Measuring Ethics?

There may only be 4 learning quadrants but there is a great deal of technique and methodology in each quadrant or in combination. We have endless options for how to influence, reinforce or punish behaviors. With so many options, approaches and techniques perfected and advertised by different trainers, how do we determine the ethical value of each? It’s important to remember that ethics are not a clear cut, yes/no, they are measured fluidly based on every aspect of the situation. Including the external environment, the individuality of the learner, the trainer, the speed at which the behavior must be changed, the purpose of the behavior, whether it’s for the animal or human’s benefit, safety, or just for fun. There are so many pieces to consider there is never a clear divide between what is and isn’t ethical.
 
So first, what is our basis for our ethics? What is good or bad ethics?
I try to measure my ethics of animal training based on, “How does this impact the animal’s quality of life?” my aspiration is to always be improving their quality of life. So the ethical value decreases as it takes away from the animal’s QoL, and increases in ethical value as it increases the learner’s QoL. So when I look at a trainer’s techniques or approach to animal training I think of how this is supporting the physical and emotional wellbeing of my animal.

So if we are measuring the ethical value of behavior modification from how it impacts the life of the learner, we need to start at the top – before we even get to the training part. We need to start with the animal’s physical and emotional health, ensuring all their needs are met, medically and nutritionally. Also taking a good hard look at their lifestyle, are they being kept in a species-appropriate way? Given the ability to live and thrive, expressing their natural behaviors.
 
From there if there we need to split the behaviors into 2 categories, behaviors we want to happen more or happen less. Remember horses aren’t doing “good” or “bad” behaviors, they are doing behaviors that “work” or “don’t work” for them. So while we may dislike a behavior, it doesn’t make them “bad”, if they keep happening it’s because it “works” for the horse. So we must start by influencing the environment, arranging the antecedents, to make the choices we like easier than the choices we dislike. For example – the horse is scratching their big bum on the fence, we dislike this as it’s expensive and a lot of work to replace the broken boards. We can arrange some antecedents, like by providing a big brush stand that the horses prefer to scratch on. Providing an appropriate outlet for their behavior. Get creative when thinking up ways to influence the behavior by arranging the environment.
 
But this only works for behaviors the horses are naturally doing on their own. What about behaviors we want them to do in cooperation with us? Behaviors like participating in their care? Engaging in games, sports, or even riding? From here we need to look at actual behavior training approaches. So we need to assess the behaviors based on who and what is this for? In teaching these behaviors are they just for me to have fun? Are they fun for both of us? Something good and healthy for them, but they may not love to do on their own (exercise or mild medical things)? Something they MUST do for their wellbeing, but they don’t want to (medical needs)? Is this for their or our safety? So how important is it that these behaviors happen for them or for me? These questions will help us determine how far is it worth pushing to deal with this particular situation.
 
So from here we are ready to train some behaviors, we go right to our go-to training technique, positive reinforcement! This is our top option for training new behaviors, we start here because it is the “least intrusive, minimally aversive” option for training. When done well it should not be aversive to the learner in any way, it allows them choice and control over their training, and puts something in it for them to want to participate. This is our gentlest training approach. Though extremely effective. With good antecedent arrangement and attention to our timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement, we should be able to easily teach most learners anything they can possibly do using all R+. Though this takes time, consistency, and care to the learner’s emotional state. The few times R+ is not going to be the most effective training tools are in things with extreme constraints (this needs to happen right here, right now, regardless of how you feel about it). But when are those times really? In reality this should be reserved for medical emergencies and safety issues we weren’t prepared for.
 
In these times we are presented with a “right here, right now” situation, we do have a few R+ options to utilize, including my common go-to “Face Stuffing method” where they are distracted and focused on the food being stuffed in their face that they don’t seem to notice the vet in the background. This sure isn’t good training, but it works in an emergency. But if these options don’t work to get the job done we may need to resort to increasingly less gentle restraints, sedation, R-, or straight up force. But we need to remember that these situations are for extremes, not for everyday. If this is how your animal is living their daily life, in fear of punishment and confinement, you have seriously compromised their quality of life. We should learn from these rare experiences where we need to slide down into the use of aversive handling and do what we can to prevent it in the future. Did we put ourselves in a position we thought was safe but wasn’t? Did we not adequately prepare our horse for something they needed to participate in? Could we have used protected contact? We need to learn from these emergencies and do what we must to reduce their likelihood in the future.
 
As a rescue we are confronted with more than the average emergencies. Most of our horses arrive with compromised health or deep emotional difficulties. While often these get better quickly with appropriate diet and lifestyle and a good antecedent arrangement, there are some things we must do for them. In doing so we try to counter-balance this by ensuring the rest of our time together is spent more carefully positive and relationship focused. Because we already spend too much time pushing the boundaries for those medical necessities.