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Children's Novelist Discovers Clicker Training

Filed in - Off the Beaten Path

From Jessie Haas

When I got Josey, my first horse, I was thirteen and she was six months old. I trained her myself, without any experience or experienced help. How on earth did I do it? I wonder now. I had some books, but they were much farther down the road of understanding than I was. As I say in my new novel, Shaper, it was like trying to read Shakespeare without even knowing the alphabet. Josey and I survived.

I was thirty when I got Atherton, and he was just weaned. I knew a little more, but still not enough. I just followed the formulas in the books. Usually things went the way they were supposed to. When they didn't, I had no idea how to fix it. Then I read about clicker training. Wow! It let me explain to Atherton—or not really explain, but play a game. "You're getting warmer," I could tell him. "Warmer, warmer, you're really hot—Got it!" He liked the game because he got treats and he is a Morgan, very food-oriented. I liked the game because all of a sudden I could get him to leg-yield. I'm not a good enough rider to get a leg-yield from him "the way you're supposed to," with perfect leg and hand and weight signals. But I could click him, and we could glide diagonally across the hayfield. Suddenly instead of feeling angry and frustrated at the end of a session we were both happy. I kept wanting to hug him while we were working.

I've made mistakes with the clicker. By mistake I taught Atherton to pick up his front foot and duck his head at the same time. It wasn't what I meant to do, but it was unbearably cute. And one day as the two of us stood beside a gate that led out of the barnyard to lush grass, Atherton ducked his head and lifted his foot—asking, as plain as plain, for me to open that gate. I almost cried. It was creative, two-way communication. He'd told me exactly what he wanted.

So I've written a novel about clicker training, Shaper. Clicker training has changed my life. My dog still has to be locked in the car when company comes, my cats still get on the counter, and old Josey still rules. But now when I have to do something with an animal that I know they won't enjoy, I don't think "This will never work." I think, "How? What tiny steps can I take? What can I click for?" Even Zeke, the giant Belgian, who has never been clicker trained, knows what that sound means. Seeing his buddy Atherton get a shot, hearing that click, Zeke crept right up to the vet, stood waiting for his shot, and got a nice big handful of grain. The next time the vet came, Zeke was glad to see him. If you're young and have never trained an animal, I envy you. I'm still unlearning old, bad ideas. You don't have to. You can just get started in this new science and art and game of communicating with other species. Who knows what they will have to tell you?

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