In the most general sense, “husbandry” refers to the careful management of animals using the best scientific knowledge and principles, but usually when zoological professionals use the term, they mean the animal’s participation in medical care. This makes husbandry a type of cooperative behavior on the animal’s part.
There are many types of husbandry behaviors. At the more passive end of the spectrum, the animal simply tolerates or allows the human to touch its body. It gets progressively more difficult as the animal learns to accept tasks that restrict its movement or ability to escape. The animal can also become an active participant in its care by presenting particular body parts to be worked on.
Husbandry training is important for several reasons. First, whether the animal is tolerating the task or actively participating in it, the human involved will be safer than if the animal was forced to do it. Second, there is far less stress for the animal if it knows what to expect and how it should react. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the animal will be healthier because it will receive more regular medical care.
We saw a lot of videos of husbandry training during the seminar. From a tiger allowing its teeth to be brushed to an elephant putting its foot through a hole so its feet could be trimmed to animals voluntarily getting on a scale, it’s clear that there is a wide variety of tasks that can be accomplished. We also got to see husbandry training in action as Ken worked with Ty the sea lion on a voluntary blood draw behavior.
I was struck by how slowly Ken moved through the steps, but he told us this was important because husbandry behaviors are typically uncomfortable or even painful for the animals. As a result, it’s vital to take your time and use very small approximations towards the final behavior. He also said that the trainers take care to practice the behaviors in a fun way hundreds of times for every one time it’s used in real life.
For behaviors that can’t be practiced “as is” in a fun way (such as a blood draw), the trainers will do many types of touches in the same context. Sometimes the animal will be tickled, or slapped lightly, or touched with a small ball, or tapped. This teaches the animal that the touch will feel different every time. Since they understand the structure of the behavior, they are far more willing to tolerate the occasional needle stick.
I definitely think we don’t do enough to prepare our dogs for husbandry tasks, whether it’s participating in a vet appointment or being groomed. Our dogs are often physically restrained to get shots or have its temperature taken, and while they are generally tolerant of all of these behaviors, force isn’t necessary. A little bit of training can go a long way towards making such things more tolerable for the animal. While we can’t prepare the animal for every possibility, we can make routine tasks like getting the toe nails clipped or tooth brushing more tolerable.
Ken told us that if you’re going to train your animal for a husbandry task, the most important thing to do is to find out exactly what needs to be done. Ask lots of questions of the vet or groomer to find out what they will need the animal to do. Ken told us a great story about preparing an animal for an eye exam, only to be surprised on the big day by learning that the lights would need to be turned off. The trainers hadn’t included that step in training, and it proved to be a challenge.
Other possible errors? Looking for a quick fix or using the medical behavior before it’s completely trained. While you might be able to get the behavior once, you probably won’t get it again. Don’t limit future possibilities by rushing through training. Likewise, don’t push the animal beyond what it has been trained for. “Just once more” or “just a little longer” is likely to backfire, wrecking all your careful work.
It’s also important to remember that medical behaviors are never fully trained. Always continue to reinforce the animal for calm, cooperative behavior. Along those same lines, don’t make assumptions about what the animal likes. Since medical procedures are usually uncomfortable, awkward, or painful, you need to make it worth the animal’s effort to participate.
Possibly the most important message I took away from my week at Shedd was that I don’t do enough to help my dog feel better about routine tasks, and that there’s plenty I could do to make things easier for her- especially when it comes to something like nail clipping (she hates it!) What about you? Is there a husbandry task your dog could be trained to do? Or maybe you’ve already worked on helping your dog feel better about certain things. I’d love to hear about it.