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. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Adapting Equine and Human Routines to Survive a Cold Stretch

We all rely on habits. Repeating patterns of behavior allow us to function efficiently. Knowing what to expect minimizes anxiety about unknowns. As with all things, we need to have balance though, so flexibility is also important. Understanding behavior can help us change behavioral patterns when necessary. Having many well practiced behaviors gives us tools to work with when life throws us curve balls. And it's always important to know your individuals. 

Like much of the United States, we have been enduring a record-breaking stretch of record-breaking cold weather. In the past ten days we've had days when it did not get above zero degrees F. Thankfully the winds have not been bad because even the slight breezes we've had have given us wind chills in the thirties below zero. In weather like this, my routine changes as I try to manage in the bitter cold and keep the horses and ponies comfortable and safe. Part of that is keeping myself comfortable and safe so that I can continue to take care of them.

My morning routine is different from most winter days as soon as I step out the door. Normally I set a bale of hay out the night before so that I can spread it (pulling a sled while wearing snowshoes (in the field for the horses to eat. In temperatures well below zero first thing in the morning, I have to keep myself warm because I will be outdoors for two hours, so I skip my usual snowshoe with hay sled. They keep warning us that "in these temperatures frostbite can occur in ten minutes". Point taken. I go directly to the barn. 

Thankfully, my barn is insulated enough to ward off the worst of the cold. The water buckets are frozen by morning, but not solid. I give everyone hot water at late-night chores so it's only when it's below zero that the water buckets even freezes). It's a comfortable working temperature inside. I start by  giving each horse a flake of hay in his or her stall. This is a change to their routine since they normally get turned out immediately. They like to go out so keeping them in caused some upset the first morning or two. I needed to make some blanketing accommodations for the cold and I knew that if I tried to keep them in while changing blankets, they would be very restless. Using classical conditioning, I can pair an unpleasant event (being kept in stalls for blanketing), with the potent stimulus of desired hay, and emotions calmed. Common sense, backed by science. Over the past ten days, this has become the new normal and all begin eating contentedly with no stirring. 

I do have two ponies living outside with access to a three-sided shed. I've been watching them carefully and so far, they have given no indication of ill effects from the cold. Shivering is a big red flag to me. If I see shivering, I know that's a cold animal and I need to remedy the situation. It's a little hard to see if those two are shivery first thing as they are cavorting about in their paddock with heels high. Eyelashes and whiskers are white with frost. I throw them twice the amount of hay they usually get and hustle myself back to the (relatively) warm barn. That is the only time I open those doors until I am done with chores. I need to keep that heat inside to keep myself warm enough to work!

Blankets: I generally don't blanket my horses. There are a few studies and numerous anecdotes about horses and blanket choice. Until you can show me they can understand a forecast, I will continue to be the one to decide what they wear. This is where knowing your individuals is important. Part of my blanketing decisions are based on what each can handle, as well as their preferences. 

I spent all summer putting weight on my Walter horse, who arrived at Bookends Farm in June. I changed his diet to a heavily forage-based one, taking him off most of the grain he had been on. As a result, I decided to blanket him this winter, rather than risk losing the gains we had made. I know he wore blankets previous winters and he was very calm when I put them on, so I took that to mean he was ok wearing them. I have him in a quilted blanket liner and an insulated outer layer in this cold. At night I can take off the outer layer, leaving him with the quilted one inside the barn, and then put the other layer over top in the morning which offers more warmth as well as a wind break for outside. 

On the other end of the spectrum is my Kizzy pony.  She HATES blankets, evidenced by throwing herself agains anything solid when I put one on and throughout the duration. She rolls on the ground, throws herself against walls, and rubs on her water bucket. I wish I didn't feel I needed to blanket her but she does shiver if there is any wind. She has an incredible coat (I think she's a hand taller this time of year) so if it is a still day, she goes out naked and is fine. I know she needs a very heavy weight blanket to make up for the loft I squash in her coat when I put it on. When she comes in at night, the blanket comes off (the bucket rubbing happens in the moments between blanketing and turnout!). 

Percy also dislikes blankets and also does a lot of rolling and rubbing when one is put on. But he seems to adjust to them in time and only has fits when one is first put on OR taken off.  So I put his heavyweight one on when it's very cold and it stays on, indoors and out, until we see decent temperatures again (like above zero?). 

Stowaway, true to form, does not react. He just Eeyores his way through life so if it's windy, I put one on to protect him from the chill but if it's still, he's fine without. 

The two ponies living out are not blanketed. They have less variation in temperatures being out full time and they have hay in front of them almost all the time. Again, I watch closely and will change things if I see discomfort. So far, so good. They also have 24 hour access to warm(ish) water as they have a heated tank in their paddock. (note: studies have shown horses will avoid drinking if the water is lower than 40 degrees. As horses need lots of hay to stay warm in this weather, they also need additional water to digest it. Readily available warm water is critical to ward off colic).

Back to the barn where I have changed my own routine. Since the horses are contentedly eating their hay, I begin to muck stalls while they are still in them. This certainly isn't my preference but I've gotten used to it recently and it means they get to stay in a little longer and they have a jump start on their digestive heating systems before they even get turned out. It takes two wheelbarrow loads to clean all four stalls but I am not opening those doors again until necessary. I have two muck buckets so when the wheelbarrow is full, I fill muck buckets. They all get lined up by the door when full. 

I don't have a heated tank for the paddock the barn horses go in. I neglected to install an outdoor outlet for it and while we've talked about adding one, the big issue is how to prevent the horses from dumping it. So they have their usual black tub which I fill by carrying buckets of hot water out through the barn. It makes a fine tug toy for Walter and Percy when the hay is gone since it has no electrical components with which to be concerned.

wheelbarrow, muck tubs, buckets of ice and
hay, ready to go out in one trip
In order to fill two buckets with hot water ready to go out, I need to empty two buckets. Most mornings I am able to consolidate what's left in four buckets into two...lining them up with the muck tubs and wheelbarrow to be ferried out when the door is open. 

When I clean Percy's stall, he wants to play. If I don't play with him, he picks up the muck tub and swings it around, not only making it difficult to fill but also dumping what might have already been in it. Play at this time, for him, is more reinforcing than eating. I don't want to get suckered into having to reinforce him for standing still (YOU pull your hands out of mittens to feed treats to a frosty nosed horse at frigid temps.) I spent a long time teaching that horse that I could be around him without needing to interact and I know he'd slip back into that in no time if I fell for it. Instead, I make sure his is one that I clean into the wheelbarrow and I wedge that into his stall door so he can't tip it over. When I need to go in or out of his stall with the wheelbarrow, there is a target conveniently located on the blanket rack on the outside of his door. He pokes his head out and stations his nose on the target rather than escaping into the aisle to explore.  For that, I'll fish out a treat when I'm done...ONE.

With stalls cleaned and buckets ready to be filled (I wait until last minute to fill them so they are piping hot when I dump them), the last thing to do before turnout is fill hay bags. I reviewed several different types last winter which you can read here. I will add that I have discovered that I can stuff a lot more hay into the large hole Busy Horse feeders. They are the same size as the others but I think the larger holes mean less webbing which makes them more flexible for stuffing. That works well because in this weather when I'm trying to get a lot in them, I use the large hole ones for easier access and they also hold more. When it's not this cold, I'll use the smaller holed ones so that less hay lasts longer, serving as enrichment. 

Time to open doors for turnout. Know your individuals. Percy wants to go out. I go through Stowaway's stall and hang two nets on the furthest posts. Percy is more than ready when I open his door but years of practice at leaving politely keep him in check. No treats. Being outdoors and hay nets to go to are sufficient reinforcers for going out. Stowaway is next and I have to guide him out with a hand on his cheek. Otherwise he'd be happy to stay inside. Next is Walter who has the least experience with liberty leading so he gets a rope thrown over his neck since I have to lead him across the aisle and through the other stalls to get out. Last is Kizzy who happily walks with me and waits at the door to be sure the coast is clear before I open it (she won't go out if others are in the way...which is why the only two hay nets out are the ones furthest away). 

two of three latches, coated with frost (don't touch with bare hands!) and old blankets stuffed in the crack at the bottom.
Then I take the water buckets out and stand guard to prevent Percy from splashing in them with his front feet (seriously...) until he's had a drink. With stall buckets frozen and the hay in the barn, they are each happy to come get a drink of piping hot water. Finally I hang or place the last two hay bags and close the doors up. All that's left is to sweep the aisle, which I won't do if horses are inside due to the dust it raises. Then the aisle end doors can be opened once again so I can ferry out the wheelbarrow, muck buckets, water buckets and two more nets for the ponies. By this time, they have finished their first loose hay and are dozing happily in the sun (if it's out). Close the doors and then the real cold begins. It's when my thighs start to burn from the cold in just the time it takes for me to dump manure and water that makes me realize how much warmer it was inside the barn. I seal up the doors again, knowing the cold will creep in without the horses to heat it, but at least it keeps the snow and wind out. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Human Animal Bond

This week I have been thinking about the “bond” between a human and an animal-that-isn’t-human. Partly that is because Bookends Farm welcomed two new animals this year. One, Walter, is a horse who arrived in June. The other, Wilder, is a puppy who arrived in October. It must have been some sort of cosmic process which caused them to end up with names somewhat similar to each other. It wasn’t a conscious decision.

For many years, I have said that it took a year before I thought an animal had settled in. I attribute that to the seasons which have such an effect on our lives here. The ways I interact with the animals changes with the seasons as well as the ways the seasons affect the animals themselves: their interests, their proclivities in unpleasant weather, their energy levels depending on temperature and more. How we interact in these circumstances affects our bond. 

I posted a question on my Bookends Farm Facebook page to see what a bond looks like to different people.  A wonderful conversation ensued and I value each response. They all made me think more deeply on the topic.

One person said, “that moment when my dog doesn’t need a command…gets the job done, least fuss. Partnership.” This speaks to a relationship which each participant knows what the other wants without overt communication. Just like knowing another person very well, whether platonic or romantic, we seem to be able to read the other’s thoughts. Thinking scientifically, one would have to study this relationship to see how much of a dog’s responses were the result of unspoken cues. Cues can be body language, environmental, and situational. Someone unfamiliar with how well animals learn these things (not the case with this poster) might think the dog is reading their mind when a much simpler explanation serves. In fact, animals are so perceptive of these cues, that one might say that all responses are cue-based.  Does this define a bond? It could. 

Someone else wrote, “I don’t think I could judge that from outside a relationship. And I don’t think I have words to describe it from inside. Perhaps a positive sort of interdependence?” First of all, I love that phrase, “positive sort of interdependence”. I think dependence is a huge piece of bond building. The old saw that you become an animal’s best friend by feeding her is the most basic of approaches. There is much more one can do to enrich a animal’s life: going for dog walks, playing games the animal enjoys (as opposed to just throwing a ball because all dogs are supposed to bring back a thrown ball), allowing them choice (of activities, resting places, foods) and giving them pleasing physical contact. Food is a basic need, the others are added attractions. When we supply these, an animal can become attached to us. But note the phrase was “interdependence”.  Which means we would be dependent on the animal as well. This can range from companionship to an animal we rely on for safety or income. It’s the companionship which leaves that terribly empty hole in my heart when I lose an animal. 

Can we judge a bond from outside a relationship?  People claim to all the time when they observe others. “Wow, you can tell those two really have a bond”. Or “that horse really trusts her!”. This last one tends to grate on me because it is so often said when the horse (or dog or whatever) is doing something out of the ordinary such as a horse lying down on command. What I see in those situations is that too often the animal was not given a choice. Training methods or equipment have taught the animal they have to do it or suffer unpleasant consequences. I think “trust” is heavily misinterpreted and unless you know HOW that animal was trained, you best leave that word out of the discussion.

Another person wrote: “There is something about the way an animal greets a human that tells a story of relationship. Also, there is something about when touching/petting where the animal leans in, closes or half moons their eyes and pauses (like a dog burying their face into you or a horse laying their muzzle on your shoulder to breath on you, etc)....those moments I find to mean there is a reciprocal connection.”

This was followed by someone replying: “I think about my awareness of when the animal becomes aware of my presence, and what that response looks like…” These two comments really struck a chord with me. They comment on what the animal does when free to choose, as opposed to how an animal responds to a cue or command. An initial greeting is based on previous experiences with that person. If there is trust in the relationship, the animal (in my opinion) will be far more likely to voluntarily approach, feeling secure that the person means no harm and has good things to offer whether it’s food, activities, or opportunities. This assumes that basic needs are met and the animal isn’t desperate for what the human has to offer. 

Someone asked if a bond and a relationship were the same thing. I said that I thought they differed in that you can have a good or bad relationship but a bond is a good thing. Sadly, that was followed up with the information that there is something called a “trauma bond” which is loyalty to someone who is destructive. This certainly happens with animals as well as relationships between people but I really wish that they hadn’t included the word “bond” when they coined a term. I liked to think of a bond as being a two way pull which would only occur if both individuals were healthy and happy in the relationship. 

But it does lead to a concern that was included in my musings on what a bond is. What if someone says they are bonded to an animal but someone in a place of authority disagrees? Perhaps the worst case scenario might be hoarders, who have too many animals because they “love them all”. In some cases those animals might never have known anyone else or any other kind of treatment and so they show fear when removed from the person. Does that mean they were bonded to that person? What about someone who just has not been educated on the body language of animals? They pat the dog too hard on the top of the head, they invade the dog’s space when he is eating or sleeping, and they don’t see the emotional signals from the dog showing discomfort, fear, or worse. They may feel companionship with the dog and so feel bonded, whereas the dog is not happy and may appear bonded simply because he comes when the person feeds and walks him. But is that a bond? All too often, we trainers see a bond break when that dog finally says “enough!” with a growl or a snap or a bite. The person is horrified, never saw it coming, and may want the dog out because the bond is now broken. If they are both fortunate enough to have a trainer involved, that bond can be fixed with education. Otherwise, the dog may need to attempt to form a bond with another person, unless the dog is doomed to euthanasia through no fault of his own. 

Less dramatic but no less sad are when people use animals as tools for their own pleasure without knowledge or concern for the animal’s opinion. People may feel closely bonded with their horses used in sport or for work. The horse earns them prizes or money. They will tell you how much they love the horse and what good care they take. Problem is, the care may be more closely associated to their success than to the animal’s needs and desires. Fancy medical procedures so a horse remains sound enough to compete; carefully calibrated diets for optimum performance; a multitude of sheets and blankets so the horse’s coat is easy to care for and appears fancy; solitary stabling and turnout to ensure no injuries which could hinder the competition schedule are inflicted by another horse. How many of these would a horse choose if she could? If you opened a gate to other horses for companionship, naturally occurring forage and trees for shade…would that bond keep the horse with the person or would human be left standing alone in a sea of expensive accoutrements? 

I do think that bonds develop when a human and animal share a challenge. This could be a competitive challenge as long as the welfare of the animal is taken more seriously than the final placing…every single moment. A simpler challenge might be something as brief as riding out a thunderstorm under a tree and comforting each other until it’s over. Or perhaps it’s a shared training challenge: finding one’s way to a goal in which the primary objective is to have the animal focused each step of the way, and as happy to achieve it (as opposed to exhausted and relieved that it’s over). I know a big piece of my bond with my Eloise dog was going through the Karen Pryor Academy training together. This involved all three of these challenges. We trained daily for six months, with KPA values front and center. We endured the discomforts of travel together: long drives to the training weekends and nights in hotels (some people like hotels, but I am not one of them and Eloise didn’t seem impressed either). Then we had our final exam. Eloise bounced through it all with body language communicating that she loved every minute of it. We passed and got the certificate to prove it which I appreciate but means nothing to a dog. It’s no wonder that KPA grads have “that special bond” with their KPA dog. 

Another comment from the Bookends Farm Facebook page: “I think for a long time [horse’s name] and I had a relationship - that was based on what I could teach him, offer him, withhold , give, I think when I first realised we actually were developing a bond was when I noticed him start to "look" to me for help rather than rely on himself to sort out a difficult or scary situation - so could that be it? the bond began when he realised he could rely on me, or I on him? - and when those feelings of fear left me and I realised I could rely on him during situations what ever they might be, where we needed each other, or helped or supported the other ? - not conditioned behaviours required in a given situation but the innate knowledge that we were "there for each other”?”  This comment just makes my heart explode with happiness.

And another: “if in the course of training, working or recreating, your dog isn't're doing it wrong.”  This one makes my face explode in a smile. 

Someone commented on how equally their dog treats each member of the couple. That introduces another fascinating twist. I would say that most of the animals I know tend to have a tighter bond with one member of the family than others. Maybe that is just my own experience. 

Bringing it back to Walter and Wilder. Wilder puppy is as appealing as only a puppy can be. He makes me laugh and loves to burrow in close to my body on the couch when I read. He wags his tail when he sees me and comes when I call. But I would not call us bonded. Yet. I don’t have any doubts it’s in progress due the the aforementioned. I guess I don’t believe in love at first sight, nor that one bonds with an animal in a short period of time. I’m not sure I could prescribe a specific time for a bond to develop but…time. 

Walter has a wonderful eye. The body worker who looked at him before I purchased him commented on it. I have no idea how to define the look in a horse’s eye which radiates kindness but Walter has it. I noticed it immediately. But at that point it had nothing to do with me.  He just had a kind eye. A couple weeks ago I went into his stall and there was an added ingredient to his expression. He moved his head toward me and the eye stayed soft, not as if he was expecting a treat. He just leaned in, as one of the commenters said, and I leaned toward him. We had a moment, forehead to forehead. After six months, something turned over in my heart and now I felt a bond with this horse. I hope he feels the same. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Desensitization Continues

Desensitizing horses is a hot topic. Both the goals and the approaches vary from trainer to trainer. Some people want a "bombproof horse". While this is never actually achievable (horses are live beings who will react in unexpected circumstances), it is also impractical as well as unethical in the minds of many.

Concerning the impracticality, I had someone ask me how he could desensitize his horse to many environmental situations but still retain the horse's quick response to something such as a rattlesnake on the trail. Good question. We don't think about how much we rely on a horse's quick reactions to keep us, and them, safe. 

Concerning the ethical issue, the approaches many use to desensitize a horse involve continually exposing the horse to frightening stimuli until they no longer react. During this process the horse is continually fearful. The result of this process is what is known as a "shut-down" individual. A horse who shuts down is one who is taught that there is no escape and rather than live in that fearful existence, self protection causes it to stop reacting to stimuli. Many, many horses live this existence. In an article in Psychology Today, Gregg Henriques states, "...The Behavioral Shutdown Model (BSM) which suggests that depression may represent an evolved tendency to decrease behavioral expenditure in response to chronic danger, stress, or consistent failure to achieve one’s goals." So what many horse people call a well-behaved horse, psychology defines as depression.

For many of us this is unethical as we like to train as close to fear-free as possible. In Applied Behavioral Analysis, desensitization is "Combining relaxation with a hierarchy, of fear-producing stimuli, arranged from the least to the most frightening." The goal is to keep the animal under threshold so, not showing any signs of fear. By beginning where the horse does not show fear, we can gradually increase the strength of the stimulus so slowly that he acclimates to the fearful item without ever showing stress. Examples of how one would increase the strength include:
  • decreasing distance between the horse and the stimulus, so that you start with a tractor in the far distance and slowly get closer
  • increasing the volume of a noise, such as the sound of clippers running 
  • increasing the movement of an object, such as a flag initially introduced on a still day so that the trainer can control how much it flaps
  • increasing the physical sensation such as resting a rasp on a hoof and then progressing to moving it slowly before working up to a level that actually trims a foot.
In each of these instances, you do not increase the strength of the stimulus until the horse is showing a relaxed response to the current level. You increase the strength in such small steps that the horse continues to show relaxation. 

So there's the ideal.  Now for the reality of life with horses. Horses are prey animals. The ones who survive in the wild have a high level of vigilance. Known as "horizon scanners", they count on their eyes, ears and noses to pick out anything in the distance which might be a potential threat, and then they count on their ability to move swiftly in order to avoid those potential threats. Our domesticated horses retain these skills, some more than others. Different breeds, personalities, and histories all affect how reactive an individual is. Those horses who we prize for their athleticism and quick learning tend to similarly be more reactive and react quickly to their environments. We can do a lot of proper desensitization work to things we expect our horses to see in their environments. In clicker training, we often pair the appearance of something new with food treats. My own young horses learned that when they saw something new, approaching it earned treats. So while they might startle on the first sight of a piece of farming equipment, rather than turning and running away, they would approach it cautiously, earning treats from me for voluntarily decreasing the distance to the object. Over time, this translated to looking forward to investigating new things instead of shying away from them. 

This worked well for items in the close environment: around the barn, in the arena and in their turnout areas. However, this did not work when things were in the far distance, such that it was impractical to walk the horses up to it. Cows appearing in a far field where they had never been before resulted in my horses (some individuals more than others) standing with heads high and hearts pounding. If they were turned out, they could take their time watching to be sure these were not enemies approaching to eat them. But if I was trying to work with them, it often resulted in very little progress in that training session since vigilance of the horizon took priority over what was happening in the immediate area. 

An experience last Spring demonstrated another challenge: when something in the environment had been reliably consistent and it suddenly changed. To the left is a photo of my Stowaway pony. Behind him is a road sweeper brush which I got in order to provide my horses with a scratching post. My husband had placed it over a well sunk post in the ground four years ago, but as you can see in the photo, four years of ground movement finally caused it to begin to list. Every day I watched it tip more and more. The horses didn't seem to care. It was happening gradually so as to be perfect desensitization. But once it reached a certain angle, it couldn't stay up any longer. This happened overnight. One day it was leaning, the next morning it was on the ground. When I turned horses out that morning, you would have thought the sky had fallen. This familiar landmark had suddenly changed and alarm bells went off all over the place. They stared, they snorted, they stepped toward it, they wheeled and ran off. Since it was right in their turnout area, I was able to watch and be amused. Eventually Stowaway (the least reactive of my bunch) crept all the way up to it for a sniff. The others followed, in turn, until all had been convinced their little world was safe again. 

I decided I wanted to do a long term project for the year, helping my horses and ponies to adapt to these two situations: things they could not necessarily investigate close up, and things they were accustomed to which changed. I set a reminder on my phone which said "something new in horses' environment" and it went off every morning while I was in the barn doing chores. At that point I had to put down my pitchfork and find something to change. It might mean introducing something new or putting something normal in a new place. 

My goal was to introduce something mild, but different. I did not want to cause the kind of reaction which the falling sweeper had, but I did want to keep changing things up. My first item was a hula hoop. My horses were accustomed to hula hoops since we have played various training games with them. So I would put them in odd places in the environment: hanging from the round pen, leaning up against a fence, in the barn aisle. I watched the reactions and usually the horses would notice (a glance, a sniff), but not react with a spook or hesitation. I made sure that none of the items I put out were reachable. This not only meant that the horses could not approach and sniff (I wanted them to be able to adapt without needing to investigate), but it also protected the items from being played with or destroyed! 

After I had moved the hula hoop around to different places, I hung colored tape off them. I did this first on a still day, but where we live, there's usually a bit of a breeze at minimum so there was some movement of the streamers. In the following days, I moved that around. 

I put out the plastic sled I used to move hay in the winter, then I hung that from different places in their environment. I used a bright blue Klimb dog training platform to prop open gates. I used feed bags and empty plastic shavings bags. When July came, I went to the dollar store and bought flags and streamers and an umbrella (which the handle promptly broke on...good thing I wasn't using it for its intended purpose).

When things happened naturally, I allowed them to function as part of my project: when I put wind protection up around my tomato plants, it looked like ghosts in the evening light. When I moved some plywood wind breaks from the shed (so I took something away which had previously been there). Every day I did something different, no matter how subtle. 

In time, the horses noticed less and less. Their environment had become a place where things changed and it wasn't a concern. In August, I went away for a week and turned off the reminder on my phone so it didn't go off every morning. When I returned, I did not continue the project daily, although I put out the umbrella occasionally (it walked around the grass in an interesting fashion when the breeze blew it). The streamers and flags remained up in the barn.

I think I saw proof of the success of my project a month ago when I had to unwrap a long strand of plastic bale wrap from a pallet load of shavings. It was wet from rain so I asked the young girl who was working for me to hang it over the round pen to dry. When I looked out, I was amazed to see that she had woven it back and forth between the two round pens.  It looked appropriately Halloweeny for the holiday, like a giant white spider web moving eerily in the breeze.  And the horses? Not even looking at it, though they were all within 50 feet of the apparition. (and yes, I took a picture but it seems to have disappeared from my phone).

I am going to do the same thing next year, looking for novel things to place around the farm so that my horses remain desensitized to oddities in their environment. 

a blue ball I was pumping with air
Percy and Ande watching and listening as the ball was pumped up

empty shavings bags tied up to go to recycling

A flag for 4th of July!

the item on the left is filled with beads that rattle when it's moved

moving the flag right into the barn

the ghostly shapes of my protected tomato plants

finds from the dollar store

when the plywood came down

hanging flags and sparkly streamers in the barn

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Introducing a New Horse to a Group

I just had another article published in the IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) Journal. I am sharing the link here.

It details my efforts to introduce Bookends Farm's newest equine to all the others with minimal risk. As always, writing about it caused me to focus more deeply on the process and I learned a lot from the process.

There are lots of photos and videos so you can see what I did.

The journal has many great articles for all different species so check out the whole issue and put it on your list to read every time!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Layers of Safety When Working with Dogs and Horses

Dogs and horses. They are equally important in my life and in my business. I love learning from specialists with either species because it always informs my work with the other. So while this lesson was learned in a dog based setting, I took the lessons home for both.

A couple weeks ago I attended an Aggression in Dogs seminar with Michael Shikashio and Trish McMillan Loehr. It was an excellent seminar for anyone who works with dogs in any capacity. During the weekend, Michael shared his "layers of safety" or "levels of protection". When working with aggressive dogs, he makes sure he has as many layers as possible...up to 7 or 8 or more! What are these layers? With an aggressive dog they can include having the dog

  • on a leash
  • behind a gate
  • behind a closed door
  • wearing a muzzle
For the people they include
  • using your training bag as a barrier for a dog coming at you
  • having citronella spray on a belt clip
  • wearing protective clothing
Even if you used just these listed (yes, use them all), you would have seven layers of protection.  

Tomorrow I will be the examiner at a Pony Club testing. And if anyone knows about layers of safety, it's those involved with Pony Club! In this case, we aren't dealing with aggressive dogs, but with kids and ponies. Or horses and adults. Our first level has to be teaching and training. The child should be mounted on a safe pony...oxymoron though that may be as we all know there is no such thing as a "bombproof horse". But I'll try not to get sidetracked. Next we need to teach the child how to ride well to be safe on that pony.

But these things sometimes go sideways. So we also have equipment layers: helmet, sleeves, safety vests, breakaway stirrups, and yes...medical arm bands. We also have environmental controls: enclosed arenas or fields, other animals secured behind fences and carefully managed lesson areas.

In my life, horses and dogs are mixed on a daily basis. My dogs accompany me to the barn for chores and hang out there when I work horses. Our walks frequently take us around or through horse turnout areas. Anyone who has been around horses and dogs for any period of time knows the risks and has heard the horror stories. Dogs, horses and humans can suffer physical injury as well as mental or emotional trauma as a result: dogs being kicked or stepped on or strangled by ropes; humans being kicked, run over or run away with if a dog frightens a horse; horses getting tangled in ropes or running through fences. 

Enough nightmare scenes. 

This is on my mind currently because we have a new canine addition to the family this week: a 6 month old Jack Russell Terrier. I am very aware of how I set the scene for daily life as a result. I need to keep everyone safe while still providing all with the enrichment of farm life: horses need to be turned out, puppies need to exercise and explore their worlds, humans still need to do chores. 

Four years of living here and I am still in love with the kennel in my barn, most likely because I lived the previous decades without one. This is a place where dogs can safely hang out and have access to a dog door with a kennel outside. Inside they can see me working in the barn. Outside they can see me working in the paddocks, arena, etc. So if horses are in the aisle or I am working with them, the dogs are in the kennel. But if I have turned horses out or they are securely in stalls, adult dogs are free to be with me, or sleeping in the sun in the aisle, or (most helpful) hunting vermin. 

I have spent the first week here teaching the new puppy, Wilder, that the kennel is a fun place to be. He really didn't think it was the first few days because he wanted to be with me and he cried piteously when locked in the kennel (a sad history of being excessively crated/kenneled in his short life). My other Jack, Eloise, was with him, he had a comfortable bed and plenty of room to move around and explore (the kennel doubles as a feed room). But since he was so stressed in there, I wanted to limit the time he was confined until he acclimated. So as soon as horses were turned out, I would open the door and release him. 

The main layer of safety I have on puppies is a long line. A narrow gauge paracord for a smallish puppy, and attached to a harness (not a no-pull harness), our puppies have this attached to them all the time for up to a year. Puppies are unpredictable. This allows them to explore a much larger area than a leash, run around, but still be attached to me. So even when released from the kennel, Wilder had the long rope on. If I could pay attention to him, I let it drag and just picked it up if he started to wander away. But if I was likely to get distracted (being honest with myself), I simply tied the line to something sturdy in the barn so he couldn't wander off. 

Which brings me to this noon. I had gone out to do noon chores and my first job was to put up a new line of fence. Dogs accompanied me. Wilder had a wonderful time playing in the grass and harassing Eloise and falling down and eating grass and harassing Eloise and finding horse manure to eat and harassing Eloise. About half the time he was dragging the line, but when he headed for manure or got tangled around fence posts or headed toward a horse paddock, I picked up the line and called him back to me (after which he got treats and pats and verbal praise galore). 

Once the fence was ready, it was simply a matter of opening a gate to let the ponies through. I needed to put Wilder somewhere secure so when I went in to grab a grazing muzzle for one of the ponies, I simply tied his rope to a blanket rack in the barn so he could be in the aisle or barnyard and watch.  As I walked toward the ponies who were dancing around anxious to get to grass, I hesitated.  One of the horror stories which sticks with me was of two Corgis killed when they were tied in a gateway and horses got loose and galloped through the gate. Being tied, the dogs had no way to get out of the way. 

I looked back at Wilder. Then I turned around and went back to tie him shorter, so that he could not get out of the barn. There were now three layers of safety: the fence around the horses should prevent them from getting anywhere near Wilder.  He was tied in the barn aisle so he couldn't get to them.  If the ponies somehow got loose, the chain across the aisle way would prevent them from getting into the aisle. It wasn't until afterward that I realized those three layers only worked one direction.  They prevented horses from getting to him, but there was only one layer, the rope, preventing him from getting to horses, since he could easily get under the chain and the paddock fences. 

Thinking about layers of safety gives me a new way to look at life when dogs and horses are both involved, as well as when working with each individually.