Sextiped Valley column: May the Force(-Free) Be With You!
This weekend, a group of Valley-wide pet professionals are presenting a seminar on No and Low Restraint medical care for pets. The concept of force-free training of animals to willingly accept handling and even minimally invasive medical and grooming procedures comes originally from the zoo world. The need to tranquilize or even anesthetize elephants or tigers to treat a superficial wound or perform routine dental work or foot care is not only wildly impractical, it endangers both the animal and the person administering the chemical restraint.
Karen Pryor, originally a marine mammal trainer, is credited with starting the now-standard reliance on positive reinforcement to teach desired behavior to animals, applying the principle that rewarded (or reinforced) behavior increases. Rewards speed up the actual learning and also make the entire experience joyful for beginning pupils. Opportunities to earn goodies — yay!
Fading the rewards to intermittent is done once the trainer sees that the animal has both learned what the cue (or “command” in the old lingo) means, and also, equally important, does not show any fear or reluctance to comply. For example, once your dog knows what “sit” means, but you can tell from his response that he is hesitant, either because the sitting position is painful (indicating the need for medical assessment) or makes him feel vulnerable (which should make you think about where that comes from and work toward desensitizing that fear.)
Intermittent rewards keep a dog eager, but not dependent on a constant flow of treats. Because the real pleasure in learning comes from access to activities that are delightful in themselves. Learning to sit, lie down, and come are essential to a companion dog’s life in the way that learning to play scales is essential to a beginning piano pupil. Both open up worlds of pleasurable participation in rewarding activities for a lifetime, and teach the value of patience in learning new things.
But what about when an animal is asked to submit to something unpleasant, like an injection or a nail trim? The important new understanding is that agency – having some control — is not only important to animals, but that being asked for, and giving, consent actually lessens the experience of pain and discomfort.
From my decades as a pet groomer, I know that the least restraint possible is best, and that the acknowledgment and responsiveness to resistance is key to getting cooperation from an animal. This doesn’t mean that when your puppy bites at the nail clipper you “give in” — but instead, you proceed with steps that build confidence and trust.
What this seminar does is give professionals information about exactly how to go about getting animals to overcome their fear and give recognizable signals of consent. The more skilled trainers, vets, vet techs and groomers become with these techniques, the sooner every pet parent can employ them with their own pets.
The trend toward force-free handling may have originated in the realm where a two-ton animal’s resistance would be lethal to the handler. But the whole-body, panicked resistance of a 5-pound chihuahua to a nail trim could be lethal to the dog. In the seminar, experts will explain what they call iatrogenic harm, which an animal fighting, as he believes, for his life, does to himself. Joint dislocations, back and neck injuries, even seizures can result. Even if physical harm doesn’t occur, overpowering an animal harms the trust that our relationship with our pets is based on.
So this is real progress, my fellow sextipeds! What I’ve always advocated as “tactful grooming” — the gentle acclimation of young puppies and kittens to the necessary hygienic care through techniques that ask for and reward their acceptance — is being much more widely applied to things like veterinary visits and even minor procedures. As we learn how to read animals’ body language ever more sensitively and accurately, we can apply this knowledge to grant them opportunities to exercise agency and to give consent, with a huge reduction in perceptions of “necessary violence” — and a substantial increase in trust and cooperation.
I’m not going to reach too hard for comparisons to our intra-human trust and cooperation issues (well, maybe I just did.) But isn’t letting go of the need for force or coercion in any inherently unequal relationships something to be profoundly thankful for, this season of giving thanks?
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.
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