The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Report 6: More Panda Reports - Continued

Written by Ann Edie

 

The following articles were reports

 to email guide dog lists written by Ann Edie, describing Panda’s early guide training. 

May 19, 2003

 

(Ann originally wrote this report for a guide dog list. Part of her post addresses a discussion people on that list were having on the use of leash corrections. In the last section of the report she describes the use of the "reset" to train what is wanted, as opposed to punishing directly an unwanted behavior. Her descriptions of Panda's recent walks give a good illustration of how the reset is used in working situations.)

 

Hi, All,

 

I thought you might like an update on what Panda, my miniature horse guide-in-training, has been doing since my last report in March.

 

I have been without a dog guide since last November, so I have been using my cane to get around, back and forth to school and generally whenever I travel. We had a long, unusually cold, and very snowy winter, which limited the amount of outdoor walking and training we could do. But now that spring has arrived here in the Northeast, we are getting out more and doing more training with Panda.

 

In April we attended the Equine Affaire, a large educational horse event and trade show in Columbus, Ohio. Panda had been there last year when she was just beginning to learn her guide work. This year she was able to serve beautifully as my guide animal as well as serving as the demo horse for her trainer, Alexandra Kurland's three demonstrations of Clicker Training with horses.

 

The fair grounds where the Equine Affaire is held present a complex and challenging setting in which to work a new guide. The indoor environment includes many stables with all breeds and sizes of horses, excited by the novel surroundings and calling to one another; trade show buildings with multiple aisles and shops and booths selling everything from jewelry and riding apparel to saddles and horse feed; demonstration areas ranging from small rings with bleachers to huge arenas with blaring public address systems, loud music and flashing lights, and seating for thousands of people; and exhibit areas for horse trailers, trucks, farm equipment, barn equipment, and fencing. Outdoors there are roadways clogged by huge tractor-trailers and horse trailers, expansive and jumbled parking lots, walkways with traffic barriers across them, horses of all kinds trotting by, some pulling fancy carriages with jingling harness bells, food vending stands with lines of people to navigate around, and a variety of food distractions, stairs and doors to work through, and of course, crowds of curious people who want to stop and talk about and pet, if they can, the tiny guide horse.

 

As soon as I picked up the harness handle, I could feel that Panda remembered this place from a year ago. She walked out confidently, stopping to indicate the changes in footing from concrete to brick and from brick to dirt, stopping at each of the widely spaced steps and tapping it with a dainty hoof, pausing before going through open doorways and curtains hung across aisles, stopping at chains strung across roads and touching them with her nose to make sure I knew they were there before working around them through narrow gaps. She remembered the routes between the various buildings and made changes in the route she chose in order to avoid vending stand lines and other congested areas.

 

One of the questions we wanted to pose during this weekend was how Panda would cope with the large crowds of people, many of whom might try to pet her or interrupt her work. The answer that Panda gave us consistently was that she could be patient while I spoke with the people, and that she could remain focused on her work despite interruptions and distractions and hands of all sizes reaching out toward her. One child even poked Panda in the side with the spurs she was carrying in her hand as she passed! But Panda just kept on her path! Whenever she paused, even on the stairs,people would form a semi-circle in front of us, blocking our way, and I would have to explain to them that Panda is a working horse and that they must not pet or distract her. Since the people who come to the Equine Affaire are there because they love horses and can't get enough of stroking them, it was even harder for these crowds to resist the temptation to ruffle Panda's mane or touch her tiny ears than it is for the ordinary city crowds.

 

Inside the trade show building, Panda worked through the crowded aisles like a pro. And she proved to be an excellent shopper, too! We shopped for sweatshirts for me at the Icelandic horse booth and for a raincoat and halter for Panda at the miniature horse booth. Panda was very patient,even for trying on her halter and raincoat, which is very hard for any youngster, human or equine!

 

During the Clicker Training demos, Panda showed the people how she can follow a target, stand quietly on a mat while posing beautifully, come when called, and heel. She helped demonstrate how behavior can be shaped through the use of a bridging signal and positive reinforcement and how individual behaviors can be strung together to form behavior chains.

 

Panda also spent hours in the tiny space of The Clicker Center booth, where Clicker Training books and videos are sold. She showed that she can be very good about just "hanging out" in the booth and not demanding attention from her people. She even lay down and took a nap. And to answer the concerns of those who are worried about housebreaking--she went for stretches of three hours or more without a relief break and had no accidents.

 

The Equine Affaire is a four-day event, plus another couple days of set-up and travel, of what could be very stressful working conditions for any new guide animal. Panda worked splendidly throughout, and handled all the stimulation, attention, and activity cheerfully and with curiosity and willingness. It was a very useful and successful training experience for all of us.

 

Back home we have been working in progressively more complex city conditions. Panda has proven adept at weaving among the lamp posts, front stoops, basement stairs, mailboxes, planters,window boxes, vehicles parked on the sidewalks, tree branches, dumpsters, and countless other obstacles encountered while walking along the narrow old side streets of Albany, while simultaneously avoiding or stopping at cracks and bumps in the sidewalk. She maintains a steady, unhurried pace which is comfortable and easy to follow, and shows excellent judgment in working around pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, and baby strollers. She is doing very well finding crosswalks and curb cuts, and picks up her pace when crossing streets, so as to get us out of the street before the light changes. The older government buildings downtown provide wonderful long flights of stairs for us to go up and down. Panda is becoming very confident on outdoor stairs, and her even pace and solid back provide just the stability that make it so pleasant to follow her while coming down the stairs. She takes in stride loud construction equipment, scaffolding, blocked sidewalks, and construction site detours. She seems unconcerned by barking dogs or dogs straining at their leashes to get at her. We even encountered our first working guide dog in our travels, and Panda behaved entirely appropriately, despite the interest and distraction shown by the other guide.

 

Another lesson which we have been working on with Panda is that of just "hanging out" while her person attends a meeting or a concert, or eats dinner in a restaurant. Panda is learning that there are periods of time when she is to just relax while her person attends to business or social affairs.She has accompanied me to several full-length dinners in restaurants, including my family's Mother's Day dinner at a local Japanese restaurant. In restaurants we find a place where she can stand by my chair or alongside the table and be out of traffic. Then she goes into napping mode and waits patiently until I stand up and pick up the harness handle once again. By the way, although we are almost invariably greeted by excited whispering among the staff, followed by the appearance of faces peeking through half-opened doors from back rooms to verify the news that a miniature guide horse is present in the establishment, I have had no problems so far gaining access with my guide horse to places of public accommodation, such as restaurants and stores. And, of course, Panda's behavior gives proprietors no reason to object to her presence.

 

Panda has also been spending more time working with me in the high school where I teach. We are introducing her to this environment gradually, both to give Panda time to adjust to the high level of stimulation there, and to give the 1500 students time to get used to the notion of seeing a little horse in their school. Panda seems to enjoy working through the throngs of students moving,sometimes in surprising ways, down the corridors of the school. She is very consistent in stopping at intersections and waiting for directional cues from me before going on. She is doing very well at maneuvering through tight spaces and at finding doors and other landmarks. She has been introduced to the nine students with disabilities in the special education class where I spend most of my workday. And in this setting, too, Panda is learning a "long stay", that is, to stand quietly in a corner near where I am working with students until I pick up the harness handle and ask her to guide me once again.

 

The way we are teaching Panda the "long stay" is to build the time she stands quietly literally one second at a time, clicking and rewarding each successful trial. If Panda moves before I have released her with the click, I simply ask her to move back into position, and I begin counting the seconds again. We have only begun to build Panda's understanding that duration is the criteria in this exercise. In the months ahead I will continue to work on this exercise, perhaps giving Panda a small "target", such as a mat, to stand on, while I gradually lengthen the time before I click and reward her. I will build this duration first in one location and then in others, gradually adding criteria of increased distraction levels and distance from me, as well as the time she is expected to stay.

 

I have been eager to begin panda's training in working on public transportation. But, as with every aspect of her training, we wanted to break the work into small steps and introduce the steps one at a time, so that Panda could experience success at each step, gain confidence and skill progressively, and not be overwhelmed by too much that was unfamiliar or confusing to her at anyone time. So, before I took her onto an actual city bus or subway with a schedule to keep and all the noise, crowds, and movement of those conveyances, I wanted to find a stationary vehicle on which we could practice boarding, finding a seat, backing into a space, and standing quietly until it was time to get off. Happily, our State Museum in Albany provides just such an opportunity. The museum has an exhibit called Life in the City. As part of this exhibit they have an actual old subway car and a mock subway platform.

 

As it turned out, the stairs leading up to the subway platform were a bigger challenge to Pandat han was the actual subway car. Panda has been learning how to walk deliberately and steadily up and down flights of outdoor stairs, and she has done very well at this task. We have done some limited work on indoor steps, but the slippery surfaces of the steps seem to worry Panda a bit. Although we have wanted to avoid putting cute little sneakers on Panda, we have concluded that some sort of non-skid footware would be helpful to her, at least while she is learning to go up and down those indoor stairs. We have decided, however, to use non-skid shoes designed and made specifically for miniature horses, rather than sneakers made for human babies.

 

When Panda hesitated at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the mock subway platform, and gave evidence that something about those stairs worried her, we did not "correct" Panda or force her to go forward. Instead we welcomed this training opportunity and used the training method that Panda is familiar with, clicker training, to help her gain the confidence she needed to figure out the solution to the puzzle. Her trainer, Alexandra Kurland, placed her hand as a target a short distance in front of Panda and asked her to "touch". Panda stretched out her neck and touched Alex's hand with her nose. Alex gave her the signal that Panda knows means "yes, that is the right answer," a clicking sound, and gave Panda a tiny bit of grain as a reward. Then Alex again presented her hand as a target, this time a few inches further away from Panda's nose, so that Panda had to stretch further to touch it. When she did, she again heard the click and received her reward. This was repeated until Panda found she needed to place her front feet on the first step in order to reach Alex's hand. Then Panda made the decision herself to take that first step, and she was clicked and rewarded as before.

 

As the training session proceeded, Alex continued to move her target further ahead of Panda and up the stairs. Eventually, Panda found that she would need to place her back feet up on that first step in order to move forward to the target. When she made this choice, she was again given the click that means "that's right" and the reward for her correct response. Each time Alex clicked and delivered the treat, she asked Panda to back down to the bottom of the stairs and start again. So Panda did not simply go up the stairs once, she got lots of opportunities to practice finding her balance and walking deliberately up the steps, placing each foot individually on the stairs until she had the rhythm of the footfalls and had gained the necessary confidence to walk all the way up the eight or so stairs to the simulated subway platform.

 

In this way, training remains a positive experience for Panda, and she gains confidence on the stairs because she is allowed to move at her own pace and to find her balance on the unfamiliar surface. Panda, like a dog, is small enough that she could be forced to go where we want her to go by simply pulling on her lead or pushing her around. However, we have found that the more positive and patient training method produces more solid and consistent results, a happy and confident worker, and none of the fear and anxiety associated with punishment and force.

 

Once up on the platform, Panda walked across the narrow gap between the platform and the subway car without hesitation. We found a seat and asked Panda to back into the space between our seat and the one in front of us and to stand sideways across our knees facing the aisle. She seemed very content to do this, and remained still and calm even when a young child began swinging from the overhead straps as if they were some sort of playground equipment, her swinging feet coming within inches of Panda's face. After viewing a video describing the workings of the New York City subway system and listening to the sounds of the subway, we exited the car and went on our way. Panda went down the steps from the platform much more readily than she had gone up. This surprised me, since I thought that going down stairs would be the more worrisome of the two directions. The next lesson in the public transportation series will involve getting on and off a stationary city bus, if we can find one, and then a short ride on an operating city bus. We will continue to work on stairs as they are encountered in our travels. But we will save the slippery, narrow indoor stairs until after we acquire the non-skid shoes.

 

In the meantime, Panda and I have been racking up walking miles by hiking the one and a half miles from my house to the barn where my riding horses live. Since spring has burst upon us and the grass has sprung to life, green and juicy, as tempting to a horse as the chattering squirrels and darting cats every step of the way along the route would be to a dog, we have been presented with another splendid opportunity to use the tools of clicker training to help Panda understand exactly what her job is. A typical training walk goes something like this. We start out from my suburban home, "country walking" along the edge of the road, the delicious green feast scant inches below Panda's quivering little nose. Before long, quite understandably, the temptation becomes too much for her two-year-old equine brain, and she dives to the grass for a scrumptious mouthful.

 

We treat this lapse as we would any other error in maintaining a straight line of walk, that is, I slide down the lead with my right hand, stop my forward movement, and ask Panda to take a few steps backward with me. This automatically brings her head up from the grass as we back up. If I am prompt in my pick up of the lead and backing up, Panda does not succeed in gaining the positive reinforcement of a bite of grass. But, in any case, her forward progress, as well as her grazing, have been interrupted. Then I simply ask her to go forward once again, and when she goes a few steps past the point of temptation, I click and give her a bit of grain or carrot.

 

This correction is not a "leash correction" or a punishment. There is no jerk on the lead, but rather a smooth pick-up and rock back. It is a "reset and start again" procedure. And even if Panda goes for the grass again as soon as she starts forward, I do not get angry or impatient with her, but merely pick up the lead and rock her back to start again, keeping her in position at my left side.After just one or two resets, Panda is able to go forward past the grass. I withhold my click and treat for a few more steps each time, until we are just walking down the road without a thought for the grass beneath her feet. As we go along I click and treat Panda occasionally for other criteria as well, such as walking strait down the center of the bike path, stopping at crosswalks, curbs, and other landmarks, and responding to my requests for changes of pace. If Panda again gives in to temptation at a spot where the grassy verge rises alongside the path, I simply repeat the slide down and rock back procedure, and we go forward once again. I find this a very pleasant way to train,and Panda seems to find it an understandable and non-frustrating way to learn. So we arrive at the barn feeling energized and relaxed, rather than stressed and tired. And our relationship is strengthened and deepened with each successful walk, as we learn to trust each other, to read each other's signals, and to enjoy moving in freedom together down the road.

 

By the way, lest you think that Panda's life is one of unmitigated toil and confinement, let me hasten to assure you that Panda is given time, when out of harness, to graze and romp in the spring grass. She is doing her best to keep the lawn mowed in both Alex's back yard and my own. And, just as for our "big" horses, Panda's grazing time must be limited so as to prevent excessive weight gain and other health consequences. And Panda is learning that certain behaviors are expected when she has her harness on and others are reserved for times when the harness is removed and she is "off duty."

 

Panda's training is not yet complete, but she has certainly attained an excellent foundation in her guide work and gained many skills and tools which we can call upon to refine her work in the months ahead. I am very pleased with her progress so far, and I am greatly enjoying traveling with her as my guide and companion. If you would like to learn more about Panda's training or about Clicker Training in general, you are invited to visit Alexandra Kurland's web site: www.theclickercenter.com. Alex's book, CLICKER TRAINING FOR YOUR HORSE, is available in both cassette and braille format from the NLS. And if you have questions, feel free to contact me by E-mail at annedie@nycap.rr.com.

 

Ann Edie

 

Copyright 2003 The Clicker Center LLC

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© Alexandra Kurland - The Clicker Center

Questions? Email kurlanda@crisny.org

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