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Playing with your Pet

I was introduced to Barnga at a communication seminar many years ago. Just as planned, it became frustrating. The game is built on a card game played at multiple tables in groups of four. However, each table has a different set of rules. The lowest scoring person at each table has to move to the next table at the end of each round. With the exception of the first round, there is no talking. The longer we played, the more confusing it became. Some of us thought it was funny and just things develop, others became hostile in their body language. The purpose was to force participants to consider different perceptions and different rules for what seemed to be the same task. Have you ever considered that your pets go through the same thing with you?

Just because you intend to play doesn’t mean your pet will perceive your actions as a game. Grabbing a dog’s face and going nose to nose may not be play for the dog. However, because of communication problems he may not be able to tell you. Just because he tolerates it, doesn’t mean he enjoys it. Shaking a plastic bag at your horse because you like to see her run isn’t play for the horse. Animals have different social rules than humans do and they try to figure ours out when interacting with us. We should offer  them the same courtesy. A few simple rules for playing with your pet will allow it to be a full partner in games, which includes the option to play, or not.

Consider the following:
— Either side can begin the game, pet or person.
— Just because one side wants to play, the other is not required to engage.
— When one side backs off, the game is over.
— Teeth (or beak) on skin game over.
— Don’t let either side get so aroused it will have a hard time stopping.
— Avoid the genital region of your pet.
— Play for awhile. Stop and calm down. Play. Stop.
— Always try to end on a positive note.

As long the rules are enforced, both sides should be able to enjoy the game.

“Emotional bids” by Kathy Sdao and Alexandra Kurland

So what have I been learning about training [while the barn and arena are under construction]?  Well, primarily that clicker trained horses are fun to hang out with.  When I haven’t been working on the barn, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing with the horses.  I like the freedom this barn gives me to spend my day in their company.  

I just finished reading a review copy of Kathy Sdao’s new book: Plenty in Life is Free.  Kathy is a marine mammal trainer turned professional dog trainer.  She’s also been a member of the Clicker Expo faculty since its inception.  Her book examines one of the common training strategies employed by many dog handlers.  It’s called: “nothing in life is free”, meaning that the dog must earn every reinforcer.  Every bit of food it eats, every toy it’s given, even every affectionate interaction must be earned by first responding to a cued behavior. This is intended to create control and good manners and to prevent aggression.  It’s a training regimen that Kathy herself recommended to her dog clients – until she began to understand how much this total control undermined the relationship she wanted to have with her dogs.  

In Plenty in Life is Free she cites the work done by John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington.  Dr. Gottman studied the subtle interactions within married couples.  He devised a technique which enabled him to predict with alarming accuracy which couples over the following three years would remain married and which would divorce.  One of the elements Gottman examined were what he called emotional bids.  An emotional bid is a look, a touch, or  – in humans – a comment whose underlying meaning is “I want to be connected to you.”  In response to an emotional bid, a partner can turn toward, away or against it.  

I’ll share this passage from Kathy’s book in which she is citing from an article written about Gottman’s work:

“For example, research from his apartment lab showed that husbands who eventually were divorced ignored the bids from their wives 82 percent of the time compared to 19 percent for men in stable marriages. Women who later divorced ignored their husband’s bids 50 percent of the time while those who remained married disregarded only 14 percent of their husband’s bids…. The system of bids and turns and emotional command systems works broadly across all kinds of relationships, not only marriage, according to Gottman. And opportunities for making and responding to bids abound. A typical happy couple may make 100 bids over the course of the dinner hour…. “A relationship is about these small moments, these bids and responses. It is the way intimacy and trust are built.” [Joel Schwarz; ]”

Kathy adds to this:

“People in relationships repeatedly make emotional bids to one another—for affection, attention, assistance and information. For example,a wife, trying to get her husband’s attention for a conversation, may say, “Hey, did you hear about the new restaurant that just opened?” If her husband keeps typing on his laptop, ignoring her, he’s turning away her bid for attention. If he says, “Can’t you see I’m busy?” he’s turning against her bid. If he replies, “Oh really?” and lifts his eyes from the computer, he’s turning toward her.”

I’ve been thinking about this passage as I do the morning chores.  If we had a video camera running, how many emotional bids would my horses offer me?  How many would I respond to? How many would I ignore?  How many would I turn against?  Absent the recording camera, here’s what I think you’d find.  First, my clicker-trained horses offer a very high number of emotional bids, substantially more than would be typical of other horses.  This is not because my horses are needier than other horses, but because I have taught them behaviors which can be safely used around humans and which have over the years been highly reinforced.  My horses have safe, effective, people-acceptable ways of asking for attention. The result: they feel comfortable making these bids. 

The second thing I think you’d find is that a very high percentage of these bids are accepted.  I’m busy.  I’ve got chores to do: water buckets to fill, bedding to clean.  I’m room service.  I’m not there solely to entertain my horses, but I still weave into the process of tidying up the arena frequent clicks and treats for an offered pose, for “that look” that I just can’t resist from Peregrine, for a leg flexion, or a pretty trot.  I like thinking of these offered behaviors as emotional bids.  And I like thinking that accepting these bids becomes the glue that binds us even more tightly together.  These aren’t nuisance behaviors, or worse nuisance horses.  This is the stuff that strengthens our relationship.  

Responding positively to these offered behaviors has had a profound impact not just on the relationship that I have with each of my horses, but it is also contributing to a shift in the relationship between Robin and Peregrine.  Moving to the new indoor was incredibly stressful for Peregrine.  He’s a homebody.  He doesn’t take easily to change.  The boarding stable didn’t really meet our needs, but for him it was home.  When I uprooted him and brought him to the indoor, he fell apart emotionally. Robin became his security blanket.  Peregrine had to have him close by.  More than that, if Robin was out in the arena, Peregrine needed to be, as well.  Otherwise he’d pace frantic circles in his stall.  It didn’t matter that the stall was in the arena, and he could see Robin just a few feet away.  He had to be out with him.  

That was fine.  Robin and Peregrine have long been turnout partners so it was safe to put them together in the arena.  But now here’s the interesting part.  If we had recorded the emotional bids between Robin and Peregrine, we would have predicted they were heading for a divorce.  If Robin wasn’t ignoring Peregrine, he was actively moving him away from whatever resource Robin wanted.  

I would spread the hay out so both horses would have access – or so I thought.  It was quite astounding how large a space Robin could take up and how effectively he could position himself so there was no sharing.  Peregrine was down in weight and needed his extra hay, but Robin was taking the lion’s share and then some all for himself.

That was at the start of the summer.  As they both settled into their new home, they asked for more attention from me. They offered emotional bids, and I responded, taking care always to make sure Robin was not excluding Peregrine from the exchanges.  Robin got attention and treats when he shared, not when he pushed Peregrine away.  The change wasn’t sudden, but I began to see a shift in their relationship.  It began with Robin not just tolerating Peregrine as his shadow, but he seemed to be enjoying the companionship.  That was the slippery slope.  Next came the occasional social grooming session, and then – that greatest of all miracles – the sharing nose to nose of a flake of hay.  

Did my sharing interactions with the two of them influence this shift?  Would they have come to this agreement on their own without any interference from me?   Who knows.  It wasn’t a controlled experiment in social exchanges, but it has been interesting to watch their relationship evolve as they settle into their new environment.  

I like the idea of emotional bids.  Each of the horses has a slightly different repertoire of behaviors that they use to solicit attention.  Robin poses or trots next to me.  One of our Icelandics backs up and chortles.  Peregrine poses or does leg flexions.  It doesn’t really matter what the behavior is. These are behaviors I have shaped and which the horses offer freely.  I’ve called them default behaviors, meaning that in the absence of any other active cues, I become the cue for these behaviors.  If my horses want to engage with me, they can offer one of their default behaviors and the likelihood is I’ll respond with a click and a treat.  So if anything is under stimulus control, it is more my behavior rather than the horses.  If they are busy elsewhere, if they are eating, or napping, or they just don’t feel like engaging with me, they don’t have to.  But the probability is very high that if they do offer one of these behaviors, I’ll respond.  My hands may be full.  I might be bringing in water or pushing a wheel barrow, but I’ll click, set down whatever I’m carrying and offer them a treat.  And if I can’t stop at that moment, I do always respond with a word, a smile, or some gesture that says I see you.  They may not always get a click and a treat, but their emotional bids are at least acknowledged.

I’m sure this must sound very tedious to some people – all this stopping to pass out treats.  Ridiculous!  A well-trained horse shouldn’t need all this attention!

It definitely takes me longer to get through the chores than it would if they were all ignoring me, but then the chores might become just that – a chore.  Instead these exchanges are emotionally very satisfying.  Gottman calls them emotional bids.  The horses offer, I accept.  I like thinking of them in this way.  But instead of emotional bids, I think I prefer to think of them as emotional connectors.  Each time I accept one of their offers I tie us more closely together.  And when I ignore them, or worse yet, turn my back on them and walk away, I break one of those strands.  The connections between us are strong.  We can lose a few threads now and then without doing any lasting harm. But if I were to do this on a regular basis, if I were to get in a hurry, if I made the priority getting the chores done fast rather than letting them be the excuse for all these exchanges, we would begin to feel the strain.  My horses don’t need to worry, though.  These exchanges are wonderfully reinforcing for me.  My horses have me under good stimulus control, and that’s something I don’t want to change!  When we finally do move into the new barn, we’ll go right on exchanging our emotional bids.  They’ll offer, and I’ll accept, and the morning chores will be remain a source of pleasure for all of us.

Alexandra Kurland

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