Teaching husbandry behaviors with clicker training: Tooth Inspection

Red tooth inspectionIs your horse comfortable letting you look at his teeth?

In the last few years, I’ve encountered a variety of teeth issues with my own horses and it has made me realize the importance of being able to check their teeth on a regular basis. Without special equipment, I can’t do a complete mouth exam, but I can check their incisors for uneven wear patterns or other signs that they need the attention of a dentist. This allows me to catch problems early. Regular tooth inspection also prepares them for when the dentist does come.

When I started looking at teeth, I thought it would be simple to just move their lips and take a peek. My horses are used to being touched all over and they are comfortable having my hands near their mouths when I am hand feeding, grooming, haltering and bridling. But, I found that while they were ok with my hands near their mouths for routine tasks, asking them to open their lips was an unfamiliar behavior and they weren’t sure what to do. Some of them became confused and offered other things. Others just became anxious and put their heads up or moved them around.

So, I decided this was a great training project. I started with a fairly simple goal which was to teach each horse to do a behavior that would allow me to look at his or her incisors from the front and from both sides. This meant I needed a behavior with some duration and I needed the horse to hold his head in a position where I could see the view of the teeth that I wanted.

My first thought was that maybe I could make use of a behavior that I already had on cue. This is the flehmen response (“smile”) which I had captured or shaped with several of them as a fun trick. It is a great way to see their teeth and they all learned to do it quite easily. But, horses tend to pick their heads up quite high when they show their teeth this way and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to build duration or be able to see the teeth from the side. For it to be useful, I would need to shape it into a more controlled behavior. I’m sure I could have done that, but I decided that rather than change a long-established behavior, it might be easier to start with something new.

I decided I would start over and teach them to hold their heads still and allow me to gently move their lips out of the way so I could look at their teeth. This would make it easier for me to keep the behavior on cue, and I could build in some flexibility in how I did it. This might be more practical, especially if I needed to see their teeth from a certain angle. I also thought it might also be an interesting challenge for one of my horses who tends to have a busy mouth. Learning to keep his lips and tongue still would be a good exercise for him.

This brings up an interesting point which is that there are always several ways to approach any husbandry behavior and it’s a good idea to think about the options before choosing one.  One of the first questions I always ask myself is if I want the horse to do the behavior on his own, or if I want the horse to allow me to physically manipulate him.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches and I always consider the horse’s individual needs (which includes past training history) as well as how, when, and where the behavior will be used.  In many cases, the first approach, where the horse does the behavior on his own, gives the horse more control of the training and encourages the horse to be a more active participant than the other approach, where he is trained to let you do a behavior to him. But, in some cases, learning to allow manipulation requires just as much participation on the horse’s part and can lead to a horse that is more comfortable about tactile information in general. On the other hand, some horses will become less eager to participate if there is an element of manipulation (or any suggestion of “making them do it”), and it’s better to set up the training so they have more control over the process.

Therefore, when choosing how to approach tooth inspections, I had to think a little bit about the possible implications of choosing what might seem like a more passive behavior. The behavior “allowing a person to look at your teeth” is different than “showing your teeth” and I didn’t want the horses to just learn to accept something that was unpleasant. Could I train it in such a way that the horses were still able to communicate when and how the behavior would be done? Yes! Once I started training, I found that I could set up a nice dialog by using specific behaviors as starting points and waiting for the horse to indicate when he or she was ready to continue.

The Teaching Progression

I spent about six weeks working on this with three of my horses: Rosie, Red and Aurora. We didn’t work on it every day and some horses had more sessions than others.  Aurora had the most, Rosie had the least, and Red was somewhere in between.  They all came into the training with slightly different repertoires of trained behaviors and they all have very different personalities.

My plan was to start with a chin target and then refine it to include a closed mouth and quiet lips. One reason I chose to use a chin target is because it’s a behavior where my hand is in close proximity to the mouth, but it’s a position that is less likely to prompt lip movement. It also made it easy to stabilize the horse’s head when I was ready to use my other hand to lift the lips. But, once I started training, I realized that each horse needed a slightly different progression to get to the same basic behavior of chin target with a closed mouth and quiet lips.

Here’s how it worked out:

• Rosie: She is the most experienced of the group. She has done a lot of chin targeting, knows how to “smile” on cue, and is the least nibbly about fingers. To avoid cueing the smile behavior, I started with a chin target and then moved to reinforcing closed mouth and quiet lips. I was careful not to touch her between her nostrils until the chin target/quiet mouth was well established. A finger to that area between the nostrils is her cue to smile. So, Rosie’s progression was chin target -> mouth closed -> lips quiet.

• Red: he is a very clickerwise horse, but had not been taught to chin target and he is the most oral of the group. He loves to lick people and can be a little nibbly with his lips if my hands are near his face. He also knows how to smile on cue. Since I knew his biggest challenge would be having a quiet mouth, I started by clicking him for that before I put my hands near his face. Once he could keep his mouth closed, then I added a chin target. Once he could do both of those, then I clicked for quiet lips. I probably clicked for quiet lips at other points in the process if the opportunity presented itself, but his general progression was mouth closed -> chin target -> quiet lips.

• Aurora: She is the least experienced. I have not taught her a chin target or to smile, but she does know a hand target. I’ve spent time touching her all over and making sure she’s comfortable with it, but because she’s only 3, she has the least life experience with medical and husbandry procedures. She tends to have a quiet mouth and be pretty passive about having things done to her. She’s also the one I have to watch because her body language is the least clear of the group. She doesn’t always tell me when something is bothering her. Her progression was hand target -> chin target -> closed mouth. I didn’t have to focus on quiet lips with her.

With the chin target, I experimented with leaving my hand near their chin vs. removing it between repetitions and found that both were useful at different times. If I was doing a few repetitions in the same position, it was less distracting if I left my hand near, but not on, the chin while I fed the treat.  Then I could just ask the horse to target my hand when we were starting again. They can’t see it so I would just touch the chin gently and click if the horse maintained the contact. If I wanted the horse to have a break or was changing sides, then I would remove my hand and start over again for the next repetition.   For the most part, I kept my hand in position near (but not on) their chin if they moved their heads around a bit.

At a certain point, once everyone had the basic idea, the beginning sequence of behaviors started to look the same for all the horses. I would start with a chin target, wait for them to be ready (the horse indicated this by having a quiet mouth and lips) and then I would start moving the lips so I could look.   

I broke it down into small steps and followed this general progression:

  • Head still – click for relaxed/neutral position
  • Chin target – click for chin in hand
  • Mouth closed – click for mouth closed
  • Quiet lips – click for quiet lips (this step and the previous one were sometimes done together or in the other order)
  • Quiet lips when I placed my hand on them – click if the horse remained relaxed with no mouth or lip movement
  • Relaxed lips while I gently moved them away from the teeth – click if the horse allowed me to move the lips out of the way
  • Relaxed lips while I moved them more –  click for allowing me to move the lips. This step took quite a lot of time as they had to learn to relax their lips. If they wanted to move their lips out of the way for me (Rosie did this), then I was ok with that, although I had to be careful about what I was clicking.
  • Relaxed lips while I held up their lips for longer durations so I could see their teeth. I built duration slowly over time.  – click for a good moment (relaxed lips sufficiently open) and enough duration

I also monitored head and neck position to make sure they were comfortable. Once I could see the teeth, I might have to click and treat them for moments when they had their teeth together, as some of them would open their mouths slightly as I moved their lips.

One interesting challenge with training the tooth inspection behavior was that a quiet mouth included not chewing. In a lot of my training, I don’t need to wait for the horse to finish eating before I do another repetition and my horses are happy to start again while eating their last reinforcer. But, with this behavior, I found it was better to give them time to completely finish eating before I asked again. Waiting for the horse to be done chewing was something I had to be consciously aware of doing.

Waiting for them to be done chewing meant that once I was past the chin target stage, my rate of reinforcement dropped a lot unless I mixed in other behaviors. Rosie and Red didn’t seem to mind, and if they wanted to do another repetition, they would actually stop chewing even though they weren’t completely done eating. This became a great way for them to tell me when they were ready to go again.

Aurora preferred to finish eating before we did the next repetition of looking at her teeth, so I found it was helpful to add in targeting or other simple behaviors if the rate of reinforcement was getting too low.  I also had her practice the chin target outside of the tooth inspection sessions. I might mix in a few chin targets while I was grooming her, picking moments when she was standing quietly and not chewing. This strengthened the chin target behavior and she could finish eating while I moved on to grooming or something else.

What can I see?

I taught the horses to let me look at their teeth from three positions: the left side, the right side, and in front. I don’t have any professional training in dentistry, but my goal was to be able to look at and check the incisors for a few specific things. This would allow me to catch problems early and be more knowledgeable when my dentist came. As with any profession, there are different schools of thought on tooth care, but I think every horse owner can learn to identify a few simple deviations from correct alignment.

From the front:

1. Are the incisors level? Is the horse wearing the teeth on one side more than the other? Some horses will develop curved incisors (a “frown” or a “smile”) or a wedge mouth where the teeth are longer on one side than the other.

2. Are the upper and lower jaw centered over each other? From the front, I can look at how the top teeth line up with the bottom teeth. This tells me about the alignment of the jaw from side to side.

3. I can also look for any uneven wear pattern that might occur from repetitive action such as the horse biting at a stall grill or bar.  If these things are noticed early, you can take action to prevent further damage.

From the sides:

1. I can check the jaw alignment by looking at the relative positions of the last incisors on each side.  Do the edges of the top incisors and bottom incisors meet in a straight line? If not, then this tells me that the lower jaw is displaced to one side, which can indicate there is an issue in the back teeth (pre-molars and molars) and/or in the TMJ.

2. I can also check if the middle incisors (top and bottom) are meeting correctly so that the top teeth are positioned directly over the bottom teeth.  Sometimes these teeth will be misaligned so that top teeth extend farther forward than the bottom teeth (or the reverse).

3. I can look at the angle of the incisors. If the incisors are too long, the teeth (both top and bottom) will get pushed forward and the angle between them will get smaller.  Long incisors are more common with older horses but it’s worth checking on all horses.

With babies, being able to look at the teeth can help me monitor if the teeth are coming in at the right time and also if the caps are being shed. When Red was young, he retained a cap on one of his incisors and it affected how the adult tooth came in. If we had caught it sooner, he wouldn’t have had uneven front teeth for as long as he did.

I’ve made a little video to show how everyone is doing.  You can watch it at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz78MbL8GEc. I am very pleased with their progress and we are starting to work on more duration.  At this point I can see well enough to check the alignment and watch for problems, but there are still plenty of things we can work on.

In addition to increasing duration, and continuing to work on relaxation, I might explore using the chin target in different ways. I haven’t taught them to come and line up with a chin target, so that might be fun to do. It might also be interesting to try and have them chin target on something else so I have two hands available for a more thorough check.

I also have to decide what to do about their tongues.  Both Red and Aurora tend to place their tongues between their front teeth, so just the tip is peeking out.  I can still see what I need to see, but I’d love to be able to see just their teeth with the tongue tucked behind them.  Once we have more duration, I may try and see if I can start reinforcing for moments when the tongue is tucked neatly inside.  I’ll update this blog if I decided to work on that and let you know how it goes.

Note: The best place for me to film is in my wash stall, so the video is in that location with the horses wearing halters and leads. I did do some of this training in the wash stall, and even did a few sessions where they were on the cross-ties. But, I also did some sessions in their stalls without any equipment.  I like to teach husbandry behaviors in a few different places and under different conditions because I find this makes the behaviors more robust and the horses seem to handle unexpected variations better.

If you are interested in learning more about teeth, here are some links that I have found to be helpful:

Descriptions of some common malocclusions:
http://discerninghandsequinedentistry.com/malocclusions.html

Articles about the importance of teeth for digestion and proprioception: http://www.vossequine.com/

Article about the connection between feet and teeth: http://thenaturallyhealthyhorse.com/feet-teeth-connection-qa-dr-tomas-teskey/

4 thoughts on “Teaching husbandry behaviors with clicker training: Tooth Inspection

  1. Really interesting work, Katie! Awhile back, I taught Tonka to open his mouth on cue. But I didn’t continue the training to get duration (total laziness on my part.) I’m impressed not only with your methodology, but also your persistence in following through with a task 🙂 I also like how you adjust the training for each horse’s quirks. Your video isn’t working. Please fix, I’d love to see it!

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    • Hi Clare,

      You’re welcome. I’m glad to hear it’s given you some useful ideas. I wish I had learned more about teeth when my horses were younger, but I just had their yearly check-up done and assumed that I would notice if there was a major problem. Since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve realized that I just don’t see my horses teeth as much during routine interactions as I do with my dogs and cats. Maybe it’s because dogs often have their mouths open when playing or if they are hot or … and horses don’t do that. At any rate, it’s easy to forget that teeth require routine observation as much as any other body part.

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