Whoops and Mutual Operant Conditioning

I just received a comment from a very insightful and great proofreader that the Animal Management Resources blog that I was so excited about, hasn’t had a post since early 2008.

That little tidbit of information completely explains why I couldn’t connect to their members blog page. Silly me, I just thought my computer was having issues again.

If anyone knows of any such blog or similar resource where there is an inter-species positive reinforcement forum, please let me know.

Until then, I’m finding that many of the resources pertaining to zoo animal handling to be very informative. Especially when its core is based on mutual operant conditioning. Here’s Wikipedia’s description:

Mutual Operant Conditioning is the relationship between an animal owner or trainer that turns to the exclusive benefit of the animal rather than the trainer. Marine biologists have mentioned that they often feel they are the trainees rather than the trainer.

I completely love that the focus is on the benefit of the animal rather than the trainer. This has to be why this type of operant conditioning works so well for medical treatment of zoo animals.

I’m in awe each time I read about zoo animals being trained to voluntarily stand still to have blood drawn. No cross ties, no shanking, no yelling. Just a wild animal offering up it’s body to be poked by a needle.

If these are the things that can be accomplished with wild animals using mutual operant conditioning, I’m really excited to see what can happen with our domestic horses.

I offer my apologies for posting out dated information 😦



8 thoughts on “Whoops and Mutual Operant Conditioning

  1. I had no idea there was a word for that. I do this with every person and every animal I come into contact with as far as possible. I took a vow of non-violence 20 years ago and try to apply it to everything I do (I herd ants out of my kitchen using roadblocks. Sounds ridiculous but it works).

    The point where I have trouble is with my horse. Like all horses, he really could not care if he has an aerobic workout x days a week. He needs it, so it is to his benefit– but it is so that he meets my idea of what a horse should be. His idea of what a horse should be is head down in clover. If you can clear this up for me, it would be great.

    So far I ride him with no spurs, light hands and a long dressage whip in case he gets out of hand (he’s a big stallion). I try to make things as consensual as possible.

    The comment about the marine biologists saying they sometimes feel they are being trained is not far form the truth now. Recently in the new I read that they are so close to humans in intelligence that we may as well consider them humans with flippers. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the posts. Love your blog.

    • Have you read the Language of Miracles by Amelia Kinkade? She writes about how she sends visual pictures to flies to keep them out of her house. I think that in our present understanding of animal communication, we’ve barely scratched the surface. I love that you are a compassionate ant-herder!

      Here’s my thoughts about what horses want to do versus what we want them to do. I think that although they enjoy grazing, what they enjoy more is using the skills, coordination, and their abilities they would use in the wild to acquire food. This is my theory behind why my horses seem to enjoy painting so much, they’re using their skills of grasping with their teeth, manipulating an object, twirling their neck and head, and when combined, all these activities create a marked change, in their environment that they can see on canvas.

      My experiment is to try to find as many ways as possible to enrich their environment by providing opportunities for them to think, reason, decide, act and then be able to experience a change as a result of their actions. I think this is really meaningful to a horse. I venture to say, even more meaningful than munching away aimlessly at a field of green. In the wild, I think it would be very rare for a horse to experience the smorgasbord that our domestic horses experience. This leads me to believe that horses truly enjoy working for their food, after all it’s what they do naturally.

      Also too, I try to keep in mind that horses also enjoy a good run and most likely experience a lovely endorphin rush in the process, whether they are at liberty or under saddle. Even though I may think that I’m making my horses do aerobics, they may enjoy it much more than we can tell.

      I love the notion of thinking of dolphins as humans with flippers. What would happen if we looked at every creature that way….horses are humans with hooves, or dogs are humans with paws, it may make the scientists laugh at us, but no doubt it would make the animals really happy. I try to think of all my animals, not so much as animals, but as beings. That would make me a human-being, my dogs, dog-beings and so on. This notion would make it much easier to encourage consensual treatment between beings if we recognized and honored the beingness we share.

      Thank you so much for your comment and your kind words.

  2. The rewarding behaviors forum is a great community. It is mostly all dog trainers, but many of them seem to have experimented some with other species as well.

    There are quite a few yahoo groups devoted to positive training and clicker training. Some of these have tons of members and very good discussions. However, the dog trainers seem to hang out with the other dog trainers, the horse trainers with the other horse trainers, same for the cat trainers, rat trainers and bird trainers. And the zoo community really seems to isolate themselves from everyone else!


    • Hi Mary,
      I totally loved the link you sent. As always I’m thankful for all your great suggestions and sharing your knowledge here.

      I do respect the notion that a lot of training is species specific, but I also think by peering into one another’s world we’d gain a lot of insight. For instance, I’d like to know why my horses fetch better than my dogs. Most likely is because they’ve been reinforced meaningfully for that behavior, but I still thought fetching was something that was more of an innate behavior in a dog. None of my four dogs show any interest in following an object, let alone bringing it back to me. Now, I’m going to teach my dogs to fetch like I taught my horses and see what happens.

      I think the R+ zoo community could really provide some fresh insight into domestic horse handling. Do you have any suggestions or links for zoo animal/exotic training/handling?



  3. Actually, I also found that website when searching for something like this – about positive training of all animals. And I also found only this one. I based my blog on the same idea. It’s in Polish, but I have some English articles that I translate from other authors and the ebook is also bilingual… and I’m planning to create a separate category for English articles, which could be something like this website that we found πŸ™‚
    I believe that we can learn a lot from different experiences, for example dog trainers have many great ideas about teaching useful behaviours with positive reinforcement, but one thing seems to be much better in horse training – that is, leading. Dog trainers say that to teach a dog not to pull on the leash, tie the leash to your belt and wait until the dog stops pulling, then click. Well, I definetely wouldn’t try this with a horse 8)
    Or there are people who train really rare animals, like goldfish πŸ˜‰ and there is also much to learn from them. Have you heard about someone training a hedgehog, by the way?
    And recently I created a survey on my blog, where I asked readers what people would like to read, and one answer (only one by now…) was that they’d like to read about animal artists, like Romeo and Juliet the painters πŸ˜€

    • Yay! Please keep us posted when you get your English articles. I can’t wait.

      I’ve been told that positive reinforcement methods are same when training a mouse or a killer whale. Now we can add, goldfish and hedgehogs. My daughter’s new kitten is smitten with the sound of the click. Whenever the kitten hears me training my dogs, she comes running to join the fun.

      If your readers would like to know more about Romeo and Juliet, or the concept behind ‘inter-species collaborative action art’ , I’d be happy to write something for you. I’ve also been finding some fabulous videos with some very talented dog painters as well. There’s also a woman who creates mosaic type collages with her cockatiel.

      Not a good idea to tie a lead rope to our belts with a horse attached! Amusing to think about….


      • Okay, I emailed you about it πŸ™‚
        I also tried clicker training with a cat, it was when I wanted to train with a dog πŸ˜‰ the “101 things to do with a box” game, the cat joined us and I was training both, the not very impressive result is here:

      • Thank you! Absolutely amazing video. I find it very impressive in that the very young kitten became so incredibly interactive. That to me is huge. It even appeared the kitten was more enthusiastic than the adorable dog. In the video I could totally see the kitten asking you “Is this right? Do you want me to do this?”

        It’s an almost tangible moment when they start asking questions of us. I love it!

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