Thursday, August 25, 2016

Clicker Training: A tool like any other

Mention clicker training and you'll often get a negative reaction.

"Doesn't that train the horse to bite?"

and "nothing you train that way is useful"

or "sure, you can train some TRICKS that way"

are all pretty common reactions to the clicker when I bring it out.

I use the clicker a LOT with ground manners, but ever since reading Karen Pryor's "Don't Shoot The Dog" I've been using it a lot more under saddle.

Can you spy the treat pouch and clicker here?
I love clicker training because it allows to me have a loud, adamant, and mutually agreed upon "Yes. That's it. That's it right there."

I have a lengthy discussion of dressage + clicker training that I'm going to bring out over the next few days, but I'll use the above gelding as an illustrative anecdote. His rider is a confident rider but she's quite small. He had a habit of bulling out over the shoulder and running away from jumps.

Now you can approach solving it in a lot of ways, so we first lowered the jumps, revisited what the outside rein means through serpentines and turns on the hindquarters, worked over trot poles, did some conditioning, checked saddle fit, gave him more time, used funneling placing poles... All of which helped. It really did.

But not to the point that I ever really felt he understood that his job was to go over the jump. Perhaps even that is too anthropomorphic. Those tools never got him to the point where he was consistently under stimulus control with jumping anything 2' or higher.

Until we introduced the clicker. A few sessions in the barn (less than five minutes) to get him familiar with the clicker as a bridge cue, then we threw the tool to the sharks, so to speak, and just clicked for jumping. We built a positive association with jumping.

Now I would argue he's a quite confident jumper, having shown at two facilities and schooled cross country without trouble.

There were other ways to accomplish this, yes. But this is how I went about it.

There are two sets of very important information that I'm going to steal directly from Pryor's book before I launch into my further discussions of clicker training and why I think positive reinforcement is an important tool to keep in mind.

First: 10 Laws of Shaping. (I feel that most of this applies to training using ANY method, so this is an important list.)
  1. Raise criteria in increments small enough that the subject always has a realistic chance for reinforcement.
  2. Train ONE aspect of any particular behavior at a time; don't try to shape for two criteria simultaneously. 
  3. During shaping, put the current level of response onto a variable schedule of reinforcement before adding or raising the criteria.
  4. When introducing a new criterion, or aspect of the behavioral skill, temporarily relax the old ones.
  5. Stay ahead of your subject; plan your shaping program completely so that if the subject makes sudden progress, you are aware of what to reinforce next.
  6. Don't change trainers in midstream; you can have several trainers per trainee, but stick to one shaper per behavior.
  7. If one shaping procedure is not eliciting progress, find another; there are as many ways to get behavior as there are trainers to think them up.
  8. Don't interrupt a training session gratuitously; that constitutes a punishment.
  9. If the behavior deteriorates, "go back to kindergarten"; quickly review the whole shaping process with a series of easily earned reinforcers.
  10. End each session on a high note, if possible, but in any case quit while you're ahead.
Phew! There's so much to unpack there that even typing it up inspires me to imagine a whole series of blog posts.

Second: 8 methods of eradicating behavior
  • Method 1: "Shoot the animal." (This definitely works. You will never have to deal with that particular behavior in that particular subject again.)
  • Method 2: Punishment. (Everybody's favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works.)
  • Method 3: Negative reinforcement. (Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.)
  • Method 4: Extinction; letting the behavior go away by itself.
  • Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. (This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners.)
  • Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer's most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behavior.) 
  • Method 7: "Shape the absence"; reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)
  • Method 8: Change the motivation. (This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.)

Pryor, Karen. Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training. New York: Bantam, 1999. Print.  

Do you have any familiarity with clicker training? Do you resonate with any of those methods of eradicating behavior? What about the guidelines for shaping behavior?


  1. thanks so much for sharing these lists Kate! i'm always so amazed at your studious nature and constant learning. that first list in particular really resonates with me, especially as it related to that little monster pony krimpet. and ESPECIALLY point #1.

    she is at heart a really good little pony - if you can put her in a good place and tell her she's a good girl when she is there, she will go back to that place again and again. but she's learned through negative reinforcement over time that her riders often aren't fair, and there really isn't a 'safe' or 'rewarding' place for her to go. so the moment you get crosswise of her (esp when she gets tired) she hits the eject button.

    but she's such a clear example (gotta love green horses for that haha) of how a simple structure like that 'shaping list' can work for horses, regardless of training method. (for the record, i've never personally tried clicker training but view it basically like you say: just like any other tool - useful when applied correctly)

    1. Mmmm "safe place to go" is something I have a drafted post on.

      Also thank you, that really means a lot to me.

  2. Always great to find another person that uses positive reinforcement! I also was introduced to it by Don't Shoot the Dog. I often keep my clicker training to myself because of all the negativity you mentioned. I think of it as my secret weapon. :)

    With my last horse Bodhi it was an instrumental tool in his ground work, backing, and then I always brought it out again when learning new things under saddle or on the ground. Yes we also learned fun tricks too because why not!

    During lessons with trainers I would keep a running log in my head of "how am I going to use clicker to shape this later?" People always commented on how quickly he learned, and how happy and easy to work with he was... and I would just say thank you and smile to myself.

    1. No kidding! It's such a powerful tool and I find it really helps the horses out in terms of being more playful about the training experience.

  3. I mist get this book, I want to introduce Kika to clicker training to dissuade her from pawing when tied as she is barefoot and just does herself a disservice by self-changing the shape of her hoof *sigh*

    1. You can also check out any of Alexandra Kurland's books, I'd say that "Don't Shoot The Dog" is MUCH more theory and Kurland writes about practical steps.

  4. I have never done clicker training with horses. However, about a year ago, I decided I was sick of having fights with Nilla about standing still at the mounting block. So I started giving her treats if she stood still. Now she stands still until I give her the treat and then we move off. I kinda felt/still feel like that was a cheat. But you know what, I have a mule who stands quietly while I mount even in weird places and from weird positions (like climbing a fence and then hopping on, etc). Now I am thinking I need to figure out how to train her to put her ears forward for pictures. If you have any advice for how to go about this, I'd love to hear. I do own a clicker from dog training, I've just never used it for horse training.

    1. I know people that have put ears forward on a cue. Totally doable :)

    2. Completely doable. I'll put together a video of me training one of the lesson horses for this - I'll pick one who doesn't know the clicker for better demonstration.

  5. I definitely think all of your studying helps make you a fantastic trainer :) I haven't done clicker training, but I definitely do treat training. I tend to stick with positive reinforcement and shape the absence

  6. The horse I used to own did not like to have his ears touched. I had a dog trainer friend help me to use clicker training to completely solve the problem! It was cool to watch and he learned really quickly with the click as a marker. I never thought to use it under saddle. I'm looking forward to reading more!