Alexandra Kurland and Loopy Training

At the Art and Science of Animal Training conference this year Alexandra Kurland spoke about loopy training, which is a concept she has been developing over the past year. Loopy training was the focus of a clinic I did with Alexandra Kurland last fall. The more I hear about it, the more it makes sense and the more I’m able to see how to apply it to make me a better trainer. This post is a combination of my notes from the conference and from the fall 2009 Alvin clinic.

The great thing about loopy training is that you’re probably already using it! However, the loopy training model gives us a clear framework to look at training. Loopy training helps us see what makes great training great and helps us figure out what’s going on when problems occur. If we can formalize and name concepts (such as the loopy training concept), it makes the training process more deliberate, simpler to teach and easier to discuss and assess.

Basics of Good Training (just so we’re all on the same page!)

Animal training (as Bob Bailey often says) is a mechanical skill. We shouldn’t let poor mechanics get in the way of good training. Alexandra Kurland shared three things that contribute to great training:

  • Clear, well, defined criteria
  • Great timing
  • High rates of reinforcement

In addition, good training requires that we are splitters, not lumpers. Being a splitter means that when teaching, we break down behaviors into small enough pieces so that the animal can be successful.

Alexandra Kurland talked some about poisoned cues, which can occur when we combine positive reinforcement with negative reinforcement. (I’m going to save poisoned cues for another post in an effort to keep this one a reasonable length!) Basically, though, when we use aversives or when we use negative reinforcement poorly, the emotional effects linger long after the use of corrections has stopped. Clicker training can bypass the poisoned cue effect by retraining old behaviors in new ways.

We want happy, exuberant, eager to please animals and this is what we usually see when training with positive reinforcement. It’s important to retrain familiar behaviors even if the horse already “knows that” because these simple behaviors become anchor behaviors as we build more complex behaviors and loops. If we build a strong foundation, cues for simple behaviors can be used to reinforce and build more complex behaviors.

By now you’re wondering…what the heck is loopy training?

We generally think of behavior using the following model:

Cue –> Behavior –> Click –> Deliver Reinforcer

However, this is too simple of a model. This is how training really looks:

Cue –> Behavior –> Click –> Deliver Reinforcer –> Cue –> Behavior –> Click –> Deliver Reinforcer –> Cue –> Behavior –> Click –> Deliver Reinforcer –> Cue –> Behavior –> Click –> Deliver Reinforcer

Behaviors and training happens as a LOOP, rather than as a single instance in time. Also, although we might be thinking only of the cue we’re giving and the behavior we want to reinforce, there’s actually a lot more behavior going on! The goal in training is to create clean loops.

A clean loop will have the following features:

  • No unwanted behaviors in the loop
  • Animal performs all elements smoothly
  • Behaviors in the loop are performed with no hesitation

The framework of loopy training emphasizes that all elements in a loop need to be clean, both before and after the click. If you have a clean loop, you can (and should!) move on. If you have a behavior loop that stays messy and does not seem to be getting cleaner, reassess your training. Are you asking for too much? Have you skipped a step? How can you better motivate your horse or improve communication?

The Click as a Cue

The click serves several different functions and ends up getting called all sorts of different names, a marker signal, a yes answer signal, a conditioned reinforcer, a bridging signal, a highlighter.

Most importantly, the clicker, if used properly, functions as a cue, or a green light for earning reinforcement. This idea came out of a research project at the University of North Texas. In that study, the trainer had a nice clean loop with a dog touching a target across the room. She delivered treats by tossing them into a bowl at her feet. However, in order to increase precision, she changed from tossing the treats to dropping them down a piece of PVC pipe.

Her clean loop fell apart completely. After the click and food delivery, the dog stopped, looked at her, paused and then repeated the behavior. The dog made several more attempts and looked quite frustrated before giving up all together! In this situation, the click was serving as a cue to look at the handler and watch for the toss and landing of the food. The dog stopped and looked, but because of the new PVC pipe, no toss happened. The poor confused dog had no idea what was going on.

Feeding skills and food delivery are essential for good training! The animal must know when and how food is delivered and must be able to collect the food promptly, efficiently and safely. We can have different ways of delivering food (tossing on the ground, tossing to the animal, giving to the animal, etc.) but we must train each and make sure the food delivery part of the loop is always clean. When horses mug for treats, it often indicates that either they have not been taught proper manners and self control around food or that our food delivery is inefficient or clumsy.

Inefficient, awkward or clumsy food delivery will break down the smooth flow of the loop. I watched a DVD last semester where the trainer was delivering food by tossing it on the floor. The dog did not know how to watch the throw and find the food. So, there was lots of extra sniffing and searching behavior and the pace of the training was often interrupted. The trainer eventually got the behavior, but the process was neither efficient, nor elegant.

What are your foundation lessons?

Good training starts with small chunks. If we can get small, clean chunks of behavior then it is easy to start combining  to get more complex patterns.

Once we have clean loops for at least two to three behaviors its easy to start mixing and matching. Having a clean loop does not mean the behavior is perfect, it just means the cycle is fluid without any unwanted behavior. Once we build an inventory of simple loops we can start on more complicated loops. Importantly, we can also use the cues and behaviors in our simple loops to reinforce other behaviors we are working on.

Alexandra has six basic foundation lessons she teaches her horses. This is a way to introduce the horse to training and start building some simple loops. The foundation lessons she selects are important because they teach behaviors related to self control and safety, as well as being behaviors that can be expanded later to teach all sorts of other behaviors.

Having organized foundation lessons means that you have a plan for training. You understand what skills are essential to teach the animal early on and you recognize how these skills can be combined or developed to teach more advanced behaviors. Foundations skills are like loops. Very likely, you already use them, but you’ve never formalized them.

So I have a clean loop, now what?

Here’s a nice simple loop that you might see in horse training (or dog training):

cue –> horse backs up several steps –> click –> deliver reinforcer –> cue –> horse backs up several steps –> click –> deliver reinforcer –> cue –> and so on!

How can we use this to our advantage in training?

In our loopy model, cues serve a double function. A cue can:

  1. 1. Tell the animal what next behavior will earn reinforcement.
  2. 2. Reinforce whatever behavior occurred previously.

So, later on we might have:

cue 1 –> horse backs up several steps –> cue 2–> horse lowers her head–> click –> deliver reinforcer –> cue 1 –> horse backs up several steps –> cue 2 –> horse lovers her head –> click –> deliver reinforcer –> cue 1 –> and so on!

If both behaviors started out as clean loops, we can easily combine them into a larger loop. More importantly, we can use the cue for head lowering to reinforce really good backing up. So, we ask for the horse to back up. When we get several really good steps of backing up, we ask for head lowering. Since the head lowering cue signals a chance to earn reinforcement, the cue itself will reinforce good backing up.

As the animal learns more behaviors, we can combine them in all sorts of ways and patterns until we end up with quite complex loops. We might have head lowering then backing then head lowering then a click and treat, then a hindquarter yield and then backing and then click treat then 5 target touches and repeat. Clean training is built on loops, even if it might be difficult to see them at the more advanced and complex stages. When coming up with a training plan at more complex stages of training, think about where you need the primary reinforcement and what the horse is telling you he needs to work on.

Loopy Training, Poisoned Cues and Negative Reinforcement

Loopy training is the antidote for poisoned cues because poisoned cues are a product of lumping. When we teach behavior too quickly or in too big of chunks, we often end up with frustrated, annoyed animals who are not enthusiastic about training. These poisoned cues don’t work well in loops! We can avoid frustration and unwanted behavior by building tight, clean loops that gradually spiral outward.

Most of the time when we use negative reinforcement we’re guilty of lumping. It’s not the negative reinforcement that poisons the cues, but the lumping that creates stress, frustration and confusion for our horses. We can create equally frustrated animals if we’re using positive reinforcement, but lumping behaviors together rather than splitting and shaping gradually. Now, this doesn’t mean train in the tiniest steps possible. It only means we must progress at a level where the animal can continue to be a successful learner.

Later on, we can also use loops to give our horses a choice or to let them cue us. What is very important to animals is how much control they have over the environment. We can make our animals more confident and comfortable by giving them more control. For instance, you could teach your horse to touch a target before you put on the saddle. The horse then learns he can use the target touch to tell you when he’s ready to for you to saddle him. If the horse later on chooses not to touch the target, then it’s up to you to figure out why he doesn’t want to be saddled that day.

Loopy training helps us be more deliberate as trainers. Behavior happens as a cycle, or loop, rather than as a discrete unit. If we can see these loops and learn how to use cues more effectively, our training and animals will benefit. At the core, loops work because they teach us to split behavior in small chunks and get good quality behavior before trying to move on.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the rest of my notes from the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference or my notes from the 2009 conference. Better yet, bookmark the ORCA website and come to the 2011 conference next spring! Sign up for e-mail updates to make sure you don’t miss any of the great posts from stalecheerios.com.

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  • Ivy

    That is a great article! Wow! I am going to have to go back and read it again! Thanks so much!

    • Thanks Ivy! Glad you enjoyed it.

      You know, I first heard Alex talk about loopy training at this same conference in 2009. For the past year I've heard Jesús Rosales-Ruiz talk about it fairly often. Never really got it though.

      Took a clinic with Alex last fall that was 2 days talking about loopy training. It really started to make sense then. However, now, I'm really seeing some of the practical applications that come from thinking about things from a loopy model.

      I think it's one of those concepts that the more I think about it and play with it, the more helpful it becomes! Loopy training is something that some people I think do intuitively. For the rest of us (well, for me at least!) it's nice to have a framework to use to think about and assess my training.

      Mary

  • “If we build a strong foundation, cues for simple behaviors can be used to reinforce and build more complex behaviors.” That is a great truism and something that most good horse trainers can agree on no matter what method they are using.
    “When horses mug for treats, it often indicates that either they have not been taught proper manners and self control around food or that our food delivery is inefficient or clumsy.” I know I need work on my food delivery. I am still just not coordinated enough to be effective. How do you carry rewards and how do you deliver them? Under saddle can be especially hard as he will start looking over his shoulder for the treat.
    Great article I agree with Ivy I may need to read it twice to get all of that juicy info out!

    • I have a pouch that I strap around my waist. Rock climbing chalk bags work great, I also like the Outward Hound bait bags sold by Clean Run (http://bit.ly/6pYU4e). Alexandra Kurland (and many others) really like fishing vests because of all the pockets. I like something that is easy to get my hand in and out of and that I can shut.

      I have my clicker on one of those plastic flexible coil wrist key ring things, that way I can let go of the clicker without loosing it. Often I just click with my mouth as well, which frees up a hand.

      In the clinic I did with Alex last fall, we practiced lots of food delivery without the horses. This was really helpful for working out some of the mechanics. One thing I learned (that I hadn't been doing) is it's often better to deliver the food with the hand that is farthest away from the horse.

      So, if you're at the horse's shoulder, you click. Horse and you stop. You pivot so that you are facing the horse and then deliver the treat in the hand that was farthest from the horse. This gives you more control over where you are delivering the treat and can help keep the horse out of your space.

      Feed where the perfect horse would be, rather than where the horse is. Don't go to the horse's mouth, make the horse come to the food! Even if this means the horse has to move forward a step or back up a step. Be careful about feeding too far forward or down, this often will throw the horse off balance.

      Often I also see problems in food delivery when I'm asking for too much too soon or doing too much lumping. The horse gets frustrated and expresses this through mugging for food, not being careful about taking the food and other issues.

      It's one of those skills that takes practice! I still know my food delivery often needs work. Under saddle, I think it takes practice for both the horse and the rider to work out the coordination and the timing. The horse has to learn a new way of getting the food.

      Mary

  • Thanks for the great report, Mary!

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  • “If we build a strong foundation, cues for simple behaviors can be used to reinforce and build more complex behaviors.” That is a great truism and something that most good horse trainers can agree on no matter what method they are using.
    “When horses mug for treats, it often indicates that either they have not been taught proper manners and self control around food or that our food delivery is inefficient or clumsy.” I know I need work on my food delivery. I am still just not coordinated enough to be effective. How do you carry rewards and how do you deliver them? Under saddle can be especially hard as he will start looking over his shoulder for the treat.
    Great article I agree with Ivy I may need to read it twice to get all of that juicy info out!

  • Thanks Ivy! Glad you enjoyed it.

    You know, I first heard Alex talk about loopy training at this same conference in 2009. For the past year I've heard Jesús Rosales-Ruiz talk about it fairly often. Never really got it though.

    Took a clinic with Alex last fall that was 2 days talking about loopy training. It really started to make sense then. However, now, I'm really seeing some of the practical applications that come from thinking about things from a loopy model.

    I think it's one of those concepts that the more I think about it and play with it, the more helpful it becomes! Loopy training is something that some people I think do intuitively. For the rest of us (well, for me at least!) it's nice to have a framework to use to think about and assess my training.

    Mary

  • Thanks for the great report, Mary!

  • I have a pouch that I strap around my waist. Rock climbing chalk bags work great, I also like the Outward Hound bait bags sold by Clean Run (http://bit.ly/6pYU4e). Alexandra Kurland (and many others) really like fishing vests because of all the pockets. I like something that is easy to get my hand in and out of and that I can shut.

    I have my clicker on one of those plastic flexible coil wrist key ring things, that way I can let go of the clicker without loosing it. Often I just click with my mouth as well, which frees up a hand.

    In the clinic I did with Alex last fall, we practiced lots of food delivery without the horses. This was really helpful for working out some of the mechanics. One thing I learned (that I hadn't been doing) is it's often better to deliver the food with the hand that is farthest away from the horse.

    So, if you're at the horse's shoulder, you click. Horse and you stop. You pivot so that you are facing the horse and then deliver the treat in the hand that was farthest from the horse. This gives you more control over where you are delivering the treat and can help keep the horse out of your space.

    Feed where the perfect horse would be, rather than where the horse is. Don't go to the horse's mouth, make the horse come to the food! Even if this means the horse has to move forward a step or back up a step. Be careful about feeding too far forward or down, this often will throw the horse off balance.

    Often I also see problems in food delivery when I'm asking for too much too soon or doing too much lumping. The horse gets frustrated and expresses this through mugging for food, not being careful about taking the food and other issues.

    It's one of those skills that takes practice! I still know my food delivery often needs work. Under saddle, I think it takes practice for both the horse and the rider to work out the coordination and the timing. The horse has to learn a new way of getting the food.

    Mary

  • You are very welcome!

  • kd

    this is somewhat unrelated…but your post just made me think about it. I know I've seen people rewarding dogs by tossing them their food as you mentioned, but have you ever seen anyone do this with horses?

    My younger boys need a little refresher on mugging – and your post made me wonder if tossing them their reward would change anything – although learning NOT to mug would still be a good idea. Granted tossing food might not work in all situations – but your post just got me thinking about it.

    • I'd done it with horses who hadn't learned yet how to take treats from my hand. It could help some with mugging by focusing their attention away from your pockets.

      I know some people as well who hide treats around the barn or arena and then let the horse find them (or just grab them at opportune times). This can help the horse focus less on you.

      One of the best ways to teach no mugging is probably Alexandra Kurland's Grown Up are Talking game, where you reinforce the horse for standing with his head straight ahead. This transitions nicely later into ground tying.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_54r-mKhTvw
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_Ar0XV_GrQ

      One fun exercise they might like is free shape them to turn their head way from you. Get it really good and reinforce it when they offer it to you. I did this with one mare and she would “beg” for treats by turning her head away and looking at me out of the corner of her eye.

      • kd

        I'm curious to try the tossing just to see if it changes anything. I have done grownups are talking with Minnow….but not yet with the young boys…I need to get on that.

        Minnow actually used to be very grabby in the beginning but I “nixed” that by standing in front of him with a juicy apple. everytime he grabbed for it I snatched it away, when he offered anything but mugging he got rewarded and after each session he would get the apple. Worked wonders on him, but the young ones are a little more hard headed and need some more reminders.

        • Let me know how the tossing goes!

          I'd be interested to know if it decreases their mugging.

          Mary

  • Emma&Star

    Excellent write up, thank you very much for sharing!

    • Thanks Emma! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Mary

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  • jeanneschniederjan

    Mary, Have to compliment you on an awesome blog from Alex's talk at the ORCA conference. Your comment on the use of negative reinforcement and lumping: “Most of the time when we use negative reinforcement we’re guilty of lumping. It’s not the negative reinforcement that poisons the cues, but the lumping that creates stress, frustration and confusion for our horses. We can create equally frustrated animals if we’re using positive reinforcement, but lumping behaviors together rather than splitting and shaping gradually. Now, this doesn’t mean train in the tiniest steps possible. It only means we must progress at a level where the animal can continue to be a successful learner.” I have struggled a bit with the whole concept of “poisoned cues” having come from a “traditional” horse training background, this really clears things up for me as well as reinforces what I had been learning with my clicker work! Thanks for being eloquent and sharing!!! Loved the rest too!
    Jeanne Schniederjan (Reining trainer from Gainesville, TX. Met you briefly at the Houston clicker clinic)

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  • Susan

    This is article, which I need to read more in depth, has already helped me get a bit clearer on what I need to work on in my clicker training with Pie. I look forward to this weekend when I have more time to digest what you wrote. Thanks!

    • Thanks Susan!

      So glad that you enjoyed the article.

      I'm glad that I can share some of the things I am learning from Alex's work.

      She is a great teacher and trainer.

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