Cues and Behavior Evolve Together

Your dog, your horse, your goat, your guinea pig has just performed the perfect pirouette spin.  What does the person watching you ask?  


“What’s your cue for that?”  


Wrong question!


Knowing your cues won’t help her.  Your friend could go home and give the exact same cue to her dog, her horse, her goat, her guinea pig, but unless she has gone through a teaching process to teach it to her learners, they won’t have a clue what to do.


Conventional practice tells us that a behavior is “put on cue” after the learner is reliably performing it.  That convention hides a powerful reality. Cues—information that helps an animal get to his reinforcement faster —are evolving throughout the shaping process.  Putting a behavior on cue only after the behavior is formed is a bit of misdirection.  It can keep handlers from seeing all the clues/cues that an animal is using to figure out how to get to a desired outcome.  Hence the question that gets asked: “what is your cue for that?”


Even if the person watching decides that your cue is going to be “the cue” for this behavior, it still doesn’t help her.


The question she needs to be asking is: “How did you teach that?”



Cues evolve out of the shaping process.  During our Clicker Training and Behavior Science Summer Camp we’ll be working with the resident horses.  That’s the species that is represented by Clever Hans. Many of you will be familiar with the story.  Clever Hans lived in Europe in the early 1900s.  His owner had trained him to perform all sorts of amazing, one could even say miraculous feats.  He could answer complex mathematical equations.  Ask him a question, and he would tap out the answer with his hoof.   


How was he doing this?  Surely it must be a hoax!  To prove that Clever Hans couldn’t really be doing mathematical equations researchers had his owner step out of sight.  Clever Hans still got the right answer.  It took some clever investigating to discover that as long as the people watching knew the answer, Clever Hans was always right.  They were ever so subtly telegraphing the answer to him through changes in their body language.  


When they figured out what Clever Hans was doing, there was a collective sigh of relief.  People could go back to believing that horses were the stupid animals they had always thought them to be.  "You see,” they said, "Clever Hans wasn’t really doing math after all!"


Silly people.  They missed the real brilliance of horses.  Horses are so good at reading us - we can’t not cue!   


Here’s a simple example: when a handler is clicking and reinforcing her horse for putting his ears forward, where is she looking?  At his ears.  In contrast when she wants him to back up, where is she looking?  At his chest.  


Her horse will pick up on those differences and use them as clues to get to his reinforcement faster.


Cues are not separate from the behaviors they prompt.  They evolve together.  Throughout the week Alexandra Kurland will be helping us learn more about how this process works.  How do you spot the cues that your learner is using so you can turn them into deliberate cues?  How do you use their keen observation skills to your advantage to help you:


* develop good stimulus control over individual behaviors

* transfer your cues to performance cues

* become more subtle and light in your cues

* build complex sequences of behavior


We’ll be looking at cues versus commands.  We’ll see how cues work to bind behaviors together and create reinforcement opportunities.  We’ll look at how you can set up deliberate context cues that can help shift you out of poisoned cue scenarios.  And we’ll explore how you can become more aware of your own body language so you have a greater repertoire of cues to choose from.  


The morning body awareness sessions led by Alexandra, and the daily Feldenkrais sessions with Nathalie Van Cauwenberghe will help us become more aware of our own balance.  How does it affect our ability to communicate clearly?  What are we signaling to our animal learners and how can we become more intentional in the clues/cues we are giving?  In the afternoon training sessions we’ll see how clever our horses are at reading us. 


In the afternoon of the first day we’ll meet the horses who will be our co-teachers.  This will be a data collecting session.  What do these horses know?   What do we want to work on to move their training forward?  How does an understanding of the evolution of cues help us communicate better with them?  Always we will be looking both at the horses and the handler.  It’s not only how can we train better, but how can we teach better?  


Through the many discussions, PORTL games, body awareness and feldenkrais lessons, and the practice sessions where we work on improving handling skills, everyone will be involved.  The question throughout is how do we develop the best learning experience and training outcome for our animal learners, the handlers, the coaches?   

Not everyone who attends will get to work directly with a horse, but there will be opportunities for some individuals to be chosen to be our handler “guinea pigs”.  We will also get to watch Michaela work with her horses as she explores the connection between the foundation lessons and advanced performance.


Michaela has been learning “what” she wants to teach from the classical dressage trainer, Anja Beran.  Her horses have been learning the gymnastic exercises that Anja uses to develop a horse’s balance.  But Michaela uses the “how” of clicker training to teach these exercises.  So we can explore through her horses the details of “classical” clicker training - details that include clean training loops, shaping on a point of contact, and letting cues and behavior evolve together via thin slicing and deliberate attention given to our own body awareness and balance.


As coaches, observers, and for a few lucky handlers, we’ll be exploring concepts and techniques that will make teaching and learning a more enjoyable and productive experience for all involved.  Even if you don’t work with horses, there will be much the horses can teach you that will benefit the species you do work with.