and see clients, I teach art once a week, I try to keep up with facebook and twitter, and look after the house and farm, when hubby is at work!

On to prioritizing all these activities.

Wolfie remains my first priority. He is at such an important stage, and it would be very detrimental to his development and growing up to be a well balanced adult if I do not take the time to teach him.

The next consideration is what is important at this stage of his life? Where do I concentrate my teaching? Without a doubt, the most important thing to teach now is how to calm down his mind when he is over the top. Impulse control, self restraint and managing arousal levels in the brain is essential at this stage in his life. It will help mange this difficult period, and will teach him how to be in control of his emotional mind, not be swept along by it. Essentially, it will set him up to be a well balanced adult, who can manage his emotions, and his behaviour is guided primarily by his thinking brain, not his emotional brain.

Charlie and Star are at the stage where they will benefit from me teaching them more, but there is not an essential time-frame, or specific things that must be done now. They will enjoy my company, and we will continue to develop our relationship if I can spend some regular time with them, even if it is only in short sessions. They enjoy learning, and keeping it going, even when you only have limited time, is well worth it. We often think that there is no point if we don’t have enough time, but a little teaching when you can, soon builds up, and things are learnt without so much expectation to achieve them, which can be a benefit, depending on how your horse learns.

I’m really excited about writing my next book, and showing people how to bring up a puppy to be a perfect adult. There are so many dilemma’s as to what to do when dealing with puppy and adolescent behaviours, how to approach things to you don’t create future problems, what to teach and when, socialisation, and how to get through that very challenging teenager period. As Wolfie is providing me with inspiration and a huge amount of material to write about as we go through these things ourselves, I want to write this book as we experience life together.

Charlie and Star, and writing this book, are the next priorities after Wolfie.

Clients book in as they need to, so everything fits in around work.

Articles have deadlines, and so they temporarily take priority as necessary.

Social media, and promoting the business all have to be maintained, but there is nothing specific that I need to prioritize at them moment.

Whether you are juggling lots of activities, or don’t know what you should teach or develop next with your horse or dog, writing it down, noting time-scales for activities or specific behaviours, and going through the options, helps clarify what you do next and provides a way forward.

Is Your Dog Content?

Wolfie 2 100615There are many aspects to contentment. How would you describe your dog when talking about him being content? What makes him contented and not discontented? Is he content with all aspects of his life, or are there areas which are not satisfying?

For a dog to be content with his life, we need to assess all aspects that make up his life and how he lives, and make each one the best for that dog. Every dog is an individual, and what makes one content, may not work for another. There is no right or wrong, no one rule for all, you should do the best for YOUR dog, and provide him with the things HE needs.

Play

How does your dog like to play? For some, play is a big part of their day, and they would rather engage in more of this than other activities. Play develops your relationship with your dog, and creates a happy association for both you and your dog. It also gives you a head start on working off lead and still being able to get your dog’s attention.

Exercise

What is exercise? We tend to think of it as going out for a walk, something that we should do every day, to give our dog exercise. In reality, every activity your dog is engaged in is exercise; be it playing with you, tearing around the garden on his own, playing with another dog, or going for a walk. There’s a certain expectation for us to take our dogs out each day, and that we are neglecting them if we don’t. But, this is not necessarily true. For some dogs, going out for a walk is not a pleasurable experience. There are reasons ranging from fear and anxiety, to pain, or loss of mobility. Choose the correct type of exercise for your dog’s age, abilities and preferences.

NOTE; Socialisation is very important, and going to different places and experiencing different things is essential for every dog to get to know the world, but there is more to this that just going out for a walk because you think you should, particularly if your dog is not receiving a good experience from it. I’ll talk about socialisation in another post.

Learning

Every moment of every day, your dog is learning. This is part of living. However, we can assist and progress natural learning by teaching our dogs movements, tricks, words & phrases, routines, and what to do in different situations. We can take him to classes to learn new exercises and increase his knowledge. We do activities together, such as running, Canicross and agility. A content mind is a mind that has stimulation, can work out puzzles, learn new things.

Diet

A huge subject, and one with many differing opinions. What suits one dog may not suit another. What you feed your dog will make a difference to how content he is with this aspect of his life. All dogs like to eat food that tastes good and is satisfying. It is also worth noting that different foods have different effects on brain chemistry, and regular meals contribute to a balanced mind, minimising the troughs and peaks that occur when we either eat, or are hungry, such as blood sugar levels, which in turn promotes contentment.

Affection

Every owner knows that look of contentment on the face of their dog when they are having snuggles and cuddles. This releases endorphins, which promotes feelings of security, and strengthens the relationship.

Comfort

Our dogs usually have a few places where they feel comfortable at different times of the day. Giving him access to these, and allowing him to sit and watch the world go by, or just hang around with you when you are busy allows him to be content without activity.

Sleep

All dogs need to feel safe and secure, and sleeping somewhere where they can relax and not feel anxious is essential to quality sleep. A lack of quality sleep can affect the mind in drastic ways, and interferes with a sense of contentment.

Himself

The final piece to the puzzle is to teach your dog to be comfortable with his own company. The key to contentment, is to be content within yourself. Getting the sections above correct for your dog, along with teaching him self-reliance so that he is also fine if he is on his own will lead to a sense of well-being, happiness and contentment.

Busy Times

Lots of things on the go at the moment, and not enough time for everything.

I have several writing projects on the go, course development, work with clients and their horses and dogs, and of course training my own horses and new puppy Wolfie.

Today I’ve been out to see a prospective venue for hosting my new courses for horses and their owners. What a lovely venue Hallsannery Farmhouse in Bideford, Devon is. This ticks all the boxes for my needs, I’m looking forward to hosting events there. The first is to be a 3 day foundation course in free will teaching and positive reinforcement methods.

Training for Charlie and Star has taken a back seat whilst I spend time with Wolfie. With less time spent on training, Star has decided that she should show me how to do it! So I get a lovely demonstration of exercises from her as she reminds me that I should be asking for them! Charlie stands by the exercise yard looking hopeful. It’s clear they want to do more training than they are currently getting. This is one of the many benefits of working with positive reinforcement, they ask to learn and train.

Training

Wolfie is 20 weeks old today and needs lots of attention and guidance at the moment, which is why I’m doing less training with Charlie and Star. He is doing really well, and with the same methods he already has a good amount of self awareness and is able to interrupt himself when in the grip of emotions – well, not all the time yet – he is still a puppy! His hormones have also just kicked in, so his first teenage phase is under way, a time that can be very challenging for owners.

Wolfie 210815

I’m also busy with the final tasks before my book A Tale of Two Horses, is finished and ready to go to the printers. Final edit done, we’re now on layout, last amendments and indexing. It details Charlie and Star’s first year with me and first experiences of positive reinforcement methods, and I’m really excited to see my manuscript in print.

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