Life’s Worth

Time and time again I hear an argument amongst the public, amongst animal lovers, and even amongst shelter and rescue workers. It rarely begins in the same way, and there are many variations. Still, the sentiment is unchanging.

“Don’t waste your time…”

“Don’t waste your money…”

“Don’t waste…”

.. on those kinds of animals.

Sick animals, you see. They are sick. And yes, it’s unfair and sad, but the time, money and resources you spend on that one could be spent on many more healthy animals.

Disabled animals. Aren’t they tragic? The life they’ve had, and whatever likely led them to this disability, we can’t even imagine. But those resources, they are precious. You simply cannot waste them on those animals when there are so many more out there dying.

Animals with behavior issues. He guards his food. She doesn’t like her ears touched. He’s nervous around children. She’s dog aggressive. Or, even worse, he’s dominant. It’s horrible that they’ve become this way, and we feel for them. Our hearts bleed, really they do, but we just can’t spare ourselves. There are better animals out there. More deserving ones. More perfect ones. We should save them first. It’s awful. Quite dreadful. But those resources

It’s just that there are so many. The numbers are too great. We have to put our efforts to where we are most effective, and there’s no room for these kinds of animals.

I used to honestly consider this point of view when I first began working at an animal shelter just over ten years ago. It was just one among many defenses I would hear again and again in the name of killing animals. I could certainly almost see the logic, but it never quite clicked, it never really seemed to me to be entirely true. What makes one life any more deserving than another? What kind of program can possibly be set up as a sort of psychic predictor of Lives That Will Be Saved Tomorrow In Place of The Lives We Took Today?

What kind of shelter, a supposed safe haven, kills the less-than-ideal and excuses it with “We’ll save more in the long run?”

Through my experience and the experiences of others, and taking a step back to actually use reason rather than wives tales, this attitude, this belief doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s not true, it’s not necessary, it’s not humane, and most importantly, it doesn’t  seem to be working.

This is just one among many reasons that I no longer work at that same high kill shelter, that one track minded, easily intimidated, defeatist place that looked only to circular patterns to solve problems. Thankfully, I could see outside the box they had created for themselves. I can see that all life, barring the truly suffering, is worth my efforts to save. All creatures, especially those of which we as a race are responsible, deserve our efforts, deserve our care, and deserve our devotion. We have made this mess, and to clean it up, we must not be single-minded. We must not be killers. We must not be cold and uncaring. We must not de-value that which we intend to preserve. We must not let these misguided, if well-meaning individuals, lure us into their nonsensical logic and their ill-conceived ideas.

We must not forget what we’re here to do.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
– Theodore Roosevelt


The Premack Principle Behavior Modification Program

This program is not a training technique for teaching behaviors such as sit, or walk, or step up. It’s an approach of living and working with an animal that creates structure and reinforces good manners, trust, deference to the handler, promotes good behaviors over unacceptable behaviors, teaches self control, focus, and cooperation, and offers solutions to problems like demanding attention, door darting, food snatching, crowding, forging, and other pushy and potentially dangerous behaviors.

This plan is useful for any species of animal whose behavior can be affected by the principles of learning theory, which means any animal that can learn. It’s been used successfully with dogs, cats, parrots, rabbits, gerbils, rats, mice, horses, wolves, elephants, tigers, marine mammals, lions, bears, and people. It is especially effective when used with unruly, pushy, assertive, or rude animals, but can also produce extremely positive results with animals that are lacking in confidence or would benefit from comprehensible structure in their environment.

As always, please make sure the animal is healthy of mind and body before proceeding with this program. Animals should be evaluated by a qualified veterinarian to ensure that any behavior issues are not health related. Severe aggression or other similar, inherently dangerous behaviors should be referred to qualified animal behaviorists.

The Foundation: The animal will need to have a set of solidly cued behaviors in his or her repertoire before implementing this program. Basics like sit, down, back up, wait, step up, or step aside are a good beginning. These behaviors must be proofed so that they can be asked for anytime, anywhere, and elicit the desired response. If the animal does not respond to the cues with the correct behavior, that behavior is not properly proofed and more work will be required to solidify training. Any behavior that can be taught can be used. (Examples of behaviors: For dogs and cats, sit, down, and target can be enough to get you started. For birds, step up, wait, target, and step off are handy. For horses, back up, step aside, target, and wait are useful. A release cue is highly recommended.)

The Curriculum: This program works on the basis of The Premack Principle, which states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. In simpler terms, a behavior that the animal wants to do (eat, play, sniff, greet, go out an open door, play tug) will be the reward for a behavior the animal is asked to do (sit, wait, step back, target). In practice, this means presenting the object or behavior of the animal’s desire in exchange for a behavior the handler desires; on completion of that behavior, the animal earns the reward. Anything that motivates the animal – from the very basics of food and attention, to the very complex requirements of toys and play, even something as mundane as sniffing bushes – can be Premacked, or used as a reward for a requested behavior.

If the behavior is not performed in a reasonable amount of time, no reward is forthcoming. Turn around and walk away if possible. Wait a few minutes, then come back and ask again. If the behavior is not performed a second time, it is not properly proofed and the handler needs to work more on foundation training.

If the behavior is interrupted, stop the reward immediately and ask for the behavior again. (Example: When greeting people, the dog is asked to sit. If the dog breaks the sit, the reward – attention – is immediately revoked. The dog is asked to sit again, and then the attention will continue.)

If the reward requires the animal to hold the behavior for more than a few seconds, it’s helpful to have also taught and proofed both wait cue and a release cue. This set of cues is useful in all animals, and very helpful for this program. (Example: Before opening the cage door, the parrot is asked to target a mirror, but dashes towards the door the moment she’s performed the behavior. Teaching a cue to have her remain at the mirror and another to release her to the reward will cure this problem.)

The Benefits: At its very core, this program is about allowing good behavior to become normal and bad behavior to be extinguished. Instead of jumping to greet people, or demanding attention by barking, a dog learns to sit and is rewarded with the attention he or she is seeking. Instead of crowding at the feed bucket, a horse learns to back up. Instead of dashing for the open cage door, a parrot learns to target a toy. Instead of snatching food from a plate, a cat learns to sit politely.

Over time, the requested behaviors become habitual. Animals will learn to offer these behaviors automatically in effort to gain access to things they desire, even novel things when the situation presents itself. This teaches self control and focus by making it habit to “ask” for things from the handler.

This program provides a way for animals and their handlers to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Animals learn that the best way to get what they want is through working with the handler, not in spite of or against the handler. In this way, they learn to cooperate and comply without the use of confrontational, aggressive, painful, or risky tactics.

This approach also builds confidence through reward based training, instead of teaching fear and mistrust through the use of punishment.

This program is not about denying the needs or wants of animals in any way.

This program is not about controlling access to all things in life that the animal wants, and/or only allowing access via the handler, in an effort to create a more biddable, completely dependant animal. To do so is inhumane and unnecessary.

Do not confine animals to small spaces for long periods of time or completely ignore the animal in effort to solicit compliance or focus (note: this is not the same as ignoring unwanted behaviors). Do not deny an animal food, exercise, attention, socialization, health care, or the ability to enjoy life and act like him- or herself. This is known as abuse and neglect, and is not an acceptable program of behavior modification.

© L. Talore, 2010

Health First

As a trainer, I tend to approach every situation with an animal with a focus on behavior, and I suspect I’m not the only one.  I pointedly look for specific tells in animals that could indicate what steps I may need to take, or what state of mind they may be in before I approach. I test the waters cautiously when I see signs of fear or aggression. However, it’s not just the nonhuman animals I’m evaluating. Even as handlers are explaining to me that their dog is afraid of men, or their cat bites out of nowhere, or their bird just doesn’t seem to like them very much, I’m listening for words and watching for actions from them that tell me key things.  Words like “used to just roll over,” and “I tell him no […] but he just keeps biting.”  I’m also looking for behaviors, such as a tight hold on a leash, or leaning in over an animal, or even something more subtle, like stiff, jerky bodily movements, strong eye contact, nervous or gruff demeanor.  All of these cues help me help them, and most of them don’t even know it.  But there’s something even more important when it comes to addressing unwanted behavior in animals and people, and that is health.

Even more than environment or genetics, or food or exercise, health will always directly affect behavior.  I haven’t conducted any studies, but in my experience, in about one out of every five cases of a handler experiencing problems with an animal, there’s an underlying health issue that desperately needs attention.  Show me the trainer or behaviorist who hasn’t come across the case of the cat urinating outside the litter box, or the dog inexplicably showing aggressive behaviors when petted in a specific place, or even the horse that is suddenly rearing when a rider’s weight is applied to the saddle, and I’ll eat my shoe. We’ve all seen them so often that many of us can frequently recognize the problems before the handler has finished explaining the behavior. In almost every case, the answer to the question “Have you seen a vet about it?” is answered with, “No.”   Yet so many of these issues are caused by health problems; UTIs, bladder crystals, joint pain, back pain, a sprain or muscle pull, a sore mouth, or even something more serious like a thyroid imbalance or tumor.

We know, as human beings, that our moods and behavior are almost always directly affected by our health. Headaches make us impatient, sore backs make us cranky, a strained muscle might even make us yell when someone jostles us. The difference is, we know the cause of our problem because we can directly feel it, and we can communicate our pain to others in a way that can be clearly understood. With nonhuman animals, we have to take extra steps to make sure we’re not missing cues that mean our companions need a doctor. Sometimes, something as subtle as a change in eating behavior can be a glaring sign blinking “Get thee to a vet!”

On the flip side of that same coin, just as important as the animal’s health is the health of the handler. This is most often an area completely overlooked by trainers and behaviorists alike, though it’s certainly not intentional. The four legged, furred, or feathered ones just happen to be our focus. A handler that is stressed or frustrated isn’t a great candidate for working on calm, positive training or behavior modification. That’s not to say the handler doesn’t have reason; certainly we’re all only human, and sometimes our companions’ behavior can drive us beyond our ability to cope. A handler who is injured could present an even bigger challenge, as the training might be beyond their ability to implement correctly, which can cause setbacks. In these cases, it’s necessary to encourage some help for the handler (such as reminding them to take a time out to calm down, and make good use of down time, or gently suggest seeing a doctor themselves if it’s necessary), and perhaps modify training to suit, or establish a management program until all parties are able to continue with training.

As a trainer, it’s not only my job to facilitate a good relationship between humans and other animals, it’s my job to make absolutely sure that the animals I’m about to work with, both human and non, are healthy enough to be worked with in the first place.  Everyone will have a better experience, and a better outcome, in the long run.

Picking up something new always presents us with brick walls to overcome, and this case (a blog – I have always disliked that word) is no different.  Formatting and design issues aside, outfitting this new piece of web real estate with informative, insightful, and interesting links was it’s own challenge.

To put it bluntly, there is an alarming shortage of quality information on the behavior and (proper) training of animals other than dogs.  I think this is actually an honest reflection of both the astounding popularity of dogs and the growing need to learn to live with them (as opposed to cats, who are, by and large, seen as a lower maintenance companion – which is also by and large untrue).  As for horses, most horse enthusiasts fall into one of two main categories: Those who use horses for pleasure, and those who use them for work.  Far fewer are the lovers of equines who choose a horse as a companion, after all, it’s much harder to bring a horse on a nice walk in the park, or inside to sit with you by a warm fire.

Even more disturbing is the maddeningly slow pace at which equestrians have evolved from old wives tales and word-of-mouth mythos into science and sound reasoning with regards to working with and understanding horses.  There are plenty of resources on the web for those who need help gaining “dominance” over their mounts, or are looking for fresh ways to punish unwanted behavior.  There is no shortage of experts willing to give advice on which bits to use to control an unruly horse, or when the rider should man up and show the horse who is boss.  Meanwhile, over in the dog savvy world of training and behavior modification, more and more people are moving confidently away from these age old traditions and confrontational methods of communicating with their companions, and leading the way are dozens and dozens of PhD-wielding, behavior science-educated experts of their fields of study.

Lets hope the cat enthusiasts and horse lovers of the world sit up and take note, for while the changes are slow in coming, lo they are a’coming. You can’t trump science.