Ethics

These are ethical discussions about the horse world and choices we can make

What are we teaching our children?

What are we teaching our children?

When we teach our children how to work with horses we know this goes far beyond horses and deep into their core understanding of how to interact with all living beings. So some lessons we may want to include might be, Love is never supposed to hurt or cause pain, it’s not consent if they’re afraid to say “No”, and how you treat someone is always more important than what you can get from them.
 
When we teach our children that loving someone can involve inflicting pain on them to get things that we want, this lesson doesn’t just stop when they get off the horse. When your kids are fighting over who gets to chose the TV channel, why is your little rider suddenly kicking their sibling? If we teach them “ask, tell, demand” (a common practice in horse riding, where the rider escalates the aversive level of our cue until the horse complies), we are not teaching them to be confident – we are teaching them violent communication skills. Instead of learning how to communicate with their partner to come to a compromise or solution to their disagreement, they learn to become harsher, louder, more intense in how they ask to get what they want. This may be a strong character attribute when working your way up in a lawfirm – but this is not how healthy relationships between partners should look. Not only are we teaching them to use violence to control and manipulate animals and their peers, but we are also teaching them that violence is acceptable in a love relationship. If they can love their horse and hurt them to get what they want, then can’t the person who is hurting them also love them? But violence and control should never be a part of a loving relationship. True partnerships are built on communication, compromise, mutual reward, and compassion for one another’s life history.

When our children utilize these aversive-based training techniques they are learning that if someone says “no”, to keep asking, demand, even force the other to comply, so long as you get what you want in the end. This is teaching them that when one party says “no” it’s ok to push them into compliance, without even really considering why they said “no”. Not that “why” should matter, “no means NO”, but it may be a physical or emotional problem inhibiting the horse from complying. By ignoring their communication and utilizing “ask, tell demand”, we teach our children to ignore the other individual’s truth, their side of the situation, just to get what they want. Their horse may be in pain or scared out of their mind, but by ignoring their feelings and their attempts at communication we are unteaching empathy. Teaching them that so long as they get what they want in the end, what happens to the other who we are controlling doesn’t matter. Think about this lesson in reverse. If teaching our children that consent and control can be taken away and disregarded by anyone strong enough to take it – we are teaching them that they too can have their consent and control taken away. That it’s acceptable to say “no” and have that be ignored and overpowered. That even someone who we love or loves us can disregard a lack of consent.
 
The competitive, “win at all costs” mindset that often comes in riding lessons often prioritizes winning over the welfare of the horse. We teach our kids that it’s ok to diminish our horse’s welfare if it gets us what we want. From something as simple as our horse in small box stalls vs. appropriate sized and socialized turn out, to assure they’re clean and ready to compete. We are teaching our kids that it’s acceptable to reduce our horse’s quality of life to make it more convenient for us to get what we want out of them. Especially when we look at extreme sports (the dangerous ones) we are putting our horse’s health and safety at risk without any regard to their willingness to make this sacrifice. When we ask our horse to jump unbreakable jumps or run too fast, too far, too young, we compromise their wellbeing, safety and future lives. We may have fun the first few years but at the cost of the horse’s last several years. Causing premature aging and career-ending injury. Then the disposable mentality of trading in your horse when they no longer meet your desires, to get a new one. This teaches kids that when something isn’t fun anymore it should be thrown out – even if it costs them their life. A horse with a riding-ending injury will rarely get a safe home, even if you think it’s safe it may only be until that person also gets bored of them. Because we have developed a disposable mentality to life itself. We also teach our kids this is how they should treat their other pets, their family (watch out when you get old!!), or that they themselves could be treated this way. If you are no longer fun or doing what someone wants out of you, you too may be thrown away for a newer, funner version.
 
So stop and think about these values we introduce our kids to when you begin their horse journey. Horses are a friend, a partner, their quality of life is entirely dependent on your quality of care, their safety and wellbeing is up to you, for life.
Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Ethics
Our Quality of Work is their Quality of Life

Our Quality of Work is their Quality of Life

Our quality of work is their quality of life”
This is a common quote in animal and human care related jobs. It’s vital we remember this key point. It’s easy to get lost in our daily life, letting our mood or distractions reduce our quality of work. This is fairly typical in all jobs, especially when we are an employee or volunteer in a care position, it’s easy to say “it’s just a job/volunteer, it doesn’t have to be perfect”. In most jobs we need to remember a healthy work/life balance and not let our job overwhelm us or take over our lives, it’s just a job! But in a care position it takes a little more than that. The thing is, it’s not just a job when you are a caretaker – it is our animal’s whole life.
 
Our animals spend their lives at the mercy of our care, if we don’t feel like cleaning, if we are too busy to toss some extra hay, if we just aren’t up for cleaning and refilling their water – our horses go hungry, live in filth, or even become ill. They can’t just go get food elsewhere or refill their own water buckets. While there are some tools and ways to set up the animal’s environment for greater ease, but even with the best set up and nicest tools, everything still needs care. The tools need to be maintained, food needs to be dished out, items need to be cleaned, and waste needs to be removed.
While their care is often rewarded by lots of fun time spent with the horses, doing agility, training new skills, and just being awesome snuggle buddies – sometimes the work is just alot. We get burnt out. Caretaking is an exhausting job, physically and emotionally. When the work is hard, our bodies struggle to keep up, and in rescue, sometimes even if we do the best we can, we can’t fix everything. Sometimes our horses struggle with health or pain issues, sometimes they don’t appear very grateful for our hard work, sometimes even with everything we do, they still pass away. This can be a very defeating and draining job. It takes great inner strength for these volunteers to chose to continue to provide care and love, money and labor, even when the personal cost outweighs the benefits. When our animals pass, when we know we are fighting against inevitable loss and personal suffering, when we know we are going to lose the battle – it takes a special person to continue to chose to do what’s right.

We are blessed with a wonderful herd of volunteers of all ages who really recognize that the quality of their work is the quality of the horse’s life. We use pellet bedding for easy cleaning, so much less waste, easier storage (we can hold about 250 bags in our shed, shavings take much more space). But our old Belgian at 33y.o and 2000lbs he had begun to get pressure sores, no matter how thickly we bedded his stall. Taina’s feet hurt when they get cold, so while it’s more expensive, more work, and super inconvenient for us, we have added plenty of fluffy shavings to give them a soft, warm place to sleep. Inconvenience or extra work for us is the difference between spending their nights in pain or in comfort, getting good rest or suffering. To us, this isn’t even a question. Our volunteers go the extra mile to ensure our horses aren’t just cared for well, but also have plenty of enrichment, training, and fun. I couldn’t be more proud and grateful for our crew.

 
It’s important to take care of ourselves, remain grateful for our supporters, and to support each other throughout the hard times. We are in this fight together with the same goal of providing a great life for animals who otherwise wouldn’t.
Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Ethics

The Frequent Rehoming Issue

Let’s talk about the frequent rehoming issue with horses. Did you know that on average a horse goes through 7 homes in their life? With their average lifespan (if they are lucky not to have an injury or illness) reaching the late 20s, this is a sad 4 years per home. This is a disturbingly low commitment level for a long-lived animal. Of their years on this earth, only a period in the middle will the horses be “useful” to humans. So of these 7 homes the horse bounced through who should be responsible for their ethical retirement and end of life care? Their breeder? The person who competed with them? The person who owned them the longest? This isn’t a cheap responsibility. As a rescue we know too well how expensive it is to care for sick, injured, and elderly horses. Its also painfully emotional for us to deal with – but every horse deserves good care and a humane end of life with the people who love them. Especially if they have served around 7 humans in their life!
 
Now there sure are many times that rehoming is the best and most appropriate option for everyone. There are even heartbreaking times where we must pass on a horse, either to a good home or to a rescue. There is no shame and nothing wrong with this, this is reality sometimes. Life doesn’t always go as planned, even if we come up with the most foolproof plans to do right by our animals, sometimes sh*t happens. It’s terribly sad when this happens, but rescues should be able to be there for people and horses in these times of need. Whether to provide some care and taking the responsibility of finding them a great home – or to provide the horse a good retirement. When a real issue pops up, we should be able to band together as a community and support those people and horses. This is hard to do when rescues are full of horses who are dumped by irresponsible owners. Horses rotated through the system and forgotten.
 
Unwanted horses are often tossed home to home until they are lost in the world and end up somewhere not so safe. Even if there were people in their life who cared, they have gotten lost among homes. As a horse culture we need to encourage the owner’s responsibility to care for horses after injury, illness or into old age. If you can’t, consider leasing, taking lessons or even volunteering at a rescue. If you’ve used a horse for your enjoyment and sport for a long time, you have responsibility to them in their old age. If your goals lead to their injury or breakdown, you are responsible for their care. If you’ve outgrown (physically or competitively) your horse, but the horse can still be enjoyed by others, try maintaining ownership and leasing the horse to appropriate homes so you can assure their comfortable retirement and end of life. There are retirement barns in less expensive areas that will provide a soft pasture life for horses. There are many options to keep your horse safe and assure they have a soft landing.
 
As a rescue our focus should be in taking in horses who have been abused or neglected, and helping people who are in dire circumstances. We shouldn’t be a dumping ground for horses who can’t be used anymore. Someone in that horse’s 7+ homes has got to take responsibility for the horse when they are no longer “useful”.
 
Our focus is also in spreading education. If we can teach people about behavioral science, appropriate keeping, and healthcare for horses we can help prevent horses from needing to be rehomed. If we can raise awareness for all the fun things you can enjoy with your horse even when your horse can’t compete or ride. With teaching these things we can help horses keep their homes, even when they have behavioral, emotional, or physical issues that may typically result in rehoming.
Posted by Jessica in Ethics
My friend is dying and i’m pretending to be brave

My friend is dying and i’m pretending to be brave

My friend is dying and i’m pretending to be brave. I have been down this road before many times and i need to guide the others who haven’t yet. But as i sit in the shower crying, as i usually do in these times, i ask myself the same question – why do i do this to myself?
I could have a few healthy horses that i ride and enjoy. I could run a rescue with young horses i train and adopt out. Why do i choose to be a shelter for the old, the sick, and the broken beyond repair? These horses i rescue, some may be able to play but most of them won’t recover really, they rarely are able to be riding horses and none could ever really sport or show. These are horses that are damaged and unwanted, thrown out by society because they are no longer (or never were) useful. Whether they have an illness or injury that ended or never allowed them to start their work, whether they just got old and tired, they were let down.
 
I can’t fix them, i’m not magic (though i wish i were and i do try my best), i can’t stop them from dying, despite my best efforts. I do this because they would die anyway. But they would die alone and afraid, and often with great suffering. When i do this i promise them as much time as i can offer them filled with love and fun. They will spend their days remembering what it is to be loved. They will be reminded that they are horses, with all the freedom, friends, and good food that they deserve. And i can promise that when they die they will do so with braids in their hair and surrounded by gentle love. They will not be afraid and won’t be alone, and we will give them the gift of peaceful passing before they suffer.
 
So i remind myself why i continue down this road, why i do what i do, even though it feels like walking on coals. When my friend dies he will be cremated and buried in our garden where the fairies play. We will build them a home on his grave with the flowers that used to decorate his mane. All the lives he influenced can visit him there, where he will never be forgotten.


Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Ethics
Butterfly – A Horse’s Value

Butterfly – A Horse’s Value

Most people value horses by how useful they can be to humans. Can the horse be ridden? Driven? Are they safe on trails or roads? Are they sound for sport or labor? How many working years do they have left? Are they safe for beginners to use? Everything about the horse’s value is determined by what we can get them to do for us…
 
But what is a horse’s real value? What is anyone’s real value? How do we judge?
 
I believe all life has value, simply because they are alive. It can’t be measured in dollars and coins, not in gifts or services, and it can’t always be measured in time, but rather, in experiences and love shared. How well the live and thrive in the life they’ve been given, how they’ve bettered or enriched others, and the love that’s been given and felt.
 
Yesterday some of the volunteers were brushing Butterfly, a job I frequently send kids to do to keep them entertained. I watched as the older girls taught the youngest how to make braids, they each practiced different styles. I remembered back to when I was a kid, learning for the first time how to braid hair, when an older volunteer showed me, on Butterfly. Then I wondered, how many kids has Butterfly taught how to braid? What if we measured a horse’s value by how many braids they’ve had in their hair? A symbol of how loved they’ve been?
 
Doing that math Butterfly is 22-24y.o. That’s not super old for a mini, we hope she has many more years with us. But as a horse who was born in a hoarding situation, too small to be ridden, who went blind young, limiting her potential for her future. She is a horse who has no traditional value. But she has lived a beautiful and happy life any horse should hope to live. With all the food and care she deserves, with horse, sheep, donkeys, and people friends of all ages, from all around the world. She has enjoyed a rich life of love and has spread her sweet, gentle love to all who take the moment to notice her. She is a most valued member of our farm.
Me and Butterfly as “kids”

When Butterfly first arrived at the rescue I grew up at <3 she was 2, I was 14.
Butterfly and our friends growing up
               
Butterfly’s time here at EE
Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Equine Emotions, Ethics
Some thoughts on Punishment

Some thoughts on Punishment

Traditional horsemanship relies a great deal on punishing unwanted behaviors from the horse. It can be hard to shake these habits even if we’ve switched to more positively reinforcing training methods. Sometimes when we are confronted with a behavior we dislike we instinctively want to punish them, especially if the behavior is potentially dangerous or makes us feel afraid. Being afraid often triggers our feelings of needing to defend ourselves through fighting back. But we have some major pitfalls that come with using positive punishment that could actually be far more dangerous than finding another way to communicate that we dislike that.
 
First it’s important to remember that horse’s aren’t being “good” or “bad”, they are simply responding to their environment with their best guess as to how to get what they want and avoid what they don’t. If by performing a behavior we dislike (bucking) finds them relief from what they don’t like (the rider falls), that behavior is being reinforced. The horse chose the “correct” behavior to fix their problem, even though we might dislike it. So it’s important to remember that behaviors are happening for a reason other than “he’s a jerk” or “she’s just being fresh”, horse’s aren’t inherently bad, they are just solving their situation. So the behaviors we are trying to reduce are behaviors we “dislike” or are “unwanted”.

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Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Ethics, Troubleshooting
Measuring Ethics?

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.

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Posted by Jessica in Ethics
Traditional vs. Natural vs. Positive

Traditional vs. Natural vs. Positive

There are three main categories of training within the horse world, each come with their own sets of preaching, justifications, and reasons why they are the “right” method to use with your horse. Various trainers have nuanced each style and try to sell it as their own, using specific tools, names for skills, styles of handling, and keeping of horses – but they all share the same foundations. So let’s look at this analytically, let’s strip away the pretty language, the theories and ideas behind why their techniques work, and the well-proven FALSE dominance theory. So what’s really happening with each of these styles? From a science perspective, how does each teach a behavior?

Traditional training was started when horses were divided out from livestock and began to be used as modes of fast transportation and skilled warfare. This relies on the classic use and understanding of Negative Reinforcement (increasing the frequency of the behavior by removing an aversive). They apply an aversive stimulus directly to the horse, when the horse responds accordingly the aversive is relieved. It’s extremely straight-forward. An example would be squeezing or tapping legs on the horse’s sides, when the horse moves forward, the squeeze is released. The horse learns to avoid the discomfort by moving forward. This is basic yielding to pressure. The pressure/stimulus used in the training MUST be aversive to the horse, it may be very mild, but it must be something the horse dislikes enough that they are willing to work to avoid it. If the stimulus is not aversive the horse will not work to avoid it, won’t work for the relief of it. This is Relief not Reward, this is utilizing escape/avoidance in training.

 

Natural Horsemanship is an evolution of traditional horsemanship, with a goal to be kinder and more species appropriate and for the horse as an individual. Unfortunately it is riddled with romanticized misinterpretations of how horses behave in nature. They also rely on the outdated and misunderstood concepts about dominance (about this here: Dominance).  They attempt to train in a way similar to how horses communicate with one another. Unfortunately we aren’t horses, horses don’t think we’re horses, we physically can’t take most horse-horse communications, and horses don’t ask anything of each other (like standing tied, riding in circles, or using aversive tools on one another) they only ask the other to “stay away from my resource”. However, this movement has had great aspirations and focus on owners learning to train and work with their own horses. So while much of the foundational information is misguided, the results are forward moving and helping move the horse world towards it’s goal – ethical horsemanship.

So let’s look analytically, how does Natural Horsemanship train behaviors? Ironically, despite all the fancy words, it’s not all that different from traditional. They still apply an aversive stimuli, when the horse responds as desired, the aversive stimuli is relieved. So how is it different? The types of aversive stimuli are different, rather than always applying direct painful pressure (like a whip smack, spur poke, or bit pull, kick…) they may use other options like work (being chased around a round pen a signature of NH) or threats of aversives. These warning signals are another signature of natural horsemanship. This is where they condition a benign signal to predict an aversive, so eventually the handler can use gentle cues instead of always relying on the aversive cue. This is done by using the non-aversive cue, then the aversive steadily increasing until the horse responds as desired, then the aversive is removed. Soon the time between the warning signal and the strong aversive shrinks, the horse learns to respond quickly to the warning signal, to avoid the aversive stimuli. So while they still use negative reinforcement, they also utilize classical conditioning to train the horse to respond to a gentler cue so we don’t need to use as many actual aversives. However, unfortunately we’ve learned the emotional reaction in the brain/mind is still the same, whether the stimuli is aversive or just conditioned to predict an aversive.

So really, in the thousands of years of working with and training domestic horses training has changed shockingly little. Even the tools have barely changed. We took nose rings and put them in their mouth instead, to make for easier steering from their back… But that was a few thousand years ago. We still use whips, bits, spurs, heels, hands, ropes, and “work” as aversive control devices for our horses. Whether we give them fair warning and use aversives in a wide variety of ways, it’s all the same basic principle. Negative Reinforcement.

So then what is Positive Reinforcement and how is it different? First let’s remember “positive” and “negative” are “adding” and “removing” not “good” and “bad”. Negative reinforcement is removing something the horse dislikes (an aversive) and Positive reinforcement is adding something the horse does like (an appetitive). So positive reinforcement training techniques involve feeding or otherwise giving the horse something they want, when they do the desired behavior. This means we first need to find a way to get the horse to do the behavior we want, so we can positively reinforce it. We have a few techniques for this, capturing (waiting for it to happen and catching it), shaping (reinforcing small steps towards the end goal), and targeting/luring (following a target or the food to guide them into the goal behavior), these options are limited only by your creativity and how well you know your horse. This new approach to working with horses has flipped the horse world on it’s head. Everything is now backwards, horses seeking instead of avoiding, horses rushing TO the arena, hoping training never ends, getting too excited to play with their favorite humans!

While R+ is new as a horse training method, it’s actually not all that new. These learning quadrants have always existed, even before we understood and labeled them. But marine mammal and exotic animal trainers have been utilizing R+ as training tools for decades. Using Negative Reinforcement limited exotic animal training to only what you could use to physically control the animals, which is difficult with large predators like tigers and marine mammals like whales. While possible, it’s impractical, tricky, and very dangerous. Positive reinforcement allows trainers to teach animals without needing to have physical contact or confrontation with the animals they’re working with. In fact they can teach from the side of the pool or the other side of a fence. Even some dog owners are now using remote control video camera treat dispensers to reinforce their dogs for being good even when their person isn’t home! Dog owners were the next to transition, while there’s still some use of aversives, most domestic pet owners utilize positive reinforcement for their training. Not just your classic dogs and cats being trained with treats, but also all sorts of brilliant, exotic birds, rodents, rabbits, bugs and even fish! Now if a wild, dangerous hippo can be trained to hold their mouth open for dental work, a shark to station in a basket for medicine, a lion to offer their paw for blood draws, giraffes to hold their feet up for trimming…. Why on earth would we be resistant to using this kind and forward thinking approach with horses?

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics
Make the Change

Make the Change

The horse world is on the verge of a great change, not just a transition, not just an introduction to something new, but a complete flip, a turn on it’s head. Positive reinforcement is here. The numbers are growing, people are learning, and everyone is working to improve the ways horses are trained. This movement isn’t just about training, its about all of horse-care. Using science as our guide to find the best, most ethical, most species appropriate, closest to natural approach to raising horses as a whole. From their hooves, to their diet, to their lifestyle, dentistry, enrichment, etc… we continue to spread education, raise awareness and encourage people to chose kinder, more ethical, and appropriate equine management.
 
But while this movement blooms into being we have a responsibility to uphold. We are changing the face of the horse world and one thing that needs to be included is how we treat each other. The horse world is deeply saturated with toxic, competitive behavior. People treating each other like enemies, shaming people who are new, condemning people who have different goals or priorities. But if we hope to better the care of our horses, this must start with us working together. We are all unique, we all have varying opinions, methods, strengths, benefits, techniques, approaches, priorities… but we all have one goal, a better life for our horses. No one of us can learn it all, we can’t be experts in everything. We must support each other. There is no need to compete, the resources aren’t limited, there are horses and people who love them in abundance. Instead, each of us fills a niche and meets a need, allowing us to reach our goal. We are a community, its time to move away from the toxicity and to embrace our shared passion.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics
Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

 Our horse rescue is run primarily on kids, teens, and people with extra needs or mental health struggles. When they volunteer here and work with our horses they learn not just to care for horses, but to communicate with compassion, empathy, and clarity. Our volunteers and students learn so many life skills by working with horses from a positive reinforcement (R+) lifestyle. R+ isn’t just a way of training but a wholesome care-taking style including a natural living environment, plenty of enrichment, positive training, and developing a loving partnership.
 
In using positive reinforcement to train and handle our horses young people learn kind and effective ways to communicate what they want and appreciating the efforts given in response. Through formal positive reinforcement training with the horses the young people learn to break down goals into achievable steps, organizing and prioritizing their missions. They learn critical and creative thinking skills as they puzzle out new ways to encourage the horses to reach the goal behaviors without needing to use force, violence, or invasive control techniques. They learn to be resilient when things don’t go according to plan, how to stop and re-evaluate their plans and goals, then determine how to better approach the situation.
 
More importantly they develop loving partnerships with their horses built on clear communication, compromise, and lots of love. They learn to value their relationship with their horse more than what they can get the horse to do for them. Taking the focus away from themselves and into developing the partnership. They learn to respect the horse as a sentient companion with emotions, deserving of empathy and compassion. Rather than aspiring to control the horse through force or manipulation, they work together with the horse as a partner.
 
Many of our rescue horses have emotional or physical difficulties to overcome, helping our volunteers develop their empathy by relating to their equine peers. Through understanding and relating to the horse on an emotional level, and then compromising and problem solving to achieve their goals with their horse. They learn to be understanding and forgiving with themselves. This helps them raise their own emotional awareness and self-compassion.
They develop their own self awareness.
They are also made acutely aware of the hardships and rewards that come in life, including some painful decision making. Our volunteers understand that our horses have special needs and our priorities are to improve their quality of life. This means we don’t always get to do what’s fun for us, and sometimes we have to do things that are hard for us. Including participating in their medical care or letting go when the time is right. Learning about the value of life, how to honor the lives of our equine friends, and assure them the highest quality of care in the time they have with us.
 
These young people not only learn to work with horses in a kind and effective way but also learn to advocate for the horses. They learn values that extend to every area in life. Standing up to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Choosing compassion and kindness, even if it means not always fitting in with their peers. They learn to do what’s right, even if it’s not always what is easy.

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Clicker Training, Ethics