Who's on First?

In response to a comment about horse training in a previous post, Trish said >>>"I was literally laughing out loud! My daughter has been trying to train her Chocolate Lab with both hand and voice cues. He has learned several commands so she started to try for lie down while signaling with the palm of her hand moving down. He gave her a funny look and raised his paw and copied her hand movement -- looking supremely confident."

I laughed until I cried when I read that. I have been there so many times, and there is nothing you can do except hug them and tell say "good dog".


More than just the daily living with the horses, I think the time I've spent specifically as a trainer has opened my eyes in new ways. Once you get past the usual sit/stay and start asking for more, you need deeper, more specific, more subtle communication.

One thing that I put in my bag of tricks and pulled out to use as an author is the lesson that you have to really get in their skins and think like they do, you have to understand them in order to write realistically, even if you are using an outside point of view.

Trish's example of the dog learning to wave illustrates perfectly how well a miscommunication can work. You *think* you're talking about the same thing, and you can sometimes get a long way before you have that "Who's on First" epiphany.

I'll never forget the moment this came clear to me. I take a great deal of pride in the fact that my young stallion GWAIHIR does some wonderfully fun liberty tricks. One of the first things I taught him, as a very young foal, was to come and stand with his left shoulder at my right shoulder. Getting him to walk with me, stop and turn was simply a matter of him staying in place when I moved. Once he learned that he should keep our shoulders about 18 inches apart, even a turn to the right was simple because when I moved too close, he moved away.

All that we did, we did mostly with visual cues, some hand cues, but mostly body language which is the horses natural way of speaking. I thought that once he had learned something 'in his language' he could then learn it in mine so as time and lessons went on, I added voice cues to a lot of what we did.

One of the fun things he learned to do was to weave a pattern through a line of cones or poles as I jogged straight down the line. We started this with hand signals, I'd wave him away and then draw him back and I eventually taught him the words "left" and "right".

With all of my human arrogance, I thought I had really done something special. ... until the day I asked him to go "left" while I was standing on his right side instead of on his left. I expected him to curve away from me but instead he moved closer and started becoming agitated when I didn't move away to keep the proper amount of distance between us. I repeated the cue and he tensed, raising his head and backing his ears to let me know he was getting upset with me. Moreso when he was younger, but he gets tense when he thinks he isn't doing something right (and might not get a treat). He's very communicative, both vocally and with his body.

The thing to remember about my confusion in this situation with the left and right is that horses brains are very divided. You have to teach them most things once from their left side and once from their right. So I naturally assumed he didn't understand the cues since I was on the wrong side. So I went around to his left side and we did a few "left"s and "right"s - all nicely done.
So I go back to his right side and slowly, carefully and clearly, ask him to go "left". Again, he moves closer to me. He's getting agitated again, so I ask him to go "right"... thinking I'm giving him the correct cue for what he's doing so we can have a success and go from there. But he moves away - to my left!

My brain dropped into that slow molasses Jell-O 'huh?' mode where time slows down just a little and everything seems a somewhat foggy because you know you're missing something important.

What I figured out is that when I thought I was teaching him "left" and "right", he was learning "toward" and "away". He was getting upset with me for asking him to do something that he couldn't do - in his understanding, I asked him to move into my space, but then I didn't move away and give him that space, and he knew not to get too close or push on me with his body.
And when it comes down to it, "toward" and "away" or "in" and "out" are the more correct interpretations of the body language that we used for this 'trick'.

I had taught him the wrong words for the concept of what we were doing.

It's humbling to realize when they - the animal - is right and you - the human - is wrong, but when you live with them and listen to them and really have open lines of communication, the relationship develops into more of a partnership than anything else. This was a huge mental and emotional step for me as a horse trainer, but also an eye-opening (mind-expanding) lesson that can be used by any author who writes animals, aliens or even cultures that are foreign to their characters.

It boils down to knowing your characters, being firmly in the characters point of view, and even when you're writing from another characters POV, you still have to remember where each character is 'coming from' because we don't all see things in the same light. Even the most common day-to-day elements such as housing, clothing, eating can show extreme differences in culture or even just attitude, and showing that comes down to using details rather than vague adjectives. Remember that when a Texan talks about a "dry summer" it isn't necessarily the same as a "hot" or "dry summer" in Michigan. You could use details of temperature and average rainfall or you could let it be a delightful conflict of misunderstanding. As long as your reader is clued in, it's something you can have use to add depth to your story and have a lot of fun with at the same time.


Unknown said...

I don't want you do think that my daughter is not a good trainer. She was getting "help" from my grandson. Unfortunately, inexperienced trainers don't understand the subtle difference between "Lie down, Chip!" and Chip, lie down."

Besides that Chip doesn't like lying down. When my daughter started training him, he got "Sit!" all right, but when she would give the command "lie Down," he would move one paw forward about 3 inches and look at her hopefully. "Is this enough?" When she didn't respond, he would inch forward the other leg. The same sequence: Look hopefully, inch a leg forward, look hopefully, inch forward, look hopefully, until he finally rested on his elbows, his chest an inch off the floor. She would give up and reward him.

Successive approximation! With the tables turned!

I totally agree that we sometimes don't know exactly how an animal understands a command, even one that they seem to obey. How much more difficult is communication between humans. Sigh.

Happy trails.

Becky Burkheart said...

Oh gosh, no! I didn't mean anything at all about her not being a good trainer. It struck home with me because I've been in the same spot and I've been training horses, at least on some level, for over 20 years. - whatever level of expertise that implies. :)

Tricia said...

I know you didn't mean it that way. :-) Communication can be sometimes difficult -- in writing, especially, because when two people are talking, they each interpret body language and expressions to suplement the words. I don't know much about horses, but I think that some people's belief that horses are psychic is based on how well horses read our body language and respond to it. Dogs read us very well!