Monday, January 3, 2011

The Dentist's Visit

In my previous post (wow, a long time ago!), I mentioned the list of veterinary procedures that Peggy Hogan posted on her "Clicker Training Horses" Facebook page (list provided by a vet in that group). Taking up the challenge, I decided to focus on teeth for a project with Percy. He had not been impressed when I asked my vet to check his teeth last Spring. I quickly asked the vet to abandon ship rather than get in a battle with my little red pirate. I wanted to work with him first so that things would go smoothly.

When I was younger, I had been shown how to grab a horse's tongue and then flip my fist vertically to wedge the mouth open to view inside. But I'd also heard of the damage that can be done (to the hyoid apparatus, TMJ, etc) by handling the tongue in this way. I was hoping to teach Percy to open his mouth willingly and be comfortable with hands in his mouth so this would not be necessary. I began by just inserting a finger in the side of his mouth the way, pre-clicker, I would open a horse's mouth for the bit. As soon as his gums parted slightly, I clicked and well, in no time he was happily opening his mouth wider and wider with just my finger touching the corner of his lips. One day he was jealous of me working with Ande and he actually came his stall door and yawned at me about 5 times! And yes, I rewarded it!

I was invited to observe a dentist at a friend's house. I took the opportunity to see how he handled the horses as well as how he did his job. I was very glad to have this opportunity as watching him gave me more things to work on. First, he simply stood in the stall letting the horse get used to him. The horses I observed hid in the back of their stalls. I knew Percy would undress him if he stood still that long (Percy loves zipper pulls, hood strings, hats, etc). Then the dentist slid his forefingers in the horse's mouth along the side "to give them an idea of what was coming" as well as do a preliminary exam. So there was my first new task: familiarize Percy with that feeling.

The dentist had his tools in the standard stainless steel bucket full of water that he stood in the corner of his stall...there was task number 2. Familiarize Percy with the sound and appearance of a clangy shiny bucket. Was this "necessary"? Would he totally freak out if I didn't? Of course not, but any new little things like this which were all added up could set a horse to being wary and I didn't want him wary. I wanted him as ho-hum as possible before the really freaky stuff started happening! So I took several of my kitchen serving spoons, metal and wood, and put them in a very small stainless bucket I had for dog water. I carried them out to the barn and let Percy play chef with all the spoons and make noise. He was thrilled to be clicked for all this fun play. Then I used the handle of a wooden spoon to poke in his mouth. This was all done with the clicker of course: open your mouth for the spoon, CT. Open wider, CT. All four feet still and head still while I slide the spoon in your mouth, CT. If he moved or put his head up, I just stood and did nothing until he approached me and wanted the spoon again, CT.

While working on my friend's horses, the dentist used a speculum. (to see a photo of one, ). I studied it carefully and asked if he always used it. He did and said the horses didn't usually mind it. I was very skeptical if a horse who thought he had "choices" would agree to that. Luckily, the dentist liked my idea of coming to just meet Percy and seeing what he could see without putting any pressure on him so I didn't worry too much about the speculum. He said he rarely got that far in a first visit with a young horse.

Last but not least was the way the dentist held the horse. While working on the mouth, he took a death grip on the halter with his left hand. I was sure this was to steady himself for arduous work as much as to prevent the horse from leaving but my little pirate does not like to be restricted. The beauty of Clicker Training has been that I never had to restrict him. I have always been able to present things in such a way that he wanted to participate. I had a discussion with Peggy about a horse of hers who feels the same way. Are there times we need to tell these horses "just deal with it"? Traditional trainers do this all the time and their answer would be "of course!". But when you see how much more you get when you don't deal with horses this way, you start to question. Percy has been taught to respond to the lightest touch by was I going to teach him to brace in this situation? I have learned how sensitive horses can be, they feel the slightest touch on the end of a lead so that I never lead a horse by the's too much! It would be like grabbing a friend's necklace to get them to go with you!

Luckily, in our (Facebook) discussions, Peggy used the term "halter grab" and I remembered watching a DVD of a dog trainer who taught a "collar grab". She taught this as a safety measure: dogs frequently duck away when someone tries to grab their collar and if a car, dangerous dog, etc is approaching, you do not want your dog ducking away. This trainer did not use a clicker- just food, but I knew a clicker always works better.

I had done all the previous mouth work with no halter and Percy loose in his stall or paddock. I always begin things this way so that I am sure the horse has the choice of not participating. If he doesn't participate, I need to adjust my training so that he wants to.

So now I could add criteria by beginning with the halter. I put it on him and decided that my cue to "brace" would eventually be the fact that I was standing in front of him and the way I took his halter. I reached up with my left hand and just put a finger on the left side of his halter (his right side). He stood still, so CT. I repeated that a couple times so he understood that just standing was what I was asking of response. Then I began taking the halter with several fingers and progressed to where I could reach up and grab his halter in a fierce grip and he just stood quietly. Phew. Had I done that without the gradual training, I know he would have stood up (which is what he did when the vet tried). OK, now I needed to add pressure. I grabbed the halter with a fist on each side and began tugging lightly left and right- I thought he'd resist that less than if I tugged down. He definitely yielded to me still (which I wanted) but he didn't look concerned that I was being so heavy handed. I did this all over several days and eventually could pull down, up, left right on his halter and he was happy to be manhandled around, yet still remained light to my rope cues when I was leading him otherwise.

After observing the dentist at the other farm, I had made an appointment for him to come meet Percy, as well as work on Mariah who was showing a little awkwardness in chewing.
My last task was one I did not manage to get done before the appointment. I wanted to have some other people come and play in his mouth, especially a good friend who is a small animal vet and carries the requisite smells on her person! Because it was the holidays, however, I did not want to pull people away from their lives so this hasn't been done.

Of course the day he was scheduled to come was the day of the "blizzard" so we rescheduled for later in the week. My plan was to have the dentist observe what I had done, hoping he'd see how I handled Percy as well as have Percy "warm up" to the situation. Then I thought we'd give him a break, go do Mariah, and then come back to Percy. As it turned out, Percy was so comfortable with the situation that wasn't necessary. The dentist stood outside and watched as Percy opened his mouth, let me rub his teeth and I showed and explained about the halter grab. Then he went in with him. Percy sniffed him lightly and then came to me at the door. Here I got stuck. I didn't know what to do with myself! If I was in reach, Percy wanted to be with me. I went to the other side of the aisle and watched from a distance as Percy investigated the dentist's hat and pockets. He was perfectly happy to let him slip his fingers in the sides of his mouth and feel around and look. Oh- that was one other thing I'd seen him do with the other horses that we practiced...shining a flashlight in his mouth. I thought the bright light in his eyes might be startling so we practiced that. He was fine.

The dentist said he was really very good for his age. He certainly hadn't been as good for him as he was for me so I regretted not having other people work with him. But he didn't pull away when the dentist had his halter. I know that boy well enough to know he could have stood up or done any number of things to get away if he'd really wanted to. The first time the farrier came when he was only weeks old, I made the mistake of having my husband help hold him. My husband is accustomed to wrestling beef cattle but both Percy and my husband were on the floor in no time. He is now much bigger and stronger, which is why I do not engage in battle with him!

I went back in the stall to review his lessons and once again, he was perfect for me, so I asked the dentist which float he used first. He pointed it out and we just played touch the target a couple times until of course, Percy offered to grab it with his teeth and pretty soon I had it in his mouth. The dentist was thrilled and so I handed it to him and he actually was able to do a little floating, enough to make him happy. Then I grabbed the speculum and played touch the target with that as well. We went until he was happily biting onto the edge, which is where it sits in his mouth. We didn't do any more with that but I was really happy to stop there.

I did try to get some pictures but didn't want the flash going off and it was too dark without it. Percy has very cute teeth. The dentist wants to come back in April and pull his caps off. Neither of the other babies has needed this and I asked if there was something "wrong" that this would need to be done. He said no, he has a nice mouth, but it's just a good idea. I'd love to know from any of you reading this whether you feel that this type of dentistry is necessary, excessive, etc. I'm all in favor of doing what's necessary but don't like interfering if Mother Nature can do without.


smazourek said...

This is fantastic! My horses REALLY don't appreciate the dentist (she visited before I started clicker training and the last time she was out I was in a cast so I couldn't do anything). They need to be floated as soon as it warms up and I'm going to refer to this post to get them ready. Thank you!

Bookends Farm said...

Glad it was helpful- let me know how yours goes and what other helpful things you find to do!

Melissa said...

Good idea training the halter grab. I don't know if you've ever seen Morten and Cecile Egvedt at a ClickerExpo or online, but they talk about training for 'rough handling'. They point out that our clicker trained animals are SO sensitive to light pressure that it can be a detriment sometimes. They are dog trainers primarily, so they talk about the collar grab, scruff grabs (not TOO rough, of course!) whole body ruffles etc. I think this carries over well to the horses too. I don't want my horse to freak out if someone handles her 'traditionally' because she's never experienced it before.

Bookends Farm said...

Really good point Melissa- it's so helpful to hear what trainers of other species are doing. Thanks! Is Cecile Koste the same as Cecile Egvedt? (married name or anything?) Cecile Koste will be at Clicker Expo.

Cynthia said...

have read this with interest as my donkeys have had some dental issues in the past year and I'm always looking for ways to make them more comfortable through CT. My vet insists on sedation and I insist on the lowest possible dose! Unfortunately only the vets can do dental work in BC. Does your horse dentist use sedation?

Re caps- my young donkey (she was 3 1/2 then) had 2 caps removed. It gave her a "step" mouth for a while and I think the combination of that, a fairly long procedure and an abrasion in her mouth caused by a sharp point made her really really sore and uncomfortable. I had her on a small dose of paste Banamine for a week as she couldn't manage to eat without it. It was scary! Her other 2 caps came out by themselves.

Bookends Farm said...

Cynthia, this dentist uses sedation if he thinks it's necessary, but he has to have a vet come and do it (legally)! So it becomes quite an expensive procedure! I confess I have not had him come back. I haven't noticed any problems with Percy's mouth and so decided not to make it an issue. It has been a year now so perhaps it's time I had him come back and check on things.
Thanks for the input on the caps!