Go Small for Big Results

Training anything that has to do with feet is the bane of my existence. I basically suck at it. Teaching an equid to lift their feet up for hoof trimming or holding a dogs paw for nail clipping – it doesn’t matter. It’s the one behavior that I always go to fast on and end up asking for too much.

Take Stripes, for example. I’ve been working on getting her to give me her front feet for months and we just never seem to make any real progress. I know why, but doing what I know is not always as simple as it should be.

It’s like that saying, slow and steady wins the race. We all know it but how many of us are successful at putting it in to practice? Going slow to get there faster seems like such a contradiction in terms.

So with Stripes, I started out with a shoulder to hand target and used that to progress to stroking her leg. It’s important that I can run my hands down her leg all the way to her feet without her lifting her foot. I want her to be very comfortable with me touching all parts of her leg before asking her to lift it for me. If I don’t, then I risk reinforcing the leg lift with aversion built in to the behavior.

 
Notice her head, neck and shoulder leaning/turning away from me. This is not what I want.

Notice her head, neck and shoulder leaning/turning away from me. This is not what I want.

 

Guess what I keep doing? Yeah, I keep jumping ahead and reinforcing when she picks her foot up because I’m like “Oh yay, she picked her foot up for me- this is great!” Ha! No, it’s not great because she’s picking up her foot to get away from me.

What I need to do is slow down. I need to focus on just stroking her leg where she’s comfortable and doesn’t shift her weight away from me at all. At the moment, this limits me to just under her shoulder to about halfway to her knee. Since I’ve run my hand down past her knee and gotten her to lift her foot, I’m sure you can understand my frustration at having to backtrack and I ask for much less. However, if I want to make real and fast progress with her, that is exactly what I need to do. I should have done it right the first time, lol, then I wouldn’t be having this problem.

 
This is closer to what I’m looking for.

This is closer to what I’m looking for.

 

You’ll hear trainers say this all the time, “Be a splitter, not a lumper”. What this means is that you should split behaviors down to the smallest approximation and reinforce that. The smaller the approximation, the faster you’ll get to the cleanest version of your goal behavior. When you lump everything together, you get messy behaviors with a lot of ‘stuff’ built in that you didn’t want. Like Stripes, lifting her foot while leaning away from me, pinning her ears and swishing her tail. Not exactly the calm foot lift that I was going for.

So now you know. If you’re stuck on a behavior and you’re not really progressing, consider reinforcing smaller approximations for a clean, clear behavior.