Aggressive behavior

So I wrote a response to someone on the tumbler about a horse with no negative experiences doing r+ training who was exhibiting aggressive behavior. My answer was pretty comprehensive and (though I don’t know if it helped them) I thought I’d stick it up on here because it pretty well sums up my thoughts on understanding and addressing aggression.

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When I start working with a horse, my first goal is for them to see me as a human vending machine. Like, I may as well be a robot that pumps out treats. I want them to have that very positive association with my presence.

So in that situation, if a horse is acting aggressively, or doing something that I absolutely do not want, I leave. That’s negative punishment (the negative being the removal of myself as the Source of Fun and Food from their presence). The one time Zeke bit me (which was a freak accident, because I sneezed directly in his face and he was super surprised), I just turned and left. The Source of Fun and Food (me) disappeared because he bit me. For him, me leaving was not a reward for aggressive behavior. He was not acting aggressively to make me leave, so me leaving was not reinforcing him. For him, me leaving was a punishment.

And the golden rule for training is to know what is punishing and what is reinforcing for each individual animal.

So look at this individual horse. I don’t know what horse you’re talking about, but if they are uncomfortable with people, and you leave when they act aggressive, yes, you are probably reinforcing that aggression.*

However, if they are comfortable with people, willingly engage in the r+ training, and yet they are showing aggressive behavior, that tells me one of two things. 1) They are frustrated. This means that you are expecting too much of them, they don’t understand the training, you’re being unclear, your rate of reinforcement is too low, etc. They want the treats, they want to play, but they don’t understand, and so they get angry. This is one reason why r+ training can be dangerous for people who don’t understand how to do it. 2) The horse is actually not comfortable with people, but is engaging in the training despite that because they are food motivated. Here’s a great post at the Eileen and Dogs blog explaining ways that we may be unintentionally flooding our animals. The first example is feeding a scared dog by hand. Yes, this may bring the dog closer ‘But she may see it as being forced to be closer to the human than she is comfortable with in order to eat, in other words to survive. It is slightly possible that the outcome will be that the dog learns that people are not scary after all. But it is completely a gamble. The other possible outcome is that she becomes more sensitized to people and remains as scared, or gets even more scared.’

So, in this situation, you may have an animal which does not want to interact with you and is not comfortable but is engaging because they want food, or you may have an animal which is frustrated by your training. (Or there could be other things I’m not thinking of – if there’s another horse nearby, for example, they could be anxious and resource guarding the food, and acting aggressive because of that. Or, something like their teeth needing to be floated, and it hurts to chew.)

Some quick suggestions that may help, depending on the exact problem

  • Video the training, observe it, get others to observe, and see exactly when the horse is acting aggressive and in what way (can help you improve your own training, reduce frustration)
  • Try giving food in a different way, like tossing it into a bucket, so they don’t have to come right to your hand
  • Upping your rate of reinforcement will almost always help
  • Don’t let the horse escalate to aggressive behavior. Don’t train while they’re acting upset. Before trying to get any behaviors, focus on that very first thing I talked about – become the Source of Fun and Food, and make sure that you are seeing relaxed body language before you try to actually train
  • Keep your training sessions short. Again, don’t give them a chance to get riled up. Do a few nice repetitions, then take off. Definitely don’t keep training if the horse is agitated and you’re confused about how to proceed – this is a recipe for a training session that devolves into chaos, and I know that from unfortunate experience
  • Re-examine the environment and see if there are any other sources of stress you haven’t thought about

Like I said this is all very general because I don’t know about your situation, but hopefully there’s something in here that can help.

*If a horse is aggressive and you leave them alone, yes, you are reinforcing aggressive behavior, but in my opinion, this is not a bad thing. Horses should feel free to exhibit their discomfort. If you try to ignore or suppress this aggression, if you escalate the situation, you will only encourage them to escalate the aggression, which becomes extremely dangerous for both of you. If a horse is acting dangerously, the best thing you can do is to end that scenario. Put the horse away, take yourself out of the situation, mull it over, and find a way to meet the horse at a level where they are comfortable, then gradually work your way up to whatever was upsetting them.

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