Having problems with your dog not bringing the toy back to your hand, or not wanting to release the toy? As always we want to apply an objective eye to what is driving the behaviour. WTF? “What’s The Function?”, as Dr Susan Friedman would say.
Often people have issues with their dog not wanting to give them the toy, and it’s because the moment the dog DOES bring it to them, the human throws it away again. They never bothered to ask the dog what game HE wanted to play and they’re making an assumption that the chase is the thing the dog is enjoying. The dog, however, actually wants to play tug, so naturally doesn’t want to release the toy! —> WTF? What’s the function?
A few months ago Awhi was enjoying chasing the toys that I threw but didn’t always want to bring them back to me. I quickly realised that “keepaway” (pup dodges and runs and the human/dog playmate chases him and tries to get the toy) was his reinforcer of choice. You can’t play keepaway if you drop the toy in the human’s hand straight away. So duh. No dice. Catch-me-if-you-can!
The problem with this was that I want him to place the toy directly into my outstretched hand when we are playing fetch (a: because I am fundamentally lazy, and b: to make it easier for my mum and my little boy to play fetch with him, and c: for safety reasons if he ever grabs something he isn’t supposed to have).
So Awhi says “the game is keep the toy away from the human!” and Bex says “the game is bring the toy to the human!”. We were at an impasse. Except we weren’t. ‘Cos behavioural science for the win. Or the win-win.
I did two things:
- I devised a reliable cue for when its time to play keepaway, and we played that game together regularly
- I started reinforcing him with a click & food for placing the toy in my hand when we’re playing fetch, before throwing it again. I gave him more of a reason to want to bring it back to me. (I also sometimes reinforce him for a good toy delivery by immediately returning the toy to him, and then initiating the keepaway game! Double whammy).
Ok there’s a third thing (well sort of an extension of the first thing...):
- I also ensured my cues for ‘deliver toy to my hand’ vs ‘let’s tug’ vs ‘you should run cos I’m gonna GETCHA’ were nice and clear. These are separate games that have separate cues and they’re under stimulus control - i.e. we don’t play keepaway when the current game is fetch.
I always try to balance this out further by trying to take his cues as much as he takes mine - eg if he tells me he wants to play keepaway I don’t ride roughshod over his opinions and relentlessly insist on fetch. That would make me a poor playmate. Interactions with our friends should be a two-way street where compromises are made and communication is respected and one person doesn’t always dominate the games. Just ask my six-year-old. He and his buddies in the sandpit get it right (most of the time).
It is always worth thinking about what’s the function in very tangible terms - what is the consequence of the behaviour? How is it being reinforcer? Currently I reinforce the toy delivery with a click plus food plus a throw of the toy, and the keepaway game and tug are reinforced by the play itself. Soon I will start to fade the food for toy delivery and see if the behaviour maintains (ie test to see if the fun of chasing the toy is now enough to reinforce the behaviour of bringing it back).
So bottom line is this: it’s not all about me. I can honour the function of Awhi’s original ‘dodge-away-not-gonna-give-you-my-toy’ behaviour and not deny him that fun, while ALSO getting to have the fetch-and-deliver-direct-to-hand behaviour that I want. Win-win.
By satisfying the function and clarifying the cues for these different behaviours, I ensure that Awhi and I BOTH get what we want, and there’s no miscommunications or frustrations.
Time. Or rather, the lack of.
Most of us have work or study or young kids or multiple horses (or all of the above!) and it's sometimes hard enough to find time to squeeze in a regular ride let alone "make time for training".
Good news: you don't necessarily have to! Or at least, don’t let that be the excuse you make to justify doing no training at all.
First of all, clicker training done well (with structure and a clear plan) is so effective that you can often achieve a huge amount in just a few 5 minute sessions here and there. But if you're struggling to make that happen (trust me, I empathise), you'd be amazed at what you can achieve at the same time as you change covers, feed out and shift paddocks, hold the horse for the trimmer etc. No additional training time required. And the best bit is that doing this will SAVE you time in the end as it will be easier and faster to get your "horse chores" done as your horses will calmly cooperate with you.
So with that in mind, here's my
Top 5 ways to train your horse when you don't have time to train your horse!
#1 Come to you in the paddock:
Most clicker trained horses will come running as soon as they see you at the gate. If yours don't already do that and you have to walk out to them, just wander on over until they raise their head and look at you. Stop there. Call them in a friendly, relaxed sort of way. Acknowledge them and any calming signals they might give you by turning your energy down (breathe out, turn sideways, wait). When they take a step towards you, click, and either wait for them to wander over, or just start meandering slowly back to the gate. Feed them when they catch up with you. If they won't approach or they walk away, then a) they need more time to learn to trust you, b) you need to ensure they are truly enjoying the time they spend with you, and c) try high value treats to change their associated emotional response (you = wonderful things) and speed the process along!
#2 Self halter:
Haltering is usually the first things we do with our horse each time we interact with them, and it sets the mood. Invite your horse to be part of the process. In other words, don't get all business-like and just walk up and shove it on. If you are in a rush, you can at least pause with the halter around nostril-level and give the horse a chance to put her own nose the rest of the way into it. Ask permission and listen to her answer. Many horses, if invited tactfully, will put their own nose in the halter. This is the point where you might like to reward. (If your horse turns her head away, she is giving you a calming signal. Take a calm slow breath. Acknowledge her and just wait. She’ll come back to you. If she raises her head or otherwise tries to evade the halter, then I'd suggest you need to dedicate a couple of short sessions to training this. Click and reward when your horse brings her nose to touch the halter, and build up to self-haltering (putting her own nose into it when you hold it out). Also, similar to the catching example, examine your relationship and how she might be feeling about the time she spends with you.
Your training session starts the moment you begin interacting with your horse. Therefore training good leading manners begins the moment you put the halter and rope on (and actually a great way to teach leading is without any halter or rope at all, but that’s a different subject). If your horse tends toward rushing or lagging or grass-snatching etc, don’t get caught up in a combative cycle of corrections. Focus on what you want - help him give you the right answer and actively reinforce your horse for any nice moments as you lead him from the paddock to the grooming area, to the arena, and back to the paddock. You're both going there anyway, so don't miss the opportunity to reinforce him for the nice soft moments. What you reward, you get more of. It really is that simple.
#4 Good manners for the trimmer/farrier:
If you hold your horses for the trimmer and you are not actively training the entire time, then you're wasting a massive amount of time and opportunity. I had 4 young horses trimmed this morning, and as each horse was having its feet done, I was constantly training. I marked the moments they lifted their foot on the first gentle ask, and when they stretched their foot forward to rest on the hoof stand (and when they kept it there). I was building duration while she was rasping, and I was simultaneously reinforcing park and self-control around the food. If you have young horses (or older horses that are not impeccably behaved for the trimmer), you need to actively train your horse. Don't expect your trimmer to train AND do their feet.
#5 Mounting block safety:
Acknowledge and reward your horse for lining up and standing still at the mounting block. Take a breath and thank her. (What she is doing here is much more than just a convenience for you; she is allowing you to sit astride her body, so be thankful). Pause for a few breaths on top of the mounting block and reward her for staying parked.
If your horse doesn't stand stock still when you put your foot in the stirrup and remain still until asked to move, please dedicate training time to this. It's VERY dangerous. So don’t take it for granted, and don’t just correct her when she moves - actively reward her for standing calmly.
You can click again when your foot is in the stirrup and you're swinging up, so that by the time your butt lands in the saddle she will be looking for her treat, not going to walk off. Once on board, don't pick up the reins and immediately get going. Take a moment, check your girth, make yourself comfortable, take some deep breaths and connect with her. If your horse tends to take the initiative and start the ride without being asked, make a point of fiddling about before you cue the walk and reward her for waiting patiently during this process.
(Please don't mount from the ground unless you have to - think of your horse's poor spine).
So there you go - five ways you can fit more training into your days. Little short sessions are way more effective than long ones anyway. The horse learns faster that way and it ensures some brain soak time. And don't worry, when you use positive reinforcement they retain their learning for an exceptionally long time, so even if it's weeks or months before you re-visit that behaviour they'll still be further along than they were before. I hope that helps - just remember, something is always better than nothing.