Thursday, December 31, 2009

Trail Training Newsletter - #108 - Shaping Behaviors

Shaping Behaviors

You may recall that last month Mingo developed a case of cellulitis caused by a “who really knows at this point.” At the time, we assumed it was the hoof abscess that started to drain a few days before. His leg became very swollen and painful—so painful that he didn’t want me to touch it. This was a big problem because I had to soak his hoof. I would ask him to lift his foot, and he would fly around his stall on 3 legs. I then would try to catch it with the soaking boot. It was a very bad scene. It sometimes took 10 minutes before I got the soaking boot on his foot. After soaking it, we had to repeat the whole routine to get the soaking boot off his foot.

He went to the vet clinic for all of his diagnostics and to treat the cellulitis. He came back, and a few days later he was abscess lame again. It was back to soaking and the problem was even worse—even though his leg was no longer painful to the touch. He was afraid it would hurt. As soon as I walked near that foot, he would lift up the opposite hind foot and start tapping the ground with it—putting all of his weight on the bad foot.

I learned that if I put him on a lead rope and asked him to back up and I was quick, I could catch his foot. Sometimes he would panic, and sometimes he wouldn’t. This is how I managed to soak his foot.

I really needed to solve this problem—absolutely before my farrier could come out, not to mention for Mingo and me. The following weekend, I had Ellen to help me. We decided to approach the problem using the clicker.

This is where “shaping” came in. We took Mingo out into the aisle of the barn. I stood by his leg. Of course, he started to tap the ground with the opposite foot. When he stopped and touched his toe to the ground, Ellen clicked and treated. We did this for several minutes. When I would attempt to lift his foot, it would be tap, stop, click, treat. Then, Ellen decided to up the ante. She would only click when he set the whole foot down. Once he was doing that, she clicked when I pushed him and he would put more weight on to opposite foot. When he was doing that well, she clicked at any sign of lifting his hoof. Finally, he lifted it up for us four times straight! I was so happy! This all took less than 10 minutes.

Sunday, we did the whole procedure again. This time, she moved from one phase to the next much faster.

I’m on my own on the weekdays, but since he was doing so well, I was able to do some clicking on my own. Now, I would insist I hold his foot for a little bit before I clicked. Ellen was back on Thursday to help. We trained him in 2 separate sessions that day, because the vet was coming out the next day to examine his hoof since he was lame again. By his second session, I was feeling pretty confident she wouldn’t have too much trouble.

She didn’t. At first, he did his toe tapping, so I just moved him and she caught his foot. He didn’t panic, but she told me he was shaking. She was able to pick up his foot a number of times and spent a long time looking for the hoof abscess. Unfortunately, she didn’t find it. She poulticed up his foot in hopes that it would drain on its own.

The next day, I realized I was picking up his foot with just tapping his leg. This was awesome! I did some clicking and treating, but not for every time he lifted his foot.

Two weeks later, when the vet came out to examine him again, we reviewed the routine while she was rummaging in her truck. By the time she got in to examine him, he was ready. He behaved for her beautifully.

Clicker saved the day. I’m sure he will be fine for the farrier. I actually haven’t clicked him for lifting that foot, since, and he does it very readily.

Shaping is teaching one behavior and then asking for a slightly different behavior until you get exactly what you want. You don’t need to do it with a clicker, but by using a clicker, he figured out quite quickly what I wanted. Clicker is definitely something I will be using with horses from now on!

If I wasn’t convinced that the clicker was a great tool for my training toolbox before, I am 100 percent sure of it now. By shaping Mingo’s behavior with the help of a clicker, we turned a terrible situation into a positive experience for everyone.

Ellen started clicker training Ranger that weekend…

1 comment:

Mary H. said...

Great story!

I am glad you have found clicker training so helpful.

Interestingly, author and clinician Alexandra Kurland (probably one of the best horse clicker trainers there is!) got fully convinced about horse clicker training and the power of shaping much same way you did---she had a horse with hoof problems that needed daily soaking and bandaging.