Home > Dispatches > Daily Dispatches 2014 >Daily Dispatch #258

September 28, 2014: Animal Behavior, 101

I’m now thinking that the study of animal behavior is foundational knowledge. All horse people need to learn as much as they can about this if they expect in any sense of the word to be able to communicate with their animals. Many veterinarians often sidestep this premise by relying heavily on the use of the rasp – and farriers the same, by relying on the use of the rasp.

With the above in mind, I’ve spent the past few years actively seeking out any and all books and articles on the subject of equine and canine behavior. More has been written about dogs than horses because people tend to interact more with the former than the latter.

Giving the horses their morning oats

I recently found an article in the August, 1990 issue of the Dressage and CT (that’s combined training) magazine. It’s entitled “The Psychology of Training” and is by Kathleen Lockhart. It’s a part of a series – I hope to soon locate her other articles. She notes early on that the objective of the series is for readers to “apply the principles of learning to further the gymnastic development of the horse,” for “only when you know the characteristics of the behavior you are dealing with can you know which principle applies and how to use it.”

According to Lockhart, key to this is language of description, which facilitates analyzing the causes of observed behavior. This, she stresses, “is essential because training horses means changing their behavior, and training their behavior requires an understanding of what led to it.”

She also notes that when describing behavior, one should try and talk about it in terms of its precise form (topography) its frequency of occurrence (rate) duration, intensity, and latency. Antecedents and consequences are equally important terms.

Behavior is any observable movement of an organism, or data externally verifiable by an outside observer. Behavior occurs in time, so it can be described in terms of its rate (or frequency) of occurrence. Rate simply expresses the direct relationship between the number and time, so to figure a rate you count the number of events and divide by the amount of time observed. If, says Lockhart, you don’t measure the rate of behavior, you won’t be able to tell if you’re making progress in your attempts to change it because change is slow.

Latency refers to the immediacy with which a behavior occurs after it’s been asked for by the behavior/handler.

Intensity refers not to what the behavior looks like, but to the energy or enthusiasm to which it is performed.

Topography is the form of the response, or what the behavior looks like. This is critical in describing behavior you are considering changing because training often involves a change in topography.

Antecedents are events that occurred immediately before the behavior took place, and consequences are the events that that took place after. In describing antecedents, Lockhart notes that events prior to the animal’s activity, be they planned or unplanned, should be considered because they are what prompt the given behavior. Furthermore, what occurs immediately after a behavior is the most important consequence. For example, a horse bucks – the rider comes off. Rider beats the horse. The programmed consequences may occur too late to have much impact. The bucking – this got the desired response – off went the rider. So the punishment was (at least in the horses’ mind) of little consequence.

This is all a lot for me to think about. In thinking about key terms in relation to my horses’ behaviors, I change how I interact with them. I am going to have to reread this article several times, and also consider these terms in relation to specific behaviors on the part of all my animals. For me, animal behavior is where the rubber hits the road, or where the hoof hits the ground.

Next: 259. 9/29/14: The Writing Life