In clicker training our animals, balance is key. We need to balance rate of reinforcement (RoR) with criteria. Raise the criteria too much and the RoR drops, resulting in frustration on both sides.
We also need to balance the “bad” clicks with the “good clicks”, preferably getting way more “good” to “bad” because of the Matching Law. This also app;lies to not staying too long at one level of criteria or you get stuck.
Then we need to balance the reinforcers with the effort the animal expends on the behavior because of behavioral economics. Pay too little for a huge physical effort and the animal may quit on you.
Then we need to balance the “value” of the reinforcer for the animal. What is the higher-value reinforcer right now? It changes with each situation and each animal depending on the weather, time of day or night, indoors or out, challenging behavior or an easy one. Has the environment changed? Is there an audience this time? What kind of audience – human or animal? How close are they? Are they noisy or quiet?
And what about their physical balance? We need to also apply our keen observational skills to make sure that they are also in physical balance as the horse moves or stands still or the dog runs to land on a platform and stop. Or in a myriad number of other ways.
We also need to balance what we train: Forward and backward, right and left, stop and go, up and down, target all the body parts, pedestal work with front end and hind end. The list goes on.
All of that is “easy” compared to what I think may be the hardest question of balance of all: How do we balance our various jobs regarding training and our animals? We are both the advocate and defender of our animals and our training. But we also need to deal with others, both professional and non-pros, in ways that may compromise our advocacy. How and when and why do we choose what to do?
For example, let’s say that you have an animal that is clicker trained to volunteer whatever behaviors you and it will need in life and then the animal has to see the vet. Now what? Have you imagined all the behaviors you will need to train for vet visits for your animal, regardless of species? Have you then trained for those behaviors? Or do you get by without?
I have cats and dogs and horses. I can get by without training a lot of things with them for vet visits. Mostly. But then I realize that perhaps the cat would be happier and more cooperative if I actually trained him to get into the crate voluntarily rather than just stuffing him in.
Maybe the dog would be more relaxed if I actually went to the trouble of training her for mouth and tooth exams. We’re still working on foot handling and nail trims. How about loading onto the scale willingly and standing there without having to be restrained? Wouldn’t that be better for all concerned? If a dog can be trained to lie perfectly still for an MRI, can’t a dog be trained to hop onto the weight scale and ride it upwards without having to have a technician hold it there? If it were trained to tolerate a full vet exam, would your animal need to be restrained or sedated at all?
I recently had to have some diagnostics done on my lame horse, Atticus. The vet came out over a month ago and said it was a bowed tendon. When Atty was not significantly more sound after three or four weeks, we had to investigate it more. First came nerve blocks and X-rays.
But the X-rays didn’t show anything that would make him as lame as he was. So then we had to do nerve blocks of the joints. This involved injecting directly into the fetlock and coffin joints.
The vet said that he would need to use a twitch on Atty for the injections and he asked if Atty had ever been twitched before. I’m glad he asked and was rather surprised that he did.
But I said I believed in the power of food. I went off to get treats and filled my training pouch with my usual treats. Then it hit me. “You fool! This ain’t gonna go down well with regular, ol’ trainin’ treats! You need the big guns here! Get the Stud Muffins!” So I got a bunch of SMs.
The vet prepared the site by shaving it closely and scrubbing it with disinfectant, then a rinse. When he was ready to put the needle into the fetlock joint, I started feeding SMs, whole. I couldn’t break them up. The nerve block injection is pretty fast, but still, the vet and I were both impressed and pleasantly surprised that it went as well as it did. The vet said Atty didn’t even flinch. AND the vet said he’d never done that before – inject a joint without a twitch.
I was so happy and relieved! I’ve never liked twitches and would rather avoid them if at all possible.
However, injecting the coffin joint is another matter entirely. There is no option around using a twitch. The needle is one-and-a-half inches long and it goes in at the top of the hoof, center front. The horse absolutely cannot move the leg or foot or there will be a long, broken needle stuck inside the foot! Not a pleasant prospect!
The vet put a rope twitch on Atty’s nose and I held the handle. At first his head went into the air, but the ceiling in my barn is quite low. There’s only so high he can go. A minute or so of mild fussing and he dropped his head to a more comfortable height.
The vet got the needle in the foot and the nerve block injected quickly. Then even though I gate Atty a couple of SMs, the vet came over and personally gave Atty another for good behavior.
In that case, there was no way around using a twitch as much as I would have like to avoid it. What worked for the fetlock simply wasn’t an option for the coffin joint.
The point of this rumenation is to ask, “When do we advocate and when do we not?”
Not only is there a balance of which procedure do we try to do it our CT way and which procedures we let go, but also the balance of talking to and working with the professional who is providing the services.
I’ve had massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, trimmers, and other professionals and services, such as therapeutic laser, shockwave therapy, etc. When do I completely listen to them and when only partly? And when not at all?
I’ve heard some of these types of providers don’t want us to feed or CT our horses. I’ve crossed over and so have my horses. All of them have backgrounds in traditional training to some extent. Does this make a difference? Would I do things differently if I had a horse who had never had any traditional training at all?
If someone told me I couldn’t CT my horse during some lengthy procedure, I probably wouldn’t mind too much depending on what it was. I’ve CT’d throughout trimming sessions. I’ve just watched and held my horses during acupuncture, laser, and body work. My horses don’t seem to mind too much that I’m holding them without giving treats. But if I had one who did mind (Atty, maybe?), I’d go ahead and CT or at least just feed.
If I got blowback from the service provider about feeding, I think – I hope – I’d advocate in the moment for my horses and my way of training and give the service provider a Cliff Notes version of operant conditioning.
I’ll admit that I’m lucky that I’ve never really had to defend myself for CT specifically. All my service providers are flexible that way. If they’re not, I don’t use them again. But there’s that balance question again. Not everyone has the choices that I do. I’ve got lots of choices of vets, etc. In fact, I already use at least two different vet offices. And there are two vets I won’t have back for different reasons not related to using CT.
If I didn’t have those choices about service providers, I’m not sure what I’d do. If I had access to only one vet for miles around and s/he was awful, I don’t know.
If I also had a horse that couldn’t tolerate interacting with humans for an extended period of time without CT or treats AS WELL AS no choices regarding service providers, I really don’t know.
We want to appease the service provider and be the “good girl/boy” who follows doctor’s orders. It’s uncomfortable as it is to be the outlier with CT. Then to go up against authority that we’ve been trained since forever to follow unquestioningly? That’s another rung up the ladder of tough. And what’s best for the animal? In the short-term? In the long run?
Where’s the balance?