Two Way Communication Tools

We as clicker trainers have reached a new level of communication with kindness and empathy. With R+ we are able to give our horses a new level of choice and control in their own training than ever before. With R+ if the horse chooses not to comply the worst that happens is they don't get their reward. But a new and exciting trend in the clicker community is the use of "start buttons", "initiator signals", "stop buttons", "empowerment training", "choice training", "yes/no signals" and so on. These are amazing and so exciting to see us humans coming up with more and better ways to empower our animal learners to have more choice and control in their learning. The Clicker Expo had a number of incredible lectures that trended on these themes (Peggy Hogan had an incredible one with a lab, so awesome to see).

I just wanted to write up a bit more about these awesome new tools and some key components to keep in mind when using them.

Start buttons, initiators, yes buttons are all easily trained by catching a simple behavior (eye contact, target touch, etc...) and immediately cuing a behavior. Start with an easy unambiguous behavior you know they're comfortable with, or just the presentation of an item they're comfortable with. Soon they'll learn their behavior (eye contact, target touch or so on) will trigger the cue or presentation. They'll learn that they control when the behavior/object/situation begins. This will allow them to take the time they need to be prepared for the next cue or presentation. This can be a great tool for chewer/thinker horses, dealing with fear, counter conditioning and so much more!

Stop button, no signals can be trained in a similar fashion, when this behavior is offered the situation ends/stops. I practiced this with an extremely fear aggressive mule. The food had her feeling pressured to try harder than she was honestly comfortable offering, pushing her over threshold and then reactive. We would work on a behavior or touch acceptance and so on, but when she touched her target we would stop or not do thatbehavior. If she wasn't comfortable putting her head down, she'd touch the target. If I was touching too long/wrong place, she'd touch the target. This would signal me to stop. The stop cue can be anything, no longer touching a target, backing up, looking away, anything in the world you condition to mean "no".

The key in both of these situations is the control, the choice. These tools heavily empower our horses to control when training begins, ends, starts again, or needs a change. This adds a huge dynamic to our training. But one key element to all of this is that *both* choices need to be good, safe, comfortable choices!

For example if tolerating touch = getting treats, but touching her target gets me to stop touching her, but no treats, she would continue to push herself over threshold in order to get food. I needed to ensure touching the target was balanced with touch acceptance as equal choices, otherwise it's not an honest response. So touch acceptance=high rate of reinforcement while target touch= stop touch and 1 treat reward, then a pause, then begin again. If she touched the target a few times in a row with limited touch acceptance before going to her target we'd go back to something easier. I'd also realize I was moving too fast, my RoR was too low, my critieria too high... I could reevaluate my training program without having to be kicked.

I've seen these techniques used on occasion as a way to teach horses "Yes"=R+ and "No"=nothing/P- in some horse's opinions. It's vital that both options be Good alternatives, we aren't giving them an option between "be rewarded or be negative punished", we are giving them an option between two behaviors that can be rewarded. You may experience your horse saying "no" all the time, or never offering a "yes" you need to re-evaluate your training - the point IS to give them choice! So listen to it! There are some scenarios where we can not give them choice, no isn't an option, in this case make sure the option isn't available to them (work away from the target) - an initiator signal may be a better option in this scenario.

Also remember these empowering tools are no replacement for our own ability to read and understand our animals. This is a way to breakthrough difficult situations, to help our horses overcome things, to help them learn to communicate and be honest. But it's no replacement for learning our horses' ethogram, individual nuances, and body language. If you are an observant and understanding trainer you'll have little need for these tools - but they are valuable for those special cases and can be fun to train anyway. 

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