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 laughing...you'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. https://fall2017.iaabcjournal.org/introducing-a-new-horse-to-a-group/

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. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Don't Knock Recipe Training

Have you heard the term "recipe" to describe training? I've heard it as a marketing tool: "recipe for success" and also as criticism: formatted training without considering individual conditions.  

I've been thinking about it recently because I find myself hooked on "The Great British Bake Off". I'd never watched a cooking show of any kind until a recent long flight. After watching a movie, I had enough time to watch an episode of "Cupcake Wars" before landing, but it was too ridiculous to even finish. I'm still trying to figure out how Netflix knew which seat I was in on that plane to then offer me "The Great British Bake Off" once I was home. The photo of the tent in that beautiful English countryside sucked me in to the first episode and after that I was hooked. 

It's tempting to tell you about the cakes, pies, pastries, tarts, chocolate, sugar work and more, but this is supposed to be about horse training. What fascinates me about this show is that for the first time in my life I am appreciating the Science behind baking. I love to bake but I have never before taken the time to think about how it all works (beyond knowing a couple basics). I see something which looks good, follow the recipe, and hope for the best. I'm fortunate to have a husband who will eat anything I put in front of him, and is very appreciative of baked goods. Appearance is not an issue. 

The phrase "you've got to have style and substance in your bakes" made me think of horses. Some have style: shiny coats and fashionable tack, but are stiff and tight in their movement. Others have a flashy way of moving but an educated eye sees the incorrect biomechanics. And then there are the horses with the substance of nice conformation, correct movement, and training, but no one has taken the time to give them a decent grooming and trim, so they lack the visual finish.

Any one of those horses might be enough to please the owner, impress the friends, and even win ribbons in competitions. But I'd rather be in that tent with the Bake Off bakers. All amateurs, they nonetheless have an understanding and appreciation for choosing ingredients, cooking methods, decoration, and presentation. They understand which ingredients and methods yield the best structure. They know how to plan and organize their time and their workspace. Isn't the same true with good horse trainers?

Even with a clear understanding of those skills, these bakers still use recipes. I'm sure they could create something out of their heads, but the Bake Off judges are skeptical about "winging it" with any aspect. The bakers have to say ahead of time what they will do, what the flavors will be and how each bake will be decorated. They have to have a plan. They need to know ahead of time what the end result will look like and taste like. 

The same is true for training. If you don't know what you want, how can you possibly expect the horse to figure it out? Something as simple as turning around after going through a gate can be done with the legs all higgledy piggledy, or it can be done with a focus on balance and coordination, if you've done the work. 

How do the bakers know what to do? Like us, they study, practice, experiment and do it again. They know the science of a strong flour and a soft flour (huh?), the gluten contents of each, and how they both interact with yeast. We should know how a horse moves and how that is affected by tension. We should know the different kinds of tension and whether they help or harm our training. 

And we must know how the horse learns. Just as chemistry and math factor into baking, behavioral science is critical for training.  

Amateur bakers start with someone else's recipe, see how it turns out and then do it again, with a different flour or spice. They learn how chocolate affects the basic ingredients, how fruit and vegetables affect the structure and how the room temperature affects the way the butter and flour interact. We can practice with basic training recipes while we observe how the environment affects our training. Weather, distractions, hurrying or taking time to breathe with the horse: all these things can be studied on basic training plans. 

We have the shoulders of trainers ahead of us to stand on. They have given us many recipes to try. They explain the science to us in hopes that we pay attention. By knowing the science of behavior, we can understand why the recipes work. We should practice those recipes until they are familiar and we understand them. Then we can tweak them a bit and see what the result is. 

I think both baking and horse training should be appreciated as a blend of art and science. You can make cookies or train a horse without them. But they come out better if you include them both.

Friday, March 31, 2017

What If I Can't Go to an Animal Behavior Conference?

This weekend is Clicker Expo. That means the social media of clicker trainers is full of pictures and posts: meeting the giants of the industry, listening to inspiring talks, and watching training in action. It can be hard to watch from afar if you wish you were there. As consolation, I have compiled a list of learning opportunities that you can take advantage of from home.

Katie Bartlett and Rosie
First of all, many of us who do go to various conferences often write about them afterward. I've written in this blog about previous Clicker Expos, ASAT conference (Art and Science of Animal Training, formerly known as ORCA), NEI (Natural Encounters Inc), and Alexandra Kurland clinics at Cavalia's home farm. But the master of taking notes and sharing information is Katie Bartlett. I do not know how she both gleans so much from the talks and then manages to put it all into understandable blog posts. If you can't get to a conference, follow her Equine Clicker Training blog. She also blogs about her own training experiences and every word is worth your time to read.

Several conferences also video some or all of the talks and make them available afterward. Clicker Expo offers many of the talks this way. Word of mouth has it that ASAT will also be offering videos in the future. The Karen Pryor Clicker Training Store also sells videos from many well known trainers that you can watch from home.

This winter I have participated in several learning opportunities from home. Last year I splurged on both Expo and NEI so this is the year to pay the piper and not spend money on hotels and flights. It does not mean I had to forego continuing my education.

Last fall I enrolled in the Fear Free Pets program. Their program has been so successful that they are updating their site. When I went there just now, the site is "under construction" but the email I received from them states they'll be back up next week. The course "aims to take the 'pet' out of 'petrified' and get pets back for veterinary visits by promoting considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calming environments." It is aimed at veterinary clinic employees as well as trainers who would like to help their clients with fearful pets. I found the information very helpful and wrote about it in "Fear Free Kitty" on my own blog.

Karen Pryor Academy offers ten different courses in training, dog sports, shelter training and also veterinary visits.  Access to these courses is for 12 weeks to a year, allowing you time to learn at your own pace and giving you the flexibility to fit it in around other responsibilities. I took the Smart Reinforcement course with Ken Ramirez last winter and have been thrilled with the use I have been able to get out of what I learned.

IAABC offers a rotating list of courses that vary from genetics and DNA; to shelter dog behavior; to writing. Some include the option of mentorships with leaders in their fields. I have just completed Eileen Anderson's Writing course which I audited, although the option to submit writing to her for comment was also available. I haven't taken a writing course in 30 years and it was quite a thrill to be focusing on my own writing again. With luck, readers of this blog will benefit from my renewed attention.

The Pet Professional Guild offers monthly webinars. Last week I attended one titled "Scent and the Assistance Dog" which was fabulous. I'll confess I haven't been equally impressed with some of the other presenters but the webinars are reasonably priced, especially if you are a member.

For anyone who teaches other people (this includes all of us who help people train their animals), TAGteach is invaluable. I received an email recently that they have a new (free!) course that offers an introduction (or a refresher) to TAGteach principles.

Percy and I with Alex
I have to include Alexandra Kurland's online course in this list. Alex is the one responsible for the clicker in my hand and the treats in my pocket. Reading an article she wrote in 1999 started me on this journey and she has kept me going in the right direction. Her course is a comprehensive presentation of her training principles.

Finally, I have just begun "Horse Biz Boot Camp" with Cadence Coaching. This is my first experience with this type of coaching, but I was invited to join by Marla Foreman who had a two-for-one offer. Since my goal this year was to find ways to increase my income (to be able to afford more conferences next year!), certainly some help in the business side of things will be beneficial.

The ones I have listed here are all opportunities I have taken advantage of myself. There are many others. These and others range in price from free to hundreds or thousands of dollars. If you have any you would like to recommend, to me or to other readers, please give a link in the comments below.

It always seems like winter is a good opportunity for spending time on education and yet I never fit it all in. So many good books to read, webinars to watch, courses to take. And here it is March and the days are already lengthening to the point where it's light after dinner.  But it's snowing again...

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Novelty in Training and Enrichment- the Equine Segment

My husband has fried eggs, toast with jam, orange juice and coffee for breakfast. Every morning. Ever since I've known him (over 30 years now). For special occasions (somebody else's special occasion), he'll eat waffles or pancakes, but given a choice, the menu never changes. Novelty, when it comes to breakfast, is not appreciated.

The rest of us usually appreciate some novelty in our diets and in other facets of our lives. The rest of us includes the animals in our care. 

The horses have made this very obvious in the last week. They have been eating hay and only hay for many months. It's their version of eggs and toast with jam. They also get soaked hay cubes as a vehicle for supplements...correlating to the orange juice that washes down the vitamins. But they are ready for some novelty in this white washed world that is northern New England in winter. They want something bright green- all the different flavors of fresh native grasses, weeds, wild strawberries, dandelion leaves, and more. I can't give them that for another couple months. I throw hay in their stalls and they hang their heads out to nicker at me. I hang hay in nets outdoors and then come to the barn and hang their heads inside and nicker at me. 

Hay nets, hanging or in the snow, are good for horses. Eating from them is closer to their natural grazing and browsing habits than eating loose hay off the ground. But the posts they hang from aren't portable. The view never changes. The flavors never change. The weather changes, but...not enough. 

This morning I put everyone out with their hay nets. I carried one bucket of hot water out, dumped it into the tub and returned to fill it again. After it was full, I took a hay net out to the ponies before dumping the next bucket. I forgot I hadn't triple locked the door. Percy can manipulate the sliding latches, and the screw eye turn. It takes a double ended snap through the screw eye to bamboozle him. When I am going back and forth, I often skip this final step because it's a pain with heavy gloves on and I know I'm going right back through. In the time it took me to take hay to the ponies, he was back in. 

He had left his friends, hay in both hanging and ground nets, the wide outdoors after being in all night, and let himself back in the barn to snuffle through the scraps on the floor of the barn aisle. I shut the exterior door and let him play. In the next hour, he had a blast enriching himself. He ate scraps off the floor and out of the hay cart. He ate some of the low sugar hay usually only forced on the ponies. He chewed on the handles of the wheelbarrow (until I shooed him away). He grabbed my pitchfork handle (a game I allowed when he was a baby). He read the sign on the wall.

He tried to turn on the water. He walked up and down the aisle. He crinkled the plastic shavings bags. He checked out the view from the other stalls. At length.

 The only stall he didn't go in was his own. He was very familiar with that room already. He stood in the other stalls and put his head out the grill openings to see what he could reach from there. Then he went out into the aisle and tried another stall. He played with the blankets hanging on the doors. 

Finally, he just started following me around. My big red dog. I went in to sweep a stall; he followed me in and watched. I walked out and he followed me out. I stopped and scratched the itchiest places he can't reach himself. 

All the while, his friends were outside eating. 

I let him wander and play until it was time to turn on the blower. I didn't want him in the barn with all the dust, so I got a handful of treats and targeted him back through the stall he had entered, out the door and then did the triple lock so he couldn't get back in. 

Cabin fever is not limited to humans. And just because you can be outside does not mean life is always enriching. Sometimes you need some novelty for enrichment.

On my Dog Chapter blog, I will add a post of using novelty in training. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Naughty Horse Part 3: The Inconclusive Conclusion

horse tracking
The morning after that escape, I followed Percy's tracks backwards from the pony pen. As I mentioned earlier, I have a track which goes around the arena. There is pasture surrounding the arena so this track allows me to open up various parts of the pasture for grazing. I had placed the jumps for the jumping lane on the eastern side of the track, as that side is used if the track is used at all. The southern and western sides of the track only give access to the small pasture along the road so they aren't in that part as often. For the winter, I remove the eastern track fence so they have access to the entire field. I then put a short piece of electric rope across the opening to the southern and western track to keep them out of it entirely. Yet this is where Percy's tracks led. 

When I got to the rope closing off that portion of track, I discovered that the increasing depth of snow had left the rope only about 18' above the snow. The tracks indicated that Percy had jumped over it, possibly from a standstill. The tracks went right up to the rope on the takeoff side, but didn't begin until about 4 feet out on the landing side. He might have walked up to it in order to assess it and then backed up to trot up and jump as I have seen him do. I'll never know. 

I had swapped out my yak tracks for snowshoes when I climbed out of the plowed barnyard into the track and now I maneuvered them carefully over the rope. One end of the rope was attached to an insulator which was then attached to an arena post by wire. I had not turned the fence off before coming out. In the summer, it would have been a quick walk back to the barn to do so, but when snowshoes and yak tracks are both required, I decided to do what I could in the moment. I pulled off my gloves and slowly worked the wire up the post, being careful not to let the hot rope touch the insulator wire. I doubted there was much tingle in it this time of year but I didn't want to find out. I raised it until the rope was at my waist height. Since I was on snowshoes, Percy's weight to surface area ratio on hooves was going to put him deeper in the snow. And yes, I crossed my fingers and went in the house.

All was peaceful for a few days. I was careful to put hay out far from his new escape area and plenty of it. I made sure I was not late for chore time. Any time my obligations kept me from being home on time, I confined everyone to the small sacrifice area near the barn. I hated to do it, but I also didn't want to come home to find horses out everywhere. So far I'd been lucky that no one else was following Percy out. They must have decided he had some kind of magical power. Ande and Stowaway had both been doing the jumping lane every time Percy did and Ande had done plenty of free jumping in the arena as well. But thankfully, they did not use their skills the way Percy did. 

Then one morning I had to leave very early. I committed the cardinal sin of putting horses out with hay and water but not cleaning stalls. I really, really hate leaving stalls dirty but just did not have time that morning. I love surveying a nice clean barn before I walk out of it, knowing that it has hours to air out before horses go back in. To add insult, I forgot they weren't clean until I went out for afternoon chores. Ugh. Shortly after I started in on cleaning Percy's stall I heard a commotion outside. When I opened the aisle door, there was Percy. It was clear by the tracks in the dusting of snow that the commotion was him falling on the ice. Interestingly, the UPS man was also out there. I'm not sure who was more surprised but Percy and the UPS man were both wide eyed and staring at the other. I calmly took the package from the UPS man while Percy trotted around the barnyard on the ice with his tail up over his back. I waited until the UPS truck had left and  took the time to observe that Percy didn't seem to have any ill effects from falling on the ice. Then I called him, all the while thinking:

behavior which is repeated has been reinforced

I decided that being allowed to play in the barn while I prepped stalls the other evening had encouraged him to jump out again and come to the door. I didn't want to strengthen that habit, plus I still had two dirty stalls to clean. Had I been a good girl and done the stalls earlier, I could have put everyone in and prepped stalls around them but I didn't want to put them in dirty stalls. Instead, I opened the gate and put Percy back in with the others where they were waiting for me to finish chores. He did get a treat for going in. I thought perhaps falling on the ice might function as a punisher completely unrelated to me and make him think twice before going that route again. And he wasn't going to get to play in the barn this time.

I had moved on to the next stall when I heard footsteps crunching in the snow again. I swore, went to the aisle door, opened it and stepped out. This time Percy trotted right past me and out to the driveway and around the barn. That answered that. Being put back in paddock with no fun was more closely related to coming to me, than it was to jumping out. Putting him back had served to punish his voluntary recall. I swore again and followed him into the dark. 

It was when I saw him scamper around to the other side of the barn that I had to really stop and wonder just how calculating he was. I had dropped a bale of hay out the loft door on the east side of the barn into the snow in preparation for the following morning. Percy made a beeline for it. Had he seen me do that and figured out that's where he was going from the start? He had left the other ponies in the shed, crossed the sacrifice paddock, gone all the way down around the full length of the arena, in the dark. On a warm summer day in bright daylight, there are sometimes monsters at the far end of the arena. Apparently monsters hibernate in winter. Or don't come out in the dark (which is not the way I remember it from my childhood). In any case, he'd circumvented the entire arena, slid his way across the icy barnyard, out into the driveway, down the length of the barn and around to the far end where the hay bale was. 

taken looking out the window with the aisle lights reflecting
Once again, I found myself at "now what?". This horse is exhausting. Stalls still weren't clean. I couldn't put him in his stall (the one clean one) because he would be unhappy alone in the barn. There was no point in putting him back with the others as I'd seen how well that didn't work. I left him where he was, tearing at the hay bale. I thought he might decide to come back on his own but each time I peered out the window, he was happily wrestling with the hay bale. 

When the barn was finally ready, I went out to him. I was cursing myself for not keeping the eastern doors to the aisle shoveled out. I hardly ever open those doors in the winter and had let the snow pile up against them. It would have been so much easier to open them, right where he was, and bring him in from there. Instead I had to walk around on the ice. Normally he would happily leave a bale of hay to come to me (after all, he left all that lush grass in the summer to trot up to me after escaping), but I had to remember how I had "punished" him by putting him back with the others the last time I caught him. I had to walk up to him and it took a little convincing, but with a decent rate of reinforcement every few steps, he came along. I hadn't even taken a halter with me because I needed to force myself to correct my previous errors, not create more by taking away his choices. 

 When I followed his tracks backward the following morning, I discovered my rope gate had been taken down entirely. The insulator wire I had so carefully pulled to the top of the post, he had lifted right off the top and it lay in the snow. I'm not sure whether he did that the first time or the second, but I replaced it, and tightened it all up so that it would not be so easy to lift off. 

He's far from secure. I continue to feed generous amounts of hay (so that the ponies turned out with him are about to pop even though they get a scant fraction of what he does when they are inside). I make sure I am on time for chores. If there is any chance that I won't be home from training others at the appropriate time, I confine them to the sacrifice paddock. 

Current reinforcers for jumping out include:
  1. hay
  2. adventure
  3. interaction
  4. treats

In effort to find ways to reinforce him for What I Want (always where we should start with any training plan), I have wondered how I can use those same reinforcers to keep him in. The hay I am already doing. What I am working on is ways to use adventure, interaction and treats to encourage him to wait in the sacrifice paddock for me to come to him, rather than having him come to me by jumping out.

I am going out for chores early. Forgive me for whining but training here this time of year is not fun when it involves freezing hands. But we are having mild weather in the 20s and 30s so I'll do something with him, whether it's husbandry practice or games or letting him play in the barn, as long as he is in the paddock when I go out for chores! I'll also let him adventure a little as long as the ice isn't too bad. We're expecting several more inches of snow tomorrow. If it's the kind that sticks to the ice and improves the footing, we'll go out and play in the driveway together.

And I'm counting the days until Spring.