Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Schedules of Reinforcement


Discussions about training--animals, humans, aliens, spouses--always come around to the idea of positive and negative reinforcement.   It's pretty much a given that most people understand that if the trainee does the right thing, whatever that might be, that s/he/it deserves to be rewarded.   Most folks don't get up and go to work in the morning unless there's something in it for them.  Yes, even volunteers get something for their trouble, usually in the form of satisfaction as defined in their personal story.

There are fine points that are often overlooked.  The schedule on which the reinforcement is delivered is critical to the success of the training or learning effort.  The article above explains all of the options in a clear and concise manner, so I highly recommend that you print out a copy and staple it to your partner's shirt for reference.  Or if you're training non-shirt-wearing animals, a copy tacked to the wall near your work space will do just fine.  Do it in a BIG font so you can see it from the floor where Fuzz Butt laid you out when you tried to explain the "give me your right hoof over here on your left side" behavior.  You won't want to screw up the schedule just because of a concussion or slight coma.

When you're starting a new training effort, it's imperative to have a specific goal in mind.  If you want Fluffy to move a particular body part, and he does something else, no matter how cute that other behavior might be, no reward should be forthcoming.  You have to focus as much as you want him to.

Of course, this is the point where I always bring up using a clicker or some other attention-grabbing device to indicate to the horse both 1) that training is about to occur, and 2) he did the thing you asked for at exactly the moment you clicked.  The payoff comes after the click.

First, though, you have to be sure you've trained the horse to understand that clicking has a meaning.  The simple way to do this is to walk up to him (leave him in his stall so he doesn't wander off, but be sure he can reach over the door or stall guard so you don't have to open the door to reward him), say his name, tell him something he's used to hearing like "Good boy!", then click followed by the specified reward.  I like food rewards.  My horses, cat, late dogs, partner, and child agree.  But do what you want that suits your belief system.  Research has clearly shown that food works best, but it's your trainee.  You'll come to that conclusion on your own when you find it's taken you six months to train him to lift his foot by rewarding him with glimpses of the Horse Illustrated centerfold.  Believe me, he'll only be lifting his foot to stomp it down on your toes so you'll leave him alone.
As you've read in the linked article, when you're trying to teach something new, rewarding the behavior every time it's offered will work best.  You don't need to fret over what happens while you're sleeping and he's in the pasture repeatedly lifting his foot.  He'll get over it.  He needs to connect your presence to the process anyway or it's not really a trained-in stimulus/response situation.  You stimulate with the cue you've chosen, and he responds.  Bingo Bango, the kid stops throwing his socks on the floor under the couch.  Yay!

Maxine, not entirely engaged in the training process.
Once you're getting a goodly number of correct responses, that's the time to cut back to fewer rewards and more repetitions required to earn them.  He'll be okay.  Don't feel bad for him.  Don't indulge in Guilt Cookie-ing.  Move on.

Now that he's got the picture about learning how to learn and what the deal is going to be, you can introduce other behaviors one at a time.  It's important to keep them separate at first until each behavior is thoroughly ingrained.  If you add too many at once--like trying to teach your dog to do the Boot Skootin' Boogie when he's only just figured out how not to pee on the floor--you'll just confuse him and, in turn, you'll get frustrated.  One step at a time.  Baby steps. That's the key to real training.

A trainer once told me that a horse has to repeat the behavior correctly at least 100 times before he can be considered trained in that behavior. And I can guarantee that on effort 101, he'll mess up.  Just start counting again.  The end result you're looking for is absolute recall of the behavior connected to the command.  So don't think that just because he got on the trailer three times in a row this afternoon he's trained to trailer load.  Nope.  Not even.  If he does it ten times in a row for ten days in a month, then again two months later, then you're on the road to his being trustworthy to load without incident.  Or pick up your son's socks off the floor.  Or whatever behavior floats your boat.

It's a little deceiving to watch demos at horse expos and gatherings. The clinician/trainer usually shows off his horse's skills then has some other person bring a horse in and do the same thing.  The result is often that the new horse seems to pick up the behavior miraculously quickly using the Big Name Trainer's method.  But unless his owner takes him home and can get the same behavior with the same cue 100 times without the BNT present, it's not real learning.  It's showmanship.  Party tricks.

Aim for the best, and you'll get it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

And the Survey Says....!

This Graphic Is a Rough Guide to Bad (Or Badly Reported) Science

I've dealt with this topic before, but there's been another flood of stuff that made my hair frizz, so I'm going to run through this again.  There's a lot to be said for research, surveys, and the folks who report on both.  A lot of what's to be said can't be said here without someone blocking me, so we'll just get to the grit of it all.

Thanks to the 24-news cycle, which was invented the day someone figured out that  that big test pattern on the TV screen after 10 PM wasn't making anyone richer, we are flooded with information all the time.  Much of it is of only vague interest, and there's research (ha!) that indicates that we're developing stress from Information Overload.  It's not that we know too much.  It's that there's too much being thrown at us all at once, and we're not catching even a smidge of the best of it.  Then we feel guilty because we don't know what anyone is talking about in the lunch room or at the barn or wherever we surround ourselves with chattering humans.  It's painful to be so ignorant and so full of information at the same time.

"Wait!  HOW many Paints does it take to screw in light bulb?"

The problem lies in several areas.

One flawed spot is the place where the information is being created.  As the great chart linked above indicates, not all research is created equal.  Some of it isn't even created worthy of noticing.  Any poll that you never heard of probably isn't a great resource.  My first thought when I read that 73% of Americans believe or don't believe or buy or don't buy or whatever something I mostly don't care about is "why didn't they ask me?"  No one called me to find out how I feel about anything at all.

They used to.  I answered the phone once and submitted to a survey about how I felt about something having to do with DEP rules, and for the next few months the phone rang constantly.  That's how it works.  Most surveys are by no means random.  That group got my unlisted number from a Dept. of Ag form, so already I was in a select group of folks who live on agricultural land and actually bother to fill out forms.  If that's random, I'm a flounder.

Then from that list of the hundred or so they probably called, I was one of the ones willing to talk on the phone to a stranger (things get a little dull around here during the winter) for 20 minutes.  That brings the "N" (statistics talk for "number of subjects") down to probably three.  Of the three, maybe two of us had the same answers.  The resulting report would say 66% of farmers think the DEP is run by a gay Chinese conglomerate or whatever.

The same goes for any kind of research.  If you're going to read the news, you're going to have to learn to suss out the factoids amid the crapola.  The headline may scream that "X% of Humans are Living on the Edge!"  The fact may be that somewhere someone talked to a group of people and delivered a consensus and extrapolated from that to the world at large.

Nothing says "nonsense" like a headline that's designed to be scary.  Scary headlines exist to draw readers, not to deliver real, useful information.  That's the second flaw in this program.  But we all know how to change channels or websites or RSS feeds, so learn to be discriminating and that flaw will eventually vanish.

I'm not about to put down the hard work done by researchers in the field of equine science and veterinary medicine.  But before I fall prostrate at the thought that the feed I'm using is killing my animals, I first want to see the actual research study.  I want to see the "N".  If it's not at least triple-digit strong, I'm going to add a handful of salt.

Next I want to know how those N horses were chosen.  Were they all from one farm?  One county?  One vet practice?  One university?  If not, where did they come from?  It's obvious that a vet practice that specializes in a particular breed and has a preponderance of a specific illness or injury showing up isn't going to have an "N" that is representative of the entirety of the horse world.

And I want to know how the study was constructed.  Was there a control group of horses just standing around swatting flies, or were all the subjects part of the test group?  How did the researchers control for individual differences? And most importantly, when they reported the results did they indicate the possible degree of variation from the norm (that shows up as a + or - number, preferably in decimals, and called "standard deviation")?  Or did they just throw the whole thing together like a sophomore's midterm paper and hope no one would ask questions?

It's up to the reader and consumer to determine for himself the validity of the reports.  If no one else has tried to repeat the research, then it's hard to say how valid it might or might not be.  If you can, before you leap, look for studies that have been replicated ad nauseum.  The more times the same results are found, the closer to real the results are.

Be a knowledgeable consumer.  You are your only hope.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Boomers losing our Boom


If there's any doubt in your mind that the aging of America is having an effect across the board, the census results should pretty much put that to bed.  Oh, we're not in any way the be all and end all in terms of population dynamics, but we Boomers--born between 1946 and 1964--make up 20% of the native-born population of this country, so you know that's going to mean something to the economy overall and the horse biz specifically.

My latest Boomer-friendlyfind--the Rhino Pick Brush.
The handle and leverage on this baby are perfect for those of us
who are suffering from athritis, and the
big-ass brush works like a champ to get the dirt out
of cracks and crevices...and our horses' hooves, too.

We're old.  We're retiring.  We're not in any condition to carry the torch forward any father than the nearest Starbucks.  So hard as it is to swallow, we're going to stop being so terribly important in the immediate future, and our progeny is going to be stuck dealing with the aftermath of our having existed at all.  Thanks to our incredibly horny post-war parents, we're leaving a pile of unfinished business and fewer and fewer people to handle it.

If you click the census link and look at the graphs, you can see that we aren't actually reducing the overall population of the US with our passing.  Our spot on the charts is being filled by immigrants fairly quickly.  So the workforce isn't going to suffer nearly as much as one might suspect.  We'll retire, move to warmer climes, and, finally, die, but there will be others to take our places.
The younger horsemen who will take on our burden
seem happily unaware of what we've done to them.  Yay!
I'd hate to have this group of NJ cowboys gunning for me.

What's lacking is the financing to continue the bizarre lifestyle we've created.  We were raised to be self-indulgent, and we've mastered that job with great enthusiasm.  Our parents wanted the best for us.  Many of them were immigrants, and they worked hard to see to it that our lives were better than theirs.  They instilled in us a desire to succeed and the equation of income and accumulation of stuff as the benchmark for success.

In their happy world, they saw us as moving the whole planet forward and bringing brilliance and wealth with us.  They weren't entirely sane.

The reality is that, while we did succeed in massive numbers, we didn't do a great job of shoring up the underpinnings of this society so that our children would have an equal shot at our parents' version of success.  It stands to reason that eventually there's a cap on Up.  We minted money and encouraged the production of things that future generations have little hope of ever accumulating for themselves.

The horse world has been in the throes of this change for a decade now.  The early

My Boomer butt riding out of frame, as it should be at this stage....
Boomers hit 65 in 2001, and hard as they (we) tried, it simply isn't always possible for folks in their mid-to-late 60's to keep on keeping on.  We continued to buy horses, ride horses, fall off horses, try to get our kids interested in our horses so we wouldn't have to sell them...and we did the best we could.  But it's not enough.

What would be best right now for the horse world and US society as a whole would be for us Boomers to back off a bit.  I'd like to see us pass on our collective wisdom to the next generations, but beyond that we need to stop making decisions that will affect lives long after we're gone.  We're a very controlling bunch, so this isn't going to be easy.

It's time for us to drop the interventionist attitude that made us Kings of the Universe and start thinking clearly about our legacy.  We really are not going to live forever, but our choices very well might.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

YOLO? Maybe not the best mantra

Do You Fall in the "You Only Live Once" Trap? Or, Fake Self-Actualization | LinkedIn

If you find yourself throwing caution to the wind more often lately, you might want to rethink your approach to decision-making.  The "YOLO" tag is ubiquitous these days, appended to every sort of bizarre announcement conceivable.  It's become a rallying cry and an indication of enlightened interest in experiential activity.

And it's a fabulous excuse.

By shouting your intention to risk everything, you cover you bases on the finer points of making good, rational, useful decisions.  How cool is that?  Not very when you're dealing with horses.  Humans enjoy the occasional titillation that comes with flaunting bad behavior in the face of the Sanity Rule Book.  Horses not so much.  You can whip your cohort into a frenzy of idiocy by concocting a stunt-to-beat-all stunt.  Your horse feels the elevated pulse, hears your heavy breathing, feels your clenched butt muscles as you steer him toward that 50-foot cliff, but he's not thinking, YOLO, Suckers!  He's wondering what is going to happen next and how best to get out of this predicament.  Horses are about self-preservation above all.  So when he veers quickly or stops completely and sends your enthusiasm into the dirt, it's not unexpected.  And trying things that are obviously dangerous are not a sign of bravery.  It's important not to let fear stand in the way of your activities as long as the fear isn't reality-based.  Non-reality-based fear is called paranoia, and it's not helpful either.  But a nice dose of the real world is always a plus.

Risk-taking in adolescents has been studied at length, and there is a consensus that, for the most part, it is a learning experience.  Without taking risks, we never go beyond the current level of performance, progress, or knowledge.  So when your teen decides to sneak a drink with his buddies behind the library one Wednesday night, he's testing the limits of his ability to cope, and his ability to lie with a straight face while under the influence.  He's also testing several other limits including your sense of smell and the cop's sense of humor.
"Hey!  Let me drive, okay?  What could possibly go wrong?"

But there is a point at which risk-taking leaves the arena of Fun Ways to Drive Parents Crazy and enters the Knocking on Death's Door part of the show.  There's a fine line.  Freud called it the inevitable outcome of the human drive toward death.  I am not sure Freud wasn't a little depressed.  More often than not, risk-taking is a result of a lack of experience.  What appears to be irrational behavior is actually behavior based on ignorance.  Not stupidity, just the inability to predict the outcome due to a lack of knowledge surrounding the situation.

Learning is incremental.  It takes time and small steps of achievement to really seal a skill into your mind and body.  You're not going to learn it all at once even as you're watching the ground open beneath you.  You'll still have to do it over and over (and over again) until you've actually learned it, and the closer to the endpoint you start, the less chance there is that you'll reach mastery before you hit disaster.  It's numbers, baby.  It's just the odds.  And it's the same for you and for your horse.

In the horse world, ignorance probably accounts for most of the risky behavior, especially in new riders and first-time horse owners.  You don't know what you don't know, and sometimes finding out is painful and injurious to body and spirit.  Add a friend, coach, or trainer who is in full YOLO flush yelling encouragement from the sidelines, and there, in a nutshell, is why the insurance companies wanted to label riding an "extreme sport" so they could refuse compensation.

I don't know who the first person was to hop aboard a horse.  I can't even imagine the thought process that led to that.  Kind of like the toad-licking frenzy of decades past.  Who thinks of this stuff?  If climbing on an animal big enough to do serious damage without even trying isn't risky, I don't know what is.  But we don't have to endlessly repeat the effort by continually putting ourselves and our horses into untenable circumstances just to see if we can find a way out.

I also don't know who was first to spend the mortgage checks on an unaffordable hobby, but I'll bet he was yelling something akin to "YOLO!" as he did it.

It is true that you only live once.  If you'd like to live to ride another day, finding sane counselors and learning the basics before you start whatever the new project might be couldn't hurt.  Remember that you are not only putting yourself at risk.  You are risking the life and limb of an animal who most likely didn't get a vote.  Should the worst happen for him, he may wind up at the end of the needle that sends him away from the pain.  For you, the worst might easily be laid on the shoulders of whoever is going to be wiping your butt and clearing your feeding tube far into the future.

So before you yell "YOLO!" and head off into the unknown, be sure you've got some idea of how you intend to move forward after the excitement has worn off.  Keep some of that caution close to you instead of tossing all of it into the wind, and you'll live to ride another day.

Remember, you only live once.