Clicker Training: Challenge Accepted - Page 29

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Clicker Training: Challenge Accepted

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  • Alexandra kurland despooking

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    07-28-2013, 05:21 PM
Mixing +R with +P

First off, I admit to not reading this whole thread of 15 pages of comments (now 28) regarding operant conditioning (clicker training) with horses. However, I was alerted to the recent discussion of mixing +P (added punishment) to +R (added reinforcement). Not to mince words, but that is crazy making!

When I first started clicker training my horse (for six years now), I was lucky to find a well-trained, very experienced horse clicker trainer not too far away. This person has worked closely with Alexandra Kurland for over 12 years.

I started my horse behind protected contact and sometimes go back to that for a refresher. In fact, whenever I want to enter his stall, I wait for him to back (I’ve shaped the back up) and treat at arm’s length over the stall gate.

The mugging problem: Many horses new to the new paradigm of CT, often mug and even scrape the palm of your hand with their teeth. The mugging needs to be addressed through working in protected contact and making sure that your treat delivery mechanics are clean, crisp, and clear – always separate to three events of clicking, reaching for the food, and delivering the food. Many of us, even experienced clicker trainers, get sloppy.

Early in our CT relationship, my horse got more than muggy, he bit. He bit badly. I have the scars to prove it. It was very frustrating! And painful! Of course, I lashed out and slapped him for it. It did not feel good to me emotionally. And here are the points to consider when doing that.

First, punishment, by definition, reduces or eliminates unwanted behavior. The slap or the punch in the nose might work for that particular training session, but if the behavior continues during the next training sessions, then, by definition, the slap or the punch was not actually punishment. “What!?”, you say. “It wasn’t punishment? But I hit him! Wasn’t that punishment?” No, not by definition. Since the behavior continues, it wasn’t punishment.

So what to do? Hit harder? Longer? With something heavier? With a whip? Will that work? It might. But then what’s the fallout? What will happen in your horse’s mind when you start punishing him like that? Will he match your aggression with some of his? If he does match your aggression with his aggression, what you are you going to do next? Get even more violent? “Art ends where violence begins.” Sorry to say it, but the violence began when you hit back.

If you’re not allowed to hit back, then what do you do? What did I do when my horse bit me and I lashed out and hit him? The slap didn’t work. It might have suppressed the biting for that session, but, in the long term, it didn’t help at all. What helped, was my taking a long, hard, soul-searching look at how I trained. Were my food delivery mechanics up to snuff? How about my Rate of Reinforcement (RoR)? Was it high enough to keep him engaged? Was I training in a way to avoid frustration – both for me and for him? I guarantee you, that if you’re frustrated, so is your horse (or dog, bird, whatever).

What’s causing the frustration? Again, look at your mechanics of click timing, RoR, and food delivery mechanics. According to Bob Bailey (the last living direct connection to B.F. Skinner and the Brelands), 80% of trainer problems are caused by 1) Timing, 2), Criteria, and 3) Rate.

(If you don’t know who B.F. Skinner, Keller Breland, and Marian Breland Bailey and Bob Bailey are, then you need to do some research. These are the people who discovered and refined the use of operant conditioning.)

A good training plan should include identifying:

  • Timing: What to reinforce. Is your click well timed? Or are you off by just a bit, either too early or too late?
  • Criteria: What to reinforce and for how long to reinforce at one criterion before moving on. Are you clicking for only one criterion per session or are you all over the map? Did you raise your criteria too high too fast?
  • Rate of Reinforcement: Making it worthwhile for the animal. This is how fast you’re reinforcing behavior. A good rule of thumb is to try to deliver 10 treats in 90 seconds or less.

To these I would add: mechanics and planning.

  • Mechanics – I’ve already talked about those.
  • Planning – have you sat down and really spent some time thinking about what behavior you want and how you plan to get it?

If you are not getting the behavior you DO want or you are getting behavior you DON’T want, then it is up to you, as the “smarter” half in this equation, to take a look at your training skills.

Now back to specifically addressing mixing +R and +P. First off, you’re not really mixing them – you’re instantaneously switching from one to the other. And, in the process, totally confusing your horse. Are you to be trusted as his new, reliable, consistent best friend? Or are you some crazy being that could go off at any time? Which way would you like to be treated? Imagine having someone offer you a cookie and then punching you in the nose or slapping your face? Then doing it again and again. At what point would you decide that the cookie was not worth the effort or that you couldn’t trust that it was really going to be given to you? When would you shut down and walk away?

Peggy Hogan has many tips, especially safety and food delivery, available for download both in PDF and as a video on her website,, and she has a Facebook page where many thought-provoking discussions and education take place – Clicker Training Horses group page.

Alexandra Kurland ( has several books and DVDs for sale that cover all the basic topics, especially safety and food delivery. If you buy her “Riding with the Clicker” book, you can join her Yahoo! Discussion group, The Click That Teaches.

Shawna Corrin Karrasch also has info available on her site, Shawna Karrasch and On Target Training | Positive Reinforcement Clicker Training | Horse Training.

If you’re going to delve into CT for horses, please read up on it and research it so that you know what it’s all about and how to use it correctly.

Learn the science. Do the research.

I recently finished working in two five-day chicken workshops with Bob Bailey (see above).

Bob Bailey: "We believe trainers should invest time knowing their technology. We believe trainers should invest time developing skill at the training craft. We believe in what they are doing and how they are doing it!"

"We believe animal training should be:

“A science,
“A technology,
“A craft,
“An art.

“The better a trainer understands and practices science and technology, the better can be the trainer's art and craft.

“Animal training is a mechanical skill. Practice the mechanics without the animal first. Then introduce the animal and practice the mechanics some more.

“Animal training demands learning and applying information.

"OC (Operant Conditioning) is not about:

“Developing relationships or heirarches (please, no alpha rolling the chickens).

“Thoughts (Vulcan mind melds are not permitted.)

“Emotions (Emoting with a chicken will not get you behavior.)

“Tricks or gimmicks (We get behavior the hard way, we earn it!)”

If the animal gets frustrated, you've probably raised the criteria too high or lowered the rate of reinforcement too low.

One needs to completely understand each of the four quadrants AND know exactly how to use each one effectively, efficiently, AND HUMANELY! Bopping a horse on the nose is not humane! +P is not humane!

Bob Bailey, whom I just spent 10 days with, learning as much as I could, who spent 40 years training over 140 species of animals, did use all four quadrants, including +P, but he did THAT maybe a handful of times and always reluctantly.

If you have to resort to +P AT ALL, there is something wrong!

If you get frustrated, think about what the animal is feeling. If you're frustrated, I guarantee that the animal is too. Take a break. Think more. Be more creative. Write down a plan. A training plan includes identifying: Timing (when to reinforce), Criteria (what to reinforce and for how long to reinforce at one criteria before moving on), and Rate of Reinforcement (making it worthwhile for the animal).

There is a whole body of scientific research and data and experience in operant conditioning. It's simple in concept, but is complex in practice. Simplify whenever possible. Split as much as possible and then split some more.
jaydee and PunksTank like this.
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    07-29-2013, 04:58 PM
Super Moderator
^^^Great post
Back to lunge work and a bit off track re. CT
I don't go with the whole horse sees me as a horse thing as they aren't stupid they have eyes and senses - they know I'm not one of them - even though I do smell like one a lot of the time
I am human. I am weaker, I can't run as fast or kick and bite as hard therefore I have to use my brain to outsmart them - and the best way to do that is that they learn to rely on me, respect me. Trust me, want to be around me and make me happy.
I want a willing partner, not a bullied into submission one.
I don't worry at all about standing on one spot when I'm lunging (with or without the rein) As long as body language isn't too noisy, confusing or threatening then where you are shouldn't make that much difference once they've learnt to understand the verbal cues
I often walk or jog around when I have a horse cantering on the lunge or jumping poles on the lunge and then I might go back to the centre - they don't see it as some sign of me suddenly lacking dominance because its not a power battle
Hempfling works in much the same way and yet still has great respect from his horses
PunksTank likes this.
    07-29-2013, 05:54 PM
Lots of stuff to think about, and thank you for the incredibly detailed post. I still stand behind what I've said before, though, as it works for us. It's hard to explain what I do, but Flash is rarely, if ever, confused. And I agree with Jaydee - I don't think my horse sees me as a horse, but I do believe that there are certain ways that horses communicate and I would be silly not to use those.

What it comes down to is clear communication, and we have that (even on the few occasions when I resort to +P). I do not believe that every +P is harmful. Quite the contrary - there are times when it could be beneficial. It is true that the definition of punishment means that it extinguishes a behavior, and there are some cases where one or two +P has extinguished the behavior for us, and it was a more or less permanent learning experience. I never do anything that takes Flash anywhere near his threshold - he is always in an emotional state where he can focus on the message rather than his own nervousness or uncomfortableness. Even whenever I give him a "smack" on the nose, it's more or less just a tap that wakes him up and let him know I didn't like those teeth taking the treat out of my hand. He's not mouthy (we took care of that a LONG time ago when we first started training), and knows how he's supposed to take the treat, but can get a bit overeager for it sometimes. That tap is just a reminder that he needs to be careful, too. But the bottom line isn't that I'm doing what I think works - it actually does work. I know what works best for my horse, and, if that makes me not "pure" CT, then so be it. I still think CT is more effective than "traditional" training, but also think that other training methods have their merits and that the best results are achieved when you strategically take the good from each method.

I should also note that I do not "combine" or "switch instantaneously" between +P and -R. If there comes a case where +P is necessary (like demanding that Flash get out of my space!), he has adequate time to respond, have a release of +P (i.e. Pressure), continue responding correctly, and then get +R. And he licks his lips every time. I'm very clear about what I want. I can see how mixing signals could get confused for other people and their horses, but while I can't necessarily spell out exactly what we do and how it works, I understand operant conditioning, behavior, teaching, learning, and general theory and science well enough to adapt things on the fly and make adjustments when they don't work.

I must be doing something right as I can't remember the last time I had an unsuccessful, frustrating, or confusing training session for either of us. Flash is still as excited as ever to go work and has learned everything within a matter of 2-3 training sessions (broken into 5-10 minute mini-sessions over the course of an hour ish). And he respons with little to no pressure for all of our cues. What I do might not work for everyone, especially since I can't accurately describe exactly what we're doing over a forum anyway. But it works, and darn well I must say.
jaydee likes this.
    07-29-2013, 06:45 PM
I definitely think clicker training holds a purpose and the right time and place for it. I had trained a few years ago my gelding to fetch and do the spanish walk. All done through clicker training.
PunksTank likes this.
    07-31-2013, 02:51 PM
My2Geldings, that's fantastic!CT can be great for fun tricks like that, have you ever tried using it for more regular training things too? It looks like you do dressage (based on you profile pic) have you ever thought of using it to help with some of their skills with that? I think Shawna was mentioning at her clinic she had great success teaching horses those sorts of skills with CT - I'm not really a dressage person so wouldn't know how to go about it, but I figure with CT you can teach anything!
    07-31-2013, 04:30 PM
Super Moderator
Jillybean - thoughts are with you while your lovely horse is on his travels. I think seeing 3 of mine off at midnight on their epic journey from the UK to the US will always be one of my most traumatic moments and then not seeing them for a month ....................
On the punishment thing - it really does depend a lot on the horse. Mostly I can just growl or give a sharp 'oy' and that works. Honey is the most challenging and has to have a slap occasionally or she'd run all over you and not notice
The man I worked for years ago had a 'defensive mare' that had been abused, no way could you ever have hit that horse, she'd have killed you for sure. He literally cured her with love - and I would defy anyone who would say it couldn't be done as she went from evil to the sweetest thing on 4 legs.
PunksTank likes this.
    07-31-2013, 04:41 PM
Originally Posted by jaydee    
jillybean - thoughts are with you while your lovely horse is on his travels. I think seeing 3 of mine off at midnight on their epic journey from the UK to the US will always be one of my most traumatic moments and then not seeing them for a month ....................
On the punishment thing - it really does depend a lot on the horse. Mostly I can just growl or give a sharp 'oy' and that works. Honey is the most challenging and has to have a slap occasionally or she'd run all over you and not notice
The man I worked for years ago had a 'defensive mare' that had been abused, no way could you ever have hit that horse, she'd have killed you for sure. He literally cured her with love - and I would defy anyone who would say it couldn't be done as she went from evil to the sweetest thing on 4 legs.
Oh my goodness, at least my boy is only traveling one state away! (12 days until I see him again!) Though, there is a possibility I may be purchasing my future Tevis mount a little sooner than expected.... This little guy came up that has all the potential in the world and I'm being offered him for a great price because she wants to see him go to a great him with a job to do. Cross your fingers that the finances and husband's say in this purchase goes well! (he's considering it!)

I totally agree with you about it depending on the horse. Flash is *generally* very polite, but that's because he's very food motivated and he knows what he has to do to get his click and treat. However, he will test the boundaries occasionally just to see what he'll get, and it didn't hep that I failed to set clear and obvious ones. I'm clarifying and enforcing them consistently now, and once he knew what the boundary was and that I wasn't going to yeild them, he returned to being the polite, obedient boy that I know he is (better, actually, since he's learned something new!).
    07-31-2013, 04:54 PM
Super Moderator
Good luck with getting the new horse.
    08-03-2013, 09:45 PM
I've been working on some basic despooking things with Tank, I tied a bunch of empty plastic bottles to hay rope and jiggled it all about. I clicked and treated for calm curiosity. Within 4 minutes I was able to toss the plastic bottles up over her back and jiggling it on both sides of her.
I also worked with a tarp for the first time today, again rewarding calm curiosity. She did exceptionally well with the tarp on the ground, flapping it all around, then when it was small she could have it on her back. She walked all over it, and stood calmly while it blew around and was on her back. I'm going to work on it some more later, she was great but had a few times where she trotted off (she was at liberty) but always immediately came back.

How is everyone else doing?
    08-12-2013, 08:36 PM
So I've been working some more with all 3 of my own ponies! It's going great!
With Revel I'm just working on fun stuff he enjoys doing, he loves puzzles so I try to make things challenging for him. But this week I just rode him :) We went for a good gallop around the hay field

With my pony, Punk'n we've been working on his unmounted agility. He's getting the hang of jumping, learning he only gets his click if he actually jumps it instead of just trotting over it :P I think I need to make the jumps bigger, we made the originally for our minis.

And with Tank we're still working on despooking things, coming up with new things to get her used to, she's doing very well. If she actually reaches the point of spooking she only jumps a few steps away and is immediately back on the target. Each time she's staying closer and closer, but most often she's not spooking anymore!! She's jumped in confidence - I'm so proud of her. Her over all confidence is growing. So now we're working on her steering tackless, usually I use at least her halter with reins, but I wanted to see where my gaps were and got on tackless. My friend was nearby with a target in case she needed some 'hints' if she got stuck. She did exceptionally well! Here's us riding over a tarp

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