Hard working horses?

I have been catching up on the Equiosity podcast, which is a collaboration between Alexandra Kurland and Dominique Day. In Episode 49, Alexandra tells a story from when her horse Robin was very young.

At the time, Alexandra had been working with Robin on many different things using clicker training. However, she had often been emphasizing the quality of the behavior. That is, her clicks were focused on moments when the behavior was precise and beautiful.

However, one day Alexandra realized that she couldn’t lead Robin without constant clicking. She was getting extraordinary performance from Robin, but she had very little duration. In the podcast, she tells how she used what she calls the 300 peck pigeon lesson to teach Robin to walk 300 steps for one click and treat.

I know a lot of clicker trainers who struggle with building duration. In addition, individuals who are new to clicker training are often concerned about the issue of duration. They wonder if they will have to keep clicking and treating every second for the rest of their animal’s life!

As I was listening to the episode, I was reminded of a B. F. Skinner quote that I really like. The quote comes from an essay called “The Technology of Teaching.”

A pigeon will continue to respond even though only one response in every hundred say, is reinforced, but it will not do so unless the contingencies have been programmed. A fresh pigeon is no more likely to peck a disk a hundred times than to pace a figure eight. The behavior is built up by reinforcing every response, then every other response, then every fifth response, and so on, waiting at each stage until the behavior is reasonably stable. Under careful programming pigeons have continued to respond when only every ten-thousandth response has been reinforced and this is certainly not the limit. An observer might say, for example, that the pigeon is “greatly interested in his work,” “industrious,” “remarkably tolerant to frustration,” “free from discouragement,” or “dedicated to his task.” These expressions are commonly applied to students who have had the benefit of similar programming, accidental or arranged.

Here is what I like about this quote:

1) Teaching duration is a shaping process.

We CAN teach long duration behaviors with positive reinforcement. However, if you teach your horse to back up one step, and then immediately expect him to back up 100 steps, you’re setting him up to fail.

Instead, you have to gradually build the behavior, just like you would shape any other response. So, you could first click for three steps, then five steps, then seven steps, and so on.

2) Be careful about labels.

People often call horses (and dogs, and people, and other animals…) “hard working” or “lazy” or use other labels to describe the animal’s performance. It is often assumed that these are innate characteristics.

However, what Dr. Skinner is saying in this quote is that these labels are a reflection of the animal’s training history and past experiences, NOT something the animal is born with.

So, if you want a “hard-working horse” who will perform for long periods of time, the question you should be asking is – “What training plans and training environments do I need in order to build long-duration behaviors?”

More ideas for building duration

If you don’t regularly listen to the Equiosity podcast, I recommend giving Episode 49 a listen, along with the following two episodes, which include an interview with Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz about schedules of reinforcement, rate of reinforcement, and intermittent reinforcement. Then after that, Episode 52 begins a panel discussion about building duration with Hannah Branigan, Cindy Martin, Jane Jackson, Michaela Hempen, and Mary Concannon.

If you still have questions about building duration and schedules of reinforcement after listening to these episodes, you can join the Equiosity webinar that Dr. Rosales-Ruiz will be doing with Alexandra and Dominique at the very end of this month. There are more details about it on the Equiosity website.

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