I’m taking an introductory animal behavior course right now, on line; part of my quest to learn as much as I possibly can learn about this fascinating field. So I’m studying the theory of how animals (ourselves included) learn. I’m parsing the jargon of behaviors and reinforcers and punishers and extinction and antecedents and consequences. Of establishing operations and abolishing operations; of discriminating stimuli and delta stimuli; of topography and function.
At the same time, I’m jumping into the fray and practicing–learning by doing. Once I learned about operant conditioning theory last year, I couldn’t wait to start experimenting with as many different animals as possible. Target training is a gratifying place to start; it’s amazing how quickly an animal at liberty finds agency, making the environment work in their favor. The animal stumbles onto the conclusion that touching a target brings treats, and it will keep searching out that target as long as treats are motivating. But it’s one thing to read about targeting; it’s even better to get out there and try it.
My very first learner was my dog, incredibly food motivated. Soon enough I had her working off scent to target my keys, finding where I’d hidden them among the couch cushions. Then I worked with my “crazy” thoroughbred Luna, and noticed that she remained calm and quiet throughout entire training sessions. That was an eye-opener. Thus convinced of its utility with horses, I started bringing target training into my veterinary work. Then, I got goats.
Did I know much about goats before training them? Not really. From veterinary school I remembered they had 4 stomachs and got in trouble with parasites and need supplemental copper, but I knew next to nothing about goat personalities. I did have an inkling about their appetites, so I borrowed a couple of goats to eat the invasive blackberry vines out of my back pasture. Now, I am training the goats.
Like Agnes the mule, these goats need some hoof care, although unlike Agnes they do not need it urgently and are not generally averse to human contact. These four year old, female, Boer goats seek out human contact. They are from a friend’s 4-H herd, socialized to humans and eager to see what we’re up to.
Also unlike Agnes, these goats are small enough that a strong adult human can restrain them and force compliance with necessary things like hoof care. But come on–they’re friendly goats! I see pictures of goats trained to pull carts in harness; why not teach them something more simple, like how to stand willingly for hoof care?
Out comes the target. I imagine a future in which these goats stand calmly while I run a hand down each leg; in which they lift up one hoof and balance on three others; in which trimming their hooves will not require me to call over a strong guy to come hold them still.
The goats–quirky, observant characters–naturally glance over at the new object I am holding, this bizarre white blob on a stick. I mark that glance with a click! and offer some alfalfa pellets. YUM–they like that, and they see where the pellets come from. They nose around the feed pouch at my waist a bit while I hold it closed, non-reinforcing. Soon, another glance at the target–click! Food reward. It doesn’t take long for the goats to make the switch from randomly encountering the target, to deliberating checking it out. It’s the only route to those blessed alfalfa pellets, and they’re not stupid.
In fact they’re remarkably fast at this target training exercise, at least as fast as my dog was. I repeat several days in a row, and it isn’t too many days–maybe 5–until I am stationing the target at the fence and standing 10 feet away. The goats nose my pouch to no avail, then go touch the target in order to hear that click!, and get their treat.
It’s time to move on to hoof handling … (to be continued in future posts.Check back often!)
—Thinking horses, or maybe GOATS? Think positive!