Clicker Training Super Glue
Posted on March 29, 2018
Written By Alexandra Kurland
There’s always more to say! Here’s your bonus material for Podcast #3: Ending Well
You can listen to the audio via the soundcloud player or read it here in the Equiosity Library. Enjoy!
What Brings Someone To Clicker Training?
Science is what originally brought me to clicker training, but for many people that is not the principle draw. Yes, it is reassuring that others have thought about schedules of reinforcement, extinction bursts, positive reinforcement, etc. to develop current best practice, but what appeals to them is what grows out of using this work – namely a great relationship.
They see the connection others have with their clicker-trained horses. They see the enthusiasm, the joy, and the kindness. They see a relationship that is not built by showing the horse “who is boss”. Getting tougher, teaching respect, being the alpha, being dominant are all phrases that drop out of the vocabulary of clicker trainers. Our horses don’t just greet us at the gate. They ask us to stay a little longer at the end of the day for just one more game.
Science makes some people curious. Connection draws others in. In both cases people take a look and want to know more. They fill their pockets with treats and head out to the barn. That first clicker session hooks some. They see their horses light up, and there’s no going back. But others drop out.
It’s like fishing. Don’t worry about the ones who get away. Many of them will be back. They just need to dance around the edges of clicker training a bit longer. They need to watch a few more clips on youtube, read a few more articles, see their neighbor’s horse suddenly blossoming as a clicker horse. Or they may need to get that one horse who just can’t cope with traditional methods. When they “have tried everything”, they’ll be back for a second look.
Using Clicker Training
The early clicker lessons lead to people becoming active clicker users. Overtime they may evolve into what I would refer to as someone who is a clicker trainer. There is a difference. You can use clicker training without being a clicker trainer. People who use clicker training regard it as a tool, one of many they have in their overall “tool box”.
They might have a horse who is afraid of trailers. They’ll dust off their clicker and go to work. Once the horse is confidently loading, they’ll put away their clicker and treats and return to business as usual – whatever that means.
What Keeps People Interested in Clicker Training?
So the question is what is the glue? What makes someone do more than take that first look? What shifts someone from being simply curious about clicker training, to giving it a try, to becoming an active user, and eventually a clicker trainer? I think there are four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue.
The first component of clicker super glue is a love of science. I’ve already talked about this, but let me expand on it here. When I talk about a love of science I don’t mean someone who has read the chapter on learning theory in the psychology text book and memorized the four quadrants. Lots of people can give you the definitions of negative and positive punishment. That’s simply someone who has done a bit of reading.
A love of science is something more. It’s that curiosity that has you always asking the “why” questions. It’s wanting to know how things work. It’s never being satisfied with the “because that’s the way it’s done” answers.
Someone who is passionate about science is also passionate about history. You want to know what others before you have said in answer to those “why” questions. Where did our current ideas come from? Why do we use marker signals? Why do we call them bridging signals? Where did that term come from? What was meant by it, and is it still applicable?
“Just because” isn’t good enough. How do we test our ideas? How do we peel back the layers of confusion our words often create and look at what is really going on when we say antecedents set the occasion for behaviors which are controlled by consequences? Do you nod your head and passively write that down in your notes? Or do you want to dig down into those words to find out what those words really mean for your animals?
People who are passionate about science understand that what is understood today is not fixed in stone. As we learn more, our understandings change. In the sciences, as you test ideas and develop techniques that allow for more fine-tuned levels of exploration, ideas shift. Science is the perfect companion to training.
In both you will hear people saying: I used to follow this line of thought, but then the data showed me that this other was a better explanation/approach. It offered a more functional interpretation or way of handling the behavior I was seeing.
Nothing becomes entrenched because we are always asking those why questions.
Science alone is not enough. Think of it like the super glues that come in two separate tubes. Each tube by itself won’t hold anything together, but combine them, and you have a super glue that will last for years. By itself science creates an interest in training, but it doesn’t guarantee that someone will turn into what I mean by a clicker trainer.
One of the other super glue “tubes” is relationship. When I first went out to the barn with a clicker in my hand and treats in my pocket, I was curious. The scientist in me wanted to explore what sounded like an intriguing approach to training. There weren’t any other equine clicker trainers around to act as role models. I didn’t go out to the barn because I had been watching youtube videos showing me the amazing relationships people were developing with their horses. It was the science behind the training that made me take the first look. I kept going because that early exploration into clicker training so enriched the relationship I had with Peregrine.
I started sharing my early forays into clicker training with my clients. I remember asking one of them what she thought about clicker training. She said out of all the things I had shown her, it was her favorite. When I asked why, she said it was because of the relationship it created with her horse.
Two tubes aren’t enough to create clicker super glue. There is another element that I think is critical and that’s repertoire.
I’ve known many people who were excited to try clicker training. They introduced their horses to the target, and then they got stuck. What do you do with it? That was the question.
When I started with the clicker, Peregrine already knew a lot, but there were glitches and speed bumps throughout his training. Always the physical issues he had with his stifles got in the way. As a youngster, he was plagued by locking stifles. The stifle joint is equivalent to our knee. When Peregrine wanted to take a step forward, the tendons that ran over his knee cap wouldn’t always release. He’d try to move, and one or both of his hind legs just wouldn’t bend. He’d be stuck in place until they let go. On the ground backing usually unlocked his joints. Under saddle the solution he was more likely to find was a hard buck forward.
So you could say he was both very well trained, and at the same time very much a problem horse. On a good day he was a dream to ride, but when his stifles were locking up, he was a nightmare. His stifles had forced me to learn so much more about training, especially about ground work, just to be able to manage him safely on those bad days. On the good days, that same training produced some simply beautiful work.
Twenty-five years ago when Peregrine and I were first exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging. That was all they knew. You lunged your horse to get the “bucks out” so your horse was safe to ride.
Lunging was often crudely done. The horse ran around you on a circle, often out of balance, often pulling on your lunge line. It wasn’t fun for either of you, so if someone said: “we’re going to use the clicker to do ground work”, of course people ran for the hills! What was fun about ground work?
I’ve raised all my horses. Peregrine was a horse I bred. I raised his mother, and Robin came to me as a yearling, so ground work to me has always meant so much more than lunging. Ground work is the teaching of connection. Ground work means showing your horse how to get along with people. It includes basic manners and leading skills, but it’s so much more than that. For a young horse ground work includes long walks out to learn about the world. It includes walking through mud puddles and over wooden bridges, meeting the cows that live in the next field over, encountering joggers and bicycle riders. It means liberty training and in-hand work. It means learning about your body and gaining control over your balance so you can go up and down hills safely and one day carry a rider in comfort.
All this meant that after Peregrine was routinely touching a target, I wasn’t stuck. I had a rich and varied repertoire to work with. I began by reshaping everything I had ever taught him with the clicker. In so many places I could almost hear him say: “Oh THAT’S what you wanted! Why didn’t you say so before?”
Everything I had already taught him – the clicker made better. I began by using it as a piggy back tool, meaning I simply added it in to familiar lessons. I would ask Peregrine to rotate up into shoulder-in much as I had always asked him, and I would click and treat as he complied. It made him more willing, so it took less explaining on my part to get the desired response.
Reworking our existing repertoire got us a solid foot in the clicker door. It gave us lots to explore to get us started. When I’m introducing people to clicker training, I want to help them see all the many possibilities that exist in ground work. If you equate clicker training just with targeting, you may well get stuck. Your horse is touching a target. That was fun, but now what?
The “now what” is finding creative ways to use that targeting behavior. And it’s recognizing that there are many other shaping methods you can use.
It’s remembering that at one point your horse didn’t know how to pick up his feet for cleaning or to stand quietly while you put on his halter. Can you use the clicker to make those things better? Of course you can! While you are learning how clicker training works, you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
I like beginning with the “universals”, things we all do with our horses regardless of the type of riding we do. We all need to clean our horse’s feet, groom them, halter them, and, if we ride, bridle and saddle them. Clicker training can help you turn these everyday, ordinary tasks into something with real clicker flare.
Science, relationship, repertoire are all important. There’s one more component to our super glue and that’s persistence.
Training is not easy. It is not straight forward. It is certainly not a linear path where one success builds on another, and you never have another frustrating day ever again with your horse.
Training is about running up against a reaction you don’t understand and going off to have a proverbial cup of tea while you figure out a different way to approach the problem. You have to have persistence to weather these little storms of confusion. You have to have persistence to learn the handling skills that can make the difference between smooth-sailing success and a stormy ride.
You can understand the science inside and out, but your horse may still be turning his back and walking off the minute he sees you coming. Persistence keeps you in the game, scratching your head trying to figure out what to do next. What do you change? What do you add?
Persistence is what gets you to clinics and fills your bookshelves with training book after training book. It is what gets you to tie a lead rope to your fence rail so you can practice, practice, practice your rope handling skills before you ever go near your horse. And it is what takes you back out to the barn to see what your horse thinks of all the homework you’re doing on his behalf.
Put these four things together and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis. But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.
Using Clicker Training science, relationship, repertoire, persistence are the four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue. Put these four things together, and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis. But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.
This is not a judgement about who is technically the better trainer. You can be very skilled and consider yourself a user of clicker training, not a clicker trainer. These labels refer more to the mindset that you bring to training and the impact that this has on both your training choices and your learner.
It can also be a description of where you are in the learning process. No one starts out as a clicker trainer. We all start out by taking a look and seeing if it is of interest. Then we gradually move from seeing it as a tool, to seeing it more as the organizing framework for our training.
A great example of someone who actively uses clicker training – and uses it very well – but is not a clicker trainer would be Bob Bailey. Bob has had a long and very distinguished career as a trainer. In the fifties when open ocean work with dolphins was first being developed, he headed up the Navy’s training program. He moved on to become the Project Manager and later Vice President and General Manager of Animal Behavior Enterprises, the company founded by Marian and Keller Breland, two of B.F. Skinner’s graduate students. In the early 1990’s when the dog community discovered clicker training, people were hungry for teachers. They drew Bob out of retirement to give his now famous chicken training workshops.
Yes, you read that right – chicken training workshops. Bob used chickens to teach people the science upon which clicker training is based.
Bob will tell you he uses clicker training because it is the most efficient, effective training method he knows, but if he found something that worked better, he would change in a heartbeat. He is very much a user of clicker training. By his own self-labeling, he is not a clicker trainer.
In a completely different category, there are people who call themselves clicker trainers but whose understanding of what that means is light years away from what I mean. Yes, they may click and treat, but they also cling to the need to punish their animals. The dog gets a reward for sitting when he’s told to, but if he doesn’t sit fast enough – or worse – if he offers some other behavior, out come the corrections. Using a clicker most definitely does not make you a clicker trainer.
The Clicker Umbrella
When I talk about clicker training, I often refer to the image of a huge umbrella under which a wide variety of training methods and solutions fit. No one of these training strategies by itself defines clicker training. You might rely heavily on targeting, but that is only one of many training strategies. You could also use freeshaping or luring to form the behavior you want.
Pressure and release of pressure can fit comfortably under the umbrella. If I want to figure out the answer to a treasure hunt, clues are welcome. You’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder. That’s the function of pressure in a clicker world. The pressure is not escalated into a do-it-or-else threat. It is information only. It offers hints that help the learner get to the reinforcement faster.
If pressure remains at a level where it is information and never a threat, then even very traditional horse training techniques such as advance and retreat procedures can be modified and adapted to fit under my clicker umbrella.
So it isn’t the teaching strategy itself that determines if something fits under the clicker umbrella, but HOW it is used. That includes not just pressure and release of pressure, but even targeting and freeshaping. You can be using the tools of clicker training without really being a clicker trainer. What does all this mean? What is it that makes someone just a user of clicker training and not what I mean when I say someone is a clicker trainer?
Just Because You Can . . .
Ethics matter. Here the mantra becomes:
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Using a marker signal and treats, I could easily teach a horse to stay oriented between two targets. If I slowly raise the targets up higher and higher, I can get the horse to rear. With a little practice I could teach that horse to balance on his hind legs and walk the length of the arena.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Standing up on his hind legs like that can’t be good for the long term health of a horse’s hocks. I might be able to teach this kind of circus-trick behavior, but I can’t imagine ever doing so.
You could easily get a yearling to jump over large fences at liberty, but again just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The same considerations apply to older horses. Should you be asking a horse with arthritic hocks to work at speed or to travel long distances on a horse trailer? What we want and what our horses need are not always the same thing.
With the clicker you can train many things. It’s not enough that you are using positive reinforcement to get a job done. We need to consider not just HOW something is trained, but WHAT we are training.
There are lots of behaviors that look impressive, but they are hard on the individual. It may simply be that the people who are teaching them have not fully thought out what they are doing. They are still in the phase where they are excited by the behaviors they can train. They aren’t yet looking at the broader picture of the animal’s long-term welfare.
Experienced clicker trainers include a consideration of balance – both physical and emotional – in everything they train. They are looking at how the behavior benefits the animal now and in the future.
Good intentions are not enough. Just because you are using positive reinforcement does not mean your animal is having a positive learning experience. If you are fumbling around trying to get your treats out of your pocket, if your timing is off, or you are inconsistent in your criterion, your animal could be having a very frustrating time. Instead of being clear, you’re surfing a giant extinction wave that leaves a wake of confusion behind you.
To prevent this your learner needs you to have:
• the science to know how to create and carry out a shaping plan.
• the relationship to care about his emotional well-being.
• the repertoire to be adaptive to his learning needs.
• the persistence to develop your own good handling skills.
That’s what creates clicker super glue and a complete clicker trainer.
Written by Alexandra Kurland
These articles we are sharing with the podcasts are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:
and for detailed instruction theclickercentercourse.com