Monday, October 15, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Husbandry Training

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. 

This dolphin is a willing participant in dental exams thanks to husbandry training.
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.


Elizabeth said...

Working at an emergency vet I'd say one of the most important husbandry behaviors that people don't train their pets to do is surprising. At first it doesn't even seem like a husbandry behavior.

Simply crate training your dog is SOOO crucial. I can't tell you the difference between a pet that understands how to settle and be comfortable in crates/kennels and one that does not. They get so much more rest and healing in a hospital environment. They are less likely to need sedatives. They don't pull their IV catheters out by spinning in circles or injury themselves further.

I think dog training professionals need to emphasize the important of crate training more than we do. Even if people aren't going to use them at home they are an essential part of hospital stays and travel for pets. They are at times unavoidable for long term recovery of injury. So that's at the top of my list for most important husbandry behavior in dogs.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Elizabeth about crating training. I'm shocked when I find out how many dogs aren't comfortable in a crate and, having occasionally boarded dogs in the past, I know how challenging that can be! Simon doesn't love the crate (and our vet indulges him by giving him an entire exam room any time he has to stay!), but he will tolerate it fairly well now.

I'm often surprised by how tolerant Shanoa is of the various things that we do at a vet. Given her anxiety, you'd think she'd be terrible, but she's actually very comfortable and cooperative with vet procedures. We've had to stick things in her eyes (she had a bad case of uveitis that could have blinded her), she has had many, many blood draws, lots of manipulation...she is calm throughout all of it (and not shut down, either!).

One thing I have done for her is that I switched from trimming nails with a clipper to dremeling. I introduced the dremel pretty slowly, and while she doesn't *like* having her nails done, she is far happier with the dremel than she was with a clipper.


Anonymous said...

Any ideas about how to help a dog be more tolerant of injections, he seems to have a very low pain threshold, but it may also be compunded by just feeling nervous about the whole scenario at the vet. I haved done a lot of handling work with him at home but after a break of not visiting the vet he has had a relapse and will now refuse to go into the examination room., never mind being on the table and getting an injection. How do i teach him that handling is a good thing if then i'm going to take him to the vet it's going to be painful?
any ideas would be appreciated.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Hi anonymous friend,

Two thoughts:

1. Take your dog to the vet for cookie visits regularly. Maybe even have the receptionist fawn over him (if he likes people). The ratio of cookie visits to vet visits should be high.

2. I have two friends who have taught their dogs awesome things like voluntary blood draws and stand still for injections. One of them has a video tutorial, and she is going to write a guest post to accompany it. You can look for it... whenever she sends it to me. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much crystal for your response : ) I'm doing the regular cookie visits at the moment and i've decide to just take as long as it takes. I feel a bit daft sometimes havign to go so slow, the vet laughs at me in a good humoured way! I just think forcing it would back fire so i'm just going to have to stay with it. I'd love to see that tutorial, Thank you again, I'll post back and let you know how it goes if you like x

Unknown said...

My boy dozes off as I trim his nails. This is the result of developing a foundation of trust between us in all our interactions; lots of praise when he least expects it; lots of love and care and the use of Positive Reinforcements during nail clipping. He will do anything I ask of him at any time. A joy to live with and very precious to us. He came from 'the Bronx' into our care and we feel so lucky to have him in our lives.