Working with behaviour often seems like an easy explanation of what I do, but there are so many levels to working with behaviour that is it can be difficult to see the thread of connection that runs through them all.
I start work at 7am on a crisp dry California morning, with the student donkey trainers. These brave and intrepid souls have signed up to have the experience of working with an unhandled wild burro and where does this training start? With mucking out of course.
Just by being with the wild burros in their pens we are working with their behaviour. Just observing their behaviour as the students move around the pen is a great place to start. Often we forget even the simple task if being in the same space with our donkeys is working with behaviour.
The students have to clean out the sand areas and stalls of each group of 3 donkeys without spooking or scaring the donkeys and at the same time start to learn about the individual characteristics or (personality) of each animal.
It is so important to understand not only the species and breed behaviour, but more vital to safe handling and success, is to understand the individual nature of each animal we work with. The students observe for traits such as reactiveness, confidence, fear, persistence and processing time or the time it takes each animal to make a decision. So, understanding the individual animal is working with behaviour.
After cleaning up and feeding I explain to the students the principles of learning theory and behaviour they will be using with the donkeys. Terms such as negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement, successive approximation, timing, comfort zones and ethology are all briefly explained. Not only do these students have to grasp the concepts of learning, they have to have to learn how to apply them in practice to. So understanding learning theory is working with behaviour.
The donkey (mentioned in my previous blog) that arrived injured and we operated on last night has to have an intravenous injection of pain killer. Not an easy task on a wild unhandled animal. A common question in training sessions is, “Yes Ben, all this training is fine, I get it but, what about when you have to just get it done, because the donkey needs treatment?”.
I always say it is just the same as training. Just in a small space of time, work on yourself and your perception of the situation. Apply learning theory and remain calm at all times. Just 10 minutes later, we have quietly caught and injected the donkey. Not fighting, no rearing, no kicking with the donkey remaining calm and relaxed. Getting the job done is working with behaviour.
I tell the students gathered in the warm early morning California sun, well my perception is that it is warm, after all I was in a rapidly cooling British Autumn just 36 hours before, so I am in a T-shirt thinking, “This is lovely weather!” while the students on the other hand are in coats, jackets and jumpers looking decidedly chilly.
They are obviously used to much warmer weather and not yet ready for the chill of 19-20 degrees centigrade! I have also lost my voice - it has almost completely gone - I sound like a cross between Micky Mouse and a country and western singer who has spent 20 years singing in smoking bars.
Standing there with my voice failing, I explain that understanding learning theory isn’t enough. They have to apply it correctly and to do that they have to look at themselves. Self-awareness is so important in our work with donkeys and other equines. Who we are affects what we do and how we do it. Are we end goalers, nervous, over confident?
Are we inclined to rush and take steps that are too big for the animal because we feel the pressure of other people watching? or can we be self-aware enough to do what we need to do to help the donkey even if it makes us uncomfortable to change and adapt our own behaviour? In my experience the solutions to donkey behaviour problems is often creating a change in human behaviour. Working with our own behaviour traits and learning is working with behaviour.
Having each chosen their wild burro, the students start work from the edge of the pens applying the elements of learning theory we have discussed and I leave them to it.
I have to go to the main arena of the equine centre, a huge sand arena, with tiered seating all along one side and give a talk on clicker training to 100 or so people gathered for the day’s events. Clicker training is using positive reinforcement as a tool to communicate with animals. It is a great way to solve problems and teach new behaviour positively but I believe it is only a tool to include in our trainer's tool box and it has its limitations. I work with a couple of donkeys who have two very different characters - one who is easily distracted and pushy, the other calmer, and more accurate in his approach to the tasks I set.
I have to balance learning theory, the nature of the individual, communicate and connect with the audience, listen carefully to the real meaning of their questions and set my own communication out in a way that can be followed and understood while being fun and hoping the content will stick. Teaching is definitely working with behaviour.
The next day I go to work with 25 vet students at the equine health centre. The topic, working with problem equines, how to get the treatments done safely and effectively though understanding learning theory. I work with three horses, who either can’t be caught, kick, don’t want to pick up their feet, head toss, run off, don’t like their tail being held or a combination of these behaviours.
It is hard for vets, after all it is not their job to train equines, but they constantly have to work with the consequences of poorly trained, fearful equines. All three horse are great learners and teachers with the correct application of the science of behaviour they hardly show any signs of their problems and all improve and the students get to see methods of working and the effectiveness of understanding behaviour, best of all I don’t get injured. Working with and solving an equine behaviour problem is definitely working with behaviour.
So working with behaviour has so many meanings and we are all working with behaviour constantly, our own behaviour, the behaviour of partners, children, the family pets, work colleagues, other drivers, the behaviour of bullies, of friends and of the animals we chose to work with and domesticate. It can feel as though we know about behaviour and that we understand behaviour, however, the difficult thing is to stop long enough to accept we perhaps don’t really know as we think we do and as we remember to suspend our own judgements we ensure we have a chance to learn more about working with behaviour from every point of view.
In the next blog I will explain what it is like to work with a wild burro and understand the true nature of equines.