Over the past several weeks I’ve been sharing my article: “What is Clicker Training?”. There’s always more to be added, so let me do that with another article which again I’ll share in small installments. This one is called: “Ten Characteristics of Good Clicker Trainers”. This seems like a good subject to begin on Christmas.
Ten Characteristics of Good Clicker Trainers
By Alexandra Kurland
Simple and Easy aren’t Always the Same.
One of the things that appealed to me when I first started exploring clicker training was it’s simplicity. I always think about the proverbial elevator speech. How do you describe what you do in the time it takes to go up a couple of floors in an elevator? With some of the things I’ve studied, I’d need to trap the elevator between floors for a couple of hours to even begin to have someone understand what I was talking about. But clicker training is different. Once you’ve referenced B.F. Skinner and marine mammal training, people are at least in the right ballpark. They may not really know how the game is played, but at least they have some general idea of what you’re talking about. Then you add in the simple mantra: if you like it, you click and reinforce it. There, done. You’re on the third floor. You can get off now.
Except that brief description doesn’t really tell you very much. Like all good things that are worth studying, simple does not always mean easy. Lets tease apart that opening mantra. If you like it, click and reinforce it. What do you like? What behaviors are you going to train? And what aspect of the behavior are you going to click? It can sound so easy. I want my horse to back so I’ll click every time he takes a step back. That should work. The left front foot lifts up slightly – I’ll click that. The right front lifts slightly – click again. The left front picks up and then sets down again. Click that. The left front lifts forward to paw just before the horse shifts his weight back. Click. Four clicks for four very different behaviors. Some horses can handle this. Others can’t.
Go play the training game and find out what kind of “horse” you’d be. Would you go with the flow and figure out the answer in spite of your trainer’s handling errors? Or would you be the “horse” who becomes frustrated and confused when the criteria are not clear? Is it any wonder some of our horses become confused? It sounded so easy, just click when your horse backs, but your horse’s behavior may be telling you need to look a bit deeper into the equation.
So behavior – what does that mean? Are you selecting a single component out of a larger behavior, or are you focused too much on the end goal? And what are your goals? What do you want to teach?
And click – when, how often, for what? Reinforce – how often, with what?
Lots of questions pop out of even the simplest of equations. So let’s look at some of the things that make simple also easy. I’ll do this by looking at the characteristics that good clicker trainers have in common.
1.) Clicker trainers, regardless of the species they are working with, love their animals.
Now note: you can use clicker training as a procedural tool and have a very sterile view of animals. There are trainers who choose to use the techniques of clicker training because they are the most effective and efficient training method they have found. But they view the animals they work with as little more than tools. When I talk about someone being a clicker trainer, this is not what I mean.
You can also love animals deeply and not be a clicker trainer. We don’t have a monopoly on that particular claim. There are wonderful horse people out there who have no intention of ever giving clicker training a try, but who deeply love their horses.
Within the clicker community we can have different ideas about how a particular lesson should be trained, but those differences melt away in the face of our common love of horses. That deep caring for our horses and our concern for their welfare brings us head on into a collision with the first puzzle clicker training presents: what do we train?
Clicker training is incredibly powerful. We can easily teach horses behaviors that they would not on their own ever undertake. So the training mantra for this is: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
For example, just because you can use the clicker to teach your horse to jump, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Your horse may have soundness or conformational issues that make jumping problematic. Or he may simply be too young. I bought my young horse, Robin from a man who trained grand prix level jumpers. Robin was only a year old at the time, but the trainer still sent him at liberty over a full jump course. The jumps were high and the turns were tight. No horse Robin’s age should have been jumping anything like this course, but that’s how this trainer tested all the horses who came into his barn. I could hardly wait to get Robin’s young legs out of there. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Robin loved jumping. I think he was disappointed that the game didn’t continue in his new home. He even showed me how much he enjoyed jumping by springing over the paddock fence to come greet me every time I arrived at the barn! It would have been so easy to let him have his fun, but he had to wait a couple of years before jumping was officially reintroduced.
So even with some of the most common things people teach we need to be asking the “should we” question. Should we be asking our young horse to jump, our older horse to canter at speed, our arthritic horse to travel in a trailer, etc.? The answer to these questions isn’t always easy. What we want and what our horses need don’t always match up. Loving a horse can sometimes mean giving up what we thought were our goals. The good news is with clicker training what we can train often ends up being so much more fun than what we originally set out to do.
And very often when we tease a lesson apart into the small steps that are part of good clicker training we find ourselves not just back at our original goal, but surpassing it. Small steps shrink big ones into behaviors our horses can safely and easily handle.
Coming soon: Part 2