We often see the most creative and effective methods of behaviour management coming from those dealing with exotics and wild animals. (Perhaps because you can't put a choke chain on a parrot or a shock collar on a dolphin, and "whip taps" simply aren't effective on a rhino?)
Earlier this year a group of kea (a highly intelligent and notoriously cheeky New Zealand alpine parrot) began entertaining themselves playing with road cones in Milford Sound. They were shifting them around and tipping them over and generally causing havoc in the one-way tunnel where roadworks were underway. The delightful and very sensible response by the authorities was to give the kea their own roadside playground in a bid to encourage them to invest their time in less disruptive hobbies. The kea gym was regularly updated with new toys and treats to keep them interested.
On my way to a clinic recently, I passed two cyclists complete with packed panniers, travelling along rural State Highway 2 (a narrow and dangerous 100km/h road). My attention was drawn by the bright yellow pool noodles they had strapped to the back of their bicycle seats, extending a metre or so out into the road towards the cars.
This is the first time I've ever seen this, and it really struck me as it is such an innovative example of influencing behaviour. (Apparently this is a thing - I found this photo by googling "pool noodle cyclist").
I just LOVE these sorts of elegant management solutions to problems! These people were taking personal responsibility for their own safety, and had found a simple and quick way to effectively prevent unwanted behaviour by the vehicle drivers (that of driving too close). The kea playground shows a pragmatic acceptance of the playful nature of these birds and a tidy redirection of that play drive onto something more appropriate than the roadworks.
"Prevention is one of the greatest tools in force-free training. When something goes wrong, don’t ask yourself how can you punish your animal. Ask yourself “How can I prevent this in the future?”
A very common question I get from dog owners is "how do I stop my dog from getting into the rubbish bin?". The obvious answer (obvious to the trainer, at least!) is "... put the bin somewhere the dog can't get to it?". It doesn't matter how good a trainer you are, or how much time you have to devote to that one animal, you can't train ALL. The. Things.
Yes, it's possible to train an animal to do just about anything it is physically capable of doing. However we all have limited hours in our days, and we can't train every single thing to the nth degree. We also want to set our animals up for success, and prevent them from practising the behaviour we don't want. Therefore management and prevention is a critical tool. In the dog example, this might mean removing the object of interest or using baby gates or crates to limit your dog's options around the house. With a new horse it might mean putting him in a yard or behind a gate when doing initial training, so that he doesn't get to practice any mugging behaviour. (And then of course, in all cases, we reinforce alternative, more appropriate behaviours, because no animal can exist in a vacuum, right? If we want to eliminate a behaviour we need to fill the space with something else).
“The learner is never wrong. When an animal doesn’t do what we expect, it’s the program. And, the solution is to change what we, the trainers, do. To change behavior, change conditions. The animal changes himself/herself.”
One of the keys to successful behaviour change is (in behaviour-speak), arranging your antecedents. Or in normal talk, set the environment and the animal up for success. There is no "should". He is either doing it, or he's not. If not, that's your problem not his. Change the conditions to better enable success. Break it down further and explain more clearly what it is you want. Motivate him sufficiently. And then he'll do it.
Remember that whatever behaviour it is we're asking our animals to do, it's all our silly idea. It isn't hard for most people to grasp that if an animal is giving us a genuinely unwanted behaviour then we should immediately act to prevent that from happening (because it's in our own interests). However what if the behaviour isn't "unwanted" but it's just a "wrong answer"? Well, same deal. If for no other reason than the sake of the animal's enjoyment of the training process, we don't want to passively allow them to repeatedly make the wrong choice over and over, waiting for them to randomly land on the answer we're looking for. It's not efficient training and they'll likely get frustrated and eventually switch off.
However, if I simply stand outside the rail and hold the target in such a way that it's easy for her to do the right thing and she can get multiple rewards in a short space of time, then when I enter the paddock and stand right beside her, what will she do? She'll very likely do what she's just been rewarded dozens of times for doing - touching the end of the stick. Problem solved. Less time spent, more success.
Take this concept to any behaviour you're training. If you want square halts when riding, you could ask for dozens of halts (which would give you lots of variability) and just reward the ones that are vaguely square... or you could train your horse to stand their front feet in balance on a mat and then put the mat in the arena when riding. Do a little more practice from on top and when you take the mat away they're very likely to halt square again. All that repetition and reward has greased up the neural pathways in their brain to produce "muscle memory" for balance and straightness in the halt.
Ethical training can (and should) also be efficient and effective training. Dragging out the process by not communicating clearly with the animal, or allowing them to make endless "wrong choices" which result in a low success rate, is not fair on them. Nobody wins. So keep your eye focused on the end-goal, your remarkably creative and logical brain focused on the steps needed to get there, and through it all maintain an unwavering dedication to proactively helping your animal partner to succeed and have fun.
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