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.