Ten Characteristics of Good Clicker Trainers: Part 6
In Part 5 I talked about the challenges that emotionally complex horses pose for their handlers. For these horses attention to details becomes essential. Not all horses confront us with such puzzles. Some, like Panda, the mini I trained to be a guide for the blind, are straight forward, and super easy to get along with.
I often say with horses like Panda you can skip the first two thirds of every training book – the parts that deal with emotional issues – and go straight to the fun stuff. If Panda had simply been a family pet, her training would have been very easy indeed. But Panda isn’t a family pet. She’s a working guide for her blind owner. Her training was complex because she is doing a complex job.
Having said that, training Panda to be a guide was not hard. All the tasks she performs can be broken down into simple steps. The key to her training was consistency. I knew there would never be a time when her blind handler would be able to see a curb or a partially open door. If Panda was going to be consistent in her job, I had to be consistent in her training. That meant that each and every time we came to a curb crossing or an open doorway we stopped. If I was running late and needed to dash into the post office before it closed, that didn’t matter. Being consistent meant we couldn’t cut across the parking lot. We had to track the edge just as a blind handler would. It might take longer, but I had to take the same route a blind handler would use.
Consistency is such a huge keys-to-the-kingdom part of training. Often when training issues arise it is because the handler has been inconsistent. So keeping things successful is in large part a function of being consistent. Panda stayed easy because her training didn’t confuse her. She was learning some very complex concepts, such as: go forward at a curb crossing when your handler asks you to – unless there is a car in motion that will cut across your path. In that case block your handler from going forward. Moving cars trump go forward cues. She learned these concepts within a framework that made sense. We ALWAYS stopped at curb crossings, at the top of stairs, at the entrance to buildings, etc. No exceptions. The click ALWAYS meant a reinforcer was coming. No exceptions. I have often said that if we trained our big horses with the same consistency and attention to details that I maintained with Panda, we’d all have superstar horses!