Seth Slater M.F.A.

The Dolphin Divide

Conflict Resolution: Dancing Your Way to Cooperation?

How to avoid a clash of wills when confronted by stubbornness

Posted Aug 30, 2016

Obstinacy can come in a host of sizes and shapes, and human beings aren’t the only species capable of displaying it.  Rather than engaging in a clash of wills resulting in flared tempers and open conflict, which are the all-too-common results when seeking  work-arounds to stubbornness, the wisdom of behavioral psychology calls for the novel solution of . . .

Dancing. 

But, rather than the ballroom variety, I’m talking instead about a behavioral dance that builds positive associations by making a playful game of targeting and reward.

Let me tell you about a recalcitrant horse I’ll call Spunky who warn’t none too obliged to load himself into a trailer for a short ride to the homestead after a pleasant afternoon trail ride.  The stakes weren’t particularly high, but the clock was ticking.  I had somewhere else to be.  But, as Spunky was not my horse, I contented myself for a time to play the role of passive bystander, lending a hand where and when called upon. 

While being led to the rear of an open horse trailer, Spunky made a last minute decision to extend his stay a bit.  He turned suddenly, ripping the lead rope from his owner’s hand, and galloped away.  His owner patiently retrieved the horse and tried again, but to no avail.

The scene played itself out several times before the horse’s owner resorted to heavier artillery.  A light snaffle bit for the horse’s mouth and a newly configured rigging of lead rope in order to gently, but firmly, guide Spunky into more desirable decision-making

It should be noted that Spunky had traveled by trailer many times, and usually exhibited no reluctance to do so.  Then again, all free-thinking individuals – horses and humans alike – are apt to give in, from time to time, to passing whims and impulses.  Spunky appeared to have made a decision: “Not going home yet.”

The trick, of course, was to persuade the horse to change his mind without causing an unwanted ramping up of resistance.  I asked his owner whether I could try an approach I had learned in my former career as a civilian dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy.    

After getting the go-ahead, I crumbled up some molasses-coated crackers – the equine equivalent of a Scoobie-snack – and put them into my shirt pocket.  Who among us, after all, won’t work for food as long as what we’re being asked to do has some element of fun involved? 

And therein lay the rub: How to turn an aversive task into a game?

The key was to build positive associations.  Between the horse and myself as well as between the horse and the trailer.  Preferably both at once, if possible. 

I calmly walked to the horse (both people and animals can feel defensive if approached too quickly), rubbed him down for a moment, and offered him a sweet piece of cracker.  Gesture of friendship and peace offering accepted, I led Spunky to the trailer – but not to the open end he was avoiding. 

We went instead to the trailer’s side for a bit more cracker to nibble on.  In fact, Spunky earned several bits of cracker to reward his willingness to approach any side of the trailer.  We moved, nibbled, and moved again.  The treats flowed freely.  Until, that is, we walked deliberately some distance from trailer.  No treats at all for heading in what, in Spunky’s mind, would soon become the “wrong” direction. 

But the wrong direction didn’t mean we still couldn’t have fun together.  I jogged and he trotted.  I’d stop and he’d stand at my side, gently nuzzling my arm as if to ask, “Hey, have any crackers left?” 

Of course I did.  And Spunky could have one anytime he followed in the “right” direction – toward the trailer.  In fact, he could have more and more the closer he got to it.  Once the horse got the idea of right and wrong direction, the game changed, and Spunky had to work harder for his rewards.

He knew the crackers were blooming forth from one of my closed fists, so now he had to touch the fist with his nose before it opened up for snack time.  Shortly thereafter, he had to find the fist first – now to one side of his face, then the other.  Up above his head.  Quick, catch it down low.  Spunky got to be a real champion at finding and touching a target.  When he followed the fist toward the open trailer door and eventually nudged it (the fist, not the door) with his nose, he found it contained several tasty morsels. 

Then for the hard part.

What does a target-trained horse do when the fist disappears INTO the trailer?  Well, at first, he keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground and stretches head and neck only beyond the open door.  Doesn’t even touch the target.  But still, that’s an A for effort.  Have a snack and relax.  Let’s move well away from the trailer again.  More fun, more games, more rub downs.  But no treats.  Ready to try again?  All right, back to the open door, but this time you’ve got to touch the target for real, okay?

Over time, more and more of our time together is spent playing the target touching game right at the open trailer bay.  Eventually, I back into it, and Spunky steps up – two legs only – and receives heavy reward and praise for his efforts.  Then back out again, at my request. 

“What?  You mean I don’t have to go all the way in?  You mean I don’t have to stay in there?”

Of course not.  Not unless you want to and not until you’re ready.  Meantime, let’s keep playing.  I’m having fun.  Are you?

And Spunky is.  He’s still working for the payoff of a food reward, but he’s now participating more freely and energetically because the game itself is fun, and he is finding himself succeeding at nearly every turn.

Soon, the horse is stepping all the way into the trailer and back out again.  Quickly and easily with no hesitation.  He is safe, happy, and ready to travel.  He’s standing on his own in the trailer with no thought of bolting.  He receives rub downs and praise as he allows himself to be haltered into place.  He willingly makes room for the next horse to load.  The trailer doors swing shut, and each of us knows we have a new friend at a nearby ranch.  Now, ain’t that neighborly? 

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2016

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