Getting more bang for your buck

Alexandra Kurland
Presentation given at the 2018 Conference

We can just click and feed without giving much thought to where we feed, or we can be very deliberate in how we deliver each treat. Novice trainers begin by just feeding. Everything is so new, thinking about the nuance of food delivery can be overwhelming. As they develop their skills, they come to realize that they can get “more bang for their buck.” That means the food doesn’t just act to reinforce the preceding behavior in a general way. Getting the food becomes a segment in a larger pattern. Not everything the animal does to complete the overall pattern sits in front of the click. Retrieving the food becomes an important element of the pattern.

That’s something skilled trainers understand well. No matter the species, they make good use of strategic food delivery. With dogs, treats are often tossed to help set up the next cycle of a behavior. You want to reinforce your dog for running to a mat, so you click as he lands on the mat, but you toss the treat so he has to leave the mat to retrieve it. This sets the dog up to run back to the mat again.  

With horses, we tend not to toss treats – not because our animals can’t learn to track a thrown treat, but because we are often working on surfaces that for health reasons we don’t want a horse eating off of. So, treats are delivered by hand. That doesn’t mean that we lose the strategic use of treats. Feeding by hand not only lets us set up the next step in a pattern, it lets us deliver the treat “where the perfect horse would be.” That’s the mantra that guides good treat placement.  

Where would the perfect horse be? That’s the question I’ll be exploring in this presentation.  Video analysis will show how much a horse’s balance can be influenced – for good or bad – by the treat delivery. Used well, the treat delivery can transform a horse’s balance. So, food delivery does much more than simply fill in part of an overall pattern. A horse’s balance very much impacts the ease with which he can perform certain movements. Will he choose to follow the “dance” and continue to work with you, or will he opt out because the “dance” has become too difficult? How you feed very much influences the answer to this question. Because of their size, it’s easy to see the influence that food delivery has on a horse’s balance, but that doesn’t mean this concept is for horses alone. For the species you train, where would the perfect animal be? What influence does the food delivery have on his balance and his ability to perform the next part of the “dance?”

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