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.