Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The first Bible verse that tacked itself to my brain cells was memorized at age seven. The daughter of a pastor, scripture had an important roll in my childhood, but I don’t remember being particularly excited by Bible reading. I do remember a certain Sabbath school contest and my small mind expanding to record multiple verses for a magnificent grand prize: a beautiful set of colored pencils. I worked hard to memorize a boatload of verses I cannot recall today. All except one: Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.

Spoken by Jesus, Matthew 7:7 echoed in my cranium long after the colored pencils were worn down to nubs. For me it has trumped other more popularly memorized verses—such as John 3:16—every time. God knew his child of small faith and large fear needed a promise to remember always: Seeking is rewarded.

Currently I am doing much reading/research in preparation for a literary project and recently began Animals Make Us Human by autistic scientist Temple Grandin. Grandin shares fascinating research into the emotions of mammals including discoveries by neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp considers seeking—curiosity, wanting something, investigating—an emotion. Also called the “Christmas emotion,” seeking is is anticipation of good things. It energizes and motivates.

Clicker training is all about seeking. Especially when variable reward is introduced and the animal has to try various behaviors as it seeks the “well done” click and cooresponding reward. I’m pretty sure Chance has avoided much seeking over the course of a largely pathetic existence. His life had been small and fearful and unpredictable. This produced a horse that alternated between lashing out in anger and hiding in fear. How much of his behavior is due to inbred wiring and how much is due to lack of nurturing/care I’ll never know. It really doesn’t matter.
I do know he has lived with me in a state of constant vigilance. Remove him from his safety zone of stall and medium sized paddock and he is on alert for terror of all kinds—a saddle pad on fence, a man jogging down the road, every move of the horses in the field behind him. As a family member said, “He’s scared of his own shadow.” This has not stopped us from riding him, but his mental state makes for an unpredictable horse (and the need for a Velcro butt). Clicker training is a last resort as I cling to a shred of hope Chance’s brain will make new neuropathways and he can develop a thinking habit rather then a reactive one.

Our first clicker sessions of ten or fifteen minutes were not real encouraging. Chance has an extremely short attention span. It took a long time for him to understand the click and link it to a reward. Often he’d lose interest and move away, looking off into space or nipping at non-existent grass with his teeth. The reward of grain or carrots didn’t seem enough motivation to inspire seeking behavior. At that point I’d simply leave and try again later. When one is used to using negative motivation to train it can be frustrating when the animal is unresponsive. Sometimes I wondered about his intelligence.

Without a doubt I have noticed an increase in Chance’s attention span over the last two months of experimentation. The list of behaviors I am shaping in him currently include these: head down for extensive periods of time, come on cue, follow a target, responding to “touch” on various objects and “push.” Most recently we began working on moving his feet calmly, one step at a time, when touched with a whip. He now follows me like a dog and tries various behaviors on his own to see if they will elicit a click. The head down is particularly funny because it is the one he uses most often when he isn’t sure what else to do. He’ll approach, bob his head, then hang it inches from the ground and wait. For a horse that spooks at dirt clods this adrenalin lowering activity is quite useful.

I nearly saw his thoughts the day Chance discovered the difference between “touch” and “push.” I’d set up a white canister and small buckets to practice touch, sometimes insisting he touch several on cue before getting a reward. For “push” I added a hand motion. It took a few days before Chance made the connection between the canister falling over and getting a click rather then just touching it with his lips. I began adding rocks so the canister was heavier and thus took more effort on his part. I didn’t want it to be accidental when he pushed it over. At first he became frustrated. I was encouraged that he did not give up or disengage as before but continued moving the object with his lips while I waited. When it tipped over I told him “good” and clicked. The light bulb blinked on at that moment. When I asked again to “push” he immediately pushed the weighted canister over and even pushed the buckets with wide bases that took more effort. He seemed very pleased with himself. Watching an animal’s pleasure in discovery—something scientists would have mocked a few years ago—is amazing. Seeking simply feels good.

Confident in our training for the day, I stroked Chance’s neck and told him he was a very good boy. Before I could gather up my silly training devices, he returned to the canister and knocked it over again for good measure. I clicked and rewarded. Seek and you will find.