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The Great Clicker Training Experiment
 By Winniefield Park   •   2nd Sep 2013   •   3,869 views   •   0 comments
The Great Clicker Training ExperimentRecently, my mother asked me to give a clicker training demonstration at a horse camp she was running. I am not an expert on clicker training, but I'm always glad to share what I do know. The challenge was that I had four separate groups of six girls to work with and thirty minutes to spend with each group.

I planned to try clicker training a human, a dog named Spud and a horse. Each group would build upon the work of the last, with the goal of teaching each something new. I wanted to teach the humans the difference between positive and negative re-enforcement. Spud, we would try to teach to jump through a hoop. The horse, ideally, would learn to target by bumping its nose on my fancy soap bottle target.

Clicker training started with marine mammal trainers as a way to train animals that can't be trained in more traditional ways. Basically, clicker training rewards good behavior, and ignores unwanted behavior. A click, or other noise pinpoints when the animal performs the desired behavior, and is a bridge until you can reward them with a treat.

Horses learn to perform willingly with clicker training. It's not just for trick training. Horses can be taught to load onto a trailer, pick up their feet and other useful behaviors. Some trainers take clicker training to the saddle, using the clicker to mark the moment when the horse does things like pick up the correct lead and do difficult schooling movements.

To begin, a human trainee was chosen and told to leave the barn, so they wouldn't hear what behavior they'd be trained to do — like turn off a light switch or pick up a certain stable tool. A trainer was equipped with a clicker and a bag of jelly beans. The trainee was called back in, and the training began. Each time the trainee moved or acted in a way that got her closer to the desired behavior, she was clicked and rewarded with a jelly bean. It was somewhat like a game of 'hot or cold', and it was amazing how quickly the trainee learned.

Next, we put away the jelly beans and clicker and sent another trainee outside. This time, the task was to boo, hiss and deride the trainee every time they did something that didn't move them closer to the chosen behavior. With everyone jeering, the trainee quickly gave up or got frustrated. It was a good lesson on how we are motivated with positive reinforcement and discouraged by negative. We talked about how our four-legged friends might also respond to both types of reinforcement.

The Great Clicker Training Experiment

Next we got Spud. We started by 'loading the clicker'. That meant that we clicked and then gave the dog a yummy treat. We did this repeatedly until it became apparent through Spud's body language that he understood that click meant treat. We only worked with the dog a few minutes, because training sessions shouldn't be long, and Spud is very young.

Next we worked with the horse, a sweet, but largely un-handled Arabian mare. This little girl hadn't even been trained to lead or tie very well, and was a bit skittish when I brought her in. For safety, it's recommended that clicker training start over a stall door. This worked perfectly for the group and with that amazing Arabian intelligence, our equine trainee, got the 'click-treat' idea very quickly. Again, we kept the session very short, and left her to think about her discovery.

That ended my work with the first group of girls. The second group did much the same thing: experimenting with how positive and negative reinforcement felt and loading the clicker for Spud and the horse. The mare proved a more willing student than Spud, who was worried about his owner out in the arena and was picky about the food we were offering.

By the third group, I felt the mare was ready to learn about the target — a green soap bottle duct-taped to a broken whip handle. Being the curious sort, she sniffed the bottle, and her trainer gave her a click and then the treat. You could almost see the wheels in her brain working as she thought about what was happening. By the end of the third group of girls, the mare seemed to have made the connection: touch the bottle, get a click, get a treat. By the fourth group, it was obvious that the mare had 'got it'. She followed the target wherever we held it, and stood politely to receive her reward.

Spud was more difficult though. He clearly wasn't interested in being with us, and the food was not enough enticement. We ended up bribing him to walk through the hoop — a behavior which might have been too ambitious for our time frame. Which was a lesson in itself — little learning happens if you aren't motivated to learn, and you have to be patient, and break things down into easy to understand steps.

I felt my experiment was a success. We all had fun and learned a lot. I hope I have a chance to do it again some day.

Image Credit [Horse]: © Istomina Olena | Dreamstime.com
Image Credit [Dog]: © Daseaford | Dreamstime.com
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