Isn’t it nice to know that what you do really matters?

That was my first brave response to realizing that Covid-19 was here among us, and dangerous.

Image result for covid 19 image
A model of the Covid-19 virus

My ignorant response had been different. By about March 10th, my peers were tossing around the term “social distancing”–epidemiological jargon for get the heck out of my space. But I didn’t understand why. The Wuhan virus, as I knew it then, was a respiratory threat with an epicenter in China, and yeah, it was making its way around the globe thanks to international travelers. But from what I’d heard the illness wasn’t that big a deal. Most of us would develop mild symptoms, if any at all, and the death rate was lower than that of seasonal influenza. We don’t panic about the flu every year, I reasoned–why are people raising panic about Covid-19?

So on March 12th I called my friend, a physician with the VA in Montana and my go-to on medical questions, to ask why all the fuss? “It’s not even as bad as the flu,” I pointed out.

“Yes, it is,” she countered. “It’s worse.”

She told me to start reading the reports from northern Italy. She taught me concepts like “flatten the curve” and had me watch a video from CBS Boston where her cousin, head of infectious disease at Brigham and Women’s hospital, explained it clearly: social distancing was not about us, it was about preventing a melt down in our medical system.

The gravity of a Covid-19 pandemic started to sink in. I had been focused on the idea that as a naive population faced with a novel virus, our best defense against the disease would be the acquisition of herd immunity. As a large animal veterinarian I had been trained to think about herd immunity. With the mortality rate relatively low, why not let the infection spread through the healthy population and stimulate natural antibody production, while we protect the elderly and otherwise immune-compromised? We don’t have a vaccine for this disease yet, so outside of hand-washing, only natural immunity will prevent people from spreading disease.

(A few days later, on March 15th, I felt somewhat vindicated in my logic after hearing it echoed by the chief science adviser to the United Kingdom.)

Herd immunity is all well and good as a scientific principle, my friend acknowledged, but even a low mortality rate causes high numbers of dead in an urban population. Public health officials weren’t claiming that we could prevent people from getting sick, she continued to explain. Public health officials were stressing the importance of having fewer numbers sick all at one time. Flattening the curve means that the same numbers of people become ill, but at a slower rate.

There is a rate of infection at which our hospitals simply can’t keep up. Hence the warnings from public health officials; hence the advice to read and learn about what was happening in Italy. Northern Italy, a modern, western, wealthy economy, was overwhelmed with sick and dying patients. Doctors were having to ration ventilators, choosing who to treat and who to let die. Bodies were piling up in empty churches, backlogged on their way to crematoriums. If it could happen it Italy, it could happen here in the wealthy, invincible US of A.

I didn’t feel brave about this from the start. At the grocery store, faced with bare shelves which posted rationing notices in lieu of toilet paper, I actually felt scared. I remembered being a little kid and trying to understand my father’s explanations of beleaguered economies. He had been an international reporter for the Wall Street Journal, witnessing world economies first hand. I vaguely understood from him that other people, in other countries, had to line up for limited supplies of staples like bread and milk. But here I was looking at bare shelves in my home town; I’d never experienced this before in my lifetime. I’d never thought it was even possible to experience this in America, near a major city: there was no toilet paper to be had.

When I came to the store a few days later, scarcity had spread to the bread and milk aisles. And still no toilet paper.

I ended up accepting a few rolls from a friend. She handed them to me, in the sunshine outside her country home, reaching over from about six feet away. We were social distancing.

Why? Because it’s something we could do. Watching our economy crumble around us as a result of trying to slow the viral spread, it’s easy to feel helpless. But what epidemiology tells us about social distancing is that, if everyone participates, it works. Each and every individual one of us can actually make a difference in the spread of respiratory infection.

We have to embrace this concept, and we have to act on it. So much of being human is tempered with self-doubt, with wondering why we are here, or whether our measly little self can make an impact for the greater good. The Covid-19 virus is giving us a wake-up call: what you do matters!!

Please–stay home. We’re going to get through this, together.

That’s my space, Cowboy!

I introduced Cowboy a few days ago, my latest clicker project who needs to resolve issues of crowding his humans. Another concerning behavior has been kicking at horses or people during group rides. Overall I’d sum up Cowboy’s issues as one of spatial awareness; he needs a more consistent and confident sense of where his space ends, and someone else’s begins.

Cowboy yielding space. What can you read from his expression?

It’s really tempting to guess whether we are able to increase Cowboy’s confidence. As a horse lover I can’t help but want to “know” this, but wondering about such nebulous things as emotions can get in the way of actual training. We’ll probably never know for sure if Cowboy feels confident, cocky, has high or low self-esteem–but we can guess how he feels by using objective criteria. On an every-day scale, we make these “guesstimations” by reading body language. On a micro-scale, we study neurochemistry and brain imaging to make similar, perhaps even more compelling, guesses.

I’ll save the neurochemistry part for future posts.

In the meantime, we want to know if Cowboy has stopped kicking on trail rides, and if his owner’s feet are getting stepped on any less.

Our last post ended with Cowboy getting introduced to the target. Again, target training with an exuberantly curious horse like Cowboy is a breeze, because they are bold enough to start checking out the target immediately. Within 4 or 5 clicks, Cowboy notices that every time his curiosity gets the best of him and he sniffs the target, he hears a click sound and he gets fed a treat.

Then we start moving the target around. Cowboy checks the target out in its new position and whaddya know, the same click! and treat happens. We move the target to a handful of new positions, all within a few feet, and we notice two things. First of all, Cowboy is actively seeking the target in anticipation of his treat. Second of all, as soon as he hears the click he’s looking away from the target, back to us for his treat. So he knows he can make the click happen (nose the target), and he knows that click means there’s a treat soon to follow.

Another easy thing about a horse like Cowboy is that he’s so curious that he really enjoys the game, and we can keep clicking for a fairly long time, maybe 30 clicks or more. But for most horses, if following the target around is taking quite a bit of deliberation, we might need to stop a training session after only 10 clicks. Honestly, 10 is plenty. I leave Cowboy and his owner to play with this new game for the week: Find the target, touch it, hear click and get fed.

Over the course of the first week, Cowboy plays with finding the target from a greater and greater distance. In small steps, mind you; “greater and greater” means we start with 3 feet away, then 5 feet away (target hand-held by the human). Then we put the target on a wall somewhere or stick it in the top of a traffic cone, and have Cowboy find it from 6 feet away, 10 feet, etc. We point to it each time, and Cowboy learns to follow our point and find the target.

At our second weekly training, Cowboy is finding the target in various positions around his stall. He seems a little unsure, so I show his owner how to lower the criteria a bit (make it easier) in order to increase the rate of reinforcement. See how I used that behavior jargon? In plain English, I made the target easier to find, so that Cowboy could get rewarded quickly and often, rather than struggling to get the “click” each time. Lots of fast repeats make Cowboy even more reliable about finding the target he’s pointed to.

In the next we introduce the game of liberty leading.

~Thinking horses? Think positive!

When do they get to be right?

Cowboy, the latest of my clicker-training clients, is working with me on yielding space to approaching humans. Cowboy is curious and friendly. He is more apt to smother bipeds with attention than he is to avoid getting caught. He’s cute to the horse-initiated, but at 16.2 hands and over 1200 pounds, his exuberance is intimidating to the non-horsey, not to mention potentially dangerous.

His owner would like to have her husband, decidedly non-horsey, be able to feed Cowboy without incident. It would be nice if hubby could bring food to the stall, ask Cowboy to back up, and place the food without wondering if a horse will be in his way when he turns to leave.

Time for Cowboy to learn targeting!

On my first visit with Cowboy I take a detailed history. The question I’m left with (hypothetically) is, “When does Cowboy get to be right?” I hear stories of a horse who is so tightly herd-bound to a travel mate, at a show or trail ride, for example, that he had started to kick others who might be in between him and his chosen horse partner for the day. That got him sent to a trainer, where he stayed in a stall for the first time in his life.

Apparently he barged out of the stall and nearly ran over the trainer, who “didn’t take kindly to the situation,” whatever that means. Then if shut in his stall he made such a fuss that he was given kick chains to wear. To mitigate his kicking out at other horses, he was tied in the arena for hours while others rode by. I’m not sure how this worked (was the idea to have horses coming past him so often that he finally gave up reacting?) and the owner didn’t have a first hand account; she was simply telling me what she had heard from the trainer.

Cowboy was sent to the traditional trainer and, from what I hear, received a traditional training dose of corrections. Punished for running out of the stall (more on this in a second.) Punished for being upset in his stall. Required to stand tied for hours, unable to leave a potentially unpleasant situation. When did Cowboy get to be right?

Only when he gave in to the pressures around him.

Let me pause for a minute to address the issue of safety. SAFETY ALWAYS COMES FIRST! So in regards to whatever the trainer did when Cowboy ran out of his stall, I can appreciate that she probably made herself big and scary and intimidating, whatever she felt was necessary to keep herself safe from impact. Sometimes the moment requires this. Better, of course, would be to set the horse up for success in the first place.

Better, in other words, would be to switch our focus from all the things Cowboy is doing wrong, to what does Couwboy do well? Let’s build on those things and help him fit into the odd requirements of domestication. Requirements like yielding space to humans.

I love clicker-training for horses like Cowboy because it allows them to be right, right from the start. Cowboy is naturally curious and exuberant? Perfect. Clicker training is all about checking out what’s new in the environment. Bring a target (new) into the environment and Cowboy is absolutely going to check it out. That gets him a click and a treat.

Hmmm, thinks Cowboy. I like treats. Within minutes he’s figured out that touching the target earns him a treat, and he’s eager to follow that target wherever we place it around the stall.

In future posts I’ll detail the steps we took to bring Cowboy from in-your-face to here’s-your-space.

Thinking horses?
Think positive.

Mr. Ed, pt III

“…all of this trailer training was done at liberty. Ed was bound to participate only by his choice.

–Kath Mertens, DVM

… continued from a previous post

We left the previous Mr. Ed installment with him stepping both front feet into the trailer to reach his feed tub. But come hell or high water, Ed made it clear that he was not willing to get all four feet into the trailer; he’d rather go hungry.

Letting him “go hungry” was not an option, so I had to find another method to teach Ed that the trailer was worth stepping into. It was time to go back to target training with the clicker.

…I had him target inside the trailer without me, leaving the target perched on my hoof stand.

I started basic target training outside the trailer, first holding the target in hand, then placing it around his pasture, and rewarding him each time he reached to touch the target with his nose. Then I brought these new skills to the trailer, having him touch the target while I held it from inside the trailer. Next I had him target inside the trailer without me, leaving the target perched at the top of my portable hoof stand.

Ed was sweet and willing and enjoyed the game, but we didn’t actually make progress on getting further inside the trailer. Reach in to target? Yes. Step front feet in to target? Yes. Step a hind foot up? Nope. We were still stuck, half in and half out. Ed would step both front feet in, barely start to lift a hind hoof, and stop.

I wracked my brain for a way past this dilemma, thinking about splitting my desired behavior (trailer loading) into sequential tiny steps of success. Don’t train the end picture, I reminded myself. Train the next step. And then it was clear: if we were stuck at the hind feet, I had to train the hind feet to take a step.

Back to the pasture we went. I asked Ed to walk circles around me, and I clicked each time he moved a hind foot. This meant lots and lots of repeats of rewarding one step at a time, like this: Walk on, Ed. Ed moves front foot, hind foot, CLICK! Except I clicked at the beginning of the hind step, so the timing was more like: Ed moves front foot, hind fo–CLICK!! I tried to get my click as close to the beginning of the movement as possible.

I still needed more. I needed something to emphasize the stepping up part of trailer loading. (Weeks earlier, as this whole loading journey began, Team Ed had tried bringing over a ramp-up trailer to rule out the step as the limiting factor. To no avail: Ed was equally unwilling to climb a ramp as a step-up. He marched both front feet in, and stopped.) Conveniently, a dry-lot corner of my pasture is delineated with felled telephone poles. Originally intended to contain a layer of hog fuel within the dry-lot, the poles have also provided physical therapy for horses recovering from leg injury. Horses put in extra effort to lift each leg over the pole, passively providing range-of-motion exercise.

It dawned on me that if I brought Ed to the poles, I could click as he stepped each hind foot up and over. I’d be reinforcing not just a step forward, but specifically a step up and forward.

It worked great. I want to pause to emphasize here that all of this trailer training was done at liberty. Ed was bound to participate only by his choice. I had made a promise to always pay him for his efforts, but he was free to shrug off the work as not worth a mere treat at any time.

To the telephone poles we went, and I held the target out as an invitation for Ed to cross from one side to the other. Instead of waiting until he reached the target to grant his click, I reinforced the moment each hind foot lifted up and over the pole. Then I modified to clicking when each hind foot was at its apex over the pole.

hind leg in!

I brought the exercise back to the trailer, where we had been stymied at Ed giving up instead of completing a hind leg lift. Now he’d been primed at the telephone poles. I went back to clicking just as he began to lift a hind leg. We did it over and over and over again. His effort increased infinitesimally each time, until–plop!–he lifted a hind foot up and rested it inside the trailer.

Beautiful! I ended the session and gave Ed his jackpot payout.

4 hooves in
Well done, Ed!

As this process was playing out in real time it often felt like progress was achingly slow. Ed’s focus was interrupted several times by angry squirrels chattering in the trees overhead. Or by my dog barking at the wrong time (easy enough to put her in the house, of course.) I would wait minutes at a time for the next step into the trailer, but as long as Ed was willing to stick with me and try to figure things out, I was willing to get to a good end-point for the day.

On October 12th our end-point was targeting. On the 15th I started clicking his footsteps. On the 16th I clicked his hind feet over the telephone pole. And on the 17th, praise be, he clicked all the way up into the trailer. So basically, it took 6 days, inclusive, to take a horse from stuck at the edge of the trailer to volunteering to stand inside. No stress, no tack; no other way to train this case that I and my team could think of. Well done, Mr. Ed!

–With special thanks to: Suzi, Cindy, John, Holly, Paige … who all believed he’d get in.

The Misunderstanding of Positive Reinforcement.

I am one of a growing army of people trying to bring positive reinforcement training to the horse world. The most familiar picture of positive reinforcement training is that of clicker training. Many people have heard of clicker training with dogs; what’s less well known is how useful clicker training is with horses.

One reason I’m so passionate about bringing clicker training to horses is that I am a convert myself. I first dismissed positive reinforcement training as a treat-inspired gimmick promoted by trainers without talent. Because these trainers were not adept at motivating the animal themselves, I figured, they relied upon motivating with clicks and treats. Clicks were a crutch for trainers with poor timing. Treats were basically used as bait to get the animal to do what clumsy trainers couldn’t convince them to do otherwise.

Furthermore, I objected to the mistaken implication that “positive” reinforcement meant that it was good, better, morally superior.

This pervasive misunderstanding of the “positive” in positive reinforcement is slyly exploited in any marketing of this training method. This exploitation drives me nuts, because I think it prevents people from truly understanding what the method is all about.

Positive reinforcement is not better, but it is different. Is a hammer better at building a house than a screwdriver? No, it’s not better. It’s just different. The builder with both tools in his box will build a stronger house, faster, than the builder who needs to rely upon just one.

Positive, and negative, reinforcement are for the trainer what hammer and screwdriver are to the builder. They are two fundamental tools, and being skilled with both allows the trainer to do her job more efficiently. Efficient, effective methods mean a lot less frustration for trainer and animal alike.

So here’s the deal with the naming of reinforcement types: “Positive” and “negative” are taken from scientific jargon, with the same value proposition that is associated with naming positive or negative integers on a number line. “Positive” means something is added. “Negative” means something is subtracted. One is not better than the other, nor is it necessarily preferred by the animal.

Many “Natural Horsemanship” trainers would be appalled to learn that what they are practicing everyday, as they use pressure-and-release, the language of Equus, or whatever they want to call it–what they are using everyday is what the animal behavior scientist calls “negative reinforcement.”

What? I thought negative meant that the animal was getting punished, turned away from something?

No. Negative reinforcement means that when we see a behavior we want to see more of, we reinforce (encourage) that behavior by removing something from the equation. In the case of “Natural Horsemanship,” the thing removed is pressure.

Positive reinforcement means that when we see a behavior we want to see more of, we reinforce that behavior by adding something. Very often, this addition is a food treat.

Clicker training is just going one step further to link a secondary reinforcer to the equation. Food is the primary reinforcer. The click means nothing to the animal in and of itself, but over time we “load” the clicker with meaning by conditioning the animal to expect food after every click.

Remember Pavlov’s dogs? How Pavlov rang a bell just before feeding time every meal, and eventually the dogs would begin to salivate just from the sound of the bell? In slang behavior-speak we would say the bell became “loaded” with meaning; it began to mean “food is coming.” In proper behavior-speak, we say (as Pavlov demonstrated) that the animal was classically conditioned to expect the treat after the sound of the bell.

Once you have an animal conditioned to expect a food reward after every click, it becomes much easier to use the click to mark the desired behavior, rather than to use the food. Food is clumsy, We fumble for it in our pockets. We drop it. We take too long between seeing the behavior we like, and reinforcing that behavior with food.

Conversely, the clicker is precise. It is exact, succinct, immediate. Whether we use a hand-held clicker or make an audible click with our mouths, it is easy and repeatably fast to mark the behavior we like with the click.

Then, of course, once the click has been suitably loaded, that classical conditioning buys us a little time between saying “Yes!” to (clicking) the behavior we want, and getting that treat to the animal. We have time to be imprecise and fumble with the food, because the click has already delivered the message of exactly which behavior we liked.

It’s kind of like the difference between getting handed a paycheck for doing our work (the paycheck is the click) and then cashing that check at the bank (or depositing it into our 401k if we’re prudent!). We get the actual cash reward once we’re at the bank, but we know that we are not getting rewarded (paid) for going to the bank. We’re getting rewarded (paid) for having done the work. That’s a bit of an analogy stretch, but worth considering.

There is oodles more to be written in this blog about positive reinforcement and secondary reinforcers and how clicker training works. But for the sake of getting this post out and leaving you with a thought to chew on: positive reinforcement isn’t better–but it is fascinating!!

Thinking horses?
Think positive.

Mr. Ed, pt II

…continued from previous post

So in my effort to get Mr. Ed loaded into the horse trailer, I had begun feeding all of his meals there, trying to de-sensitize or counter-condition him to the trailer. He wouldn’t like it at first, the theory goes, but he’d be hungry and over time–first tentatively grabbing bites of food and then settling down to eat as he realized nothing bad was happening–over time he would relax and the trailer would be just another place.

… his hind feet remained outside.

This theory worked to a point. The reason it worked at all is that Ed, toothless, depends entirely upon prepared meals for his nutrition. Grazing for Ed is a soothing pastime only, not a source of calories. He wads up mouthfuls of grass between his toothless gums until finally spitting them out. When it is time to actually eat, he finds his Equine Senior Grain.

I parked the trailer at the corner gate to my pasture, leaving Ed free to graze at will, and I pushed his feed tub a little further into the trailer each day. Ed was happy to eat from the edge of the trailer, all four feet on the ground. He was willing to step both front feet in the trailer to reach his tub. With each passing day, he stretched further inside the trailer, but his hind feet remained steadfastly outside. Ed got really good at grabbing the feed tub and pulling it towards him, back to the trailer’s edge where it was easily within reach.

feed bin weighted down, tied to corner of trailer. To no avail.

“Darn it, Ed! You’re cheating,” I grumbled. I brought over a small log to block the tub in position. I brought in a 40 pound cement block to weight the tub down from within. Ed laughed at all of these, toothless gums still grabbing the bin and pulling it into a convenient position.

So I brought in a 40 pound weight, AND I tied the feed tub into the far corner of the horse trailer, forcing Ed to walk on in or go hungry.

Ed chose the hunger strike.

Let me interject here that I was acutely aware that Ed maintain healthy weight during this process. Nor would I let him go long with an empty stomach, as this increases the risk of equine stomach ulcers. So I’d monitor his behavior until it was clear he was willing to go hungry rather than change his habits. Then I’d admit defeat, and move the food back to where he could reach it.

Given that Ed was willing to go hungry until I caved, it was time for a different strategy.

“Well, have you tried target training?” asked Jody Ambrose of Train with Trust. Of course I had not, I admitted with an abashed grin over our Video Chat. That would be like the cobbler’s kid having new shoes. Or the target-happy-veterinary-horsemanship-trainer training her own horse.

“Well I’m actually not sure he can see very well …” I said, trying on an excuse. “For that matter I know he doesn’t hear very well,” which is true. Many a time I’d called out to him as I came to visit in his pasture, only to elicit a major spook once he finally saw me. Would he be able to hear a click, or see a target?

But it was so obvious this was the right thing to do. I decided to stop being hampered by an unconscious fear of failure and get out the clicker and target.

continued in Mr. Ed, pt III

Mr. Ed, pt I

Mr. Ed is a black quarter horse gelding of indeterminate age, although his teeth (or lack thereof) declare that he’s close to 30. He’s been living in my back field all summer, awaiting the preparation of his winter home, which is to be his forever home. His Dad cared for him as a solo horse for 10 years, until non-elective, life-style-changing surgery forced him to find a new home for the four-legged friend. Zeb’s Wish Equine Sanctuary took him on, and I became his foster-mom for the summer.

Ed is a mysterious old soul. It took several weeks of him living in my pasture before he really opened up to me. My mare was with him for those weeks, and not particularly nice to him. She was not awful, but she enforced a large personal bubble and refused to be snuggle-y with Ed. After she moved off to a different field and Mr. Ed could have my undivided attention, he slowly began to be noticeably brighter when I came out to say hello.

There were challenges. Trust is definitely something which has to be earned with Mr. Ed. Perhaps he brightened when he saw me, but if I carried a halter he trotted away for several minutes. We’ve overcome that, and he now nickers at my approach with or without a halter. A newcomer with halter, however, consistently elicits an “outta here” reaction.

He wasn’t the best about hoof handling. I tried to trim him myself for a while, but didn’t have the speed or skill to get the job done for the moments he allowed with each foot. I finally called out the farrier, who is faster, and I simply held a bucket of Senior grain for Ed while he got his pedicure. If that’s enough to pacify him, so be it. Farrier time might as well be about food, not fighting.

Given that gradual seemed to be the name of the game for Mr. Ed, I got the bright idea to practice trailer loading the day before scheduled departure to his permanent foster home. I hitched up the truck and trailer, backed it into position, and brought Ed over to investigate. He paused, sniffed, thought about leaving, but decided to step right in. Then he quickly backed out.

No big deal, I thought. Fighting to keep a horse in the trailer is a sure recipe for injury, so Mr. Ed left at his own speed and I re-positioned to load again. This time he stepped his front feet in the trailer, but declined to take the big step up with either hind leg. We tried a few times before calling it quits, but he was at least stepping those front feet in the trailer and standing calmly.

The next day, departure day, I tried loading for 2 hours to no avail. Front feet only was the limit of our success. So we brought in a ramp trailer, thinking maybe the step was difficult for the old man–maybe he climbed it that first time and decided it hurt. But we had the same result with the ramp trailer. He walked calmly up the ramp, placed both front hooves into the trailer, and stopped.

All told team Ed spent 3 separate sessions trying to load an immobile horse in the trailer. Ramp or no ramp, pressure from behind or no pressure, one person or several, Mr. Ed was not getting in that trailer. He seemed to know what we wanted, but just couldn’t handle going forward. Both front feet would get in the trailer, and Mr. Ed’s next steps were anywhere but forward. He’d goose step each front leg, trying to literally climb up the trailer walls with them, but absolutely not go forward.

In the meantime, I moved all meal feeding into the trailer.

(Later I asked a horse-trainer friend why he was doing that. “It’s as if he couldn’t figure out where to put his feet next,” I said. “It’s because he was stressed,” she said.

But of course.)

Team Ed regrouped and decided that the only way this horse was getting loaded was to be driven in, mustang-style. We’d have to fashion a chute-system and chase him in. In the mean time, I parked the trailer at the gate to his field and moved all meal feeding there. At first he snatched the food and ran, but within a day he stood calmly at the end of the open trailer and ate from the pan inside.

It seemed like we were making progress.

…continued in Mr. Ed, part II