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.