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Pony's Choice: On Behavior Revisited

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On Behavior is back in print! A compilation of my articles and excerpts from my books, On Behavior includes many classic essays on operant conditioning in the real world, including:

  • The Creative Porpoise: Training for Novel Behavior
  • Why Punishment Doesn't Work
  • A Dolphin-Human Fishing Cooperative in Brazil
  • The Dreadful Dowager Dolphin
  • Reinforcement Training as Interspecies Communication
back in print: On Behavior by karen pryor

The article below is excerpt from On Behavior entitled "Pony's Choice." This selection comes from a speech, The President's Invited Scholar's Address, which I gave to the Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA) in 1992. I chose it as an example of how one could use operant conditioning techniques to develop abstract thinking—the weighing of alternatives—even in an animal not generally considered intelligent.

Now, fourteen years later, many clicker trainers are deliberately teaching the concept of alternatives. At the upcoming ClickerExpos in Orlando and San Diego, Ken Ramirez, one of the leading marine mammal trainers in the country, will teach a session on establishing paired cues, such as up, down; left, right; near, far; fast, slow. Ken and his trainers routinely use such cues with in marine mammals; they are also wonderfully useful with dogs, for example in guiding a Search and Rescue dog at a distance.

Kay Laurence, pioneering British clicker trainer and also on this year's ClickerExpo faculty, teaches dogs to respond accurately not just to pairs of cues but to combinations of pairs: Left paw-touch-large object-softly. Nose-touch-small object-hard. Her dogs—Gordon setters, beautiful but not known for brains—can follow those instructions with ease. Fourteen years ago, even I thought that probably only dolphins, elephants, and primates would be able to respond accurately to what are, in fact, sentences. I was wrong. It's the training method. It is letting us communicate in ever more subtle ways.

Recently the journal Science made headlines by reporting a German study that showed that a certain border collie had learned over 200 words (that is, what we call cues, such as the names of toys). The dog could acquire new words with ease, and remember them at least some of the time. The experts are now quibbling over whether this is the world's smartest dog or just what is going on. Well, we know what's going on. With a clicker, the number of cues a dog can recognize is pretty open-ended. And dogs that know a lot of cues can learn concepts too. It's still a difficult concept for humans: that intelligence is more abundant than we think. We just have to be smart enough to know how to ask.

Pony's Choice

An excerpt from On Behavior
By Karen Pryor My neighbor and fellow trainer Pat Brewington brought a Percheron colt. Pat weighs about 100 pounds, and Percherons are enormous. There was no way Pat could train this horse by whips, chains, and force, the traditional method. Instead, she trained the horse, James, with a clicker and carrots, and was able in this way to shape him to carry a rider, wear a harness, and so on: the traditional tasks.

Pat also plays games with her horses. For example, there is a place in our woods where one of the trails forks; both ways lead home, and they are of equal length. Sometimes Pat ask her horse to go left, sometimes right; and sometimes she loosen the reins and says "Pony's choice," and lets the horse decide. Sometimes they go left, and sometimes right. The same game can be played with a log in the trail; they can go around it, they can jump over it, or Pat can say "Pony's choice" and let the horse decide; again, sometimes her horses decide one way and sometimes the other.

I was invited to watch James having his first lesson of actually hauling logs, sections of cut-down trees, the ultimate work for which he had been purchased. Having trained horses myself, I knew that the first experience of something new is especially important. Horses learn fast. If something goes wrong, they never forget it. I have personally built behaviors into young horses, by accident, that created problems for years.

"It's still a difficult concept for humans: that intelligence is more abundant than we think. We just have to be smart enough to know how to ask."

Now, in James's paddock, a big tree had been felled and cut up into ten-foot-long logs. Pat walked behind the horse, guiding him with long reins and voice commands. James would be driven alongside the log until he was in front of it, so that the attachment point on his harness, the singletree, could be hooded onto a chain on the log. Then he would be urged forward, to drag the heavy log to the log pile outside the paddock.

The first log went fine. At the second log, James walked quietly beside the log and actually parked himself in the proper place to be hooked up. The third log, however, was farther back in the paddock, toward the base of the tree, in a muddy spot. Pat tried to drive James alongside the log, and he balked, ears laid back: "I don't want to go there."

This was a dangerous moment. Were the young horse to learn now, that balking "works," he might well balk forever. A traditional trainer would instantly have laid into him with voice and whip to force him forward. Pat doesn't own a whip. What was she going to do?

What she did was slacken the reins and say, "Pony's choice." James looked at the mud, ears forward, and then he carefully stepped over the log and came forward along the other side. He thought that the ground looked safer on the far side of the log. Pat had developed a cue, in a very young horse, that meant, "Use your own judgment." Horses do have some judgment, particularly about where to put their feet; the folk expression, "horse sense," is not wrong. Now, for the rest of James's life, Pat has a horse of who she can say, "I'm not sure what's the best way to pull this log, left or right—let's ask James."

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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