equine clicker training

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ASAT Conference 2016: Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz on “Constructional Interactions Between Humans and Other Animals”

house_construction smallAnimal welfare is a growing topic.   Public awareness of the living conditions of animals on farms and in other commercial operations has increased and more research is being done on the topic.  This can be seen by the rise in the number of publications on animal welfare.  Dr. Rosales-Ruiz had a list showing the number of publications for different species of animals, and while most of them are related to animals used for food production, there were a small number of studies done on horses and companion animals.

With increased concern about animal welfare, there have been some recent changes in how it is being defined and measured. In the past, animal welfare rules were about setting standards to ensure that the physical needs of animals were met and that there was no unnecessary pain and suffering.  Most of the rules focused on the things like the amount of space, appropriate food, shelter etc…But things are slowly changing so that animal welfare rules take into consideration the emotional needs of animals.

Even the Five Freedoms are more about freedom from “bad” things than about what would improve an animal’s life. If you’re not familiar with the Five Freedoms, they are freedom from hunger/thirst, discomfort, pain, and fear, plus the ability to perform normal behavior.

The new rules take into account the need for species specific relationships, consider the experience of individual animals, and recognize the importance of promoting positive affective states.   Some things that should be evaluated are:

        1. Is it a good safe environment? Is it the right size? Does it provide appropriate room for natural activities?
        2. Is it appropriate for this individual? What is this individual’s quality of life?  Decisions can no longer be made based on the animal’s species, but must take into account the needs of each individual, including the emotional needs.
        3. Does the animal experience positive affective states?  Quality of life is not just about the absence of negative states or experiences.

These points include both the physical and emotional needs of the animals.  But it’s not enough for the animal to be healthy.   The last point asks the question, “Does that animal have what it wants?”

Which of course, raises the question, “How do we know what they want?”

The best way to answer this is by observing the animal’s behavior and looking at the consequences. When we look at an animal’s behavior, we need to consider both the topography and the function.  The topography of a behavior is described in physical terms and defined by effect. The physical description would include the position of individual body parts as well as the overall posture.   The functional view of a behavior (the effect) is defined by its maintaining variables, which includes the consequences.

He illustrated the importance of knowing the complete topography (both physical description and effect) with the example of three blind men who all share the same inability to see, but for different reasons. One could have cataracts, one could be hysterically blind and one could be faking it.  Their behavior might be similar because they share the same inability to see, but to understand the behavior (and to change it), you would need to know why they can’t see.

He made this a little clearer by sharing some work they had done with a baboon named Rafiki who was observed doing self-injurious behavior (SIB).   They wanted to reduce the amount of time that the baboon was spending doing SIB, so they set up four assessment conditions. Under each condition, the person interacted with the baboon in a different way when it was doing SIB and they took data on how the baboon responded. The assessment conditions were:

      1. Ignore – do nothing when the baboon does SIB
      2. Attention – pay attention to the baboon when it does SIB. Attention was mostly in the form of trying to verbally distract the baboon.
      3. Play – the person would present a ball to the baboon when it did SIB, in an attempt to distract it.
      4. Demand- the person would tell the baboon to stop doing the behavior

So guess what they learned? The behavior increased when the baboon got attention for doing SIB.  With this information, they decided to implement a training plan where the baboon got attention for two alternative behaviors, lip smacking and grooming.  When she got attention for those behaviors, the amount of SIB decreased.

This study is an example of how looking at different scenarios can give you useful information about what consequences are maintaining behavior. It also illustrates the difference between a Constructional and Pathological approach.   The constructional approach is about building new behavior patterns and teaching the animal better ways to get what it wants.  The pathological approach is about eliminating “bad” behavior.  In this case, the SIB had been thought to be pathological in nature, meaning it had to be addressed directly (teach the baboon NOT to do it), but that was not the case.

Here are some of the main differences between the two approaches:


      • Focus on the solution
      • Ask what is already in the animal’s repertoire and available as an alternate behavior
      • The constructional approach is a lot like the steps in shaping. Where do you want to go? Where are you now? What are the steps? How are you going to maintain the new behavior using natural reinforcers?
      • View emotions as information about the circumstances
      • Teach animals to control the environment to access what they want
      • It’s important to remember that just using positive reinforcement doesn’t guarantee that you are being constructional


      • Focus on the problem by looking at what is wrong and what is lacking
      • Emotions are viewed as information about what is wrong with the animal
      • Focus is on teaching the animal to tolerate the environment

He had one final example of a constructional approach.

Mary Hunter’s rat Amy has a play area up on some shelves.   This is an area where Amy and her friends (other rats) can climb, tunnel, explore and interact with each other in a different environment. Most of the rats stay up on the shelves, but Amy likes to jump down on to the floor and play down there.

Mary was worried that Amy, who is an older rat, would hurt herself jumping down. So she taught Amy to indicate she wanted to go down by climbing on to a flat block of wood.   When Amy was on the wood, Mary would lower her to the floor. When she was on the floor, Mary would place the wood by the shelves and Amy could ask to go up.  Once Amy learned that she could use her “elevator,” she would go sit on the wood instead of jumping down.   Mary said that once Amy learned she could “ask” to go down, she chose to do that instead of jumping.

This is a constructional approach because Mary trained a new behavior (go on the block of wood) that replaced the original behavior (jumping) and gave Amy what she wanted (to get down). Just for comparison, a pathological approach would have been to change the environment so Amy could not jump down, or to stop putting Amy in the play area.  Mary could have just put Amy down on the floor instead of in the play area, but Amy did sometimes like the play area. Teaching Amy to use the elevator allowed Amy to choose where she wanted to be.

There were a few questions from the audience about counter-conditioning and desensitization and whether they were considered a pathological or constructional approach. Dr. Rosales-Ruiz said that, in most cases, CC/desensitization is a pathological approach because most people stop at tolerance.

Not only that, but CC/desensitization only works as long as your reinforcer is stronger than the consequence that was originally driving the behavior. It’s not uncommon for a CC/desensitization protocol to fall apart under some conditions and then the “bad” behavior comes back. He said it is much more effective to focus on teaching a new behavior that will be maintained by natural consequences so you don’t set up competing reinforcers.

If you’d like to see the video of Amy’s elevator, you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AGhKKdWGtc&feature=youtu.be

Thank you  Dr. Rosales-Ruiz for allowing me to share my notes.

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