Goat Diaries Blog by Alexandra Kurland
I'm very much enjoying this clicker training blog and I'm learning a lot of good things. I haven't yet come across any "cringe-worthy" moments in regards to Alexandra's goat handling, but I can understand why so many people react negatively to the clicker training method. It seems like every time I read a clicker training article, I'm faced with passive-aggressive references to other training techniques or tools. This is a huge turn-off for people who have used other methods and equipment successfully. There is little or no appreciation for thousands of years of traditional training techniques even when clicker trainers use some of those same techniques or equipment. They try to explain it away like they're doing things differently even when they really aren't. Alexandra should make no apology for using a whip as a cueing tool or a lead rope as a directional aid. Just because a tool can be used inappropriately doesn't make it a bad tool. Making excuses about it or making passive-aggressive remarks about "other" training methods that also utilize this tool are not helpful and tend to turn people away from the entire method, which is a real shame because it has a lot to offer. 

I have a better understanding now why so many people encounter pitfalls with clicker training, and it's nothing against the method itself but the application of it. It takes very precise timing to reward the correct behavior, and it's important to go back and check to make sure you're actually reinforcing the behavior you think you are reinforcing. Last summer I briefly worked with a dangerously bad-mannered pony whose owner claimed he was trained in a "positive reinforcement-only" stable (whatever that means). This wasn't the first time I'd encountered unpleasant equines whose owners claimed they only ever used positive reinforcement. In fact, I have yet to meet any horses in real life who have been correctly trained through positive reinforcement-only methods, which tends to dampen one's view of the method. I've met two horses who were very aggressive, one that was terrified of everything, and one that is miserable to ride behind on the trail because he constantly stops to eat and then rushes to catch up to the horse in front of him while the owner never makes a move to correct him. Of course, I was not privy to any of the training that led up to my encounters with these horses, but I can tell from their behavior that they were not trained correctly by any method. 

There was a story in the blog I read yesterday about a pony named Nugget who came to the stable with atrocious manners. Coincidentally, Nugget was the name of the pony I met last summer who had become so aggressively dangerous that the owners could not go in the pen with him. He would charge them with teeth bared and he would turn to kick if anyone approached him. It looked like whoever was training him had inadvertently reinforced the wrong behavior. Perhaps they thought they were reinforcing a head-down movement when from the pony's perspective they were actually reinforcing an ears-back response. If the trainer isn't aware of everything that's going on and checking to make sure they are shaping the desired response, they may end up accidentally rewarding an unwanted behavior that then escalates when the pony doesn't get what he wants or is sold to someone who doesn't know better. The new owners were clueless to a horse's body language and only realized what was happening when it became dangerous. I could tell the pony's foundation was not correct. I'm sure appropriate clicker training could have worked Nugget through his issues. However, I am not a clicker trainer and I didn't want to make the same mistakes with Nugget that others had obviously made before me. So I used the same methods that have worked for horse trainers for thousands of years--a combination of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. It took me 30 minutes using traditional methods (NOT abuse, pain, or force--those aren't "traditional" methods) before little Nugget's attitude made an about-face. He was a pony in search of a leader and once he felt that I was in charge and trustworthy he suddenly became very pleasant and easy to work with. The owners told me no one had trimmed the pony's hooves in several months because he wouldn't allow his feet to be handled and had kicked people who tried. I walked over and picked up all four feet without any trouble or a single offer to kick. He put his ears back when I approached the first foot but then offered it willingly when he realized I wasn't going to be afraid of him. His ears stopped going back after that and he became noticeably more comfortable and relaxed. 

Unfortunately, many clicker training advocates will state here that the pony is being suppressed, shut down, traumatized, or forced to comply. But I never forced Nugget to do anything. I behaved like a leader--I didn't let him walk all over me as others had, and I respected his space and body language while also making sure he respected mine. We began communicating almost immediately and after that the rest was easy. Nugget wasn't a bad pony, but he'd been taught bad habits by people who didn't know better. When he realized that his aggressive displays wouldn't work on me, he quit trying them and quickly chose a pleasant approach to getting what he wanted. It's the same principle as clicker trainers use, only I started by using a whip to enforce my personal space with a pony I knew had attacked people. I never had to beat him with it or inflict pain in any way. Nugget liked his paddock fence and until then had been forcing humans to stay out of "his" space by keeping them on the other side of it. When I came in, I encroached on what he thought was "his" space and turned the tables by making him stay out of "mine" until he could enter it with a soft eye and kind attitude. He was a very quick study but was too smart for his beginner owners, and they were unable to overcome their own fears of him, so I encouraged them to sell him to someone more experienced before he regressed, especially since they didn't have the funds to pay for the amount of re-training Nugget required.   

I only tell this story to highlight why "positive reinforcement-only" training often gets a bad rap. It's because of people doing it incorrectly or incompletely with disastrous results. The woman who worked with my horse Jet during the clinic had stories to tell of horses she had trained that had transformed into man-eating sharks after she turned them over to their owners. (Incidentally, this woman had the body language and "presence" of a leader who commanded respect, unlike many owners who tend to take on a submissive, fearful, or bribing posture around their horses--something she never discussed but I noticed, and horses definitely notice!) She was warning her audience of the pitfalls of food-based training and how to avoid them. She even stated that "95%" of people who start clicker training will over-encourage enthusiasm, which of course is dangerous if not counter-balanced with calm, stillness, and patience. This is something Alexandra emphasizes in her goat diaries which I really appreciate. It's something I certainly need to work on with Sputnik. His over-eagerness tends to overwhelm him sometimes and he'll try a shotgun approach to getting rewarded, which means doing all his tricks and behaviors in quick succession when not asked to do even one of them. It's funny, but it's not what I want, and "frenzied" isn't a healthy frame of mind for him to be in. So reading these blogs is a good reminder to work on the quiet stuff and not just on the activity.  Smile

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RE: Goat Diaries Blog by Alexandra Kurland - by Nanno - 03-20-2018, 09:52 AM

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