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The Panda Game

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Miniature horses are a special breed. According to horse owners, miniature horses are not descended from ponies, but developed from regular horses. Most of them are about the size of a large dog, and, like some large dogs, they make great guides for blind people.

How can that be? Well, first, yes, they can be housebroken. Like a dog, a horse can learn where and when to relieve itself, and how to signal when it needs to go out. A little horse can also easily learn to carry out all the functions of a guide dog: watching traffic, stopping and alerting the owner at curbs, steps, and stairs, avoiding obstacles, staying quietly next to the owner in restaurants and other public spaces, and so on. A guide horse can ride in cars and on trains (not planes, or at least not yet). A guide horse and its owner quickly become personal friends, and learn not just to work together but to play and relax together at the end of the day.

And here's the money part. Miniature horses live a lot longer than dogs. Once trained, a guide dog has six or seven years left before it is too old to work. The owner of a guide horse can expect to enjoy the services of this faithful friend for twenty years or more.

There are, I'm told, about half a dozen miniature horses functioning as guide animals in the US right now. One of them, a black-and-white mare named Panda belongs to Ann Edie, a teacher in New York State. Panda's trainer was Alexandra Kurland, and Panda is the first guide horse to have been 100% clicker trained. See Panda in action.

KPCT was fortunate to have Ann Edie and Panda as honored guests at ClickerExpo Newport in 2006. Everyone enjoyed meeting this distinguished pair. We were awed by Panda's calmness as she guided Ann during the day, through crowds and halls and past all sorts of dogs (some of which were distinctly upset at having a horse among them). People were wonderful about not trying to pet Panda as she worked, even though she is deliciously cute and furry. At the Saturday night autograph party Panda even signed her own books, Panda: A Guide Horse for Ann, with a little, inky front hoof.

"A guide horse and its owner quickly become personal friends, and learn not just to work together but to play and relax together at the end of the day."

During plenary sessions the nearly 400 attendees had a chance to hear Ann's eloquent comments on the relationship between them, on Panda's skills and intelligence, and on the many ways Panda shows Ann that she is happy—from her greeting whicker in the morning to the ways she likes to play and relax in the evenings.

The morning after ClickerExpo, the faculty gathered for a session of brainstorming on next year's ClickerExpo, and of sharing our personal news and events. And what Alexandra and Ann shared was a participation exercise: something that Panda had invented for herself called the Panda Game.

This is how you play the Panda Game. All the people present were given a handful of Panda treats: bean-sized alfalfa pellets, much enjoyed by horses. About a dozen of us joined in a big circle, standing about arms' length apart.

To learn how to clickertrain your horse, you can order one of Alexandra's training videos.

The Click that Teaches: An Introduction to Clicker Training

"What do we do now?" we asked.

"Panda will show you," Alexandra said. Alex removed Panda's guide harness and told her to start playing.

In a businesslike way, Panda set off for the first person on her left, Emma Parsons; circled behind her, came up alongside in "heel" position, and halted. Emma's response was instant: Click, treat. We all were to learn to hold the treat under Panda's mouth, since Panda is trained to wait for her treat to be fed to her. We also had to learn to hold our hand flat, so she could nibble up the pellets without nibbling one's hand by accident.

Panda then briskly moved to the next person, circled behind her, came up to her side, and again earned a click and a treat. The third person was Kay Laurence. This time Panda came in and halted at a 45-degree angle, instead of straight. Kay instantly stepped sidewise, conveying the information, "None of that carelessness from you, my girl," and Panda adjusted her position just as quickly, and got a click and a treat.

Panda went on around the circle, methodically teaching each of us to click and treat. Then she started around the circle a second time. This time, being the primates that we are, always curious and restless, people began introducing slight variations. When Panda came along side Ken Ramirez, training director of the Shedd Aquarium and a major figure in the training world, Ken took a step forward and stopped. She matched him exactly with her own steps, and got a click and a treat. When she got to me, three people later, I tried two steps forward. Panda came with me with precision, heeling like a high-scoring obedience dog.

Then she got to Aaron Clayton, our company president and ClickerExpo host. Ever the risk-taker, Aaron took six steps forward. No! said Panda. She tossed her head, switched her tail, and trotted away from him across the circle, to join Kay Laurence instead. We all burst into laughter, of course.

Now the game became more interesting. Instead of going around the circle taking each person in order, Panda began crisscrossing the middle, choosing who she would play with each time. Those who were favored by being chosen began asking for more behavior—back up a step, say—but tactfully, since we had now witnessed Panda's ability to express her opinion.

"One of the joys of having clicker trained animals around is that they are able to express themselves: not just with innate social behavior, the way animals usually do with people, but with their whole intelligent selves."

Panda seemed to prefer the skilled, but she was not a snob; she also rejoined those people who were still a little awkward at feeding the pellets. After a few more stops she gave Aaron another chance. He took her a modest two steps forward and clicked. Panda accepted her treat and moved on. Did she look a little smug? I thought so.

By and by, the game began winding down, as some of used up our supply of treats. A few people were still playing when Ken Ramirez and I happened to start walking back to the meeting table together—until Panda barged between us, circled behind Ken, and actually herded him back toward the game.

Ken, for those who don't know, is a leader in the marine mammal and zoo training worlds, and a hugely innovative and advanced trainer. We all think he's The Best. Apparently Panda thought so too. Ken, being gently jostled by this determined little creature, looked at me with awe on his face and said "I feel so flattered!"

"Indeed, you should!" I exclaimed. Alex gave Ken a few more pellets so he could play another round or two of the Panda Game.

One of the joys of having clicker trained animals around is that they are able to express themselves: not just with innate social behavior, the way animals usually do with people—infantile demands such as whining or begging, species-specific social displays such as threats (growling, for dogs, laying the ears back with horses)—but with their whole intelligent selves. It's interaction on a new plane, one that those who dominate, punish, and suppress behavior, and call it training, will never see.

And Panda just gave us a world-class example. In a game she invented herself. A game that earned her not just our affection, but something rarer: both personally and intellectually, our respect.

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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