Learning about Learning – with Peta Clarke and Susan Friedman

I have just returned from a wonderful week of learning at Riverwood Downs – situated in the Barrington Tops area of NSW, Australia.  The conference was organised by Peta Clarke, who runs Animal Training Solutions   Peta had invited Dr Susan Friedman  – a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to captive and companion animals.

I had seen Susan Friedman at the Clicker Expo I attended, and was in awe of the knowledge she had regarding behaviour.  I certainly wasn’t going to miss this opportunity!!!

I didn’t know Peta Clarke – but I had heard of her through my horse friend Kate, who had attended one of her workshops.  I knew we were in for a great week!

The day’s activities started with a two hour presentation from Susan, followed by training sessions with ten dogs  and their owners, which was taught by Peta – and observed/analysed by Susan!  Following that, we had a Q and A session… then after a meal it was time to roll into bed, ready to repeat it for the next day.

On the first day Susan started with her introductory talk ‘ The Learning Planet‘.  She referred to Susan Schneider’s book – Science of Consequences  and provided many quotes.  Here is one:

  “Nature and nurture always work together, and scientists have demonstrated that learning from consequences predictably activates genes and restructures the brain”  –  Susan Schneider

And another  “Boredom indicates a lack of reinforcers NOT a lack of stimulation” – Susan Schneider

I was reminded of the above quote this morning!  We have my daughter’s cats staying here for a few weeks.  They are indoor cats – but Cyril – a ragdoll cat –  wants company and stimulation every moment he’s awake – he has short walks outside but because of sudden allergies we have to be very careful.  This morning he wouldn’t stop howling because Doug was outside.  I tried several things to distract him but all the toys I brought out only kept him entertained for a minute – then it was back to howling.

Finally I thought I would try a tape measure – now this was reinforcing – we ran round and round the house – him following the tape measure and pouncing on it.  Now my theory is that it was reinforcing because I was playing the game with him, rather than just providing new toys for him.  Finally he settled down, content with the game.  Phew!  I was trying to write this post and I was getting nowhere!!!

The practical sessions were fascinating to watch!  I won’t detail all the sessions – but will include some of my ‘take aways’ from the work.

The first sessions were really about ‘gathering data’ – something Alexandra Kurland does in her horse clinics in the first sessions.  The dogs had as much time as they needed to explore the environment – we observed….  were they comfortable – or uncomfortable?  What did we notice that suggested it?  If they were anxious – could we describe what we saw to arrive at that conclusion?

Next – what could we change in the environment to help them get more comfortable?  Would walking the dog around to say ‘hi’ to the audience help?  Would throwing some food on the ground distract the dog from the different environment?  Would a mat help to sit on?  Is lying down helping????  And so the questions go on…

Instead of launching into a training session, observe where the dog is at – then do what you can to help the dog.

And when in the training session, always be observant of how you can make it easier – for dog and human – for example – Dog resting chin on chair –  Is the chair a comfortable height?  Can the trainer feed the dog easily?  Can trainer and dog see each other clearly?  Is there anything that will create confusion??

I watched as Peta guided the ‘training pair’ through sessions, and Susan observed the sessions and added comment.  This is how the sessions proceeded each day.  I loved watching the whole process.  Peta’s aim wasn’t to get the teams to complete a task – it was about becoming a better trainer.  Each time there was a ‘bump’ in the training it was a matter of thinking about how to proceed.

I couldn’t help but think about the similarities I had seen in Alexandra Kurland’s sessions.  Alex describes the ‘pondering over what to do next’ as having the proverbial ‘cup of tea’.

For example – say the dog is now resting its head on the chair – but takes it away immediately – you are having trouble building duration – what can you try??  First – is the dog uncomfortable leaving the head there?  Is your rate of reinforcement not high enough?  Is the timing of click too slow/fast?  Is the dog unable to keep still because of excitement? anxiety? confusion?? etc…

From what seems like a simple task – there are so many factors to consider!!  This is where videoing is so helpful – I have so much video from my sessions with the horses.  I slow it down to watch us and to see where I can change things… and it can also capture great moments!!!

Here are some photos from the sessions!  Thankyou to those who supplied me with photos.  The feature photo is of Tricia and Sassy during a training session.  We also have Louise and Ruby doing some nose work training!!!

Susan Friedman’s second presentation was on Functional Assessment and Functional Analysis…… big words…. would my brain be able to keep up – it was in for a workout!!

But first Susan talked about Cultural Fog – or Conventional Wisdom  …  now this is something that really frustrates me in the horse world!!!  If you go to the link above you will read about how conventional wisdom can be such an obstacle to progress.  Learning about behaviour is far less appealing than hanging onto long held – but incorrect beliefs about horses!

Conventional wisdom is not necessarily true. It is additionally often seen as an obstacle to the acceptance of newly acquired information, to introducing new theories and explanations, and therefore operates as an obstacle that must be overcome by legitimate revisionism.                                                                                   – Wikipedia

Susan then took us through the ABCs….. Antecedent – Behaviour – Consequence…. – a very useful tool for Functional Assessment.

Now, I’ve heard about the ABCs before – but each time my brain tells me that it sounds like ‘maths’ and my eyes glaze over!!!!!  This time I was going to take as much in as I could!  Here is an example –

Antecedent – the factor that leads to behaviour –  an example  from my horse Saadi –  Saadi sees feed bucket  produced by Heather.

Behaviour – what the horse does in response to antecedent –  Saadi walks into stable and stands waiting.

Consequence – what the horse experiences immediately after behaviour –  Saadi receives a bucket of feed on his stable mat!

Now… that is a behaviour I WANT to happen!!

What about a ‘problem’ behaviour??

Start with the problem behaviour in the ABC – Saadi  moves to feed bucket and pulls it away from Heather as she is carrying it to the stable

Antecedent – Saadi sees feed bucket produced by Heather.

Consequence – Saadi receives a bucket of feed!!!  Heather is not happy!!!!

Prediction – Saadi will repeat the behaviour!

So how do we change this – in positive reinforcement terms?  If we were using punishment we might carry a whip and wave it at the horse – or yell at him (okay – I have done some yelling!!!)

Susan says – don’t just ‘try’ something – hypothesize first!!  For this example my hypothesis would be –  If Saadi is in his stable before food is delivered he will wait for it to be put on his mat.

I changed the antecedent arrangement.

Before delivering the feed I walked Saadi into his stable – he was reinforced with treats.  I then closed the gate and continued to treat him.  He was confined to the stable but had been reinforced for walking in there.  I delivered the feed bucket promptly – asking for a step back as I placed it on his mat.

I continued this pattern for a while – and then changed the antecedent arrangement again.  I once again left him free while preparing feeds – then as I appeared with the bucket I asked him (with a hand movement)  to  walk into his stable ahead of me and wait for me to put the bucket down.

I imagine I haven’t explained all of this very well – but I hope you get the idea.  This is a very basic idea and I am just learning.  If anyone else would like to add further in the comments – you are welcome to do so!  Here is a video of the finished product!

Phew!!!  There is more to say – but I will move on to Day 3 of Susan’s talks – Emotions Inside Out.  Once again my brain was getting a work out!  What a big subject!

I have just looked at my notes and feel a little overwhelmed – but I will include just a few points here.  Throughout the talk Susan mentioned several researchers who have studied emotions.  I will include their names here so you can look further into their work.

Dr Joe Layng – videoed at the 2016 Art and Science of Animal Training conference –

Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

Jaak Panksepp’s Seven Emotional Systems

Susan also referred to Lisa Feldman Barrett  who has written a book on how your brain constructs emotions.

Dr Paul Ekman who has spent a lifetime studying non verbal behaviour and has written several books.

Now what does all this have to do with animal training??? – A lot!!!

I had some several very simple take aways from this talk.  As Susan said – quoting Skinner – it doesn’t help to be told the animal is frustrated – we need to know HOW the frustration has been induced.

It is important to learn all we can about emotions to improve the welfare of the animal.

Exploring emotions is a broad study – and the more we can learn about it the better!!

And finally I learnt about valence and arousal….  I thought a valence (valance) was something that went around a bed!!!  I learnt a new word.  Here is a link to explain the word valence

Susan had some great video footage of various animals in training.  One really struck me – it was so cute.  I don’t have access to the same footage – but I found something similar – a lemur holding its tail while being weighed!

And on to Day 4 – Susan’s talk was titled CONTROL – The Other Primary Reinforcer

Behaviour – is the mechanism to control outcomes

Control – is a biological necessity

Studies have shown that  animals/humans much prefer choice over non choice.  It influences mood and quality of life.

I’m thinking of Saadi and my wash bay.  I need to hose him regularly for his skin condition.  I remember at first trying to hang onto the rope as he pulled away.  After learning about clicker training, I ditched the halter and rope and reinforced him for walking to the bay – then for staying on the concrete – then I added the hose on – then built duration with the hose.  He now has free choice to leave.  I’ve found he never does – he may move slightly – but he now will stand at the wash bay.

And for a human example I thought of our son Matt.  When he was in his final year of school he became depressed and unmotivated.  We were concerned about his mental health so gave him the choice of leaving school if he wanted to.  He thought about it for a while but decided to finish the year.  Once he was given the choice his attitude changed – it was HIS choice.

We sometimes need to  challenge ‘ the system’ – which says stay at school and study hard and get good final marks in order to pursue the career of choice.  However, the ‘system’ doesn’t take into account children’s mental health.  We took Matt out of school for a few weeks and he and Doug built our shed where we lived while owner building our house.  He still describes that as one of the best times in his life!

At the time I had teachers ringing me in a panic.  They were concerned he was missing work – but his mental health was so much more important….. and as it turned out he finished a degree in Environmental Science, completed an honours year, did a PhD, and is now working on a postdoc project.

Okay, I’ve waffled on – but you get the idea about choice being so important.

Back to the practical sessions…. Each day we saw changes in dogs and humans.  I watched Peta Clarke expertly guide the pair – her observation skills and attention to detail are outstanding!!!  I think this quote from Peta sums up what we should be aiming for –

“I want to be a better trainer more than I want to be ‘right’ all the time”

The four days of learning went all too quickly.  Two hundred people attended the conference – it really was an Australian first.  I met so many people!  It really was wonderful to meet like minds!!!  I hope we can get together again soon.

There was a small contingent of horse trainers – the horse world is really so far behind the dog world.  We have work to do to get the message out there!

Thankyou so much Peta and helpers for organising a wonderful conference – and thankyou Susan Friedman for sharing your knowledge with us.


Finally, I want to include this link to an interview with Peta Clarke.  It tells of how a tragic event in her life led her to animal training.  It’s an inspiring story!!!




6 thoughts on “Learning about Learning – with Peta Clarke and Susan Friedman

  1. Beautiful, Heather. I got a little teary reading it as I was reminded so strongly of the impact that week has had on me. Thank you for bringing it all back so vividly.


  2. Wonderful Heather!
    Thank you for documenting our week together. Some of it is a bit of a blur for me but it was so awesome and I can’t wait to do it all again!
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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