Clicker Training

Corinna, of SeaShe, asked me about clicker training, which I use for both my dogs and my horses.

Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning, the same sort of training that is used for marine mammals. The trainers of these mammals were faced with a problem: how do you train something that can just leave? Traditional methods based on force or pressure wouldn’t work. The trainers began rewarding the animals for their actions, increasing the likelihood of the behavior.

However, it can be awkward to reward a porpoise with a fish in the middle of a jump. Therefore, the trainers conditioned the animals to expect a reward when they heard a signal like a whistle. Porpoise jumps, hears whistle, and expects a fish. The whistle is called a bridge, since it acts as a bridge between the behavior and the reward.

In clicker training the bridge is a clicker, a little noise maker that can be held in the hand. The bridge solves a problem in using food rewards with enthusiastic animals that can weigh over one thousand pounds. While training the first behaviors with a horse, I continually reinforce the concept “under no circumstances will you get a reward unless you hear the click first.” Clicker trained horses become very polite about taking treats without mugging people for food. Not only does the click train the animal to expect a treat, but it indicates exactly what behavior is being rewarded.

After the initial introduction, I rarely use a mechanical clicker, because I condition my animals to work off a tongue click as a marker. Trying to ride, use a mechanical clicker, and treat can be a logistical challenge. I’ve ridden in howling windstorms and the horse can still hear my tongue click. I’ve also ridden clicker trained horses around other clicker trained horses, and they quickly figure out who is getting clicked.

After years of Hap spooking and bolting, which could be very wearing, I started clicker training in an effort to see if I could train calmness. You can’t train a negative, “don’t spook,” but you can train a positive, “pay attention to my requests.” It worked. I can’t recall the last time he spooked badly enough to shift his rider in the saddle. Right before I began clicker training him, he was good for at least one spook per session.

Clicker training also gave me the confidence to ride Hap with a bareback pad. Since he stops when he hears the click, I know that I can always stop him if I feel myself become unbalanced. Now I call my 16.2 hand horse the “best little bareback pony in Colorado.”

My most recent application was training my Collie to sleep on a protected area in my office. She has been having spay incontinence, and while we got her medication figured out, I still wanted to be able to allow her in the house. Since Lody was already clicker trained, it took no more than an hour or so for her to figure out where I wanted her to stay.


Dudley had a dream day this morning. Not only did he get to go for a car ride, when I picked up Jack who had dropped off the truck at Sears, but he went for a long walk in the Garden of the Gods. Then get got to visit his good friend Brody while I rode Lily. Then he got to go on another car ride to pick up Jack so we could transfer the truck from Sears to the dealer. They allowed him in the waiting room, which was very exciting. One of the mechanics thought he was a very cool dog, and was pointing him out to others. I tried to prevent Dudley from doing things which are very rude in human culture, but quite polite in canine culture. Dudley was still as keen to jump in the car the last ride as he was the first when we brought Jack home to pick up his car. I have never had such an enthusiastic dog for riding in the car.

Despite the heat, Lily and I had a good session. I kept things deliberately low key since it was so hot, and tried to figure out why she is consistently picking up the left lead over a pole on the ground. I don’t want her to do this when we are preparing to turn to the right after the jump, even if she will give me a beautiful flying change afterward to “fix” the lead. Since Lily is clicker-trained, I tried rewarding her for taking the right lead, but that approach only works if the horse is taking their leads randomly, so you can reward what you want. I tried asking her over the pole for the canter lead the way I would on the flat, and she still took the left. Finally, I left her alone, except for exageratedly weighting my outside stirrup, and she easily took the right lead. Allthough I could have sworn I was not off my center and influencing her, Lily obviously disagreed.

Afterward, we worked a small gymnastic with my trainer watching. Lily was turning too abruptly after the jump. I finally stopped looking myself for the turn until we were one stride from the turn, and Lily went into the corner and made the correct turn.

Putting the two problems and their solutions together, I think I discovered something key about Lily today. Hap, my eighteen year old Thoroughbred, was a bit of a locomotive, and required a lot of warning to stop and to turn. As soon as we came off a jump, I was already looking around for the next one and hoping we could get turned in time. Lily, though she isn’t much smaller than Hap, has a lot more finesse, much like my trainer’s old show hunter, Havoc. When I jumped Havoc, I learned that I couldn’t really look at the jump until I was ready for him to turn, or he would turn too abruptly and not make the nice square turns required in a show hunter. I became used to using my peripheral vision to locate the next jump. It looks like a skill I will have to relearn.

Vanity publishing

I didn’t like the way my personal photo looked on the sidebar, so I spent too much time today taking a self-protrait with more muted colors. When I originally read the documentation for the digital camera after I bought it last fall, I vaguely noticed it had a time lapse feature, so I dug out the manual and read about it. I found a place to set up a tripod, and then ran back and forth between the camera, chair and camera docking station until I got a photo that I liked. I felt very silly, but not enough to stop.

Anyway, this is what I look like: the only digital processing was to slightly lighten the photo in Paint Shop Pro since the original was a little dark. Digital photography brings a whole new slant to the concept of “unretouched” photography.

The Importance of the Interface

On her weblog Anita commented that I am writing longer posts here than I usually do in my weblog Coffee and Oranges. I had noticed this myself, though three days hardly seems enough to make a trend. For CaO, I write my entries into a text editor (a very nice one called NoteTabPro.) I then run a script that converts the more or less plain text into HTML, wraps the template around it, and ftps the results to my website host. I’ve been using this editor for years, and feel very comfortable with it, so I was surprised that my usual verbosity became more apparent when I started writing “Five Acres.”

I looked at the input screen for TypePad which is nice and clean (surely I can say that much, despite the Non Disclosure Agreement.) Then I looked at my editor which was ready with my weblog text file. The thing that immediately occurred to me is that the font sizes of the two applications are very different, with TypePad being much smaller. I fill up the screen in my editor a lot more quickly than I do the input box for TypePad. Filled up screen seems to equal time to post for me. I think there may be more involved, but have changed the font size of my editor to see if that makes a change in my behavior. In fact, as I wrote this post in Zempt, I found myself growing uncomfortable when I reached the bottom of its box.


Trying to see if Zempt works for me even though my primary interest in TypePad is to see if I prefer posting through a web interface.


After putting the image of the sunset silhouette in my other weblog this morning, I decided it would make a nice graphic for this weblog, so I used Paint Shop Pro to add the title, and changed the various settings of background and text colors to go along with it. Now the other graphic looks out of place, but I haven’t decided whether to move it down the list or remove it all together.

I feel as though I have spent more time playing with the design of this weblog than writing for it.

The weather was a relief today, with temperatures in the mid to high eighties instead of the nineties. I took advantage of the refreshing change to run errands.

I checked one thing off the guilt list today. The flies have been bad this year, and Lody tends to be particularly bothered by them. The flies cluster on the ends of her ears, which is disgusting enough. Even worse, their bites can turn her ears into a bloody mess. Dudley, in the same environment, has no problem with them. I discovered last summer that Swat, an insect repellent commonly used on horses, works like a charm, and finally bought some today. (Swat was recommended for Lody by our vet.) Fortunately, unlike the stuff I got from my trainer last year, the Swat that I bought today is clear, not pink. Pink ears on a tri-color collie was not a good look.

Too Hot

It is too hot to write, almost too hot to think. The upside of living in Colorado at 7200 feet is that you hardly ever need air conditioning. The downside is that you don’t have it for those few days each summer when you could use it. At least it cools off at night. I was wearing my red polar fleece robe for a while this morning, which seems like a remote fantasy now.

I did ride Lily today. She seemed a lot more enthusiastic about it than I was. However, we did have one first: the first time she did a flying change when I deliberately requested it. A flying change of lead is when the horse switches from one canter lead to the other. The canter is an asymmetrical gait, with the inside shoulder slightly in front of the outside shoulder, so when you change directions, you should change which shoulder leads. For less trained horses, this is done with a few steps of trot. For a trained horse, it should be done in one stride, almost like a child skipping.

After riding Lily, I helped do some clicker training with the school horses. I ended up working with one of the newest school horses, a fifteen year old Thoroughbred named Cappy. He is a little rude when being led, so I used the clicker to start tuning up his ground manners.

The high point of the afternoon was filling the hummingbird feeders. One hummingbird didn’t want to wait for me to fill it, and was drinking from the feeder as I held it. I managed to summon enough energy to fill the dishwasher as well. I felt a lot better about my lack of energy when I checked the thermometer and it was 86F inside the house.

From the north

I took this earlier in the season, and although things are still green, they are not this green. This photo of our house and adjacent acres was taken from the hill to the north of our property, and published earlier in my weblog, Coffee and Oranges.

First post

Such an undistinguished title. At times, I think that they ought to put such things as titles and subjects on the bottom of the screen, since I never know my subject until I am done.

It was tough choosing a title. However, I google’d Five Acres With a View and it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of conflicts. I also like Flying Changes but there are already some online sites with that name, even though there don’t seem to be any weblogs.

I spent the morning converting some more stuff on my website. I want all the pages to be compliant, and am glad that I already had most of the content separated out from the style. However, there are some things about the way I wrote my template program that are rather awkward, and I am trying to decide if I can design something fairly easy to fix the problem.

I went over to the barn after lunch, taking Dudley, and rode Lily. She was quite extraordinarily good for me. She has better brakes at six than Hap did at fourteen. This is quite reassuring when one is riding at the same time as a bunch of junior riders who are bareback on their ponies.