Animal Exuberance

"Here's what's about to happen" cues



It's often wise to wait to add cues until your dog is already offering a behavior predictably (because you've consistently reinforced it). Once you have a good sense of when your dog is about to do something, you can throw in the cue and then reward your dog for "following" it.

There are two closely related reasons for using this apparently backward method. The first is that a cue means nothing to a dog until it gets associated with a behavior, and every time you repeat the cue in the absence of the behavior, you actually weaken the association. The second is that our faith in language itself has been built up over a lifetime, but our dogs don't share it. If we repeat a word to no effect, we almost can't help jumping to the conclusion that our dogs are stubborn, stupid, dominant, or all of the above - even when we know at some level that they simply don't understand what we're saying.

I could treat a cue like "sit" as a command ("do it or else!"). I could strengthen the connection between the word and the behavior by making the behavior happen, but I'd much rather not. I don't want "sit" to mean "I'm about to pull your head up by the collar with one hand and push your butt down with the other." I want the dog I'm training to associate the word with an independent choice she makes, with the muscles she engages to execute the behavior, and with the real possibility that good things will follow. The same is true of most other cues I use, cues that function as "green lights" for specific, active behaviors by the dog.

All that said, there are some cues that let my dogs know how I'm going to behave, and others that predict the "state of the world and the things in it." Many of these I give inadvertently (e.g. putting on my coat & grabbing my keys = I'm going out) but others I use deliberately. Cues like these can be used from the start, because the power is ours to follow through on them.

A couple of useful examples:

  • "This way." I started using this many years ago without much forethought but with enough consistency that my dogs quickly caught on. I'll say it primarily in two situations. The first is when I'm walking a dog or dogs on-leash and I'm about to pass to one side of a pole, tree, or other obstacle. The second is when we're walking off-leash and arrive at a fork in the path. From the beginning, it signaled "I'm going this way," but it soon came to mean "you'd be wise to come this way, too," so you don't get stuck or lose sight of me. While Barley still likes to test the laws of physics occasionally - maybe this time the leash will pass through the tree! - she and Kili have become adept at changing course when they hear "this way." Pazzo (the dangerously handsome Kelpie-mix in the photo) absolutely loves this cue, as he seems to love all directional guidance. When the path splits, he'll look to me all a-tremble with suspense, then tear off in an ecstatic sprint when I point and deliver the magic words.
  • "Leave it." (I actually use the cue "mine," which is sometimes hard to say convincingly when I'm talking about cat poop!) While this cue should eventually prompt a dog to take action - to move away from something you don't want him to have - you can jump start your training by using it to mean "a tempting thing is about to be presented to you, but it is unavailable to you." For instance, if my dog is in a down and I say "leave it" as I set a treat on the floor (well out of reach), I am signaling that I simply will not allow my dog to get that treat unless I release her to do so. If she goes for it, I'll immediately cover it up. But if she hesitates for even a split second, I'll mark that hesitation and reinforce it with another (maybe even a better) treat.

The next time you're tackling a specific training task and wondering whether to use a cue from the beginning or add it later, ask yourself whether you're alerting your dog to something you're going to do or prompting an action on his part. The distinction can save you both some confusion.


When to Give Your Dog a New Name

Kilimanjaro, a.k.a. Kili, Kiligirl, Kilibear, Wumpus, Wumpy, Fluffer Nutter, First Bassoon (never second fiddle).

Kilimanjaro, a.k.a. Kili, Kiligirl, Kilibear, Wumpus, Wumpy, Fluffer Nutter, First Bassoon (never second fiddle).

Some of us are more alert than others to the psychological complications that name changes can entail. American women, for instance, generally have more occasion than men to wonder whether the ink of a new signature will seep below the skin, whether a second name will more or less truly name us. I used to swear when I was a teenager that I’d marry a Smith or a Jones if I married at all, but when I did eventually marry a Stevens, I ended up hanging on to Icenogle - I’d been lugging that lumpy mess of consonants around long enough to know that I would miss its weight. It also helps people track me down, which has (so far) been a good thing.

Names become loaded for dogs, too, but they don’t seem to inspire the same depth of attachment. Not verbal names, anyway. When dogs abstract their identities into signatures, they write them in urine and other excretions. Dogs have the same interest in names that taggers do: they want the means to say “I was here!” and to know who else was (and when, and in what state of mind).

Our girl Barley (Latin name Canis familiaris contraricus, vulgarly a Golden Hussy) is Da Bunk, Bunky, Bunkin, Her Royal (or Radical) Bunkness, Bumpy, Bunkarumpus, Bunkass, Nuzzle Rumpus, Wild Rumpus, Barleycorn, Barleyfart, Boodlebutt… I could go on.

Ed Yong, who writes the invaluable blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, posted back in February about ongoing research into dolphin “names”: the sounds that bottlenoses and possibly other cetacean species use to identify themselves when encountering unknown others in the open ocean. It appears that each of these sonic signatures is unique - you won’t find three Peters in a pod - but also that a single signature may be used as social shorthand to identify one group to another: “Hey, no worries, it’s Jane and her peeps. We’ve always gotten on well with them.”

Dolphins’ names seem to resemble dogs’ marks in a couple of respects: their primary function is declarative (“It’s me again!”), and they communicate vital secondary information about the mood and health of the “speaker.”

In our lives with dogs, we use names very differently. We rarely need to say a word to announce our presence to each other, though the sound of the car pulling into the driveway makes an effective “I’m home!” And when we use names to communicate our moods, we use our dogs’ names rather than our own.

At one end of the emotional spectrum, affection breeds silliness. (You can often tell how well a dog is loved by how many nicknames have bloomed around her.) At the anger end of the spectrum, dogs’ names sometimes serve as our correction of first resort: “BARLEY! NO!” This becomes seriously problematic if we then hope to use a name as a cue. If I want the word “Barley” to mean “come over here” or even “give me your attention,” I’d be smart to load it with as many positive associations as possible, and to avoid loading it with lousy ones.

Maybe dogs need middle names, to be used only when we scold: “Barley Elizabeth Icenogle, get your nose out of that horse turd now!”

Like all human words, names function for dogs less as symbols (“I am Barley, hear me roar!”) than as vessels to hold accumulated experience. The “loss” of a name doesn’t cause a dog grief or confusion. On the contrary, if a name has a dark or tangled history, the dog will be well rid of it.

In sum, a name change is in most cases a bigger deal for you than for your dog (both practically & emotionally). So when should you give your dog a new name?

  • When you're giving your dog a new life. Many people who rescue a full-grown dog worry that a new name will exacerbate the disorientation the dog is bound to feel as she transitions into her new home. Certainly, if your newly adopted dog responds enthusiastically to the name she already has, you should strongly consider keeping it. If not, you have a golden opportunity to start anew and give your dog a name whose meanings/associations are entirely up to you.

  • When your dog can't stand his old name. If your dog looks away (or flees!) at the sound of his name, you can bet that it's been poisoned with strong negative associations. The bad news is that a poisoned name (like any poisoned word or cue) has few antidotes. The good news is that you can simply stop administering it by dropping it from your vocabulary and introducing a "fresh" name in its place.

  • When you can't stand your dog's old name. Kili was eighteen months old when she came to us with the name Poppy. I can't tell you why this name bugged Pete & me so much - it's no more ludicrous than most - but we knew right away that we couldn't call "Poppy!" across an open field. Sadly, we quickly went on to poison the name we gave her (when frustrated by her obsessive-compulsive consumption of paper), and my more recent attempts at rehabilitating "Kili" have been only partially successful. (Thus my interest in this question.)

  • When your dog is named Shithead. This may only happen in Steve Martin movies...

  • When your dog is named Killer. Unless she's the sweetest thing on four legs.

I'm not ready to go back to "Poppy," but I do wonder whether it could be a good idea generally to give a dog a silly name, one that's difficult to say in anger. Many of Kili's nicknames are inspired by her wild & wooly coat (Fluffy, Fluffer Wumpus, Fluffer Nut), so I've been experimenting with "Shaggy." It might help if I were a better mimic of Scooby Doo, but we'll see how it goes.


p.s. I recently visited Iceland, where first names remain first identifiers throughout one’s life, and patrynomic surnames - Jónsson or Jónsdottir - follow like wispy contrails. You can find the stylish lesbian prime minister in the phone book among a host of less celebrated Jóhannas. There’s no telling whether the Icelandic naming system is a cause or symptom of the Icelanders’ strongly democratic turn of mind, but I did enjoy the brief holiday from “Mrs.” and “Ms.” I liked addressing total strangers (and being addressed by total strangers) like friends - especially when these strangers were cavorting naked in underground hot springs. Maybe this kind of deep semantic informality works best in a hard country with far-flung people; it collapses space and generates a stolen bit of geothermal warmth that could be redundant - not to say stifling - in close, southern climes. When spoken by an Italian man, “signorina” already sounds like pillow talk...

Buck Brannaman Kicks Ass. However...

Photo by Moyan Brenn. Click through to see more of his beautiful work.

Photo by Moyan Brenn. Click through to see more of his beautiful work.

Please accept my apologies for introducing Animal Exuberance with the "reprint" of a super long post. On my old blog, As Good As I Wanna Be (R.I.P.), this post generated far and away more traffic than any other, and it helped me understand that there are a lot of people out there as hungry as I am for real, difficult dialogue. I include it here not only because it sets out my evolving philosophy of training as clearly as anything I've yet written, but also because it stands as Exhibit A in my personal definition of what it might mean to "positively kick ass."

Like many who dwell outside the rarefied world of horses and horsepeople, I only recently became acquainted with Buck Brannaman's life and work through the beautiful documentary film Buck that was released last year and is now available on DVD. Buck gave a Q&A at the showing I attended in Portland early in the summer, and made good in person on the charisma so evident on film. It struck me immediately how much his training approach had in common with that of the clicker/marker trainers I most admired, and despite my great ignorance about horses I knew it would be worth my while to attend one of his clinics as a spectator. In late October, I traveled up to Spanaway, Washington with a firm cushion and a warm blanket and planted myself in the bleachers of the arena where Buck taught three separate horsemanship classes every day for four days. (He followed with two more for three days; his dedication and stamina are remarkable.)

I spent most of three days happily lapping up just about everything he had to say and to show about training horses, though I couldn't help remarking that he was somewhat less effective as a trainer of people. But at the end of his second session on that third day, one of his students asked what he thought of clicker training, and he could not have been more contemptuous or less measured in his response. He said he found it worthless at best, exploitative at worst. Good for nothing more than tricks. He recounted a recent encounter with a dangerously spooked steer and joked that a clicker trainer "couldn't click fast enough" to handle such a situation.

Imagine that someone who’d seen the film The Horse Whisperer considered himself competent to judge your methods and principles, to get on his mike and tell an arena full of people, “Oh that Buck Brannaman, what a load of mumbo jumbo."

Well, that got me riled. And when I'm riled I write. A few days after returning home from Buck's clinic, I sent him an eight-page letter detailing all the reasons I was convinced that a) he was already a "clicker trainer" and b) he could be a better one. I would probably not post it here if I had heard back from him, and I am hesitant to do it now, but I don't know whether he's still trashing the people with whom he should be making common cause, and I'd love to jump start the dialogue that might bring us closer to mutual understanding. As I think I make clear in the letter, I admire Buck a great deal, but I think in this instance he's using his influence to real potential harm. I also realized that this letter represented my own most focused attempt to articulate the power and promise of clicker/marker training. (I regret that my summary of its history contained a couple of significant inaccuracies. I have let them stand here in the interests of fair representation of my own fallibility, but apologies are due to the memory of Keller Breland.) Anyway, here it is:

November 4, 2011

Dear Buck,

First and foremost, I want to thank you. I attended one of your recent clinics in Spanaway as a first-time spectator. Even from that remove, I learned more than I could have hoped, and I left powerfully inspired to put that learning into practice. I should say that I am not a horsewoman in either the casual or the proper sense of that term. I came to your clinic because I have a passion for clear communication between individual creatures who may not be of the same species, a passion I have so far exercised primarily as a writer and as a teacher of humans and dogs. I’ve spent about fifteen years teaching the first (high school, college, and adult students), only about two teaching the second (that is to say, only two with focused intent and the least little bit of efficacy). I guessed that I could learn a great deal from you in spite of the gap in our immediate interests, and I did.

One of the things that impressed me most during the clinic (and contributed immeasurably to your credibility) was your frequent reference to the limits of your own knowledge, your insistence that you still have and will always have more to learn. On a few occasions you expressed your well-founded disgust for people who get ahead of themselves, people who speak in tones of false authority on subjects about which they know next to nothing. (In my experience, next to nothing is often more dangerous than nothing at all when it comes to degrees of ignorance.) I would not have taken you for such a person, when you have generally been so careful to build your authority on a solid foundation from the ground up. So I was sorely disappointed and more than a little angered by your casual and insulting dismissal of clicker training in response to a student question on the third afternoon of the clinic. You made it clear from your comments that you know next to nothing about it, and yet you felt entitled to use the authority you have earned in other ways to trash the devoted work of people who might otherwise be your natural allies. You know only a caricature of clicker training, only the crudest sketch, and that’s the picture that may now persist indelibly in the minds of some of your students because you momentarily and uncharacteristically abdicated your responsibility as a teacher to know whereof you speak.

Imagine that someone who’d seen the film The Horse Whisperer considered himself competent to judge your methods and principles, to get on his mike and tell an arena full of people, “Oh that Buck Brannaman, what a load of mumbo jumbo. If you want to whisper to your horse, you go right ahead, but if you actually want to get something done...” Hell, you probably don’t have to imagine it. I’d bet you’ve heard it many a time, and I’d bet it pissed you off every time. I’d further bet that you’d hate to expose yourself for the same kind of fool, so it pains me to be the one to tell you that your pants were on the ground the other afternoon. But I’m hoping that this is what we both might call a teachable moment. I hope I can teach you enough in a few pages about clicker training that the next time someone asks you a similar question you don’t get yourself caught in a cranial-anal inversion but maybe pause long enough to say, “You know, I need to learn more about that before I can really judge whether there might be something to it.”

Here’s the caricature you passed along: treats, tricks, exploitation, inefficacy. Here’s the reality in its ideal: seamless communication across barriers that might otherwise appear insurmountable. Across barriers in perception, expression, motivation, etc. Across barriers between species and between individuals. Maybe you notice some overlap between that ideal and the one you’re after. I wouldn’t have come to your clinic if I didn’t notice it. The real irony in your trashing clicker training lies in the fact that you already use it. And it’s been used on you by at least one of the teachers you most respect. If you only knew that and didn’t shy from it, you might use it more effectively. That sentence probably made you brace, but there’s nothing that should scare you there apart from your own blind prejudice. Please hear me out.

There’s a great German word I just came across,funktionslust : the joy in doing something well. We all have it, as long as we haven’t learned to shut it down. We want to have that joy exploited.

The first thing you should know is that “clicker training” is a bit of a misnomer, given that it often doesn’t involve a clicker. “Clicker training” is convenient but misleading shorthand for a set of principles; those principles give rise in turn to a set of practices that are infinitely adaptable and potentially very powerful. As with any method, the practice is vulnerable to misuse in the absence of the underlying principles. I already noted an overlap in ideals between your aims and those of clicker trainers: effective communication. It’s not so surprising, then, that there’s a significant overlap in foundational principles as well. I’ve listed below some of the things you emphasized explicitly or implicitly during the clinic, all of which are also at the heart of clicker training when practiced well:

  1. Recognizing and channeling (even liberating) an animal’s inborn gifts, whether they be of intelligence, power, quality of movement, motivation, etc. Recognizing and responding appropriately in the moment to distinctions among species and among individuals.

  2. Patience; incrementalism; breaking skills/challenges down into manageable steps; being ready to have something take an hour, a day, a year, five years, a lifetime.

  3. The power of repetition.

  4. The importance of accuracy, precision, consistency.

  5. Setting the animal (human or otherwise) up for success; closing off unproductive options.

  6. Offering a good deal; always asking what’s in it for the animal.

  7. Efficacy; not asking questions you don’t know the answers to.

  8. Discovering how little you need to do.

  9. Maintaining calm, focus, and life (or reviving it in a dull or anxious animal).

  10. Adapting to circumstance, dealing with what is rather than a fantasy of what ought to be.

  11. Using smarts in place of power.

  12. Teaching the animal to teach you.

  13. Building awareness of your own physical, mental, and emotional states. Building your own capacity for equanimity and self-control as a means of building it in the animal and increasing your ability to communicate clearly.

  14. Building trust and respect through competence and informed leadership.

  15. Striving to be an enlightened monarch; taking responsibility for the well-being of an animal who has entrusted him/herself to your judgement.

  16. Finding a “feel” (what I understand as a live current of connection and communication, whether it passes through a rein or across an open field).

  17. Learning from the animal even as you teach him/her.

  18. Timing, timing, timing.

The practice is relatively simple in broad outline, but in detail as complex as the teacher’s knowledge and creativity can make it. Mark and reward what you want, block/ignore/wait out what you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat again. If you’ve ever shaped another creature’s behavior using those simple steps, you’re a clicker trainer, whether or not you’ve ever touched a clicker. Whether or not you’ve ever given an animal a food treat. Guess what, Buck. You’re a clicker trainer, insulting as that might be for you to hear.

When you artfully channel your green filly’s longing for peace, when you dole it out to her in tiny sips with every well-timed release, would you call that exploitive? I wouldn’t. A predatory animal’s primary hunger is more likely to be literal. Lots of people will set down a full dish of food for their dog and then disdain treats as bribes. My three dogs work for some of their food every day, one tiny bit of kibble at a time. If I were working as hard as I should with them, they would work for it all. Not because I want to be a hardass but because they hunger for more than food: they hunger for engagement, for challenge, for mastery. They love to learn, whether it’s something silly, something that helps keep them healthy and comfortable (like getting their nails clipped without a fuss), or something that could save their lives (like a rock-solid recall). Would you call that exploitation? Not in any negative sense, not if you could see the light in the eyes of my girl Barley, a supremely independent-minded ten-year-old husky mix who was my happy guinea pig when I first started clicker training two years ago. She learned more in two weeks than she had in her previous eight years (which says a lot about my unenlightened leadership to that point), and I’ll never forget the look she gave me early in our first session: “Why the hell didn’t you tell me what you wanted before?” Of course I had, but never in a way that she could so clearly understand. When I taught my cat Hops to target her nose to a ball or give me a head butt on cue, was it useful? Not in any strict sense. But she purred everytime I got out the clicker, something she’d never do for food alone. There’s a great German word I just came across, funktionslust : the joy in doing something well. We all have it, as long as we haven’t learned to shut it down. We want to have that joy exploited.

And that story leads me to one of the most powerful things about clicker training: it can open a path of communication and forge a fast connection even between a novice teacher and a novice learner. It is difficult if not impossible for a clumsy and inexperienced trainer to wreck an animal if he or she sticks to that simple formula: mark and reward what you want, block/ignore/wait out what you don’t. I work as a volunteer with “behaviorally challenged” dogs at the Oregon Humane  Society, the castoffs from people who have tried “everything” with their inconveniently self-directed animals. Everything except what works, if one only has the patience and fortitude to see it through. I work with dogs whose owners were too busy trying (and failing) to control them ever to teach them self-control, dogs whose strength and intelligence were totally appealing when they were puppies and totally unacceptable when the myth that the human owner was stronger and smarter fell to pieces. We adopted our youngest dog from OHS when he was ten months old and had already exhausted the patience of three other families. It’s easy to see why -- he’s a kelpie mix, a tightly-wound, anxious, prey-driven, and whipsmart dog. Two years later, he’s still a pain in the butt, but miles better than he was. I remain a rank beginner as a trainer, but when I’m at the Humane Society now, I can safely spend a half-hour with a pit-mix who’s launching his seventy-five pounds four feet in the air every time his next door neighbor makes a peep and convince him in that time that there might be a better response. Like sitting quietly with his eyes on mine. You could probably accomplish the same more quickly, but could your students?

You have the tools to communicate what you want but seem to lack the awareness to do it most effectively; you have the ability to reward what you want but seem to lack the will to do it generously.

Let me tackle your prejudice against clickers head-on. A clicker (or a light pen or any of a thousand things that could be used in its place) is nothing more or less than a simple mechanical tool for communication. It’s a marker in the “mark and reward” sequence. Like a bit, or a flag, or a leg, it’s only effective when artfully employed. A rope only becomes a true lead rope in the hand of someone who knows how to use it: with good timing and good feel. The same skills are vital in the effective use of any marker. In clicker training the marker always means the same thing: “Yes. There. That was it. Good things are coming.” Clicker trainers will often use “yes” and “there” as markers. The same way you do with your human students. The same way Ray Hunt did with you when he taught you to see a horse in balance. “There... there... there.” But a marker doesn’t have to be auditory or visual - it could be tactile. You have the good fortune to work with an animal with whom you are in near constant contact. Even in ground work, your connection is often literal, and certainly needs to be with a green horse. You have unusually ample sensory means of telling your filly, “There. That’s the stuff,” and then of following through with your promise of peace. I don’t have anything like the necessary knowledge to imagine how the use of an actual clicker would improve your communication with a horse. It would almost certainly be redundant, when you have so many other tools at your disposal, and know how to employ them so skillfully.

But I can readily imagine some ways that a clicker might improve your communication with your other students. I have enough experience (i.e., accumulated mistakes and self-corrections) as a teacher of humans to recognize from the outside when another teacher is less effective than he could be. It became clear watching you that you’re aware of a significant gap between your efficacy with horses and your efficacy with humans. It was just as clear that you find that gap frustrating, also that you’re sorely tempted to blame it on the slowness and blockheadedness of humans relative to horses. But at one point I heard you touch on the real problem, when you talked about needing so many words with your human students because you can’t speak to them in the way you can speak to horses, with physical immediacy. It’s no coincidence that probably the most effective bit of teaching you did with a human student took place when you had a rope around Ryan’s ankle. He understood something in his body that no verbal description was going to communicate to him. But it’s just not practicable for you to put a lead rope on twenty different people careening (well, only some of them, to be fair) around an arena on horseback. What to do?

This is exactly what clicker training was made for. I suspect you don’t know much about its history, but it’s not totally newfangled, just semi-newfangled. It was developed about sixty years ago by Bob and Marian Bailey, a couple who had studied behaviorist psychology with B.F. Skinner and (contrary to the callous, mad scientist stereotype) thought they could apply it in a way that would improve animals’ lives, specifically by replacing the methods of brute domination that were  pretty much synonymous with “training” at that time (and sadly remain so in many quarters today). They had a lot of incentive to develop new methods because they were working with animals like dolphins who simply couldn’t be dominated. The question “what’s in it for the animal?” rose inevitably to the forefront, and they adopted an approach that was oriented as purely as possible toward reward/reinforcement (with punishment being the simple absence of reinforcement). So they had the motivation question addressed: a dolphin will happily work for a herring, and stay happier and healthier working for it than having it given to him for free. But they ran into the same issue with dolphins that’s slowing your progress with your human students: how to communicate in a precise, timely, and effective manner with an animal who might be a hundred feet away (and maybe underwater)? How to make the reward as immediate as it needed to be without slinging fish willy-nilly through the air? From their background in the laboratory, they knew that a totally meaningless stimulus could become meaningful through repeated association. By initially pairing a loud whistle with immediate reward, they gave those markers meaning to the animals and thereby created a bridge across distance and time between the desired behavior and the reinforcement.

You’re ahead of the game with your human students because you already have a couple of markers that carry across distance and mean something to them: “There.” “That’s the stuff.” Furthermore, those markers hold their own reward. Your students have that vital funktionslust -- the pleasure in doing things well -- and they clearly crave your approval. So there’s no need to fill your pockets with m&m’s or steak bites, thank goodness. You have the tools to communicate what you want but seem to lack the awareness to do it most effectively; you have the ability to reward what you want but seem to lack the will to do it generously.

At one point during the second session of the third day of the clinic, you talked about the importance of maintaining the horse in a learning frame of mind, of keeping its ears soft and its expression relaxed. You wisely noted that this was the key to the horse’s being able to retain anything it was taught. I wanted to ask you whether you followed the same principle in teaching humans, but I showed unusual restraint (unusual for me) and kept my mouth shut. I knew it would only be a smartass rhetorical sort of question, because I’d seen how much less successful you were at keeping people in a learning frame of mind. Ten or more times, I’d seen Reese flush beet red with embarrassment and frustration. I’d seen Trent get progressively more flustered as he shot multiple blanks into the flanks of his poor horse. They were learning, but learning slowly and sometimes in spite of you. How much would they retain when the tide of stress had washed out?

Consider that prolonged exercise with Trent. Here was someone who had no native sense of what position three should feel like. No internal sense of stillness at all. Looking back on it, how helpful do you think it was to him to hear “no!” twenty times? He got lots of “you did it again,” and a couple of times “relax!!” (Especially helpful.) He got “there” and “that was a little better” on a bare handful of tries. Are you so afraid of relaxing your standards, so wary of “spoiling” your human students, that you’re willing to abandon the principles of incrementalism, of setting them up for success, of working from what is rather than what ought to be? That’s how it looked from the stands. And the price of your impatience is that your students learn much more slowly than they could.

A horse won’t get fluttery when you give it a rub, won’t run out to tell all the other horses what a hotshot he is because Buck Brannaman said so. A human might.

I bet you that, even with my near total ignorance of horsemanship, I could have gotten Trent settled in his saddle in about five minutes. And he’d remember it the next day, because he never would have gotten so riled. I could do it with nothing more than my eyes and the word “there.” I would break the task down into two steps: pelvis and legs. I’d tell him first that he didn’t need to worry about anything but getting his weight back on his tailbone. Not to worry about his reins, his legs, nothing but his butt. And if he accidentally started his horse, just to return to a stop as calmly as he could and try again. Every time I saw his weight settle totally back onto his tailbone, I’d say “there” and have him shift it forward again just enough to set himself up for a fresh try, ideally not enough to send his horse forward (though if that subtle shift was enough, how wonderfully lively his horse would suddenly be!). Shift it back to a settle. “There.” It might take ten or fifteen repetitions before Trent had a much better idea of how it felt when his weight was where it should be. Then I’d move to the legs. Tense the leg. Release it. “There.” Again. Again. Again. I know what it looks like, and he’d quickly learn what it felt like. Then try both. There. There. Wait for it... there. No fuss, no embarrassment, greater retention.

And no clicker necessary. But I’d probably use one if I had it, and if I were you, I’d definitely use one. The reason that clicker trainers often do use clickers (and other similar tools) is that they are much more precise and consistent than the human voice. I can say “there” with an infinite variation in my inflection, tone, and tempo -- in fact it’s extremely difficult for me or anyone to remove all “color” from a word marker and make it perfectly consistent. So a clicker can bump up the efficiency of my teaching significantly, because the message is perfectly clear and always the same. Never more or less enthusiastic, never loaded with any emotional baggage or doubt. The reason a clicker would be more useful for you than for me in teaching Trent how to find position three in his body is that Trent doesn’t know me from Eve. He doesn’t have any great respect for me, any desire to please me in particular, and he doesn’t need it for me to be effective. He only needs to trust that I know what his butt and his legs look like when he’s relaxed. Anyone in the arena or the stands who could observe that much could teach him just as well (and while teaching him become better aware themselves of the physical signals they might be sending their horses unintentionally).

With you, on the other hand, he’ll have a hard time not getting distracted by his desperate desire to please you. Your praise paradoxically means too much to him to keep him receptive and learning. A click is emotionally neutral in a way that a word cannot be from you to one of your overawed students. Shayne and Randy have been around you long enough to shake off some of the weight of your mystique, but I saw that even they would glow like little boys when you told them, “Now that’s looking a little better.” And that may be one (very sound) reason that you’re so much stingier with people than you would ever dream of being with a horse. A horse won’t get fluttery when you give it a rub, won’t run out to tell all the other horses what a hotshot he is because Buck Brannaman said so. A human might. So a clicker could come in very handy if you were able to overcome your prejudice against it. But if that proves a bridge too far, you could still lighten your burden as the sole locus of authority and the sole source of reward by enlisting your students (or even spectators) as fellow teachers. This would only require that you break skills down into more manageable steps.

I dare you to try this. Just once -- unless God forbid it actually works. Say you want to teach everyone where the hand with the leading rein ought to be positioned when bringing the horse’s front quarters around (this was a stubborn challenge throughout the clinic). Gather your students around you and demonstrate a few times, asking them to look carefully for the moment that your hand arrives where it should be, out from your hip. After a few repetitions, ask them to verbally mark that moment every time they see it: “there.” Once you heard “there” become a unified chorus, you’d know they all knew what that hand position ought to look like, and they’d all be prepared to see it and mark it in someone else. Then have them partner up, with one partner just watching the other and saying “there” every time they saw the hand arrive in the proper position. The rider wouldn’t have to worry about anything else (though they’d soon discover how far they needed to slide down on the rein in order to get where they needed to be), and in a few minutes they’d achieve the beginning of a feeling for that precise relationship between the hand and the body. And they might discover -- lo and behold -- that it improved the turn. Then they could work on the position of the hand with the supporting rein, return to the leading rein when it fell apart again (as it is bound to do for a while). Similarly, a partner could mark the lifting of the horse’s leading foot. “There... there... there.” And maybe the rider would begin to feel it. What does a float in the rein look like, feel like? How about a soft feel? Maybe I was just flattering myself that I could see both the float and the soft feel from across the arena, because I practice them all the time with my dogs on their leashes, but the only rider apart from you who appeared to my untutored eyes to return to them habitually, without thinking about it, was Randy. It was obvious from a glance that he trusted himself, he trusted his horse, and his horse trusted him in return. Many of the rest were so intent on maintaining “control” or keeping their horses’ heads prettily elevated that they continually pulled their horses off their stride.

My point is that you simply can’t communicate your body’s knowledge to other bodies anywhere near as effectively through description and demonstration as you can by marking what’s right when you see it -- marking it immediately and repeatedly. All while blocking/ignoring/waiting out the mistakes, instead of saying “wrong, wrong, wrong” after the fact. This would let you do with people what you do so effectively with horses: take small and isolated steps with them that lead to more complex awareness and skills, set them up for success, tackle some new but manageable challenge all the time. If you enlisted your students as fellow teachers, you’d have the happy side effect of accelerating their progress in competence (and confidence). Everyone might become a little more active mentally and a little more likely to look out for their horses and each other if they were a little less focused on you.

I have a lot of nerve writing you like this. I know it. If you’ve read this far, I can offer only one defense for my bumptiousness . . .

The moment in your brief anti-clicker tirade when your ignorance was most glaringly exposed was when you scoffed that a clicker trainer “couldn’t click fast enough” if you put her in a dangerous situation. It would make as little sense to say of one of your students that she couldn’t yank on the bit often or hard enough to survive such a test. The problem wouldn’t lie with the bit, it would lie with the unprepared rider and horse. A clicker trainer uses the clicker to nurture a feel and to establish, refine, and then occasionally maintain specific cued behaviors. If a trainer hadn’t worked hard and long (possibly with the help of a clicker) to get the feel of her horse and to get the behaviors she would need in such a situation solidly on cue, if she hadn’t already established that she could bet her life on her horse responding as he needed to in order to keep them both safe, she would be a suicidal idiot to get the two of them willingly into such a fix. As would any student using your methods.

As for your underlying message that clicker training is only good for dumb tricks, that it’s inherently worthless for someone like you who might face dangerous and unpredictable animals on a regular basis in his working life, I’d like to call your attention to the uniquely effective use of clicker training by a growing number of zookeepers around the country. To take one example, elephants have killed enough keepers in recent years that most zoos have adopted “protected contact” policies, which dictate that keepers can never enter the pens of their charges and so must find creative and utterly non-coercive means of getting elephants’ wills to coincide with their own. I wonder if you could -- using no more than a couple of words or hand gestures -- persuade a six-ton African bull elephant to stroll over to a gate and lift his foot so you could check it for infection. I wonder if you could get a rhinoceros voluntarily to lie down, then roll on its side and stay there calmly while a veterinarian takes a blood sample? Clicker trainers have accomplished these things, and maybe you could, too. The difference right now is that none of them would mock you and call you stupid to an arena full of people. They’d be impressed and want to know how you managed it. They might even think they had something to learn from you.

I have a lot of nerve writing you like this. I know it. If you’ve read this far, I can offer only one defense for my bumptiousness, and that is my commitment to the well-being of animals who have been thrust -- through no fault of their own -- into the human world and then have to make the best of that deal. The Oregon Humane Society fortunately has enough success placing animals in new homes that it takes in dogs from overcrowded shelters as far away as Los Angeles, and it only euthanizes those who are judged to be incorrigibly dangerous (I have known the behavior department to work for months with a dog before making that painful decision). This is not the norm, as you probably know. So I view the training of people as a life or death matter for the dogs I work with, and clicker training is far and away the most effective and efficient method I’ve encountered for getting a bumbling human into some kind of workable synch with an animal who depends on that human’s goodwill for its own survival. I’m writing in the animals’ defense. And in defense of a host of people who work as devotedly as you do to make animals’ lives better. Some of them have been working to that end even longer than you have, and I really hate to hear them get verbally spit on by someone who ought to know better.

You have a well-earned and growing power of influence, which is all the more reason you should take care not to abuse it. I think you’re a good king, Buck. (Sounds like the title of a new Christmas carol. “Good King Brannaman looked out...”) But you’re not perfectly enlightened, not on this subject. I beg you not to say another public word about clicker training until after you’ve taken a few big bites out of your own ignorance. If you ever want to learn more, just say the word. Karen Pryor has been putting these methods effectively to work for nearly fifty years. I’ve quoted a couple of paragraphs from her excellent (and nicely compact) book Don’t Shoot the Dog below, just to give you some idea of the alliance in your thinking. If you’d like, I would happily buy and send you a copy. I can also pretty well guarantee that Karen would be delighted to talk with you if you ever thought that would be worth your while. She’s extremely generous with people who are committed as she is to improving communication between human and non-human animals.

Thank you again for all that I learned (or began to learn) last week, for the great charge of inspiration I took from your example, and especially for your devotion to the dignity and flourishing of horses and other underestimated creatures. I hope I’ll have another opportunity soon to learn more of what you have to teach.

With sincere gratitude and all best wishes,

Gretchen Icenogle

So there it is. I still haven't heard back from the man himself. I don't take it personally - he's got as much right as any of us to choose where to invest his time and energy. More than most, given how hard he works. But I hope he'd like to hear that I've spent almost as much breath defending him to clicker trainers as I've spent defending clicker trainers to him.