Friday, June 29, 2018

Choice in Husbandry Procedures

I love it when something I post sparks questions and discussion. And when those lead me to a blog post, so much the better. Yesterday I shared this video, saying, 

“Start button cues are a hot topic these days and rightly so. About eight years ago, I taught Percy this specific target (with a red cross!) for medical procedures...potentially painful ones. In this video I'm just following up with practice after a vaccination last week and in preparation for another this week. When he touched the target, I poked him with a sharp object. If he didn't want me to, he takes his nose off the target. That's why I'm watching his head so carefully. If he removes his nose from the target, I immediately stop what I'm doing.”

One comment remarked that this was like The Bucket Game, which is a name coined by Chirag Patel a couple years ago for doing cooperative husbandry with dogs and uses a bucket as a cue.  As I mentioned in my post, “Start Button” cues is another term being used to indicate that the animal chooses when to start a given behavior. There are certainly many trainers using this approach, which boils down to giving an animal choice. The animal can choose to participate in the training session or not. The animal can give a general cue, such as standing on a platform, to indicate he is ready for training, or it can be a more specific cue, such as opening the mouth, to indicate the animal is ready for something like a dose syringe or dental exam. 

I like to give the animal a good idea of what’s coming. Not long ago I went to the dentist (which I am not fond of doing) and the dentist actually tried to sneak the needle of novocaine into my mouth without me seeing it. I jumped reflexively when I saw it out of the corner of my eye and he said that my concern was all in my head. He didn’t think I’d notice if I didn’t see it. Well, yes I would have noticed when the needle was stuck into my gum! I did not trust him for the remainder of that visit and specifically asked never to have that individual again. How must our animals feel when we trick them into something like that? Some shut down and some learn not to trust us and become “difficult”. 

This is why I use a specific target for potentially painful situations.  I want them to know that ahead of time so they can make the choice to stay or leave based on that knowledge. When I bring that target out, I then do some practice runs so the animal knows exactly what it is that will happen.  In the case of a horse, will it be an IM injection in the neck? A prick for a blood draw in the jugular? A wound treatment? Even if the animal has agreed to participate, suddenly being stuck with a needle somewhere unexpected can be startling. Practice runs are what you see in the video. There are many, many practice runs for each real event. The intention is not to trick the animal by not doing anything painful.  I am trying to simulate the real event to give the animal information, for instance by pricking the skin surface with a pen or something sharper. I have been amazed at how much a a horse will stand quietly for when it is introduced in this manner. 

Another commenter said that she likes to have the animal target the object being used, such as a saddle or syringe.  I’m not sure whether she meant with the applicable body part or just in general. Anything an animal can do to participate in husbandry is always a good approach. Picking up a foot to offer it for cleaning or trimming is an example.  If I am using a dose syringe, I can offer the syringe and the horse can take it in his mouth. But even a dose syringe is something I prefer to place, so that the medication is more likely to go to the intended location (swallowed, rather than spat out all over me). If I intend to give an IM injection, I don’t expect the horse to throw his neck on the needle. Nor do I want him trying to turn around to touch the needle with his nose.  So this is why I use this nose target. It says, "put your nose here, hold very still (except that wiggly lip), and I'll let you know what is going to happen". 

With all training, the "how" is far more important than the "what". Horses will do a lot of things if forced to by equipment or training methods.  What may look like “trust” may actually be a horse that has just given up. So I want to mention that when I initially trained this, it was more at liberty than you see here. Even though the horse is loose in his stall, that doesn’t give him a lot of options and it certainly could put me at risk if the horse decided he didn’t like what I was doing. As I mentioned, I trained this many years ago and so feel both he and I are comfortable in the stall.  When I initially trained it, there was a round pen panel between us. I was in the barn and he was in his paddock. He could have gone far from me if he chose. So his choice to participate was clear. 

Yet another comment was about where the reinforcement was coming from and if taking his nose off the target reinforced that.  Remember, we don’t know whether something was reinforcing until the next repetition. Only then do we see whether that behavior is strengthened, repeated, or lessened/weakened. I was told that is why the abbreviations begin with the letter and are then followed by the plus or minus sign (R+, R-, P+, P-).  First, you have to see whether the behavior increases (in which case it was reinforced) and then you decide whether it was the addition or removal of a stimulus. 

This can be tricky because we so often say “I am going to reinforce that”. That may be our aim, and hopefully it’s based on the history you have with the animal or the species, as well as knowing the environmental conditions you are training in. All those have an effect on what we hope will be reinforcing. In this situation, my history with this horse in this environment with this behavior caused me to believe that 2 hay stretcher pellets would reinforce the behavior of leaving his nose on the target. Had he not put his nose on it, that would simply have told me that under these conditions, those two pellets were not reinforcing enough. 

What do I mean by “under these conditions”?  I mean that in approximately eight years of doing this, I have seen many, many successful trials.  However, this day was after having an actual injection, as well as a blood draw, from a stranger (veterinarian). What I know about this individual is that having another person do anything to him sucks a lot of pennies out of his trust bank. This session was one of many in which I was refilling the account. There were three or four instances when he did not put his nose back on the target.  I simply waited. Each time, it was less than five seconds before he offered to target again. When I saw this, it told me he was hesitant and so I knew I was going to need more, not fewer, repetitions before another actually injection. 

As a follow up, this morning I did this again but used an actual needle.  If you noticed my movements in the last two reps in the video, I tried to model the arm movements I would do to pull the syringe plunger back and then push it in. That did not faze him.  But simply taking the lid off the needle this morning was different.  He knows that movement, sound, etc.  He hesitated. I waited.  This told him it was his choice. When he placed his nose on the target, I just barely pricked his skin and he tensed and twitched but did not remove his nose. Click/treat. I repeated that again. This time he tensed but did not twitch. Click/treat. After that, he didn't even tense and I did several more repetitions as he got more and more relaxed. And then I ended the session.  I don't want him tensing because he things that eventually he'll get poked in any given session. 

Finally, there is the classical conditioning and CER (conditioned emotional response) which is so important to all of this. The reason it works so well is not because the animal learns to grin and bear it through the pain, all for a measly two hay stretcher pellets. Instead, we are conditioning the animal that this is easy and fun.  You don't need to stand there with muscles tense waiting for the prick. That would make the prick worse! Instead, just hang out here with me, put your nose on that target for while and relax.  When I do prick you, your muscles and your mind will be relaxed so that the pain is less severe. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pony, Cat, Child: a Snapshot of Behavior

I posted this photo to my Instagram and Facebook accounts yesterday and only afterward wondered if I was contributing to irresponsible behavior ("let's put the cat up there. hahaha!"). So now I will give the background and explanation, hoping to exonerate myself.

The "training plan" for the day was simply to give the child an experience on a pony. As is often the case, training plans need to be adapted.  Sometimes that means you put the learners away and rethink your plan.  Other times, if you have enough experience and knowledge of the individuals, you can adapt the plan in the moment and keep going.

While it may seem silly to discuss sitting an 11 month old child on a pony as a "lesson plan", I do so to underline that I don't do things like this without thinking about them. I do not see horses, dogs, cats or any other animals as "tools" to be used by us or as entertainment for us.  When we share our lives with them, it is our responsibility to care for their physical, mental, and emotional needs as much as our own- probably more since we had the choice to bring them to our home and they did not.

There are three learners in this photo of three different species: cat, pony, and child. The original plan was to sit the child on the pony. She has a mini-donkey at her house and has sat on him before so this was not new. This pony has had many children on her back in her life so it was not new for her either. The only thing which was new was the combination of these two particular individuals. They had met in recent days and both decided they preferred hand to back contact rather than face to face! After grooming the pony to be sure she was comfortable, we put the bareback pad on so that enthusiastic little child feet didn't cause concern to the pony.

The training plan needed to be adapted when the child's body language (clinging to my neck and hiking feet up!) indicated she was not comfortable with the situation. When a learner is showing discomfort, we back off, assess, and either wait for another day or try again with an adapted plan.

It was at this point that the cat showed up.  This child loves cats.  She has several at her house.  Most live outdoors but one lives indoors and while her parents carefully manage any interactions, she has become conditioned to love cats as much as much as she loves dogs, chickens, horses and donkeys. In this situation I am operationalizing "love" as smiling widely, squealing, kicking feet and wiggling fingers when she sees them. She'd had several (well-managed) interactions with this cat in recent days and that's when the idea popped into my head to put the cat on the pony to see if that would help the child think it looked fun.

Cat history- this cat is 10 years old, lives in the barn and is very familiar with the horses and ponies.  Admittedly, I had never put him on one before but just this Spring he learned to ride on top of shavings bags in the wheelbarrow for the first time. I thought it might be similar enough that he'd be ok with it.  I didn't plan for the pony to move, just to show the child that the kitty was up there. None of the humans were small enough to demonstrate that sitting on the pony's back was ok.  But the cat was. The bareback pad would give George the cat something to hold onto (with his claws if necessary) without Kizzy the pony ever feeling it. George jumps in the barn doors, climbs over the stall walls, walks up and down the aisle and hides under things in the arena.  All the equines are very accustomed to his presence next to them, under them, and above them.

Handlers- each individual in this triad had a handler focused on them.  The child's mother (who is also very familiar with both feline and equine behavior) had the child.  While barely visible in this photo, my husband (very familiar with equine behavior) has the lead rope of the pony, and I was the one who picked up the cat, and carefully placed him on the bareback pad.  I did not immediately step away to take a picture, but stayed to give the tactile reinforcement he loves until he looked confident and his purr was at its usual dull roar.

In the photo you see can see both the reinforcement being used and the body language of each learner. The child is looking at the cat and is not pulling away, nor toward, the animals.  Mom is clearly keeping her naive fingers away from hair or skin that could be pulled or pinched, while holding her close and talking to her. Being held and talked to by mom is very reinforcing. Mom is also scratching the cat's back and you can see him arching up to get more of this reinforcing tactile contact, although the camera caught an odd expression on his face. I can attest that he stayed there when he could easily have jumped off. Finally, if you look closely, you can see the pony's head down to the ground.  She is normally only on grass with a grazing muzzle which drastically limits her ability to eat.  Here she has been given a few minutes of muzzle free grass and she was eating as fast as she could.  One of the first things a horse does when nervous is pick up their head. Kizzy pony's head never left that grass.

After taking pictures, I returned to lift George off of Kizzy's back. His performance had the desired effect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Week at The Karen Pryor National Training Center

The view of Mt Rainier from the house
From May 7 to May 12, I was very fortunate to spend a week learning from world-class trainer and teacher, Ken Ramirez, at the new Karen Pryor National Training Center in Graham, Washington. I was one of 18 participants in the course called Dive Deep: an Advanced Training Course. The week was packed with information on topics which included non-food reinforcement, Aggression Treatment and Context, and Simplifying Complex Training Tools. But there was more. Much more.

Ken said that he struggled for a while trying to figure out what would be in an "advanced course" that people repeatedly suggested he should offer. He said "advanced training is just the basics done well". Everything he covered did require that the basics be understood and done well. His consultations and training for scent detection, recognizing quantity, conservation training, and more built on basic clear cues and criteria, as well as being very sensitive to his learners' emotional cues in return. And that includes human learners.

The Training Center's occupants are goats, alpacas, donkeys, and of course a couple dogs. The Dive Deep course was weighted heavily on classroom presentations but we also had a few brief training sessions with these animals daily. Focusing on the basics, we trained under the supervision of Ken or one of two other experienced trainers. We shared plans before going to the animals and then wrote brief reports of the session afterward.
working with the very sensitive alpacas to get them comfortable with touch

Participants in this course included trainers of dogs, horses, and zoo animals. Trainers focused on husbandry, human education, sport, and helping pet owners. The questions which were asked during talks and discussions that were held during meals revealed yet more views with which to look at these training topics.

One of traits which makes Ken a phenomenal presenter is his storytelling ability. With decades of experiences to draw on, training species from butterflies to killer whales, he has a story to illustrate every topic he covers. He masterfully crafts his tales so that they are entertaining as well as educational.  His humility is remarkable and each day I learned new things about his explorations into animal behavior.

Alexandra Kurland frequently refers to our continued education in animal behavior as peeling back another layer of the onion. This is apt as there is always more to discover and more to peel back. You never quite reach the middle but instead, realize how much more there is inside. But at the conclusion of that week at The Ranch, I felt like I needed a different analogy. I didn't just see another layer, I saw...3D.  It was as if I'd been looking at layers and layers of two dimensional pictures and someone had shown me an MRI. The scan allowed me to see the depth of field and how the different organs overlapped and interacted. We'd probe deep into one topic as he helped us examine it (always inviting questions and discussion) and then we'd look at the same topic from a different angle.  And then we'd look at that angle with a different topic!

We heard how the basics were used in different fields, different sports, different species. We learned how the concepts were applied for different purposes. Ken believes that training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  His primary reasons for training are for physical exercise, mental stimulation, cooperative behavior, and animal welfare. He advised us to keep it as a shared process, with the animals as willing participants.

My decision to attend this course was because I always wanted to attend all of Ken's talks at Clicker Expo and would force myself to skip some of his in order to enjoy many of the other wonderful presenters.  The opportunity to have a full week of Ken was too good to pass up. And after that full week, I will continue to pursue opportunities to learn from him in the future.