Saturday, February 21, 2009

Training . . . Who?

Days pass. Training continues. I video record some of our sessions. Naturally, it's never the ones where breakthroughs occur.

It took Angel two days to habituate to the camera on the lamp. Given a few more days, he probably would have learned to operate it himself. What he did not appear to learn was the cues and responses I planned to teach him. The whole "toy" thing went over just fine. He gets "toy". That's not new to him. But attempts at chaining "take toy", "get toy", and "give toy" resulted in what you will see in the video below. The first segment shows the bird in his natural state demonstrating the behaviors he is used to performing. The second is a brief training session. The third (assuming you last that long) is the result.

After this recorded session, frustration took over and I quit for several days. Of course, that's when latent learning happens, and so it did. The next time I approached Angel with the "take/give" thing, he did it perfectly. Just not on camera.

But yet another critter has twisted my brain. As I sat typing this morning, the Maine Coon cat, Tuft, followed his invariable path to my insanity. He watched me for a while, then went to the office door and meowed. Actually, being he's a Maine Coon, it was more of a gurgle, and the word "OUT" was fairly clear. Regardless, and recognizing that he would only want to be let back in shortly, I explained "Not now". So he escalated. The door to my office has a window with a shade which is always slightly open so that Tuft can check the weather while he weighs his in/out options. The pull is at his level. He batted it against the window until I let him out.

Not very exciting unless one notes how thoroughly he has trained me and what an apt student I am! The partly-opend shade, the series of cues, and my responses, I realized, are a daily routine that was not of my creation. Ha! Trainer I may not be, but trainee I most certainly am!

Hoping for better days.
Peace out.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Not-So-Smart Bird Chronicles

This is Angel. Angel is not a horse. Angel is a Goffin's Cockatoo with a brain the size of a walnut and a crush on me. I have owned Angel for almost his entire 24 years on this planet. He was six months old when, as the cheapest bird at the pet store, he was elected to replace the recently diseased and deceased Chicken Elizabeth, a blue-fronted Amazon parrot to which my daughter was attached.

Goffin's are not known for their speaking ability. In the wild (and trust me, they are wild), they are pest birds, ravaging crops and being shot at by farmers. Naturally, here in the US we are more than willing to fork over $300+ for the privilege of having one in residence in our homes. I often imagine farmers in Australia laughing when I'm shrieking back at this creature as he destroys my last nerve.

But, I digress.

In keeping with the current erratic series of posts, I intend to relate my efforts to train Angel to do something--anything--on command. Had I not become entranced by Alex and Me, Angel would be living La Vida Loco unimpaired. But entranced I am, and I will journal here my progress to date.

Day one: Discovered through trial that Angel's treat of choice is cooked asparagus tips. This does not bode well for the food reward part of the training process. Continued trials ferretted out a secondary favorite, chocolate ice cream from a specific Italian company. Considering a move to whips and chains and negative reinforcement.

Day two: Ran through the list of existing responses Angel has learned. He danced (both bee-bop and waltz), bowed, and gave me several hugs. We worked for a bit on "Shut UP!", but did not progress as quickly as I'd hoped. Enough for one session.

Day three: Angel has several wooden beads which he enjoys manipulating, so we started with a structured "Take" and "Give" pattern. I first attached the label, "toy", to all the wooden objects in his cage. Makes life easier. If everything is "toy", there is no strain on my limited creativity. Waited to catch Angel in the act of playing. When he picked up one of the wooden wheels, I congratulated him, then grasped it and asked him to "Give Toy". A brief tussle ensued. I got the toy. Again I congratulated him, and as I handed it back I said, "Take Toy". We did this several times until he actually released his grip on the toy when I asked for the "Give Toy". Quit while I'm ahead.

Day four: Basically a repeat of Day three. There will be no single-trial learning here.

Day five: It occurred to me that videotaping Angel's progress would be beneficial. I quickly determined that Angel, like many Trobriand Islanders, believes the camera will steal his creepy little soul. I managed four minutes of recording Angel staring blankly into the lens.

Day six: Approaching the video concept from a new angle, I attached the Flip Mino to the lamp shade opposite Angel's cage door and left it there. Angel spent approximately six hours objecting loudly to the presence of the Mino in his space. I have a headache now.

Day seven: Angel has begun to ignore the camera, so I turned it on and ran through his basic learned behaviors. As I was wearing a bathrobe and no makeup at the time, however, none of this video will see daylight.

This is where the training process stands. In Angel's defense, he does have several words and behaviors already. He is not mentally impaired, only emotionally disturbed. As we work, hopefully he will reach heights heretofore unknown in the world of Goffin's. Just wait, and watch the feathers fly!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Smart Horse Chronicles, continued

Zip has not, as yet, reached this point.

I didn't plan on posting again today. I've been accused of being an erratic blogger, and I wouldn't want to do anything to ruin that reputation. But Zip isn't done yet, and I feel compelled to let him have his day.

To recap, Zip is using the endless bad weather as an opportunity for sharing what he's learned that I didn't teach him. That I didn't know about. That I am not entirely happy with. Today's episode falls into that last category.

Many of the gates around the farm are kept closed by a chain that I've attached to the gate with a quick link and simply loop over the gatepost. The really important ones--the ones that keep the horses off the lawn and out of the woods and the neighbor's carrot patch, for instance--are securely latched with slide bolts or other horse-proof devices. But the unimportant ones have the chain arrangement that I adopted so I could open and close the gates from the back of a horse. Laziness is the Mother of Invention.

Yesterday, Zip informed me that he'd figured out how to chain verbal commands into new commands with new, chained behaviors attached. Very many "Wow!" moments ensued. Today I'd planned on spending more time with him as a participant observer. But it snowed. It got cold again, and little flakes came down to dampen my resolve. So instead, I had breakfast with a friend, then rushed home to throw the horses out before they had too much time to muck up their stalls. Zip was not pleased.

The usual routine would have the Big Spotted Horse walking out to the pasture without fanfare. The new routine has involved a lot of trick behavior on his part to elicit both cookies and delay of the inevitable on my part. So his first move after I opened by throwing the stall guard down and issuing the "get out of there" command was to not "get out of there", but to stand there and do tricks in his stall.

Ignored, he opted to walk to the tackroom door where he knows both the clicker and the cookies live. Ignored again, he gave up the game and headed on outside. Fear of not being first at the bale feeder is no longer a driving force for him, which has resulted in much slower responses to the "move your butt" cue on turnout.

I'd pretty much figured we were done for the morning, and closed the gate with both the looped chain over the post and the clipped chain lower down that keeps Duke from pushing the gate open just far enough to squeeze through. Zip waited till I was done with the latching business before he showed me his new leap of learning. Using his prehensile upper lip--a trick I'm pretty sure he learned from Rat when Zip was still an impressionable foal--Zip got under the chain and very neatly lifted. I didn't give him enough time to remove it entirely as this is not a behavior I care to reinforce. I've already had the thrill of finding Zip and Rat grazing their way around the outside of the fence perimeter, and it's not one I care to relive.

I petted him, told him he was wonderful, all the while gently pushing his nose away from the chain and the chain back onto the post. He smiled (yes, he did), then dropped his head and grabbed the lower chain with his lips.

He can't unlatch that, not because he can't figure it out, but because I cleverly position the clip on the inside of the gate where he can't reach it. But my startlement was none the less total by his demonstration that he knows about the chain, gets the concept, and if he was left to his own devices, could probably figure out how to completely unlatch and open that gate. I guarantee, this was not in our lesson plan at any time in the past 12 years.

Today, however, Zip was not alone in his exhibitionism, and that bears note as well. It's long been argued that horses do not learn from each other. I know they do. I've watched Zip learn to lick a particular spot on the wall outside his stall after meals after watching his mother in the next stall do it. I've also watched Dakota, who has had almost no trick-training at all, pick up a fork-shaped branchlet from the corner of his stall and use it to sweep the floor after having spent three years watching Zip being rewarded for that behavior. I've watched Duke pick up a wisk broom and follow behind me while I swept the aisle, sweeping as he went. You can't tell me they don't learn by imitation.

But Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder Horse has never shown a proclivity for such silliness. He came with two tricks--kisses and a semblance of a bow--and he's stuck to those for 12 years. Imagine my surprise when he turned on his way out and lipped the chain on the gate in imitation of Zip.

So the chronicle continues. The horses seem determined to demonstrate to me that they are smarter than I suspected. I'm sure they're not done yet. I only hope their demonstrations don't eventually lead to behaviors that will net them a Hollywood contract. I don't think I can handle being "Zip's Handler" for minimum cookies per hour.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Smart Horse Chronicles

Zip was a baby when I discovered the clicker business. In this photo, Zip, two, was working with a high school student from my English class who wanted to learn clicker training. In the twelve years since, the barn has taken on a festive atmosphere. Some days one might swear a horde of flamenco dancers have gone wild in my barn aisle.

Some horses are quick learners. Some are not. Some are reluctant. Some are afraid of the clicker. Some just aren't interested. Zip is a star.

I bring this up not to blow Zip's horn for him--though granted, he hasn't yet learned to do it for himself--but to report that in my ongoing study of equine behavior, a new wrinkle has appeared.

Now, anyone who's anyone in the animal biz knows that animals have smarts and can be trained to do all sorts of things. They are limited only by the short-sighted humans who pretend to be their trainers. I've taught Zip all sorts of skills from bowing to stretching his own little self after girthing up to line-dancing. He can fetch pretty much anything whether I want him to or not. The barn help has also taught him things, some of which I would prefer they hadn't, but some of which are immensely helpful. The whole sweeping with a broom thing, for instance, keeps his stall doormat shining, but also causes endless conflict over which of us gets to hold the muck fork when I'm trying to pick out his stall with him in it.

But there are also things he's taught himself. The day he showed me he could flip his feed bucket up in the air and catch it upside-down on his rump and on his head was a special moment that had me literally on the floor. It's been a while since he's freelanced, however, so yesterday he really took me by surprise.

It was a small thing, really, by some standards, but huge when you consider the leap of linguistic logic required to accomplish it.

I turn my herd out en mass--open the doors, and out they go. Open them again, and in they come. Another little training endeavor that proved fruitful. But there is always a moment at night turn-out when Zip, in his endless desire to say goodbye to me one more time, blocks the gate so one-eyed Pinky has to shuffle around and wait for clearance. That was the setting for last night's "moment".

I've worked with Zip on not standing on me probably more than any other behavior. So he doesn't. But not standing in the way of the gate was a concept we hadn't really discussed beyond my yelling, "Move your butt!" and cracking the longe whip to make my point. Yesterday Zip, bored, was craving attention, so he spent considerable time standing next to me hoping I'd tell him to do something. What I told him to do was "back off". That's not a cue he knows intact. He does know "back", which he does very well, and he knows "off", meaning as I walk towards him, he moves away from me without touching me but remaining at the same distance from my shoulder. It's a dog command I (but not my Siberian Husky) learned once upon an obedience class. Zip, cued, moved back away from me as I wandered from stall to stall opening the doors and letting the horses out. That, in itself, was surprising. Zip is not known for patience, and as herd leader, he tends to push the others around a little. For him to snap to and stand back was startling. We moved on.

Zip had already had his round of tricks and treats, and I'd sent him out the door, and he was lingering in his usual spot just outside the gate. I had to change Pinky's blanket for one that actually had all its straps intact, which I did with Pinky standing free in the barnyard while I took one off and went in search of another that fit him. All the while, Zip stood blocking the gate from the outside. When I had buckled the last buckle, I turned to Zip and said, "Back off!" And he did. He turned and walked three steps farther into the pasture. It was enough to allow Pinky to get through the gate untraumatized. I figured once is just lucky happenstance, so I tried it again. And again. And each time I said the magic words, he did what I asked. He backed off.

As I closed the gate, gushing kudos at my smart horse, he came to say goodbye one more time. No cookies involved, just a pat on the nose and my undying gratitude for reminding me that while we humans are obsessing on our little lives, the animals are watching, learning, and responding in ways we really need to appreciate.