equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2018: Ken Ramirez on “Problem Solving.”

This is the seventh in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

I didn’t have time to write these notes up last spring, and would not normally write them up so late after an event, but recently I found myself hunting for the information (for my own use) and decided it was worth taking the time to share it. Ken’s talk was not species specific, but I wanted to share some thoughts on how this material applies to horses and have added some of my own comments. These are labelled as such. 

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Ken Ramirez: Problem Solving

Problem solving is an important skill for any animal trainer. Ken is regularly asked to help with specific training problems and has developed a systematic approach that can be used across species and for problems of all shapes and sizes.  

The Basic System

  • Identify the problem
  • Determine the cause (hypothesis/analysis)
  • Consider the balance of punishers/reinforcers – (motivation)
  • Implement a plan
  • Constant monitoring

Each step deserves careful attention, but people are usually too quick to jump to step 4 – Implement a plan. They guess what might be causing the problem and try to address it, without taking the time to thoroughly explore all possible causes. This leads to mixed results because implementing an effective plan is difficult unless the trainer has successfully identified the cause. Therefore, it’s never a good idea to hurry through any of the steps. 

Some of the steps are more difficult than others and step 2: Determine the cause can challenging, especially if you don’t have any idea where to start. In this presentation, Ken chose to focus on the causes of problem behavior because he believes that learning more about the causes of problem behavior will make it easier for trainers to find solutions and resolve challenging issues. 

The Eight Possible Causes of “Problem” Behavior: 

  • Environmental
  • Social
  • Psychological
  • Trainer
  • Session use
  • Regression
  • Desensitization

Ken worked through each of the eight possible causes.  In addition to the points listed under each “cause,” Ken had relevant stories, which I have summarized very briefly. However, I can’t do justice to Ken’s storytelling skills, so if you ever get a chance to hear him in person, do it!

Environmental

Has anything changed? Trainers need to look at any change in the environment (both the animal’s living and training environments), props, changes in season, time of day, etc.

  • Weather – This can affect the likelihood of certain behaviors as well as the effectiveness of different types of reinforcers. 
  • Facility changes
  • Prop changes – Ken had a story about working on a dolphin show where the dolphins were supposed to station near his feet. But one day, when he started the show, they stationed farther out in the pool and would not approach the edge. Eventually he figured out that the “problem” was that he had bought new boots with different colored soles. 
  • Public activity – any kind of distraction can affect the behavior of an animal in a training session. It may also affect the behavior of the trainer!

Katie’s comments: Environmental changes are a big challenge with horses. Most horse people cannot work in the kind of controlled environments that are possible with other species. I do most of my training outdoors and always have to adjust based on the activity around me (other horses, people, farm machinery, etc.).  However, I can try to make sure that some aspects of the environment are consistent and that I am thoughtful about how and when I deliberately make changes. 

Social

Is the presence of a “problem” behavior or the absence of desired behavior related to a change in the animal’s social environment? Are the animal’s social needs being met? Is the animal better if he is trained separately (to avoid competition) or as part of a group (if separation is stressful)?

  • Animals’s social interactions are important to them
  • Dominance/ submissiveness in social groups can make it challenging – every animal is stressed, not just the least dominant one. 
  • Competition
  • Sexual activity
  • Set up training sessions so the social interactions don’t cause more problems

Katie’s comments: Many horses find it stressful to be separated from other members of their herd and are easier to train if allowed to stay in close proximity to the group or in a safe and familiar location. If you do train in groups, you need to teach the horses to take turns. If you don’t have multiple trainers working at the same time, teaching horses to station can be a useful way for one trainer to manage multiple horses. 

You may also run into challenges if the horse being trained exhibits threatening behavior toward other horses in the vicinity. Those behaviors (and the associated emotions) may become associated with specific behaviors or training in general. 

 

Psychological

Some “problem” behaviors are symptoms of psychological issues. These behaviors can be normal behaviors that are occurring out of context or unnatural behaviors that would not normally occur at all.

It’s worth mentioning that many “psychological” issues occur because the animal’s life is lacking in some way. The animal may be deprived of normal social interaction, be experiencing pain or discomfort, or lack the opportunity to perform normal species specific behavior. 

  • Boredom
  • Neurotic or aberrant behaviors
  • Stereotypic behavior
  • Frequency of these problems is small, but professional trainers/consultants tend to get called more often for them

Katie’s comments: Horses that are kept alone in small spaces (stalls, small paddocks, etc.) may show an increase in undesirable or unusual behaviors.  Rather than trying to change the behavior directly, it is often better for the horse (and you will be more successful) if you can find a way to address the underlying issues.

Sometimes the horse’s situation may need a major change (new barn, living arrangements, “job,” etc.) but minor changes can also make a significant difference. One of our horses started to get very agitated in his stall, especially during bad weather. We moved him to the other barn and he became became relaxed again. The first barn had a metal roof and was noisy during rainstorms. The second barn had a wooden roof and was much quieter. 

If the living arrangements can’t be changed (perhaps the horse is on mandatory stall rest), then the trainer can improve matters by providing environmental enrichment and training opportunities. A few minutes spent learning a new behavior can provide some much needed mental stimulation and help a horse cope with other limitations in his environment. 

Physical

  • Health – is the animal capable of doing the behavior?
  • Aging – we don’t always recognize changes in our animal’s ability as they age, or from an injury
  • Sometimes something happens once or twice and we think the animal can do it, but really they were just lucky and it’s beyond their normal capabilities. As Ken pointed out, a lucky basketball shot may be impressive, but it may not be easily repeated. 
  • Example of sea turtle who was physically unable to get on the scale to be weighed. They had to have a special scale made for her. 

Katie’s comments: It’s important to regularly evaluate the physical condition of the animal you are training and to keep educating yourself so that you can learn to recognize the first signs of physical issues. Physical discomfort can affect any behavior, but it’s more of an issue for active behaviors. Horses can often cope with a small amount of physical discomfort when allowed to move on their own, but will show “problem” behaviors when asked to move during ridden or groundwork. This is often labelled as “disobedience,” but it’s really a good indication that the horse is either physically or emotionally unable to do as asked. 

If you suspect physical issues, it’s important to have the horse checked by your vet. I also recommend that you have a qualified professional evaluate the horse’s feet and teeth. 

Trainer

  • Is it me?
  • This should be the first question you ask
  • Am I working beyond my skill level?
  • Check the basics: cues, criteria, markers, reinforcers – sometimes we just get sloppy
  • Check your emotions. They impact your training, especially when you are in a high emotional state (good or bad). Ken has a great story about a marriage proposal that occurred during one of his shows. The trainer was so excited that she threw her entire bucket of fish into the pool. It took them a while to regroup after that…
  • Attitude – Do you believe in what you are doing? Do you expect it to work? Or are you unconsciously setting yourself up for failure? If you are struggling with your own motivation, perhaps you need to reconsider what is reinforcing your own behavior. Ken had a story about a woman who struggled with learning to use new training techniques with her animals until she saw that her work was valued by her peers. 

Katie’s comments: Training animals often reveals a lot about our own strengths and weaknesses. If you can’t work through a problem, it’s always a good idea to do a little self-evaluation. If that doesn’t work, then seeking advice or assistance is always a good option. It’s easy to get stuck, particularly if you have been dealing with the same problem for a long period of time. Another set of eyes is always helpful. 

Session Use

  • Planning – If you’re not prepared, the animal may lose focus.
  • Number of sessions – Are your expectations realistic?
  • Frequency of session  – You don’t want to do them so frequently that the animal is tired or satiated. Latent learning is your friend. 
  • Pacing – Some animals work well at fast pace, others need a slower pace.
  • Balance of reinforcement. Consider the balance of reinforcers and punishers in each session. Yes, we don’t usually choose to use punishers, but we do sometimes have to ask our animals to do behaviors that may have aversive components. This is common with veterinary or husbandry behaviors.
  • Ken shared the story about how they made blood collection more fun for the sea otters. They turned the hallway (where blood collecting was done) into a fun place so that the blood draws were insignificant. They put the otters in the hall 4-5 times a day, but only did the blood draws once a week. The blood draws were infrequent enough that the sea otters happily showed up when the hallway was made available. 

Katie’s comments: I remember when I first read about animals voluntarily participating in blood draws and standing for shots. It seemed kind of amazing. But, it’s possible to teach animals to cooperate for many husbandry and veterinary behaviors if you take the time to prepare them and also practice enough in between, so that the aversive part of the procedure only happens a small fraction of the time.

With horses, it’s a good idea to incorporate some basic veterinary or husbandry procedures into your routine. I routinely “worm” my horses with water or palatable foods. I practice shots (IM and IV) and I check ears, eyes, and take temperatures. 

Regression

Learning is not always a forward moving process. It’s normal to make progress for a few sessions and then have a little bit of a setback. Recognizing that this is normal will help you adjust your own expectations and regroup. 

  • Normal part of the learning curve
  • It’s ok if progress stalls or if the animal seems to take a step, or two,  back to a previous approximation of the behavior. 

Katie’s comments:  While I think it’s useful to list regression as a possible cause – and recognize that learning is never linear – its existence doesn’t mean that trainers shouldn’t look for other underlying causes if a behavior deteriorates. Yes, sometimes a training session will not quite go as planned, but if this happens very often or too many times in a row, then it’s a good idea to look for other causes. Good record keeping helps trainers identify the difference between a small disruption in forward progress and a downward trend. 

Desensitization

An important part of training is exposing animals to equipment and sensations (sound, touch, etc.) that will be used as part of training, or that will be present in the training environment. At the Shedd Aquarium, trainers spent a lot of time using desensitization to prepare animals for veterinary and husbandry behaviors. The more comfortable the animal is with the equipment being used, the more successful the trainers and animals will be. 

  • An ongoing process that never ends
  • You can’t desensitize them to everything

Katie’s comments:  The word desensitization has crept into the vocabulary of some horse trainers, and is often used to describe a process where the horse learns to tolerate any stimulus to which he is exposed. The problem with this is that there is a big difference between a horse that has learned to shut down and avoid all behavior in the presence of a stimulus, and a horse that is comfortable in the presence of the stimulus.

There have been some interesting studies where researchers monitored the heart rate of horses when they were clipped or undergoing some other potentially aversive procedure and they found that the outward appearance of the horse can be deceiving.  Just because a horse is standing quietly, it doesn’t mean he is comfortable with what is happening. Bottom line: taking the time to desensitize your horse to everything in the training environment is time well spent. 

In conclusion, Ken shared these thoughts:

  • Pinpointing the cause gives you some things to change.
  • A checklist is helpful.
  • This list is just one part of the overall system he uses.
  • It stimulates thinking and helps clients explore ideas that they may not have considered.
  • This list has stood the test of time.

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