Saturday morning for me began with the learning lab "Teaching a Reactive Dog Class" with Emma Parsons. Emma is the author of the popular "Click to Calm" book. "Reactive" is a term that can apply to both dogs and horses and therefore a very useful topic for me to learn more about. One of the sayings I heard from various people over the weekend was "it's just behavior". This is in contrast to "OMG I have a ______ dog!" (fill in the blank with some dreaded, descriptive word). The featured speaker, Susan Friedman, handed out stickers:
Rather than labeling individuals, it is more helpful to look at the specific behavior that is troubling and address that. How often do we hear "snarky", "crazy", "difficult", or "neurotic" to describe horses? Those labels seem to be an excuse to ignore the behavior and just push on through. Labels for dogs on this list include "dominant", "shy", "loyal", or "stubborn". What good do these labels do?
What we do know is that there is an A -> B -> C formula in behavior. A is the Antecedent, B is the Behavior and C is the Consequence. Behavior does not occur in a vacuum. There is always an antecedent and always a consequence. The challenge is figuring out what those are for any given behavior. Without practice, education and a very observant eye, people are often wrong about what the triggers and consequences are. When you know them, you can change the antecedent and/or the consequence, and that may change the behavior.
An example of a dog being reactive is my own Eloise who used to bark more than I liked. She still barks more than I like but a lot less than she used to. Now she "boofs"...soft little woofs that if I'm not careful, I can easily ignore because they are not at all irritating. Why not ignore them? Because I want to reinforce them. I much prefer boofs to YAPYAPYAP YAP! So when she boofs, I say "what do you hear?" which of course she doesn't understand at all, but it helps me if I talk my way through things! I treat her and say "thank you for letting me know you heard something" which again, she doesn't understand but now she finds that boofing = treats. Boofing is good. Sometimes if the boofing continues, I pick her up and we look out the window together (she is a very small dog) to see what might be triggering her. Usually it's the big Ziva guard dog barking at coyotes. Maybe Eloise even hears the coyotes. I don't know. What I know is that I can't stop the antecedents in this situation- I have no control over coyotes at the fringes of the property. But I can help her learn that her triggers can have different consequences. I skip the behavior piece entirely. Her behavior is up to her. But if Ziva barking (and the UPS man arriving and the plow driving by, etc) results in treats raining down all over the kitchen floor, then Eloise decides that Ziva barking is not a reason to get alarmed, but rather a reason to head for the kitchen! The power of association has lowered her reactivity and that, in turn, changed her behavior from yapping to boofing. I can accept boofing. After all, she's a dog. Dogs bark. If you don't like barking, don't get a dog. That would be like getting a child and expecting it not to talk. We teach kids to talk in a way that we can deal with- we can teach dogs the same.
The dogs who sign up for Emma's reactivity classes have much bigger issues than barking at the UPS man. These are frequently dogs who lunge, snarling at other dogs on the leash or attack the front door when visitors arrive...possibly worse. Her talk explained how she progresses from dogs like this to dogs who, at the end of 6 weeks, can walk on leash around a room with other reactive dogs while maintaining focus on their people. No choke chains or other aversive methods- all positive reinforcement (can you imagine what it does to a reactive dog to be choked by a chain or zapped with a shock when they are already alarmed??)
So how can we use this knowledge with our horses? Remember, it's just behavior. Find the antecedent, find the consequence, and start making adjustments. Both Emma and Karen Pryor related the wonderful tale of how Emma completes one of these series of classes and calls Karen to say "it worked again!"...marveling over the power of positive reinforcement.