How the animal behaves at any particular moment reflects the integrated response of its central nervous system hierarchically organizing all the sensory and internal state inputs to yield a decision of life-or-death importance. Simply put, its brain must balance the desire for satisfaction against the avoidance of stress. As positive reinforcement trainers, we try to arrange the world to minimize the stress and exploit the desire.
Sooner or later, though, the stress becomes the elephant in the room. No more avoiding it. Our best strategy at that point is to explicitly give the animal the coping skills it needs to deal with the stress. We have to enlarge our animal’s coping capacity to get to the next level.
Bravo is ready to carry a human. It will be stressful to some degree. The human might tickle. They might be heavy. They might be hot. The human might seem like some weird version of a saber-tooth tiger or just simply creepy to want to sit there. Not only is the elephant going to be in the room, but it also wants to sit on him.
I’m a little stressed out with the thought of sitting on him too. I have crashed and burned enough times to know it always hurts to fall from a distance of 5 feet to hard ground. I think my bones are tough for my age, but they are still almost 67 years old.
In task 45, we build a helpful behavior pattern that does three things to mitigate our problems. It gives Bravo a way to feel in control, without being in control. It gives me a way to monitor his emotional state. And it teaches him a desirable way to respond to the inevitable patting that people like to do with horses.
Patterns to Develop
- Low latency response to tapping cue
- Expectations of variable schedule reinforcement
Patterns to Avoid
- Expectation of tapping to occur in a single location on body
- Bobbing head instead of keeping it low
- Vigilance between trials
It is very difficult for an animal to do this behavior and remain in vigilance. Perhaps it functions by reducing the benefits of being in high-headed anxiety? Or perhaps just having a way to earn rewards so easily offers so much satisfaction that the anxiety just disappears. I won’t totally prevent flight responses, but it minimizes them. If my animal can’t do this behavior, I need to investigate their cause for fear.
I hope you find this useful. Please share it on your social media where horse friends might find it and get inspired to try something different. Thanks!