Monday, February 24, 2014

"Chunking" is a Great Work Ethic

Assign Specific Rewards to Each Item on Your To-Do List for Motivation

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"Chunking" is a plan that I used when I was teaching teenagers in a high school.  To get them to actually do homework assignments, I taught them to work in 15-minute bites, then give themselves a treat they'd decided on in advance to reward themselves for their efforts.  I ran the class that way to get them into the habit.  Eventually the 15 minutes would grow to 30, 45, and on up to a complete assignment in one try.  It worked for them, and it works for the rest of us and our horses, too.

The key is to know that there's a time limit--that whatever you're doing, no matter how noxious or unreasonable it seems, will only happen for a pre-determined period of time.  We can all get behind that, I'm sure.  Just this morning I got through the entire horse-feeding and barn-cleaning in -7 F weather by promising myself that if I wasn't done in an hour, I'd quit and have breakfast and finish in the afternoon when it would be a smidge warmer.  Fortunately the horses don't make as much mess in the cold--probably because they burn the hay for heat instead of processing it for my mucking pleasure--so an hour was more than enough.

There's not an animal of any species, human included, that looks forward gleefully to endless unpleasant activity.  We all do it if we have to, but not willingly.  Eventually, enough of that unwilling labor turns into anxiety and depression all around.  I recall with stunning clarity the first morning I woke up crying because my job at that time was so onerous (worse than stall mucking is a teaching job where you're guaranteed no progress and ample abuse every damn day) that I would have rather signed up for a daily colonoscopy than get my body to school.  I went every day because I also liked to eat and pay the rent.

Just so, the animals in our lives like having a job but also like feeling that their efforts are worthwhile and not endlessly unrewarding.  Zip, for instance, likes to jump and run poles and barrels.  He could live without dressage...totally.  As his manager and the human in charge, I get that there's a place for flat work and discipline in his training if only to get him fit all over and not just in the jumping and running body parts, so he knows that if we get through, say, ten minutes of warmup and one full Training Level test, he will get to run the poles, the barrels, and jump cross-rails immediately.  All of that is already set up in the ring, so he can see his reward in advance.  No, that's never going to do us any good in a dressage show, but we stopped showing long ago.  If I were to start up again, there would be some adjustments to the routine to expand the work time gradually and teach him to delay gratification until we're at least out of the dressage ring so he won't run over anyone.

Cliff assembling the new grill.  Note the
joy in his expression....not!  But there is a
reward on the table, so he keeps working.
 There's absolutely no rule, written or unwritten, that we need to punish ourselves or our animals with pointless effort and no reward. That's a guaranteed fail.  I've written before about positive and negative reinforcement vs. punishment, and unrewarding work is pure punishment.  Remember, we extinguish a behavior by not rewarding it.  You want your equine partner to stop walking willingly into the ring and giving you his all?  Just make him do it over, and over, and over without even the negative reward of an end to the work.  At very least he needs to know that if he does the job the way you've taught him, the job will end. That's his payoff, and that's how negative reinforcement works.  If he doesn't work or he balks or he does the Spanish Walk instead of halting at X, he knows he's going to have to do the job over until he gets it right.  Avoiding that is his reward.
I totally get behind the idea of rewarding
myself, as here my reward is visible.  I did
organize the parts of the grill first
and open all the boxes.
Yay, me!

I'm not a huge personal fan of housework, so I do it as quickly as possible and in the smallest chunks I can get away with.  Between chunks I drink coffee or read some email or play with the animals.  If I don't finish the job, however, next time I don't take a break.  I'm human.  I'm capable of self-abuse, crazy as that seems, and I use that ability.  Animals don't do that.  They're not programmed to feel shame and despair if they don't cover ever inch of their grazing area in a day.  And they don't feel those emotions when they don't do their best at whatever job we've given them, because little of what we ask actually makes any sense to a horse (or a dog, or a cat, or a neurotic cockatoo) no matter how we try to label it "natural".  So for them, the reward is everything.  Find your currency--what reward you're willing to work for--and use it.  Do the same with your family, friends, and animals.  You'll get a much better result than if you simply grind away and make them do the same.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stop Being a Jerk

How To Avoid Seeming Like an Arrogant, Know-it-all Jerk | LinkedIn

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Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, isn't the sort of writer I normally follow.  I went through a lengthy self-help period years ago and swore off when I found I couldn't keep the rules straight from one philosophy to the next.  But of late she's had some very good things to say to those of us who are having...ummmm...issues.  Last week I expanded on her post about people who complain but don't want help and why they do that.  This week she's speaking directly to me and people like me:  Arrogant, Know-it-all Jerks.

Okay, I don't really see myself that way, but I'll bet some of my friends would argue the point.  I know my faults in this area fairly well and was delighted to find such a perfect description of me in print.  Someone who knows cares!

I see my personal bugaboo as number 6.  It's not that I don't want to remember.  It's not that I don't care to remember.  It's that I'm talking faster than I'm thinking, and the details get lost in the stampede of information I'm so set on delivering.  I like to blame it on 25 years in the classroom where time limits and information dissemination were dire enemies of the learning state.  If it makes you feel more kindly towards me, I usually do go home and try very hard to remember what you said about your second cousin in Albuquerque.  I just don't have anything else to connect the information to to move it into my mid-term memory because I didn't give you enough time to talk.  And if I meet more than three people in a day, then forget it.  I take pictures of where I left my car (I wasn't joking, Zoe), so person number two is likely to be anonymous until someone else tells me his or her name again.  I would love it if everyone wore "Hi!  My Name Is:__________" badges 24/7.  It would be even better if there were some identifying info like "We met at the Monaco Hotel last September," but that's asking a bit much.  Just sayin'.  I used to put my high school students in seats in alphabetical order for a reason.

But, enough about me.  Back to you and your personal communication quirks....

The ability to communicate without seeming overbearing or obnoxious comes down to recognizing that the other person(s) in the convo are just as anxious to have their say as you are.  They want to be recognized for their expertise in whatever area they're most secure with, and they want everyone around them to note their existence in a meaningful way.  They're almost as human as you are.

I've written at length about "spheres of reality", and nowhere is this more evident than in shared communication.  To recap, each of us paints our world with the palette of our experiences, which are, by default, unique to us.  So while you're happily expounding on the subject at hand--let's say The Nit-Picking of Dressage Coaches--you feel as if you're the center of the small universe surrounding you.  You've got the floor, so it's all you.

But the thing to recognize is that every single person listening to you feels exactly the same way.  They are watching you, listening to your exposition, and filling the spaces with their own words that are going unsaid because it's your turn to talk.  But their thoughts and their internal dialog are preeminent for them despite your fascinating exposition and engaging manner (and cute shoes or nice outfit or kudos from someone higher up).  So it doesn't take much for your listeners to feel as if you're walking on their egos with your new custom tall boots.

This is a fault I've noted often in horse trainers and those horse people trying to sell their personal approach to interacting with equines and equids.  The Prime Directive of any kind of education is to start where the student is, no matter what his or her species.  If you come at your students, human and equine, with an above-it-all attitude, and if you start talking without first asking a few simple questions to gauge the thought process level and the engagement level of the students at hand, you've lost them before you've begun.  You have invalidated all of their experience that doesn't match precisely with yours...which means most of it.  Oh, you'll get the wide-eyed grin of recognition when you happen to touch on something that sounds familiar or feels right, but otherwise you're not going to be remembered for what you said so much as what you didn't do.

Dressage judge and clinician Linnea Seaman doing what she does
best.  One-on-one is hard to come by in clinics, but that's the only
way she rolls.  Here she discusses with my daughter something about
core and breathing...or maybe sweaters.  I really only remember what
she and I talked about, and that in great detail.

I've attended endless clinics and demonstrations by Big Name Trainers and almost as many seminars and workshops on self-improvement.  I remember about four.  I will forever be a fan of Richard Shrake's because he let those of us who had not brought horses to the clinic and signed up only to audit share, for a few brief exercises, the horses of those who had, and he talked to each of us individually.  It was a big group, so this was quite the exercise in compassion and patience on his part.  As a result, his lessons are engraved in my mind.  He found me where I was and put them there himself.

The same goes for a Curt Pate demo on colt-breaking.  Despite the size of the crowd (this was at an AQHA Regional Experience), he managed to make eye contact with each of us and allowed us to talk to him and ask questions.  Again, I'll remember his lessons far longer than I remembered the two-day clinic with Linda Tellington-Jones.  She started off great on the first night with a video of her using her TTouch on various animals, and she actually did let some of us ask questions, but not many.  The next full day, however, was full of her demo-ing and us watching without being able to verify our understanding of the lessons or get any sense that she was interested in our experience in the moment.  I remember her massaging a turtle, which was excessively cool.  Other than that, it's a blur of her on a horse with some sort of hula-hoop around its neck and no bridle.  The rest is long gone.

So whether you're a writer, a clinician, a trainer, or the perennial student, if there's no connection, it's the fault of the style of communication on both ends.  If you're not getting anything from the lesson, speak up!  Ask...demand...that your presence be acknowledged and that whoever is doing the talking gets that you can't understand something that you can't relate to.

By the way, your horse tells you that all the time.  You might want to consider giving him the same courtesy.

Ask, and Ye Shall Not Receive...Promise!

Do You Know Any “Help-Rejecting Complainers”? | LinkedIn

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Well, that would be a big YES!  Known them and been them.

Human nature being what it is, and human society sometimes running counter to that nature, it's not surprising that confusion is the end result.  How is it, one wonders, that someone who complains all the time never seems to be grateful for suggestions that might solve the problems at hand?

Simple.  Much of the time, people complain for two reasons:  a desire for attention or as a form of spit-balling ideas.

We aren't always really looking for help or information.  We could be making a questionable attempt at conversation.  Complaining, particularly about something that is a current source of general irritation to the majority of people, is a way to break the ice and to form alliances with a group.  It helps if the complainer has some actual understanding of that which is being tossed about coated with  negativity.  It's hard to come across as a viable clique member if it's overtly obvious that that's your goal.  But just acknowledging a shared problem can be sufficient to open doors and clear spots in cubbyholes.  Call it the "Me Too!" Effect.  You hate the weather?  Me too!  You are anti-whatever is currently out of vogue?  Me too!

This bond-building can quickly turn to bullying as cliqueing-up often leads to an Us vs. Them psychological crapfest with lots of hatred and bigotry as side dishes.  But much of the time it's harmless, painless, and a way of opening channels of communication in social settings.
Go ahead....make a helpful suggestion...I dare you!

Spit-balling--the tossing out of ideas to see which ones are good enough to stick-- is almost always interesting if not always fruitful.  Complaining and then opening the convo to the input of others can lead to some good learning experiences, even if all that's learned is that one's social circle is pretty much bereft of original thoughts.  But talking out a problem is, for most people, a very good way to clarify the details of the situation for oneself whether anyone else is interested or not.  Decades ago (two, I think) a study was done to determine the effectiveness of psychotherapy of the talking variety.  The subjects, college students, were selected based on their appearance at a college counselor's office.  If they were there, it could be presumed they had a problem.  They were divided into three groups.  The first actually talked to a therapist.  The second group went home and talked into a tape recorder.  The third just hung out with friends and got drunk or whatever passes for social interaction among college students, and presumably talked about their problems as a matter of course.

For my fellow psych nerds, more on the effectiveness of talk therapy here.

The group that made the biggest strides toward wellness was the one talking to themselves.  Just the act of verbalizing the problem forces the mind to sort the details and make sense of the whole.  That's a huge step toward solution.

Of course there are also the outliers.  They're the ones who are generally argumentative, suffer from Oppositional-Defiant Personality Disorder, or are in some other way unable to clearly sort the wheat from the corn.  They're recognizable by the shortage of other humans in their immediate area.

The answer to the question, then, is still yes.  We know them; we love them; we work with them; we are them.  At one point or another each of us has been in their position.  The key to not wanting to beat them about the head with a stick is understanding that simply talking about problems has a value for both the speaker who gets to put his gripes in order and the listener who might be facing similar problems.  If nothing else, they often give us the, "Wow!  Sucks to be him!" glow of superiority...until it's our turn.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Gain a Little, Gain a Lot






There's a lot to be said for the "slow and steady wins the race" philosophy.  We humans are aces at rushing to the finish line and arriving out of breath and cursing fate for causing us to miss our moment of glory by mere inches.  It takes a special kind of human to accept that it's the little gains along the way that make for the big finish at the end of the race.

This could not apply more directly to working with animals, regardless of breed (including Human), gender, size, or personality defects.  Possibly the two most important rules of animal training are the two most likely to be overlooked:

1.  Task Analysis is the ultimate cheat:  Break it Down, Fool!  It doesn't need to be so hard.

2.  Be careful what you teach because adding behaviors is a lot quicker and easier than extinguishing the ones we don't want.

Whenever I hear a fellow horseman whimpering about needing a new horse because "this one just doen't have the [brain power/attitude/talent/willingness] to learn what we need to know to move upward and onward," I know I'm listening to someone who does not have a clue about the core principles of learning.  That's not to say that every $500 hack horse is capable of 70-point canter pirouettes.  It is to say that most animals (and their human companions) are capable of more than they're already doing. They just need a bit of direction and understanding and less silliness and ego-involvement on the part of the teacher.

I was reminded of this while I was reading possibly the best dog training book of the year, Chaser:  Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, by John W. Pilley.  Enjoy the video below before we move on to what you're doing wrong.




Pilley describes the interesting results of letting his students at Wofford College, where he is Professor Emeritus, work with his dogs.  He is a brilliant theoretician of the psychology of learning, and he was quick to note that his students, responding appropriately to the challenge to give the dogs new behaviors connected to unusual cues, did exactly that...and that it can take months to extinguish an unwanted behavior.

So to teach a new behavior, we have to break down the desired end result into the steps it will take to achieve it.  He uses the example of teaching the dog to get food out of an overhead cabinet.  The dog had to be taught to grab a rope tied to a chair, drag the chair into position, climb on the chair, move from the chair to the counter, stand on his hind legs, reach up with both front paws on the cabinet door, open the door, get the treat.  That's a lot of steps, and each one required time and simple instruction.

So it is with teaching horses.  Of course once each behavior in the list has been accomplished to the level of earning a reward, it's cemented in place.  Animals are fans of food rewards, so that's the easiest and most effective reinforcement method.  But once that cement has hardened, if you decide that you're not so happy with the fact that your pet can now grab a rope and drag things around, getting rid of the behavior is a lot harder.  One cookie can buy his performance, but you may be in for days, weeks, even months of a ramp-up in demonstration of the behavior without a reward before he'll give it up.  Get used to the idea that you can't get angry during this time.  You set up the problem.  You need to live with the consequences.  At least it's unlikely that your horse will learn to unlatch car doors and climb inside as his dog did thanks to student enthusiasm.

If you've got a horse who is acting up, think really  hard about what you might have rewarded him for without noticing.  Think about what behaviors you thought were cute for a day or so and caused you to throw cookies and praise at him and that now are not useful for your continued progress in whatever sport you're engaged in.  Think about how you are the cause of the problem.  You are.  I promise.  If not you directly, then someone around you whose behavior has been unmonitored.  If those people are laughing and telling Bozo he's cute for eating their hair, you're going to be hard-pressed to get him to stop.  Task analysis:  Stop them first.

The key to all training is enjoyment.  If the trainer or the learner are not enjoying the process, then it's pointless and likely to be futile.  Watch the video above. Read the book.  Then go forth and enjoy!