Two recent back-to-back interactions with Ben:
1. Time to trim Ben’s hooves. I tie him up outside the stable. Ben moves around. I move him back to his original position. He moves again. I move him back. He stands still, relaxes and focuses on me. I lift a hoof and trim, Ben stays with me, not leaning on me. Then he moves his hoof. I put it down. He stretches out and down with his neck and licks and chews. I stretch up and back and breathe. (How does anyone do this professionally?) I ask for that hoof again, Ben gives it to me and I carry on. And so we proceed around each hoof in turn. Time to bring each hoof forward to give the finishing roll (my favourite part). I have only an up-turned bucket to use. I put it in front of Ben’s leg. He knows exactly what I want him to do and lifts his leg and stomps his hoof onto the bucket. And so we proceed again around each hoof. The whole procedure has been as efficient as it could be and has felt like a cooperative, joint effort.
2. Time for in-hand work. (I have signed up for Marijke de Jong’s Straightness Training course – excellent so far). So I put a cavesson on Ben and take him up to the picadero. Once there Ben’s entire demeanour changes. He is expecting treats. He knows that in-hand work has been done with the clicker. So he snatches. And snatches. And snatches. Quick grabby snaps with his mouth. And I have used very clear boundaries and they are not working for Ben. No matter how calm I am, how clear I am, what behaviour I ignore, what behaviour I reinforce, and I have been very consistent indeed with Ben in this area, Ben’s excitement and tension come up every time. This is not a cooperative, joint effort. I sense that Ben is hardly aware of me. ‘What do I need to do to get my treat?’
And so I have reverted to my tried and tested bucket behind the fence and asking Ben to stand and wait while I walk to the bucket to get a treat. I have stopped reinforcing every good attempt and he is learning just as well. Essentially I am using pressure and release and also putting some very clear boundaries around my space and Ben’s excitement is lowering and he is focussing on me again.
I like the idea of positive reinforcement and see the logic of using a clicker as a marker. I used it to good effect when Cloud first came to us and he was reluctant to let us pick up his hooves to clean them. But it did not get him into a trailer recently (he’s going in now – that’s for another post maybe) and it never works if Ben is genuinely scared of something. There have been times when it seemed to work well and it has taught Ben some in-hand behaviours but generally he loses his focus on me when I use the clicker.
The problem has not been with the clicker but with the reinforcer. I started by using treats as a reinforcer and trying to substitute scratches instead has not worked. I do not know if scratches would have worked as a reinforcer if used from the start. I do not think they would be a sufficiently motivating reinforcer. But I have not been able to overcome Ben’s degree of anxiety associated with treats. I am only thankful that I have used clicker in very specific instances with Cloud. I am doing the straightness training programme with him also and he responds very well to the bucket behind the fence. He stands and waits, looking calm but hopeful in a Cloud kind of way. Food is such a powerful reinforcer. Who knows what history Ben has with food, or indeed what reaction he has to a possible sugar spike from a treat and I did not consider all these aspects sufficiently for Ben.