Oct 262010
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Oct 142010
 

Positive reinforcement (+R), particularly when used in conjunction with clicker training, is commonly combined with the use of negative reinforcement (-R) and/or punishment. Typically the aversive stimuli (i.e. the pressure applied) in these cases will be mild and the combined approach is used to clarify and/or hasten the training. Is there anything wrong with this? Are those of us who would say “yes” just being dogmatic and purist in our approach to positive reinforcement? Or do we all need to take a step back and think more carefully about just how positive our positive training actually is?

Firstly I still don’t know of anyone who uses only +R all the time with all their horses and don’t believe it is possible (or useful). But I do believe it is possible, and extremely valuable in some cases, to have discrete sessions in which only +R is used – i.e. free shaping. For some horses, in some stages of their lives, I would say free shaping should make up most of the interaction they have with humans. But that depends on the horse and the stage it is at. More generally, outside those specific free-shaping sessions, the vast majority of emotionally well-placed horses will suffer no ill consequence for the occasional mild aversive stimulus. A gentle pull on the reins to stop or to raise the horse’s head from the grass will not cause psychological trauma to the well-adjusted individual.

But if you are going to use – within the same session and/or to achieve the same behaviour – a combination of +R and -R then various things can happen. This isn’t only because of bad training but also because of what is going on in the horse’s brain at the time.

The first reason is practical – if the horse is experiencing two different reinforcers pretty much simultaneously then the horse is going to be reinforced more by one of them than the other. This is known as “saliency” and is effectively the relative value of the reinforcers from the perspective of the horse. Does he find more value in the release of pressure or the reward? They are unlikely to be identical in value. The presence of the click and treat may well help the horse’s understanding along and confirm to him that he is performing the correct behaviour, but that is not the same thing as true positive reinforcement. The horse may well still be changing his behaviour because he is searching for the release of pressure, not because he is actively trying to earn a reward. The presence of rewards does not make your training positive; it is all down to the horse’s perception of the training and the reasons why he chooses to change his behaviour.

Another objection I have to the combination of positive and negative reinforcement is the issue of what Karen Pryor termed “The Poisoned Cue” . Due to classical (i.e. Pavlovian) conditioning, if you are using pressure then the level of pressure the horse feels in its training will become associated with you and your training equipment/environment . It’s a bit like receiving a phone call from someone you don’t want to speak to, you start dreading the phone ringing. So if you combine the pressure with some form of positive reinforcement, the positive reinforcement will be diminished in value (like getting a pay cheque, knowing that it’s all going to go straight out again on bills), possibly to the point of being irrelevant. While you could argue that some +R is better than nothing (in fact I *did* used to argue that) I have also seen a demonstration by someone combining CT with a well-known pressure-based training method and it was really really awful. More on that in a moment….

If an animal is experiencing genuine positive reinforcement then it is believed from neuroscience studies that a particular region of the brain is activated and dopamine is released. This is the opioid which makes us feel good when something good happens. Over time, this dopamine release can take place even in the absence of an actual reward. So if we do lots of reward-based training and trigger dopamine, then even just our arrival at the field can do the same, whether or not we have treats. It’s not just about the horse wanting us for our treats. We make the horse feel good. This is the neurological basis for the Pavlov’s dogs result. We feel genuinely pleased when our payslip arrives, because of what it represents, even though it’s only actually a worthless piece of paper.

If we do pressure-based training or even just “neutral” training then there is no dopamine released, even when you release the pressure. A different brain circuit is stimulated and, depending on how much pressure you use, there may be an adrenalin release, i.e. a stress response.

If we mix the two whilst training the same behaviour then the dopamine response is likely to be over-ridden by the adrenalin. Even if you normally do -R (depending on the degree of pressure – either physical or emotional) and decide to have an occasional pure +R session, you may still not be getting the dopamine release because of what you normally represent to your horse. So the best-case scenario may well be that you are not positively reinforcing your horse at all. You might be giving it treats but that is not the same thing as the horse FEELING positively reinforced. That’s not to say this is necessarily bad, and it may help your training along a bit if your timing is good, but it makes sense to be doing what you think you are doing and not complicating the session with red herrings.

The use of +R can encourage a horse to offer behaviours in the attempt to earn a reward and this puts the horse in a very emotionally vulnerable position (which is why a proper +R free-shaping session will reassure the horse that it is ok and that there is no negative consequence for a wrong answer). If pressure is likely to be used as well when the horse gets the wrong behaviour then it can create a major conflict in the horse’s mind, increasing the stress yet further. If a lot of pressure is being used then the best thing for the horse to do is just do as he’s told so as to avoid the pressure. If he is being encouraged to offer behaviours spontaneously as well then it puts the horse is a very difficult position. It’s like when you’re at school and you have to summon up the courage to speak in front of the class and then the teacher tells you you’re stupid. This isn’t just “bad training”, it can also be technically good training in a very unempathic way and it is something I have seen from various trainers who (perhaps inadvertently) prioritise the achievement of certain behaviours above the feelings of the horse. The horse I watched who stands out in particular was being trained with a combination of a Natural Horsemanship method and CT. The pressure was all at a relatively low sort of level but that didn’t stop the horse being very stressed about what it was being expected to do. He clearly knew the cost of getting a wrong answer but was unable to just switch off and respond to cues because the CT element demanded that he offer behaviours. The difference in attitude of a horse under this sort of conflict and a horse having a true free-shaping session are just such worlds apart that it’s very hard to do justice to it on a keyboard….

There is nothing wrong with doing low-pressure or neutral work, no-one is living in a state of constant dopamine fix! But if you never receive it you are unlikely to be in very emotionally developed place. In humans we call it “depression”. The horse is not likely to be making psychologically healthy choices and enjoying his work, merely responding to cues and trying to keep out of trouble. The ideal is that the horse is engaging his brain and thinking “howabout if I try a step backwards”, rather than “I need to move away from pressure” – free-shaping is often very much about “brain exercises” rather than physical training. There are, of course, caveats to these generalisations that can be made in individual cases. When I clicker trained my horse to walk backwards, I did start the training by “cheating” and using a light hand pressure on his chest and so negative reinforcement was involved to help him understand the behaviour I wanted. But once he understood the right behaviour, he started to offer it spontaneously and any residual association with the pressure was clearly counter-conditioned by the on-going purely positive free-shaping. It is better if you can avoid this sort of short-cut by correct shaping but if the alternative is a horse who is likely to become frustrated by not understanding the right behaviour then it may be appropriate – feel and judgement are always crucial.

My personal preference for a horse in an emotionally “good” place is to have some pure +R free-shaping sessions interspersed with just “normal” -R. For dealing with specific problems I would take a step back and devise a shaping plan with tiny steps so that each step gives the opportunity for reward and positive associations with the task. For horses in an emotionally difficult place then I would say many more free-shaping sessions are necessary before the horse is ready for -R and these sessions may need to be spread out over a long period of time. It is time well-spent and will create the foundations for a much more successful horse-human relationship.

By Catherine Bell

(If you want to know more this is a brilliant video compliments the article – http://barnmice.ning.com/group/bodylanguage/forum/topics/rewards-and-dopamine-what.)

(Thank you to Catherine for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Oct 042010
 

How similar is equine thinking compared to ours, is a common thread running through many articles on animal behaviour and animal-human relationships. Most owners feel a greater contact with their animals because they give their pets at least some human thinking abilities and our close proximity to our pets actively encourages it. So, there is deep interest and investment in demonstrating how similar animal thinking is to our human capabilities. Don’t get me wrong I think it is important to understand the ways animals think. However, I do believe we come at the whole question of how animals think from the wrong end. Instead of can animals think like us it would be better to ask how can we think like our animals?

Anthropomorphism is the process of giving non human objects human emotions. We pat the car we have given a name as it starts on a cold morning or we blame the washing machine for breaking down just when we needed it most, as if in some way it had chosen to let us down deliberately. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise with animals, after all most of us spend our early years watching mice that fall in love, cats that hold vendettas against mice, rabbits that problem solve, dogs that can talk and birds that are jealous and vain. Yes, Mr Disney surely knew what he was doing when he created the cartoon animals that were almost human. Perhaps he knew how much we would connect with those crazy critters if he made them just human enough that we could identify in them all our own emotions, but we could laugh at them because they were animals.

If we give our pets human emotions through the process of anthropomorphism, then we run the real risk of attributing our flawed thinking to our pets and, in my experience human thinking is often flawed. We struggle with complex emotions such as jealousy because we gain pleasure or even happiness from possession of inanimate objects. Sometimes we mistakenly believe those possessions are other people and act with anger if other people take an interest in our supposed possessions. We want what other people have, even when we already have all we need and so greed is born. We are vain, our appearance can determine our happiness, with humans having the ability through self loathing to starve or eat themselves to death because our image of ourselves in not real.

Hundreds of thousands of books, workshops and training sessions are delivered world wide every year on self help. All with the aim of improving our self esteem, creating happiness, reducing stress and managing anger not to mention the massive market for relationship counselling and advice. Through spiritual leaders we have seen that spiritual practises such as Buddhism require a life time of work to control our thoughts. If our human thinking was the shining beacon that we believe it is, these books, lessons and coaches wouldn’t be needed or at least in less volume.

We lie to ourselves that we are the top of the IQ tree. Well we set the tests, so I guess we would do pretty well wouldn’t we? Yet our brains in terms of evolution have been developing for a relatively short time and the brain of the modern man from hunter gatherer to I T business whiz kid has only had about 100,000 years to evolve, no wonder we struggle to use this supper powerful personal computer.

Without practise and considerable effort our ability to understand our own thinking is limited, yet we do have the ability to understand that other humans are and do experience similar emotions to us. We have what is known as an understanding of self. Certain functions we take for granted as adults have not always been with us as children. We develop conscious memory from the age of about three when the hippocampus, part of the brain that lays down long term conscious memory matures. As the brain begins to develop new parts of the brain come online, which is why peek-a-boo is such an entertaining game for babies. As the parietal cortex starts to work we become aware of fundamental spatial qualities of the world and we know faces can not just disappear but the modules of the brain that tell us where the face goes have not yet matured. Then between the ages of eighteen months to two years we develop self-consciousness we no longer point at our reflection in the mirror as if it were another child we instead begin to recognise what we see as us, we develop the sense of I that most people feel in their heads.

Do animals develop this sense of I? Well there is some evidence to suggest that some may do, the great apes, an occasional elephant and a crow perhaps, but I am not sure we really know. Some researchers say animals do not have this sense others say that they do and some say the tests that are used are not a understanding of self just the ability to understand the concept of mirrors. Yet we pet owners commonly believe that our pets can understand our complex emotions. A common statement I hear is from the dog owner, who on returning home to finds their dog has disgraced themselves in some way and claims the dog knows they have done wrong, they can see by their dogs behaviour that they are feeling guilty for letting the owner down. The dog shows signs of submission or hides away and this is seen by the owner as an acceptance of guilt. Well may be or may be not, perhaps the dog is simply offering what they see as the appropriate behaviour for the situation. The dog’s behaviour is not related to what they may have done sometime before but rather the body language and vocal tones of their human companion at that moment. Having learnt the human signs of anger and discovered that appeasement or avoidance are the best method to avoid trouble the dog may simply be offering what it considers appropriate behaviour for the human behaviour they see. They do not have to be able to understand the owner is angry or upset they may simply read the body language and be conditioned to avoid conflict that they know follows this body language. May be they always adopt submissive behaviour on the owners return and sometimes the owner can attribute this to a misdemeanour? This behaviour in the dog is not any less incredible for not being attributed with thinking like a human, to my mind it is a testament to their learning ability and perceptual skills that allows them to read us humans and act accordingly.

I am often asked how intelligent is a horse or a donkey and is it true that a mule is more intelligent than both. To be honest, I don’t believe it is important to measure or compare animal IQ. A horse is good at being a horse and while it might not do well on a human IQ test, if we dump a horse and a human in 100,000 acres of wildness and leave them for a couple of months the horse will have far better chance of survival than the human, so who is the smartest in that situation?

All have animals have mental abilities that we can measure such as memory, reasoning, problem solving etc. Providing the tests are related to the animal’s innate abilities then we will have a pretty good idea of what they are capable. Dogs may innately be better at problem solving due to the evolutionary ancestors pack hunting skills and association with man but are they anywhere near the capabilities of the human brain, unlikely. This doesn’t mean they are not smart, just that they are not human.

Imagine two Zebras, George and Graham we will call them just to anthropomorphise a little, grazing along side each other on the plains of Africa as the sun comes up. A sudden ambush by a pride of lions, a moment of panic and a short chase sees Graham becoming lion breakfast. How does George respond? Well if he was human he would spend most of the rest of the day telling all the other Zebras what had happened and how it could have been him and thinking to himself what if I had been closer it would have been me or perhaps suffering the guilt of having survived when his friend did not, pretty soon he would have an ulcer from all the worry and “what ifs”. Fortunately, George is a Zebra and while being physiologically stressed by the attack and perhaps even feeling some sense of absence or loss he is soon back in the moment concentrating on eating and surviving and avoiding lions just as he was before the attack, and that’s why Zebra’s who lead such stressful lives don’t get ulcers. Yes of course, change their environment to a zoo and confine them and the environmental stress might give then ulcers but not in the wild.

Animals have a simplistic uncluttered thinking that is not judgemental, doesn’t blame everyone else for their problems and they are capable of learning. However, even our closest relative the chimpanzee can take up to seven years to fully learn the art of cracking a nut with a stone tool.  I am not saying animals are not sentient beings or capable of emotions far from it, but rather that humans are overly complicated creatures that are not yet well adapted to their environment and far from in control of their massive brains.

Trying to label how an animal thinks is like trying to describe the sensation of meditation if you have never meditated. We may have a knowledge of what meditation may be, we can use words like peaceful, calm, relaxed and focus yet these words describe only states of mind, they don’t add up to the experience of meditation. The only way to know what meditation is like is to practise meditation. The only way to know what it is like to be an animal is to be an animal. As that is unlikely to happen, no matter how hard we try, we can only experience their world through our senses and label what we believe they feel like.

The problem with giving human emotions to animals is not that may or may not experience human emotions as scientists continue to debate, but that the general human way of thinking is flawed. Our thinking is sometimes controlled by ego, the conditioning of our parents during childhoods and our evolution. So to label an animal as jealous, naughty or deceitful are faults of the human mind not of the animal mind. We can spend a life time thinking back to past injustices or panicking about our future. Do animals think “if only my mum had loved me more when I was a puppy!” probably not. Their behaviour may be effected if they were weaned to young or not socialised but that is their behaviour.

By way of example about the difference between dog and human thinking. Say we have a rescue Labrador who has previously been starved. Humans may imagine how they would react and behave had they been treated in a similar way and think how terrible that is and accept him always scavenging for food. Others will say dogs live in the moment and it doesn’t matter what happened in the past so don’t allow him to get away with that behaviour. The truth is perhaps some where between the two. The dog that has had bad experience will have had the connections in the brain changed as a result of that experience and those changes influence future behaviour, but the dog is not constantly thinking back to being starved and worrying that might happen again, as a human might do. They may have a higher motivation for food but their behaviour is not driven by fear of not being fed again it is influenced by the neural connections made earlier in their life. If this wasn’t the case the dog would have a very sort memory and forget everything they learned just moments before, this is not the case, nor is it the case that they are thinking back to when they were starving because as soon as they realised that food was regular and readily available they would reason that they no longer had to rush their food and scavenge.

A horse is not intrinsically good or bad it is just a horse. To one person a horse that kicks is disrespectful and naughty to another they are just communicating their fear and to the horse, well they are just being a horse. It is our perception and labelling that determines if a behaviour is good or bad without humans to judge there is no good or bad, just behaviour. Our own beliefs colour our perceptions and judgements which go on to influence our actions. We see our pets not as they are but as we are, until we understand the true nature of animals and the true nature of ourselves we cannot hope to improve our training and handling or our pets. When we label our animal with a negative human emotion we and other humans then treat the animal according to the label we have given it, and this then negatively influences the behaviour of the animal.

A horse is just a horse, surviving, breathing, feeding, reproducing and socializing not good or bad those are our human judgements. Once you understand this you remove incorrect thinking from ourselves and free ourselves from the turmoil of perception of bad and good, past and future and you can work in the moment. When these powerful human emotions negative or positive are removed you can see things as they truly are, you can act based on behaviour not emotional response to behaviour.

To best help our animals we don’t need to believe they think like us, we need instead to learn to think with their brains. When we do this, we truly open up the possibilities of communicating fully with our animals, without the transference of our mistaken human judgements and the burdens on the animal of our flawed emotional states and, we see them as they are not furry humans but independent individuals dissevering of our respect not our judgement.

By Ben Hart

www.hartshorsemanship.com

(Thank you to Ben for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)