- Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC
Case Study: Frodo the Fearful Mini Mule Update
If you haven't been following the story of the Hobbit Equids, three pint-sized charmers named Samwise, Frodo, and Bilbo Baggins, mysteriously showed up at Lynda's house one February morning. No owners came forward, and while they are being fostered by my client and friend Lynda, they are in the legal custody of Langley Animal Protection Society (LAPS). Lynda sent me a video update from April 20, 2020, to show me where she and Frodo are at with their training. Lynda has been doing an excellent job following my recommendations - almost entirely by distance as we are currently in Covid-19 lockdown.
As can be seen in the 'Before' section of the YouTube video at the bottom of this post, Frodo was not entirely comfortable with being touched by people. While Lynda is able to touch in front of his withers, if she slides her hand further back Frodo attempts to leave.
My work with clients often happens in several stages. For the initial stage, I created a behaviour modification plan for Lynda and Frodo that used systematic desensitization to address Frodo's discomfort with touch. I was able to demonstrate in-person how this plan would be implemented early on, and Lynda and I also worked together remotely for follow-ups. Systematic desensitization is a technique used to gradually expose an animal to something they fear or dislike, in small enough 'doses' that escape or avoidance behaviours are not triggered. Initially, Lynda worked with Frodo when he was haltered and she was holding the leadrope, maintaining slack at all times on the rope. Lynda began gently touching Frodo in areas he was comfortable with, progressively extending towards more challenging areas as Frodo gained confidence.
During this initial stage, Lynda had been honing her skills of observation and further developing her ability to read Frodo's body language. While the training sessions were completed with a halter and leadrope, Lynda always avoided touching Frodo when he wasn't comfortable, and Lynda never caused Frodo to feel the need to escape. To do so could have resulted in 'flooding' - a condition where an animal is exposed to something they fear at full intensity, in an attempt to help them overcome their fear. Flooding is not recommended by animal behaviour professionals, for several reasons: it causes animals to experience high levels of fear and distress; it can result in the animal freezing in fear, which can be misinterpreted by the trainer as acceptance of the fear-inducing stressor; its use increases the likelihood of the animal or trainer being injured; it can greatly worsen existing fear, or create new behaviour problems. Its use is also unnecessary to successfully resolve behaviour problems. Lynda and Frodo had been making wonderful progress working in this manner, and I felt they were ready for a greater level of challenge. It is critical when working with clients to remember that not only is each horse, donkey or mini mule a 'study of one', so are their people. Behaviour change is a process, not an event, and all parties need to be considered when creating a behaviour modification plan. To this end, the next level of challenge for Lynda and Frodo was to remove the halter and leadrope, and work on touch acceptance with Frodo loose. Lynda learned how to implement a 'Five-second rule' approach for touching Frodo, initially starting with less time, and building duration. Using positive reinforcement, Lynda also began teaching Frodo that any behaviours he showed that indicated a 'More, please' type of communication about touch or scratching would result in exactly what he wanted - more touch or scratching! As you can see in the 'Update' portion of the clip, Lynda has done a wonderful job with this next stage in their behaviour modification plan: Frodo is not only very happy to be touched while loose, he and Lynda have also created a mutually understood 'More, please' communication behaviour. This behaviour empowers Frodo to request or give consent to being touched, and it allows Lynda a way to gauge if and when her charges want to experience physical attention. The goals of behaviour modification work with animals should always be threefold:
to minimize the frequency and intensity of behaviours which may be problematic for animals and their people
to improve the welfare of the animal, and maximize their ability to live a quality life
to enhance the bond between the animal and their people
I look forward to continuing to work with Lynda and the Hobbit Equids, and can't wait to once again visit with them in person.