Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Saying "Don't!" With Positive Reinforcement

Last week I wrote a post on my Dog Chapter blog about Saying No With Positive Reinforcement. This week I'll address a similar question I hear, which is how to prevent a horse (or other animal) from doing something. A common example is:

"I need to teach my horse never to go over the top of me"

Not only is this about wanting "obedience", but in this situation, there is definitely a fear factor.  Having a horse run over you is a very real and dangerous possibility when dealing with large fearful animals. People want to know how to prevent that from happening. And if it looks like it might happen, then what?

First we must be sure we are listening. By listening, I mean observing the animal's emotional signals so that we can respond in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy. In the case of horses, we must know what those emotional signals look like, and we must also know our individuals for more subtleties. Once I see that the horse may be getting worried, my positive reinforcement response is the same as saying "no". I teach what I want instead. In this instance, it must be practiced, practiced, practiced so that I can access that response when tensions are high. 

And remember, even humans who are panicked will run over other humans with disastrous results.  There are no guarantees in this life and if you choose to spend some of your days with horses, you must accept that it's potentially dangerous.

As a devotee of Alexandra Kurland, I look to five of her Foundation Lessons to assess my horses' responsiveness. These are behaviors that my horses know solidly and have practiced for years so their reinforcement history is strong. Each of the lessons can be used a safety net, IF they have a reliable response. 

I remember well the clinic I attended with Alex when she helped me begin to take the "make it happen" out of my cues. Alex's clinics frequently, if not always, use "human horses" in practice.  Having a human tell you how it feels when you grab the lead rope is very enlightening. I had no idea how forceful my requests were and I needed to work on changing my demands to requests if I wanted a quiet response from my horses. 

"Make it happen" demands only work when you are scarier than other things in the environment. If someone tells me to sit still when there is a large rock rolling down a hill toward me, it doesn't matter how forcefully they say it, I am going to get out of the way of that rock! Unless, I trust that person.

Trust is a messy word when it comes to horses.  I see so many people saying that horses trust their handlers: horses will lie down, or go into water, or jump big fences. In some instances it may be true. In other instances it may be because the horse has been taught that he doesn't have a choice. The fear of what might happen if they don't obey is actually stronger than the fear of doing what is asked.  So in the case of the rock coming down the hill at me, I need to trust that the person telling me to sit still knows the landscape well enough to know that the rock will bounce and go around me instead of hitting me! 

The more experiences I have trusting this person regarding bouncing rocks, the more my trust in them will build. I may sit still in otherwise ridiculous situations (almost as ridiculous as this example) because that person has shown me that trusting them keeps me safe. We need to give our horses similar histories of trusting us in low risk situations before we ask them to trust us in higher risk situations.

This morning I took my Percy horse out to an area he deems somewhat scary. He is not imagining things- as peaceful as it looks in this photo below, we have seen quite a variety of wildlife come out of those woods, from innocuous deer to coyotes and bears. I know his hearing and other senses are sharper than mine- I trust that when he alerts to something, something is really there.  This is because history has shown when I see him standing in his paddock on alert, I can run to the other side of the house and look out the window and see interesting wildlife. Trust goes both ways. 

This morning I was working on building trust that I won't ask him to do anything he thinks is dangerous. When we first got out here, I walked up to a mat which I had previously placed in the grass. My question was, "can you step right onto this mat in this environment?" 

He could. I noticed a slight lowering of criteria in the quality however. That is an important  observation.  In addition to the height of his head and his intense focus on the woods (which you can't see), his feet did not land squarely in the middle of the mat, nor did they stay square with each other. This could have been due to two different things (or something else altogether). Either he wasn't 100% focused on his behavior to the criteria he can exhibit in a more comfortable environment, or it could have been because of the placement of the mat- on a hill, on deep grass. It might have been a little unstable or he might have been a little unsure.  While I wasn't sure of the reason, it was important that I notice this lack of meeting criteria and proceed carefully, rather than just forging ahead. 

I proceeded through the other foundation lessons, cueing, observing responses and making mental notes. Could he back up at the slightest suggestion of a cue? 


Could he target my hand?


Could he stand with his feet still next to me for a count of 10? 

Could he drop his nose to the ground and leave it there?

On the second try. He put his head down on the first request, took a bite of grass and picked it up again.  So here is another set of questions for me.  Did he pick it up because he was uneasy or because that bite was not to his liking (my rules are that you can eat when I ask you to put your head down as long as you don't move your feet). When I re-cued, I only asked for a duration of five seconds. 

So what all this tells me is that I have my horse in an environment that he might not be completely comfortable, but one in which he trusts me enough to respond to all my cues, rather than an "every man for himself" situation. Importantly, he responds willingly, immediately and for the most part meeting criteria. 

It's important to keep in mind that the behaviors he has done are behaviors that are very, very easy for him. I am not asking him to perform advanced trigonometry, but recite his A,B,C's (which he has known for years). Next I am going to ask him for something a little more difficult, especially in this environment, and in the way I ask him. 

One thing I know about this horse, and probably many others, is that he'd much rather be looking toward the potentially dangerous area than have his back to it.  Horses are horizon scanners. They want to know when a potentially dangerous predator comes over that horizon so they can be well on their way in the other direction. Asking Percy to turn his back on the scary area invites a scoot forward (or two or three) as he hears things behind him and can't see to determine the risk. 

In previous days, he has been fine as long as he is facing the woods, but each time he has scooted forward as we walk back toward the barn. Here is a situation where I want a "please do not go over the top of me as you are scooting forward".  If we are walking away, I know the scoot will just take him forward a step or two.  But it's that turning around where there is potential for danger. Horses are good at turning on a dime.  If he is to the right of me and turns on a dime toward me at a high rate of speed, that takes him over the top of me. So what do I want instead?  I want him to make a small arc around me as he turns. And I want him to stay balanced over his own feet, rather than leaning in (which if the footing is at all slippery could cause him to slip and end up on top of me). In comfortable environments, he moves around me just like that.  But in a situation where I am asking him to turn his back on the woods, I want to be clear in my cues that I want him to go around me. 

Fortunately, using another of Alexandra Kurland's lessons, I have taught him how to turn exactly like that. If I hadn't previously gone through a training process to train this, it would not be fair to ask him to do it. In this short clip, you can see the first time I ask him to pick his head out of the grass, wrap his neck slightly around me, and step toward the woods with his shoulders, taking those shoulders away from me and preparing him to turn in that arc around me. I only ask for a step or two this first request. I am not "making" him get out of my space.  I am asking him if he can do it. 

The answer is yes.  

So this is my process.  Are all these behaviors solid in a comfortable environment?  Yes. Are they solid in an environment where he is less comfortable?  That's what we are working on. His responses today are a result of training I have done on previous days.  Today's training prepares us for future days. Setting him up in a slightly worrisome environment gave us both needed practice.  I need to be able to reach for cues quickly and he needs to be able to respond to them. 

The next time we come out here, I will see whether asking him these questions today made the responses stronger or weaker. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Choice in Husbandry Procedures

I love it when something I post sparks questions and discussion. And when those lead me to a blog post, so much the better. Yesterday I shared this video, saying, 

“Start button cues are a hot topic these days and rightly so. About eight years ago, I taught Percy this specific target (with a red cross!) for medical procedures...potentially painful ones. In this video I'm just following up with practice after a vaccination last week and in preparation for another this week. When he touched the target, I poked him with a sharp object. If he didn't want me to, he takes his nose off the target. That's why I'm watching his head so carefully. If he removes his nose from the target, I immediately stop what I'm doing.”

One comment remarked that this was like The Bucket Game, which is a name coined by Chirag Patel a couple years ago for doing cooperative husbandry with dogs and uses a bucket as a cue.  As I mentioned in my post, “Start Button” cues is another term being used to indicate that the animal chooses when to start a given behavior. There are certainly many trainers using this approach, which boils down to giving an animal choice. The animal can choose to participate in the training session or not. The animal can give a general cue, such as standing on a platform, to indicate he is ready for training, or it can be a more specific cue, such as opening the mouth, to indicate the animal is ready for something like a dose syringe or dental exam. 

I like to give the animal a good idea of what’s coming. Not long ago I went to the dentist (which I am not fond of doing) and the dentist actually tried to sneak the needle of novocaine into my mouth without me seeing it. I jumped reflexively when I saw it out of the corner of my eye and he said that my concern was all in my head. He didn’t think I’d notice if I didn’t see it. Well, yes I would have noticed when the needle was stuck into my gum! I did not trust him for the remainder of that visit and specifically asked never to have that individual again. How must our animals feel when we trick them into something like that? Some shut down and some learn not to trust us and become “difficult”. 

This is why I use a specific target for potentially painful situations.  I want them to know that ahead of time so they can make the choice to stay or leave based on that knowledge. When I bring that target out, I then do some practice runs so the animal knows exactly what it is that will happen.  In the case of a horse, will it be an IM injection in the neck? A prick for a blood draw in the jugular? A wound treatment? Even if the animal has agreed to participate, suddenly being stuck with a needle somewhere unexpected can be startling. Practice runs are what you see in the video. There are many, many practice runs for each real event. The intention is not to trick the animal by not doing anything painful.  I am trying to simulate the real event to give the animal information, for instance by pricking the skin surface with a pen or something sharper. I have been amazed at how much a a horse will stand quietly for when it is introduced in this manner. 

Another commenter said that she likes to have the animal target the object being used, such as a saddle or syringe.  I’m not sure whether she meant with the applicable body part or just in general. Anything an animal can do to participate in husbandry is always a good approach. Picking up a foot to offer it for cleaning or trimming is an example.  If I am using a dose syringe, I can offer the syringe and the horse can take it in his mouth. But even a dose syringe is something I prefer to place, so that the medication is more likely to go to the intended location (swallowed, rather than spat out all over me). If I intend to give an IM injection, I don’t expect the horse to throw his neck on the needle. Nor do I want him trying to turn around to touch the needle with his nose.  So this is why I use this nose target. It says, "put your nose here, hold very still (except that wiggly lip), and I'll let you know what is going to happen". 

With all training, the "how" is far more important than the "what". Horses will do a lot of things if forced to by equipment or training methods.  What may look like “trust” may actually be a horse that has just given up. So I want to mention that when I initially trained this, it was more at liberty than you see here. Even though the horse is loose in his stall, that doesn’t give him a lot of options and it certainly could put me at risk if the horse decided he didn’t like what I was doing. As I mentioned, I trained this many years ago and so feel both he and I are comfortable in the stall.  When I initially trained it, there was a round pen panel between us. I was in the barn and he was in his paddock. He could have gone far from me if he chose. So his choice to participate was clear. 

Yet another comment was about where the reinforcement was coming from and if taking his nose off the target reinforced that.  Remember, we don’t know whether something was reinforcing until the next repetition. Only then do we see whether that behavior is strengthened, repeated, or lessened/weakened. I was told that is why the abbreviations begin with the letter and are then followed by the plus or minus sign (R+, R-, P+, P-).  First, you have to see whether the behavior increases (in which case it was reinforced) and then you decide whether it was the addition or removal of a stimulus. 

This can be tricky because we so often say “I am going to reinforce that”. That may be our aim, and hopefully it’s based on the history you have with the animal or the species, as well as knowing the environmental conditions you are training in. All those have an effect on what we hope will be reinforcing. In this situation, my history with this horse in this environment with this behavior caused me to believe that 2 hay stretcher pellets would reinforce the behavior of leaving his nose on the target. Had he not put his nose on it, that would simply have told me that under these conditions, those two pellets were not reinforcing enough. 

What do I mean by “under these conditions”?  I mean that in approximately eight years of doing this, I have seen many, many successful trials.  However, this day was after having an actual injection, as well as a blood draw, from a stranger (veterinarian). What I know about this individual is that having another person do anything to him sucks a lot of pennies out of his trust bank. This session was one of many in which I was refilling the account. There were three or four instances when he did not put his nose back on the target.  I simply waited. Each time, it was less than five seconds before he offered to target again. When I saw this, it told me he was hesitant and so I knew I was going to need more, not fewer, repetitions before another actually injection. 

As a follow up, this morning I did this again but used an actual needle.  If you noticed my movements in the last two reps in the video, I tried to model the arm movements I would do to pull the syringe plunger back and then push it in. That did not faze him.  But simply taking the lid off the needle this morning was different.  He knows that movement, sound, etc.  He hesitated. I waited.  This told him it was his choice. When he placed his nose on the target, I just barely pricked his skin and he tensed and twitched but did not remove his nose. Click/treat. I repeated that again. This time he tensed but did not twitch. Click/treat. After that, he didn't even tense and I did several more repetitions as he got more and more relaxed. And then I ended the session.  I don't want him tensing because he things that eventually he'll get poked in any given session. 

Finally, there is the classical conditioning and CER (conditioned emotional response) which is so important to all of this. The reason it works so well is not because the animal learns to grin and bear it through the pain, all for a measly two hay stretcher pellets. Instead, we are conditioning the animal that this is easy and fun.  You don't need to stand there with muscles tense waiting for the prick. That would make the prick worse! Instead, just hang out here with me, put your nose on that target for while and relax.  When I do prick you, your muscles and your mind will be relaxed so that the pain is less severe. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pony, Cat, Child: a Snapshot of Behavior

I posted this photo to my Instagram and Facebook accounts yesterday and only afterward wondered if I was contributing to irresponsible behavior ("let's put the cat up there. hahaha!"). So now I will give the background and explanation, hoping to exonerate myself.

The "training plan" for the day was simply to give the child an experience on a pony. As is often the case, training plans need to be adapted.  Sometimes that means you put the learners away and rethink your plan.  Other times, if you have enough experience and knowledge of the individuals, you can adapt the plan in the moment and keep going.

While it may seem silly to discuss sitting an 11 month old child on a pony as a "lesson plan", I do so to underline that I don't do things like this without thinking about them. I do not see horses, dogs, cats or any other animals as "tools" to be used by us or as entertainment for us.  When we share our lives with them, it is our responsibility to care for their physical, mental, and emotional needs as much as our own- probably more since we had the choice to bring them to our home and they did not.

There are three learners in this photo of three different species: cat, pony, and child. The original plan was to sit the child on the pony. She has a mini-donkey at her house and has sat on him before so this was not new. This pony has had many children on her back in her life so it was not new for her either. The only thing which was new was the combination of these two particular individuals. They had met in recent days and both decided they preferred hand to back contact rather than face to face! After grooming the pony to be sure she was comfortable, we put the bareback pad on so that enthusiastic little child feet didn't cause concern to the pony.

The training plan needed to be adapted when the child's body language (clinging to my neck and hiking feet up!) indicated she was not comfortable with the situation. When a learner is showing discomfort, we back off, assess, and either wait for another day or try again with an adapted plan.

It was at this point that the cat showed up.  This child loves cats.  She has several at her house.  Most live outdoors but one lives indoors and while her parents carefully manage any interactions, she has become conditioned to love cats as much as much as she loves dogs, chickens, horses and donkeys. In this situation I am operationalizing "love" as smiling widely, squealing, kicking feet and wiggling fingers when she sees them. She'd had several (well-managed) interactions with this cat in recent days and that's when the idea popped into my head to put the cat on the pony to see if that would help the child think it looked fun.

Cat history- this cat is 10 years old, lives in the barn and is very familiar with the horses and ponies.  Admittedly, I had never put him on one before but just this Spring he learned to ride on top of shavings bags in the wheelbarrow for the first time. I thought it might be similar enough that he'd be ok with it.  I didn't plan for the pony to move, just to show the child that the kitty was up there. None of the humans were small enough to demonstrate that sitting on the pony's back was ok.  But the cat was. The bareback pad would give George the cat something to hold onto (with his claws if necessary) without Kizzy the pony ever feeling it. George jumps in the barn doors, climbs over the stall walls, walks up and down the aisle and hides under things in the arena.  All the equines are very accustomed to his presence next to them, under them, and above them.

Handlers- each individual in this triad had a handler focused on them.  The child's mother (who is also very familiar with both feline and equine behavior) had the child.  While barely visible in this photo, my husband (very familiar with equine behavior) has the lead rope of the pony, and I was the one who picked up the cat, and carefully placed him on the bareback pad.  I did not immediately step away to take a picture, but stayed to give the tactile reinforcement he loves until he looked confident and his purr was at its usual dull roar.

In the photo you see can see both the reinforcement being used and the body language of each learner. The child is looking at the cat and is not pulling away, nor toward, the animals.  Mom is clearly keeping her naive fingers away from hair or skin that could be pulled or pinched, while holding her close and talking to her. Being held and talked to by mom is very reinforcing. Mom is also scratching the cat's back and you can see him arching up to get more of this reinforcing tactile contact, although the camera caught an odd expression on his face. I can attest that he stayed there when he could easily have jumped off. Finally, if you look closely, you can see the pony's head down to the ground.  She is normally only on grass with a grazing muzzle which drastically limits her ability to eat.  Here she has been given a few minutes of muzzle free grass and she was eating as fast as she could.  One of the first things a horse does when nervous is pick up their head. Kizzy pony's head never left that grass.

After taking pictures, I returned to lift George off of Kizzy's back. His performance had the desired effect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Week at The Karen Pryor National Training Center

The view of Mt Rainier from the house
From May 7 to May 12, I was very fortunate to spend a week learning from world-class trainer and teacher, Ken Ramirez, at the new Karen Pryor National Training Center in Graham, Washington. I was one of 18 participants in the course called Dive Deep: an Advanced Training Course. The week was packed with information on topics which included non-food reinforcement, Aggression Treatment and Context, and Simplifying Complex Training Tools. But there was more. Much more.

Ken said that he struggled for a while trying to figure out what would be in an "advanced course" that people repeatedly suggested he should offer. He said "advanced training is just the basics done well". Everything he covered did require that the basics be understood and done well. His consultations and training for scent detection, recognizing quantity, conservation training, and more built on basic clear cues and criteria, as well as being very sensitive to his learners' emotional cues in return. And that includes human learners.

The Training Center's occupants are goats, alpacas, donkeys, and of course a couple dogs. The Dive Deep course was weighted heavily on classroom presentations but we also had a few brief training sessions with these animals daily. Focusing on the basics, we trained under the supervision of Ken or one of two other experienced trainers. We shared plans before going to the animals and then wrote brief reports of the session afterward.
working with the very sensitive alpacas to get them comfortable with touch

Participants in this course included trainers of dogs, horses, and zoo animals. Trainers focused on husbandry, human education, sport, and helping pet owners. The questions which were asked during talks and discussions that were held during meals revealed yet more views with which to look at these training topics.

One of traits which makes Ken a phenomenal presenter is his storytelling ability. With decades of experiences to draw on, training species from butterflies to killer whales, he has a story to illustrate every topic he covers. He masterfully crafts his tales so that they are entertaining as well as educational.  His humility is remarkable and each day I learned new things about his explorations into animal behavior.

Alexandra Kurland frequently refers to our continued education in animal behavior as peeling back another layer of the onion. This is apt as there is always more to discover and more to peel back. You never quite reach the middle but instead, realize how much more there is inside. But at the conclusion of that week at The Ranch, I felt like I needed a different analogy. I didn't just see another layer, I saw...3D.  It was as if I'd been looking at layers and layers of two dimensional pictures and someone had shown me an MRI. The scan allowed me to see the depth of field and how the different organs overlapped and interacted. We'd probe deep into one topic as he helped us examine it (always inviting questions and discussion) and then we'd look at the same topic from a different angle.  And then we'd look at that angle with a different topic!

We heard how the basics were used in different fields, different sports, different species. We learned how the concepts were applied for different purposes. Ken believes that training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  His primary reasons for training are for physical exercise, mental stimulation, cooperative behavior, and animal welfare. He advised us to keep it as a shared process, with the animals as willing participants.

My decision to attend this course was because I always wanted to attend all of Ken's talks at Clicker Expo and would force myself to skip some of his in order to enjoy many of the other wonderful presenters.  The opportunity to have a full week of Ken was too good to pass up. And after that full week, I will continue to pursue opportunities to learn from him in the future.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Training Intensive- Shaping

For the past several years I've had the honor of hosting a Training Intensive with three other coaches. Katie Bartlett, Cindy Martin, and Marla Foreman have joined me here at Bookends Farm and we invite up to twelve people to come for a full weekend of clicker training. Participants use Bookends Farm Equines to learn with and we choose a topic to focus on.  This year's topic is shaping.

It could and should be said that all clicker training is shaping: the process of breaking a learning task down into successive approximations at which the animal can easily succeed. But there are many different types of shaping, from free shaping to guided learning and many options in between. Knowing how to choose from these many options is one of the things we will explore on July 6-8. For more information on the Training Intensive, click here.  Vermont Training Intensive 2018

Wanting to do a little video to advertise the clinic, I played with some shaping this morning. I purchased a new mat late this winter, thinking it would be one I could use on frozen ground. I never actually got to use it before mud came but decided to work with it in the aisle with Walter horse. Walter is the newest equine resident and newest to clicker training and the foundation lessons. I'm quite sure if I had put it out for any of the others, they would have immediately stepped onto it as they know all about mats and will frequently search out things to stand on in hopes that it might count as a mat. But Walter is a bit of a worrier.  Which is odd because he's also a very solid citizen and just an all-around good guy. My guess is that his early training history did not involve a lot of nuance. Like many Thoroughbreds, his career began as a race horse. So while he has seen and done a lot, one thing I have noticed about him is concern about what is under his feet.  Not one to refuse to comply, instead he just strikes me as worrying about things.  We've done a lot of mat lesson work, and if he sees one (my standard plywood ones), he will lead me right to it but even then he is just a little cautious about stepping right on and likes to test how solid they are with a toe a time or two before venturing on.

I started with some free shaping, where I just let him loose in the aisle where the mat was, and I was going to click for any interest in the mat including looking at it, sniffing it and ideally, stepping on it.

As you can see, he sniffed and then pulled away. I managed to click while he was sniffing so I reinforced that, but he carefully stepped around it to come to me afterward.  We did a few more rounds of that: me backing up, him carefully stepping around the mat to come to me and I'd click for any interest he showed in it.

I decided to manipulate the environment a little. I tried moving the mat to one side of the aisle since turning in that narrow space positioned him to one side, but he still walked around. If free shaping was going to work with this, it was going to take a long time. There are reasons for doing that, which we'll go over at the clinic. But I decided to give Walter a little help in this shaping plan. I would use my hand as a target to encourage him to step on.

What we have here is the classic stance of a horse you are trying to lure into a trailer with a bucket of grain.  Feet bunched together at the edge, stretching the head and neck waaaay out to grab the grain, but not putting his feet on the ramp. But there's a big difference here.  There is no physical pressure on Walter as he is completely loose in the barn aisle.  He can leave if he wants to.  He can go interact with the other horses, eat hay out of the hay cart, go back in his stall or anything else.  He's only getting two little hay stretcher pellets for each click. He is choosing to stay and interact with me even though he's getting a lot less food this way than he would if he went and ate free choice hay.  This indicates a big step in his understanding and trust. And for me, it's important that he be given the time to decide that he wants to step on the mat.  I know if I put a halter and lead on him and lead him to it, blocking his ability to go around it, he would do it.  But that is not the point.

I want him to become aware of his feet and become confident about placing them securely down, with trust that I won't ask him to do that if it's not safe. My goal is to see him as confident as all the others here.

In this final video, he finally places one foot on the mat.  It would be so easy to say, "OK, now you can see it's safe, just get on it the rest of the way." But watch what Walter does.

Stepping completely onto the mat is not something I expected to accomplish in one session.  We'll keep working on it, allowing him the freedom to explore with his feet and his mind. There isn't much room for a horse's creativity and exploration in traditional training. This is a whole new world for Walter.

How do I choose when to click?  What to ask for next? How to set up each training session and how to set up a long term training plan?  These things could fill a book. But we'll cover a lot of them in July. We'd love to have you join us at the Vermont Training Intensive 2018.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Using Trained Behaviors to Override Emotions

A basic tenet of clicker training is that we teach animals what to DO, as opposed to trying to train them not to do an unwanted behavior. With positive reinforcement, we also find that the animals enjoy responding to our cues and are confident doing so. 

When individuals react to something in a way that indicates fear, we can use counter conditioning to teach the animal that the stimulus can be a good thing. For example, when a strange dog approaches, we can feed treats to our horse, or dog, or cat and if we do this over many sessions, keeping our animal safe all the while, our learner will begin to feel like a strange dog approaching is a great thing, not something to be feared. 

Further, if something unexpected happens, and we have a solid collection of behaviors that have been trained, we can turn to those cues in hopes of showing our learner what they can do in response. I recently experienced this with both Wilder puppy and Percy horse. 

The experience with Percy was less surprising but no less appreciated. Before the most recent snowstorms, I had started walking out with him to work on basic behaviors in places like the barnyard and driveway.  We were shaking off the cobwebs from winter and trying to kick cabin fever. One day I had placed Percy's familiar boat bumper target in the driveway on the ground near the garage.  This is not an area we had ever worked in previous years, but being plowed and no longer icy, it was one of few places we could go. Targeting is a foundation behavior, but this particular object has only been in the barn for about a year. We've worked on it sporadically, using it as a "station". A station is a target that the animal stays at while handlers can walk away. Often, stations are things animals stand, sit or lie ON, but in this climate, that is impractical and so I like things which don't become buried in mud, snow, or fast growing grass.  Usually I hang it from a fence post, a stall bar, or a gate but there was nothing in the driveway to hang it from so I just dropped it on the snow before bringing him out. This was a new position for it, but Percy has shown great enthusiasm for this object in the past so I thought he'd transition easily to this new presentation. As the following video shows, as soon as we went around the corner of the barn, he spied his station and led me to it.

I spent a little time with him, reinforcing him for standing with his nose near it (the criteria is to keep his feet still near it. He doesn't actually have to maintain contact with it). Then I began to move away a little.  This was an assessment on my part. I wanted to watch for any signs of unease from his body signals (high head, inability to stand still, etc) in this new area, even if I was not right next to him. I also wanted to see how strong the stationing behavior was in this new area, when we'd only previously worked in or directly adjacent to the barn with it. I was able to step away about 15 feet in each direction while he remained at his station. Each direction was important to me because it meant that sometimes I was between him and where the monsters come out (in this case, the corner of the farm where deer, moose and bear have come out of the woods), but sometimes I was effectively walking away from him toward the safety of the barn while he stayed in an exposed spot.  Nonetheless, he seemed calm, standing with head lowered and not moving his feet as I walked all around. 

Then of course I pushed my luck, underestimating how far away the garage was.  I tried to walk all the way to it and his curiosity got the better of him. He left his station and instead followed me to this new building. As soon as he left his station, I stopped moving to see what he'd do. He peered into the windows of the garage nervously. I could see muscle tension, raised head and wide eyes. Then he turned and walked quickly back to his station. I found this very interesting since he could have chosen to go back to the barn to safety, or even to go to the fence line where his Walter horse friend was whinnying to him. Instead, he chose the trained behavior. He certainly wasn't in panic mode, but it was nice to see that in the slightly stressful new environment, with his "herd mates" calling to him, he chose to do something we had worked on, which I had made a point to be a calming behavior. 

The experience with Wilder puppy was more of a surprise, only because it worked as a safety net when I didn't think I'd need it, nor had I planned on using it. I wrote a post on Off Leash walks  about taking Wilder on his first off-leash walk down our road.  It was a very successful outing but I wrote at the end that it didn't mean I would automatically start doing all walks off leash.  I still need to assess various factors each day before deciding whether or not I think we'll be successful or whether to be cautious and keep him on his rope. 

A couple days later, I decided to try it again. As before, I had his harness and rope under my arm, and lots of good treats in my pocket. We hadn't gone far when a car approached, unlike the previous outing. I called the dogs, and they both came. My plan had been to pick Wilder up if a car came, rather than risking a solid sit/stay performance from him as the car passed. He's funny about cars.  He always watches them closely as they go by and acts like he'd like to run after them. It's not a chasing behavior, more of a curious "who's in there?" behavior. That's why I wanted him securely in my arms as the car passed. 

Unfortunately, when I reached for him, he ducked away. That surprised and scared me. While he used to do that when he first came, he has come to love being picked up. I say this because he will solicit it by sitting right next to me or putting his feet on me in the barn.  When I pick him up, he makes happy little groans and leans into me with eyes closed while held. I was not expecting him to duck away. Thank goodness for the hot dog pieces. I began to drop them at my feet in rapid succession so he and Eloise were kept busy gobbling them up as the car passed. 

Again I tried to pick him up, having decided this was not a good idea today, and again he ducked away. He was behaving like a dog who was afraid of being caught. I have no idea what triggered it but I'd seen it a lot when he first came to our home from the rescue. I was feeling a little panicky about what I was going to do since I'd seriously depleted my hot dog supply by raining them down as the car passed. I wanted that harness and rope on him.  Without really thinking about it, I bent over and held the harness out the way I do when I want to put it on him.  The first time we tried to put a harness on him, it was like trying to put one on a baby alligator. It took two of us, one holding him and the other one trying to avoid teeth as he squirmed away. After that, I began harness training behavior until we had it solid.  This video demonstrates the way the harness goes on these days: 

Lo and behold, when I held the harness out for him on the side of the road, his demeanor changed from fearful to confident and he walked right into his harness, picked up his foot to slide it in place, and stood quietly while I buckled it on. Phew. Trained behavior overrode the fear of being caught. 

In hindsight, I think there were two problems with trying to pick him up. One was that I was most likely exhibiting some stress myself, wanting to get my hands on him before the car passed. If he saw that in my body language, it certainly could have made him nervous as well.  Secondly, I don't usually reach for him to pick him up unless he solicits it. If I want to be able to do that in the future, I am going to have to train it first! In any case, I was grateful for the two behaviors I had trained: the recall which brought him to me on the side of the road, and the offered harness as a cue to step into it. 

The more behaviors you have on board, the stronger your safety net when things don't go as planned. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Not Quite 31 Flavors

Baskin Robbins Ice Cream used to be famous for its 31 flavors. These days, there are probably more flavors than that at any ice cream stand you go to, but in 1945, 31 flavors was an impressive variety. I'm not that old...I looked it up.

I've been thinking of this because of a new flavor conditioning program I've put my horses on. Last summer, when Percy had a hoof abscess and was very lame, I asked the vet for some bute. She sold me bute powder but when I opened it, I was surprised to smell that it was orange flavored. When I presented it to Percy, he was quite sure I was trying to poison him. Their sense of smell is so good that he wouldn't even approach his feed tub having sniffed it. The vet said that most horses like it. Mine aren't "most".  They are very fussy and I had to get my hands on some old fashioned bute tablets and use my mortar and pestle to grind them up so I could add a peppermint in (Percy LOVES peppermint) and then add water and put it all in a big syringe for him. 
my own peppermint bute recipe

This experience reminded me of hearing Ken Ramirez talk about teaching animals to accept a variety of flavors.  This was quite some time ago so I'm fuzzy on the details but it goes along with a post I wrote about being unpredictably predictable. If my animals are so set in their routine, or food, or environment, or friends, then they can be upset in a change in any of those things. I also talked about this in a post about whether horses truly need a schedule or if that is simply a factor of them becoming reliant on a schedule that we humans set for our own convenience. 

In any case, I decided it was time to vary my horses' palates. My first change was thanks to my daughter who reminded me that we used to give our horses orange flavored gatorade on cross country day to replenish electrolytes. I purchased some gatorade powder and put a tiny bit of powder on each horse's dinner. I'm sure it didn't hurt that it was very sweet, but they all ate it just fine and I gradually increased it until I could put a good tablespoonful in and nobody batted an eye. I know that the bute itself probably has a smell but the next time I needed bute for Percy (it was a summer of abscesses thanks to no rain and the resulting hard ground), he was happy to have the orange flavored bute in a syringe. 

I then remembered that the equine nutritionist I worked with had sent me a pdf on picky eaters when you want to add supplements.  I pulled that up and found a number of intriguing ideas for adding flavors. I had avoided using that idea because it seemed like just more to add and get them used to but for the project I decided to give it a try. My horses' diets are heavily grass-based in the summer. They get a little hay when they come in midday to escape from flies but other than that, they eat grass. In the winter, they love their timothy balancer cubes soaked in a mash but in the summer, it either pales in comparison flavor-wise or they are just not hungry enough to bother.  In hopes of increasing my chances of success, I began my flavor introductions once they were happily eating their balancer cubes again. In the late fall, when grass was getting slim, I started up their cubes and they deigned to eat them. 

I already had the gatorade and I thought mint flakes would be a good thing since they liked their peppermints so much. I also checked the picky eaters list and decided to give beet root powder, anise powder and carrot powder a try. The list said that different horses like different flavors so I was prepared to keep a running list. 
adding the gatorade to Percy's favorite hay stretcher pellets before trying it in his dinner was a necessary step to recover from the bute fiasco

I started with just a 1/4 teaspoon of the anise powder.  The pony mares said absolutely not. Everyone else was ok with it and I gradually increased the amount I added up to a teaspoon. I wanted to be sure there was a strong flavor they were adjusting to. Next I tried the beet root powder (which is a wonderful bright pink color!). They all ate that up fine and so I added more and more to be sure that was ok.  The same with the carrot powder- no objections. At that point, I began to rotate the flavors.  I lined them up in the drawer alphabetically (to help me remember). Anise powder one day, followed by beet root powder the next, then the carrot, then mint flakes and then orange gatorade. They had a five day rotation. NOTE: Kizzy pony who is insulin resistant does not get the gatorade powder due to the sugar in it.  She just gets her plain feed on the day everyone else gets the gatorade. The other flavorings are not sweetened.

Kizzy is my pickiest eater. You wouldn't think that a pony would be that fussy but I was very challenged adding her pergolide powder in the summer, even though it is supposedly apple flavor. Previously, I had given her the tiny tablets which she was happy to have popped in the corner of her mouth as it was followed by a couple hay stretcher pellets. I had switched to the powder to be able to fine tune the amount and she was amazingly careful at being able to sort it out, even when I dampened it all. She's licking her bowl clean right now so I hope that these flavors keep her eating in the summer. One day I made a mistake and put the anise in everyone's tubs...the pony mares cleaned it up.  Had they adjusted to new things or was winter simply a time they weren't going to be fussy?

While the flavors do change each day, I also want to keep introducing new things. I think that's the only way to help them accept novel flavors when it comes in the form of medication (does anyone remember the banana flavored wormer decades back? I wore a lot of it the summers I worked on a breeding farm and was responsible for getting wormer into foals.)

After the above flavors were happily being consumed (when it's below zero and the horses come in to tubs of steaming, flavored timothy mash, it's very satisfying to watch them eat), I got some spirulina powder.  The smell of that about knocked me off my feet and I was hesitant, but the horses gobbled it up. Most recently I've added cocosoya and a new Vermont based mineral supplement. No questions asked. Waiting to be introduced are raspberry leaf and citrus bioflavonoid.  I am careful to add things from the list so that I know they are safe for horses. They include: 

  • Alfalfa
  • Anise seed powder
  • Apple fiber
  • Beet root powder (this is number one in my horses’ book)
  • Calendula
  • Chamomile
  • Fenugreek
  • Peppermint

My favorite day is the mint leaves day.  I add a lot more of that than the powder (probably less weight wise) and the steam that rises off when I add the hot water makes the whole barn smell minty!

We will see if things change when grass returns but that's still months away so we have more time to experiment, and I hope that if anyone needs any meds, they won't be as alarmed by the smell or taste of the meds, especially if I add a familiar flavor to it.