Don’t chase my chickens!

What do you think of this video? (click to play)

It shows a dog learning not to chase chickens.

The procedure that is applied to achieve this is called desensitisation and counter conditioning (DS/CC). What a mouthful! In human psychology it’s usually called gradual exposure and relaxation therapy.

Desensitisation = to make less sensitive; to reduce anxiety, fear or frustration. Done by altering the distance from the trigger (chickens in this example), the duration of the trigger (how long does it last?) or the level of distraction that the trigger presents.

Counter conditioning = to change the dog’s learned response from one thing (chase chooks) to something else (stay calm and relaxed and respond to cues from owner). Done by providing something biologically important such as food (treats), a nice neck scratch, or a play session with toys.

DS/CC utilises the neural (or synaptic) plasticity of the dog’s brain (means that when brain cells have developed into set “pathways”, these pathways can be weakened/”undone”, and new pathways can be developed.)

In this video example the aim is to weaken the brain pathway where the dog has learned to chase small things with feathers and two legs, and to strengthen a new pathway which is “be calm, attend to Dad and ignore the chickens”.

When we talk about changing the strength of the brain pathways we use the analogy of changing the deep tractor tyre tracks of the unwanted behaviour into thin little sheep tracks.

Eventually we want the tractor tyres tracks to wither away to nothing at all, so the unwanted behaviour has become a thing of the past.

And to develop the new behaviour that we do want, we need to start new little sheep track neural pathways that will grow into new deep “tyre tracks in the brain” that result in calm, relaxed, attentive behaviour.

In DS/CC we are usually trying to change a negative emotional response from fearful, anxious, frustrated, sometimes even grief, to a positive emotional response of relaxation, pleasure or play.

It’s often used to treat unwanted behaviours that have elements of aggression, frustration, fear or phobia.

In this video example the owner is trying to change a natural, evolutionary behaviour of chasing chickens.

The positive emotions involved are excitement and play. There is also frustration at times when the dog is prevented from getting at the chickens when she wants to.

All these emotions need to change to greater relaxation, over-riding the desire to have fun chasing the chickens.

Relaxation helps the dog to listen to the owner and respond to any cues.

Cue = a request for a behaviour; the owner asks the dog to do something using a consistent word that the dog has learned.

When the dog feels relaxed, she can’t at the same time be wanting to excitedly chase chickens.

DS/CC is a tricky process to get right, it needs you to tune in to your dog’s body language and read their emotional state.

You need to know when to ask for a bit more (“can you sit near the chickens for 2 seconds more?) and when to back off (give treats and move further away.)

Every dog is different and every dog needs a different DS/CC programme based on its individual behaviour.

If you have a dog that chases people, cyclists, cars, cats, chickens, horses and you want to change that, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change excited chase to calm and responsive to you.

If you have a dog that barks at the door or jumps up at visitors, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change excitement to calm and responsive to you.

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change emotional loss and distress to calm relaxation.

If you have a dog that guards food, socks or their place on the sofa you’ll need to use DS/CC – change fear of loss to calm relaxation.

If you have a dog that has a phobia of car travel you’ll have to use DS/CC – change fear to relaxation.

If you have a dog that behaves aggressively to other dogs or people you’ll have to use DS/CC – change fear to calm relaxation and responsive to you.

Get in touch if you would like to find out more about desensitisation and counter conditioning! At


New Anthrozoology Podcast

Please enjoy our first anthrozoology podcast! Horses and dogs included!

We discussed the concept of nonhuman and human animals being “feral”: What does it mean to us when nonhuman animals “are feral”? What might it mean for the nonhuman animals? How does this relate to our research? How does legislation use the term “feral” and why might that be so?

Please subscribe to get notified about our next podcast!

Listen on Spotify:

Listen to this podcast on SoundCloud:

Watch on YouTube:

Meet the team:
Rebecca Madrid
Tiamat Warda – and
Kristine Hill – and
Molly Sumridge
Michelle Szydlowski
Debbie Busby
Sarah Heaney

Books and articles mentioned in the podcast:
– Samantha Hurn – ” Humans and Other Animals: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Interactions”:
– David Philipps – “Wild Horse Country”:
– “The Ought-Ecology of Ferals: An Emerging Dialogue in Invasion Biology and Animal Studies”:
– Kendra Coulter – for example:
– Fiona Macdonald:
– Crowley, et al:
– “Feral future: The untold story of Australia’s exotic invaders”:,+T.+1999.+Feral+future:+The+untold+story+of+Australia%E2%80%99s+exotic+invaders+.+Chicago,+IL:+University+of+Chicago+Press.&ots=knFP01EAnL&sig=WdP7UCiIWKPzHnBeEHJBGPLhKf4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
– Articles on “feral cities”: and
– “Where the wild things are now”:
– “What’s in a Name? Perceptions of Stray and Feral Cat Welfare and Control in Aotearoa, New Zealand”:
– Arluke “Loving them to death”:
– John Ssebunya’s story:
– The pachyderm debate:
– “A walk on the wild side: a critical geography of domestication”:
– Carol Adams:

Feeling desperate about your horse or dog’s bad behaviour?


Too afraid or embarrassed to leave the house with your dog? Can’t even leave the yard, or enjoy a good schooling session with your horse?

Why you need a behaviour practitioner who is regulated by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council, if your horse or dog is playing up.

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The ABTC is the industry regulator supported by government for animal training and behaviour.

Click here to read more about the Animal Behaviour and Training Council

A significant proportion of my caseload is clients who sought help for complex behaviour problems from unqualified and unregistered practitioners. The animal’s behaviour went from bad to worse, and then the problem is always more complicated to resolve because of incorrect advice given, or a failure to recognise all the many ethological, biological and psychological factors at play in the development of the unwanted behaviour. Ethological factors are all those underlying elements of how an animal behaves based on the fact that it is a completely different species to us; non-Homo sapiens.

For example, horses experience stress and anxiety because we typically keep them in stables, at least for part of the day. Most people know that more turnout is a good thing for horses, but unless you have studied animal behaviour beyond undergraduate level, and gained practical experience by applying that knowledge to a wide range of behaviour cases, you won’t know precisely how that stress or anxiety affects an individual horse and how that is expressed in his or her behaviour, because you won’t be able to tease apart all the many strands that are influencing that animal’s behaviour. And to understand how to resolve a behaviour problem, you need to understand the cause of the problem.

To give a canine example, how many people know that one of those “influencing strands” in aggressive dog behaviour is motivated by fear? Fear is an emotion, there can be a trauma element involved, this requires a knowledgeable and experienced therapeutic approach. A few training sessions teaching the dog to look at you won’t cut it, and the rattle cans, sprays and e-collars advocated by many unregulated practitioners will show up as a worsening behaviour problem. Next stop, the rescue shelter, or worse. After these misguided experiences I have to help distressed owners to rehabilitate petrified and extremely aggressive, anti-social dogs. Their owners are often too afraid or ashamed to take them out of the house.

Treating a behaviour problem requires detailed analysis and diagnosis, and this is learned by education and experience. Just as we compare vets to doctors, but with clients who can’t tell them where it hurts, a clinical behaviourist is the equivalent of a clinical psychologist, but with animal clients who can’t tell us what’s up. And yet we find out what’s up, and resolve it, because of our extensive training and supervised, assessed experience. As one of my clients told me. “you’re like a doctor, but for animals.”

So if you’ve read this far, thank you🙂 and if you are troubled by any problem behaviour that your dog or your horse is showing, and you’d like to resolve it, send me an email to, or schedule a chat with me using this link: a nice cup of tea and a sit down

I’m an ABTC registered clinical behaviourist and I’ll be happy to help.

Can you spot a stressed horse?

Last December I and my colleagues published a paper describing one of our research studies, in the peer-reviewed journal Animals.  As the Equine Behaviour and Training Association (EBTA) we investigated how horse owners, riders and trainers recognise signs of equine stress.

We found that equestrians often fail to recognise the behavioural signs that horses display when they experience pain and fear. Consequently, the distress remains unresolved, reducing the horse’s welfare and having potential safety implications for the handler.

Negative affect is characterised by feelings of psychological distress, such as nervousness, anxiety and fear.

We asked a number of equine behaviour experts to assess videos showing various types of horse riding and training and to comment on the affective states of the horses in the videos. Then we asked members of the horse-owning or horse-riding public to view the videos and answer a set of questions.

Our respondents successfully recognised behaviour consistent with negative affect in some instances; however videos featuring natural horsemanship and bridle-less riding were often wrongly interpreted to be positive experiences for the horses.

Despite recognising behaviours indicative of distress in some videos, a minority of respondents nevertheless said they would have been happy for their own horse to be treated in a similar way to the distressed horse, even when they themselves felt that that the horse in the video was undergoing a negative, stressful experience.

Participant age and experience had little effect on the results; however responses by people who had selected “clicker training” as their preferred equestrian activity were more closely aligned with those of the equine behaviourist experts, suggesting that clicker trainers might be more accurate in their recognition of equine distress than other members of the equestrian community.

Our hope is that this study will be useful in informing outreach activity for education and welfare organisations, through improved recognition, and subsequent reduction, of equine distress.

You can read an article about the study in the online magazine Horses and People, in the link below.  It includes a link to the full article in the Animals journal.
Horses and People article

The Equine Behaviour and Training Association is UK based and operates internationally.  It aims to:
Improve the knowledge and understanding of the physical and psychological well-being of equines
Promote awareness of human behaviour and its impact on equine behaviour
Bridge the gap between academic research and practical application
Protect equine welfare whilst maintaining safety and achieving goals

EBTA members include clinical equine behaviourists, behaviour analysts, horse owners and academics who have made a commitment to understanding equine behaviour and working with horses according to the principles of behavioural science and equine welfare science. We acknowledge our responsibility to the horse as a domestic species taken out of their natural environment and required to cope with a variety of ridden and management demands.

EBTA provides support to anyone wanting to learn more about equine behaviour, we conduct research projects in areas where we feel there is insufficient overlap between academia and the “typical horse-owner” and we liaise with media organisations in order to help improve communication about equine behaviour.

The EBTA website is free to use and includes a large database of information about equine behaviour, from introductory to professional level. New material is added regularly and you can receive updates via our newsletter or Facebook page.


Announcing two new horse training courses from Dr Helen Spence

Is this you?

🐴You want to train your horse in a kind, effective way.

🐴You have tried using “traditional” methods, natural horsemanship and/or clicker training but you and your horse have ended up confused and frustrated, sometimes just downright cross with each other!

🐴You have tried working with trainers who teach your chosen method and things seemed to go ok for a while but then.. back to the cross place!

Infuriating isn’t it!

So now here’s something that will work for you. Psychology PhD, registered behaviourist and super experienced horse trainer Helen Spence has put her training online!

Helen trains happy hackers, competition riders, BHS students, university undergraduates and postgraduates, and veterinary students in horse training and behaviour.

She has a thorough background in both the science and the application of training horses, and knows how to teach you to apply that knowledge and skills to your own horse, and to you yourself, as individuals.

Helen’s courses are amazing value, get them now by clicking on the link below.

Helen Spence Horse Training Courses

Are you a veterinary, behaviour or training practitioner looking for mentoring or supervision?


I offer mentoring for undergraduates, postgraduates, trainee behaviourists and those starting out as animal behaviourists.

I am fully qualified, insured and registered at the highest level with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council as a Clinical Animal Behaviourist, with 15 years experience as a behavioural practitioner running my own successful consultancy business.

I enjoy mentoring anybody who is new to behaviour practice and who seeks to develop their professional expertise, including provisional APBC members and anyone looking to become a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB)behaviourists.  I take pride in having mentored a number of new behaviourists who are now achieving success in their own practices.

I can mentor you one to one within two hours’ travelling of Manchester, UK, and online via Skype, Zoom or phone.

If you are looking for a mentoring placement with an experienced and fully qualified clinical behaviourist, please email me to discuss your requirements at

Clinical Supervision

I offer clinical supervision and consultancy to organisations and professionals working in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behaviour consultancy, and animal training.

I am fully qualified, insured and registered at the highest level with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council as a Clinical Animal Behaviourist and I practice as a psychotherapist under membership of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.  I have provided clinical supervision and consultancy in a wide variety of animal practitioner environments, including trauma specialists, animal behaviour organisations, established clinical behaviourists and professional horse and dog trainers.

I can supervise you one to one, or as a small group, within two hours’ travelling of Manchester, UK, and online via Skype, Zoom or phone.

If you are looking for clinical supervision or consultancy, please email me to discuss your requirements at

New book: The Horse: A natural history

the horse book2

I’m proud, delighted and very pleased with my new recently published book, co-authored with Catrin Rutland, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Developmental Genetics at Nottingham Trent University.

An evolutionary, anatomical, behavioural and anthrozoological overview aimed at equine professionals, enthusiastic amateurs and undergraduates, it’s an easily-readable and accessible book that has been academically peer reviewed by Princeton University. Published by QuartoKnows/Ivy Press, “Ivy Press specialises in producing books that take innovative approaches to the subjects that you want to read about. The books are written by experts in their fields and designed to the very highest standards. Ivy Press produces titles that will inspire you…. books that will inform you, books that will expand your mind, and books that will stimulate you, however much you already know. Its bestselling non-fiction list includes titles on natural history, general reference, popular science….”.

“The Horse: A Natural History looks not only at the horse in the human context, but also at its own story, and at the way horses live and have lived both alongside people and independently. An initial chapter on Evolution & Development takes the reader from the tiny prehistoric Eohippus to modern-day Equus. Subsequent chapters on Anatomy & Biology and Society & Behavior offer a succinct explanation of equine anatomy, and outline the current thinking on horse behavior, incorporating information taken from the most recent research. Chapter 4, Horses & People, studies the part the horse has played in human history. Finally, a visually stunning gallery of breeds offers wonderful photographs alongside individual breed profiles. This is an essential addition to every horse enthusiast’s library.”

Amazon link here:

Training – is it a choice?

Horse – health care treatment video

Some of you will know I’m not a fan of some of the purportedly “animal has choice” videos that are out there in the worlds of horse and dog training and management. I see many where the animal is being asked to do something frivolous, not beneficial to its wellbeing, and is clearly at/over threshold, aroused and/or finding the situation unpleasant, but stays around for the treats because they are so salient as species-specific biologically relevant stimuli.

Recently I watched a video (not the one linked here) where a horse being clipped stood like a little tin soldier whilst being “clicked and treated” (rewarded with food after the click of the marker signal); however an examination of the subtle signs of sympathetic arousal were indicators that the horse was in a negative emotional state, just as if he had been cross-tied to be clipped.

It’s ethically questionable to use a sufficiently salient positive stimulus operantly to coerce an animal into putting up with an aversive experience. The article linked below discusses this further with reference to humans. However, it is culturally normative for us to restrict other species both spatially and in terms of the opportunities we allow for the expression of behaviours on their natural ethogram. It comes to pass, therefore, that we need to engage in caregiving activities to maintain good physical and psychological health.

This video, link above, by horse trainer Melanie Watson is an example of good health care practice within a management and training paradigm that focuses on positive reinforcement and positive affect. The horse, Magic, is physically unrestrained and as Melanie observes, is sometimes at threshold because he does not find the washing a pleasant experience. His biological systems combine to express this externally by lifting his hind leg or swishing his tail. These are the early stage expressions of negative emotional state that have the potential to escalate into walking away (if free to do so) or fidgeting/biting/kicking (if physically restrained).

Something that Melanie has done, however, which wasn’t present in the other video I saw, is to have previously classically conditioned in her horse a positive emotional response to standing on the mat. This will have been achieved by many many repetitions in many different environmental contexts. This is what keeps Magic in place despite not loving the treatment he is receiving. The combination of the strong positive classical conditioning to the mat (think child + teddy at the dentist), plus the conditioned stimulus of the clicker and food rewards, and the psychological effects of selective attention, are sufficient for Magic to allow Melanie to continue washing him, yet he is still free to express any behavioural signs that he has reached a threshold where Melanie knows she may have to change what she’s doing, or give him a break. Their long interspecies relationship over time is part of this effect too.

I have also seen this method used by a colleague to trim the feet of an unhandleable pony, again using a previously classically conditioned “comfort” stimulus to elicit positive emotions.

Caregiver responses to equine emotions

horse-head-2775082_1920 (1)

This study (link below) reflects an important stage in human behaviour change. Participants reported beliefs that horses have complex emotions including fear, pain and joy; however they also reported that they act towards their horses in ways that will cause psychologically negative emotions, despite stating that they wanted their horses to have a good life and avoid negative feelings. For example some of them knew that keeping a horse in social isolation or causing fear would lead to negative emotions, but they accepted this as part of domestic equine life.
“Some management practices that may cause negative emotions to horses are so common in the equestrian environment that people do not perceive them as causes of affective, emotional, or welfare problems for horses.”
What this says is that captive, managed horses are being kept in ways that represent poor emotional and physical welfare as a matter of course. To have this recognised from a scientifically evidential perspective adds weight to the transition towards a new paradigm in equine management. On the Transtheoretical model of behaviour change (five stages of change) this is an early stage, inviting and initiating contemplation which may lead to greater recognition of, and motivation to provide, the constituents of equine wellbeing.