Kayak, my horse, is four years old. In dog terms that means that she is an uneducated older adolescent; she had great early socialization and lots of good handling and vet experiences, and she wasn’t permitted to develop bad habits, but really she doesn’t know much. Kind of like Widget and Friday, the service dog candidates who are growing up with us. They can sit, lie down, come when called, and for most part not drag me through hell and back when we walk on leash. I am familiar with their sorts of dogs; I have handled dozens of them over the years. When Widget jumps up on a stranger, I am not even annoyed; it is a recognizable error and I take steps to avoid it or decrease it. When Friday scavengers a piece of bread dropped in a restaurant, I would prefer she hadn’t done it, but it is JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR. Yup. That is right. It’s just another behaviour just like sit, down, stand, come when called, pick up my socks and bring them to me, open the door, close the door, load the dishwasher (that is a behaviour that I encourage in my DH, not one I hope for in my service dog candidates!).
When it comes to Kayak, I am a beginner on a big learning curve. I am learning about horse behaviour. I am learning to read when they are annoyed with one another. I am learning about how to ride in a more balanced way. I am learning about a whole lot of things. And Kayak does stuff that I don’t always recognize. For instance, I would like to teach her to canter. Actually, I should rephrase that, she knows perfectly well and has since she was about four hours old, how to canter. I would like her to learn to canter when I want her to canter, on the correct lead, when I ask her to do so, and to stop when I ask her to do so. Unforetunately, I am a novice horse trainer. I am however a very experienced operant conditioning trainer and I recognize that when she doesn’t do what I want her to do, and does something else, it is JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR.
What does Kayak do that I don’t like? Well, to start with, she and I had to come to an agreement about what lunging was. What I meant by lunging was to move around in a smooth circle around me, with me in the centre of the circle holding a line attached to her halter. What she meant was wander around, graze some of the time, stop dead and snort and once, she meant to bolt and run around the farm while I stood in my winter field boots and mockpurs and called out to anyone listening “horse loose, horse loose!” She ran to my DH and his horse and stayed very nicely by them while I made my way over to retake her line. And start again. Because bolting is JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR.
Once we came to an agreement about walking and trotting on the lunge line, we began to work on the canter. For awhile, Kayak thought that this new gait was called “trot really, really fast”. No click there. And no clicks means a frustrated horse. So she tried something else. What she tried was bucking. Now, if you have ever lunged a thousand pounds of animal, who thinks that bucking and kicking and snorting is fun, you will realize that watching a horse kick out in mid air (not at me, just out!), at high speed doesn’t feel like JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR. It FEELS really scary. It FEELS like you might die. It FEELS like your universe is out of control and everything is coming to a crashing halt. Really though, bucking and snorting and kicking is JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR. And behaviours change.
I work on a regular basis with dogs with serious behaviour problems. Dogs who bite. Who charge and lunge. Who jump up or who surf the counters and the garbage bins. Dogs who bark incessantly. Dogs who are afraid. Often these dogs are doing things that feel out of control, dangerous or deadly. When my young service dog candidates do something boneheaded, such as grabbing a lady’s purse in the mall (yes, shame of shames, I had a service dog candidate walk by a table with a purse just sitting there and whoops, he picked it up and walked several steps with it before I noticed!), I can recognize that this is JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR. Bucking and kicking doesn’t feel like just another behaviour though, and it is hard to remember what I know from dog training.
Here is what I have learned from my years of dog training. Behaviour is governed by emotions and contingencies and is subject to change. Change the motivation(through classical conditioning, desensitization, counter conditioning, habituation, flooding or by using some medications), and the behaviour itself will change. Reinforce (anything you do that increases the behaviour) alternatives and the undesired behaviour will not surface. Use punishment (anything that decreases the behaviour) and you may never see it again. So, although I do not advocate intentionally allowing a horse to buck and kick, or a dog to bite, it is important to remember, it is JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR, and thus, it is something I can change. And tomorrow, I will go out and change behaviours in the dogs, people and horses I encounter. Its lots more fun when I remember that it is all JUST ANOTHER BEHAVIOUR.