Just me and the hunds, now

About a month ago I was away with the hunds staying with my parents and got a tearful phone call from my partner who had come home to find Kit had passed away. He was just shy of 7 years old. Supposedly hares can live to 10 years old in captivity, but really I was just happy I got to borrow him for so long. I truly did not expect him to live through his first night with me, and every day after that was a surprise until I started to entertain the idea that he was not going to die at any moment some weeks later when he decided to wean himself. Kit had a few down periods during his last winter, causing me great worry. I had got as far as admitting he was probably an old hare and I could lose him at any time. I had considered the possibility that life might go on without him.

I think this was the only reason I managed to keep it together. I don’t have words for how much he meant to me. I remember him lipping my hand with little hare kisses, and the time I bought a baby rabbit who was the devil incarnate and Kit decided to move in with me on my bed to keep away from her. I remember him tenderly sniffing my lips, resisting my attempts to put him back in his cage for the night, and teasing my housemate’s dog by walking right up to the glass door that separated them and peering into the dog’s face. We had a game we played where he would pretend to chew on items I would always chase him away from until I got up to chase him and then he would wait until the last minute before leaping away with playful ear flicks just to show me how terribly slow I was. He used to spend hours on my pillow watching the world go by through my bedroom window. He played with my mum’s kittens and had a fascinating relationship with the cat I grew up with until the poor old man got too old to play Kit’s games. He followed my corgi around even when she snapped at him to try to make him go away. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she walked into my room one day to find Kit relaxed comfortably on her bed. She froze, gave him a long stare, then turned around and walked out again.

I could be here for days recalling every emotional moment he gave me. Which is why the blog will continue without him. I started it knowing he was an old hare, and I decided on the name because it represents the starting point for me. He gave me so much and I haven’t shared half of what he taught me, yet. I hope that the path he set me on 7 years ago will be his legacy and I will continue learning about animal behaviour without his expert guidance.

In closing, it has taken me a while to be able to write this post. I didn’t die when Kit did like I half suspected I might, but the sadness of living without him goes on and on. His big, empty cage is about as cold and lonely as I feel without him. So it’s just me and the hunds for now, but that cage won’t be empty forever. It needs a little life in it.

Kit when I first brought him home



One of his favourite spots when he was staying with my parents.


Living in the lap of luxury.

Building a Reward System, or “My Dog Won’t Work for Food”

This is for all the “my dog doesn’t work for food” claimants. Your dog will work for food. Every animal will. Some animals need a fair bit of coaxing, and others need a lot of foundation work first, but they will work for food. They have to eat, don’t they?

Let’s take a moment to remember that Kit won’t eat unless he feels safe. What’s more, Kit isn’t especially interested in taking opportunities to eat when food it is up for grabs. Yet, despite all this, Kit works for food. I’m currently using rabbit pellets, which is not even his favourite food. If he’ll do it, a dog that doesn’t think much of food will. It doesn’t just happen, though. It takes a bit of preparation. For Kit, this took a few steps.

1) Feed him 3-4 small meals a day so he’s a teensy bit hungry each time I bring food. This just gets him interested, and I stopped doing it once I had his attention. It also got him used to me visiting more often. I don’t agree with depriving animals of food to get them to work for it, but it certainly does work very well if you want the quick and easy route. This step can be transferred to dogs by using a number of short training sessions a day. You may decide to use the dog’s daily food allowance as your food reward.

2) Find a really tasty treat he only gets from your hands and nowhere else. For Kit, fresh or dried berries. For dogs, cooked or raw meat usually goes down well. I had a difficult house guest here for a week that to begin with would only work for boiled heart. I simmer lamb hearts for about half an hour and then cut them into little pieces. Roast meat tends to be very popular as well.

3) Practice earning food. This is where it’s all at, really. Make it really easy. All Kit has to do to earn treats is come close enough to take them. The hunds as puppies earn food by looking when their name was called, checking in on their own, hanging around like a bad smell, and for performing a lot of simple things they had been taught like sit or touch on cue. Any time they do something I like I pay it, whether I cued it or not. The aim here is both simple and complex. On the one hand, we’re really just trying to get the dog (or hare) into the habit of working for food when they are around us. But there are likely other interactions going on to help us. We are creating a positive association so that our animal just feels good when they are around us. And we are creating an expectation in the animal that when they are around us we will often give them opportunities to earn good things. We make it easy for them to earn good things so that they can do it a lot and build up a strong reward history. Now we are not just treat dispensers, or someone it’s nice to be around, but a good bet. When they are not sure what activity is going to be the most fun, there we are with our history of reinforcement and that puts us ahead of the crowd right there. It doesn’t guarantee the dog will choose us, but it weighs in our favor.

It doesn’t take long for a dog (hares are another matter – for months Kit flatly refused to work for anything less than fresh strawberries or blueberries) to change their demeanor about food entirely. My difficult house guest was working for every treat in the house by the end of the week. And he’s an emotional basket case. At this point, it’s important not to jump ahead and start trying to use food out in very exciting places. Even out on the street on leash can be too exciting. The trick is to weave very easy opportunities to earn food into new scenarios. If your dog’s mad sniffing has eased up for a moment and they lift their head, that’s when you call their name and reward when they turn around to look at you. They won’t do it until you have built up that reward history enough that they are starting to anticipate opportunities to earn food around the house.

As they become more attentive and start actively looking for opportunities to earn rewards, then I start asking for more challenging things.

So, why go to all this trouble to get a dog working for food? Particularly if they will work for other things like toys? In my opinion, it is very valuable to have a dog that will work for food in many environments. There is nothing like rapid fire food rewards to really get a dog’s attention and keep it. Food is really suited to shaping. And there is, I believe, a calming effect in eating if food is delivered at a slower rate. This can be used to lower arousal. That is just a few reasons why I like to use food. I love it, but I’m not dependent on it. My dogs will still do what they are told if I don’t have food on me. That is the ultimate aim, but that’s a little way down the track. While treats may be a prevailing factor, other methods that involve training your dog in the more negative aspect, clicker training, dog fence systems, wireless dog fence systems see www.electricfencesfordogs.com

How to Train a Hare Step 2: Desensitisation

Kit won’t eat unless he feels safe. It’s really hard to make a hare feel safe, them being food for a lot of animals and almost entirely reliant on their ability to outrun danger and all. In my previous post I talked about safety signals and how they helped to put Kit in a more calm state. But safety signals really only inhibit fear. The next step to train a hare is to avoid fear all together. Well, as much as is possible. Fear is critically important in keeping animals safe and a prey animal that is fearless isn’t going to last long. So we’re working within limitations, here.

I’m going to take a moment to have a short rant about how this is often neglected in dog training and why it’s important for dog trainers not to neglect it. Dogs in particular may appear to take a lot of the things that go on around them in their stride without us doing anything at all. It’s tempting for us to never even consider whether they are comfortable or not. I mean, they’re dogs. They are embedded into our lives so deeply we just kind of automatically assume they can cope with all the things we can and more. And when they can’t we declare they have a behaviour problem and often our answer is to attempt to suppress the behaviour they are using to tell us they are not comfortable. The behaviours I am talking about can be as obvious as an aggressive lunge or attack, or as subtle as persistently crooked sits. What’s more, dogs can be highly functional while they are being uncomfortable with their surroundings. For example, Erik is still quite obedient when he’s uncomfortable, and can even learn things. He just doesn’t work at his usual level of enthusiasm, reliability and focus. In contrast, Kit mostly gives me a really obvious fear response I couldn’t possibly mistake.

So my opinion is that dog trainers should get into the habit of asking themselves if their dog is truly comfortable with the environment and all the objects and beings in it. They should particularly ask this whenever training is not going according to plan or if they are having reliability problems or even if they are having trouble getting a dog to work closer or farther away from them. And that’s not just looking at the dog and going “Oh yeah, his tail is wagging, he’s fine.” You need some kind of benchmark. I use how engaged the hunds are in training, usually. I know what they are like at home, so the assumption is if they can do what they can do at home then they are comfortable with their surroundings. Don’t use a default behaviour as your litmus test! Erik can down in the most ridiculously uncomfortable situations and I suspect he falls back on it in times of stress. If in doubt, there is nothing to lose from a bit of desensitisation or counter-conditioning. Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed book and dvds are packed with techniques to help dogs cope with their environment and become comfortable. Counter-conditioning is a big help for more specific problems. Check out Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation for a great systematic desensitisation method. Adapt it for your own uses.

Back to hare training. I have a hare that’s no longer dashing into hiding every time I show up, but before I can actually do any training, Kit needs to be comfortable with anything I’m going to expect him to work around. He has a pretty contained and controlled environment, so mostly that comes down to me. It is truly incredible just how many ways you can startle or worry a hare, even one that has been raised by you from an early age and lived in very close proximity to you for most of his life. Just being there puts him on alert. He has a bubble of personal space he needs to preserve. The size of the bubble depends on how safe he is feeling. The more safe he feels the smaller the bubble. It takes a long time to get small and a very short time to get large. Every time I move when I’m with him he gets nervous I’m going to get too close for comfort and the bubble gets bigger. That’s what we have to overcome first. I can’t do any training if he won’t let me near him.

Every day I go into his cage and I crouch down to make myself smaller and less threatening and I wait for little signs from him that he is relaxing. When he is steady I start gentle, smooth movements. I tend to do them to a rhythm. Frightened animals like rhythms. I possibly made that up. I think they like rhythms. I throw in the odd faster movement when I think he’s ready and carefully don’t look at him until I’m settled again. The aim is to expose him to steadily more intense experiences without ever causing him to feel like he needs to move away from me. I don’t always achieve that, but that’s the aim. The most challenging aspect of this work is patience. I really want to touch my hare! I want to work with him. I have to constantly remind myself to wait until I’m sure he’s ready, not just until I think that’ll do.

Below is a video of a recent training session with Kit. I cut out some of the boring waiting around for him to settle, but to be honest there’s not a huge amount of it. Considering to begin with I could wait around for 20 minutes for him to settle and end up giving up and leaving, we are making huge progress on that front. It’s kind of long at over 6 minutes, but because I’m moving so slowly there is a lot of body language from Kit as he processes each small change in my behaviour. I think slowing it down for animals gives both them the chance to adapt to what is going on and it gives us trainers an opportunity to identify important body language that we often miss. So whenever you are having a training problem, take a deep breath and slow down. Slow down and really observe your animal. Move them farther away from suspected distractors or triggers. Sometimes proximity and pressure can mask the behaviour that will tell you why things aren’t going according to plan.

Relaxation Protocol mp3 files: http://championofmyheart.com/relaxation-protocol-mp3-files/

Protocol for Relaxation: http://www.dogscouts.org/Protocol_for_relaxation.html

How to Train a Hare Step 1: Safety Signal

About six months after I decided to start training Kit I ran into a fairly major problem. I am not sure how it happened, but Kit came to associate my presence with being afraid and so every time I went into his cage he would run and hide and refuse to come out until I had gone again. Not exactly ideal for training. It didn’t matter how non-threatening I was when I went into his cage. He had formed a superstitious behaviour. Hiding makes him feel safe and makes the scary people go away. How could I change this habit?

I had thought for years about using a clicker to tell Kit he would be safe. But at the time I didn’t have a strong understanding of learning theory and conditioning and I was looking at it backwards. I wanted to jump right into telling him he would be safe, but how would I make sure my signal actually predicted a feeling of safety?

Once I thought about it in those terms it was obvious. Kit wanted me to leave him alone. So I introduced two sounds. When I approached his cage I made a kissy sound so he wasn’t caught unawares and could go and hide. Then as I left the cage I made a clicky sound. I paired my departure with a signal and this signal came to be interpreted as a safety signal. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a safety signal in the literature at this point, but a friend pointed me in the right direction and that really helped crystallise in my mind what I was trying to achieve.

Safety signals, or learned safety, are one of those odd little phenomena in learning theory that haven’t received a huge amount of attention. It’s only just recently got a second look by scientists in relation to depression. Robert Rescorla was the first to extend Pavlov’s work from conditioned reflexes to conditioned inhibition. When the absence of an unpleasant experience is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, such as a sound, then the sound comes to predict a period of safety. This is most easily achieved by pairing the US with the ending of an unpleasant experience. Fearful behaviour is inhibited and it appears that intense negative emotions such as despair are lessened. Care in interpretation is perhaps required here, though, as always when talking about emotions in animals. The important bit is that once a safety signal is learnt, its presence can inhibit fear both in a known situation the animal has experience with and perhaps to a lesser extent, new situations. Don’t forget this is a learnt signal, though. It needs to be maintained, and if it does not clearly signal safety, it will lose its effectiveness. This is a big challenge for its practical use in my opinion. It’s like training a recall. It’s most effective when built up slowly and frequently reinforced.

I really like the safety signal. I believe it helped Kit a lot. My first clue that his fear was fading was seeing his ears swivelling around listening for that signal. He was clearly paying a fair bit of attention to it. I still use it, but I am very careful how and when. Kit pays less attention to it now, but I use it to tell him nothing at all is going to happen for the next 10 seconds, and sometimes I drop it in when he is a bit worked up. What I don’t do is use it when he’s dashing around in a panic. The moment to use it is either when he’s considering whether he needs to dash around in a panic or when he comes down from his panic enough to slow down a bit and start paying attention to his surroundings again. But it does seem to make him pause when he’s on the brink of a panic. Pausing is 90% of the way to avoiding a panicky dash by my reckoning.

To read more about safety signals, try Pollack et al (2008) An Animal Model of a Behavioural Intervention for Depression in Neuron, volume 60, pages 149-161. It’s currently free online here.

Rescorla’s chief paper on it is: Rescorla, R.A. (1969). Conditioned inhibition of fear resulting from negative CS-US contingencies. J. Comp. Physiol. Psychol. 67, 504–509. Another early article of Rescorla’s is at the time of writing available free online: RA Rescorla (1969) Pavlovian Conditioned Inhibition, Psychological Bulletin, volume 72(2).

Rogan resurrected the safety signal in this paper: Michael T. Rogan, Kam Sam Leon, David L. Perez and Eric R. Kandel (2005) Distinct Neural Signatures for Safety and Danger in the Amygdala and Striatum of the Mouse, Neuron, Volume 46, Issue 2, 309-320.

Human Nature: A Bias Buffet

I think a healthy dose of skepticism is one of the best things you can cultivate when it comes to caring for and training your animals. The reason why is because it is astonishing how what we come to believe can be twisted and warped by bias. And most of the time we have no idea it’s happening. The training world is full of ideas that were formed through bias and then supported by bias until they come to represent fact purely on the basis that a lot of people have said it, and some of them sounded like they knew what they were talking about, or were perhaps professionals. I get criticised for being cautious about believing people, particularly when they say things that “everyone knows”, but why shouldn’t I be cautious if I don’t know how they came to their conclusions? To put it in perspective, I will discuss just some of the biases that may affect the reliability of information specific to animal training.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the decisions we make are first and foremost based on risk assessment. All the biases I’m about to describe are most likely to occur when the consequences of being wrong are less risky than the consequences of being right. There is a great paper by Haselton and Nettle (2006) that explains this concept in terms of natural selection.

Brace yourselves for a reality check, folks. Generally people have inflated views of themselves, being quite optimistic and considering themselves more in control of events than they are likely to be (Taylor and Brown, 1988; Roese and Olson 2007). The cool thing I just cannot help but share is that the biases people show in how they view themselves are strongly influenced by the personality traits valued in their culture (e.g. Kitayama et al. 1997). Think on that! I think our first question of ourselves in training should be are we as good at it as we think we are? Will we truly see the details we imagine we would see? As we explore some of the biases we are subject to, the answer to that last question may become more and more uncertain.

Where events are random to some degree, people believe they have more control over the flow of events than they do in reality, creating an illusion of control (Alloy and Abramson 1979). We develop rituals and a strong belief in our ability to control events (Matute, 1994, 1995). This is where superstitions come in, and, incidentally, obsessive/compulsive behaviours. Animal behaviour is not random, but it is extremely complex and there can be an element of uncontrollability. I think we should be very careful how much of an animal’s behaviour we attribute to our actions. Remember that when we are training an animal, our behaviour is still subject to reinforcement. If the animal does what we intended it to do, it’s part of our nature to attribute that to something we did and so we do it again. And as I will soon describe, once we think we are creating an effect, we will do just about anything to find support for our continued belief in that effect. Behaviour is always changing, and it changes due to a variety of reasons, not just the application of training. What other possible reasons are there for a change in behaviour that seems to coincide with your training? Changes in arousal, motivation, health and attention can all result in changes in behaviour.  What else might?

Confirmation bias is the big one. This is where we seek or interpret evidence in ways that support  existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand (Nickerson 1998). For example, “This training method I used once and appeared to have success with is a highly effective training method.” One obvious reason for this is the desire to find a hypothesis correct or incorrect, usually because people like being right. We’ll do just about anything to make sure we are right! Not only do we look specifically for evidence to support us, but we tend to ignore or even avoid evidence that goes against an already held belief (Koriat et al. 1980). Confirmation bias may include selective testing of an hypothesis (Wason, 1960), paying more attention to positive evidence than negative evidence (e.g. Gilovich 1983), and seeing what you are looking for or expect (e.g. Foster et al. 1976). People often draw conclusions early on in a process and then seek evidence to support those conclusions, which is known as the primacy effect (Anderson 1965). What’s more, once a belief is formed, it tends to be very resistant to change even in the face of strong evidence against it (e.g. Ross and Leper 1975), and we are entirely likely to take information unrelated to the hypothesis at all as evidence for our continued belief (Pitz 1969)!

On top of this, we have other odd little biases to contend with. We tend to think we are less biased than everyone else (Bias Blind Spot) (e.g. Pronin et al. 2002), which is just gloriously ironic. You’ve been thinking it all along, haven’t you? “I’m not like that!” And we tend to prefer immediate pay-offs over long-term pay-offs (Hyperbolic Discounting) (Green and Myerson 1996 for review) which reminds me of that sublime split second in which a dog pauses in its barking after you shout at it. There’s the Mere Exposure Effect, where people prefer things they are familiar with, particularly at a sub-conscious level (Bornstein and D’Agostino 1992), and Negativity Bias, where people pay more attention to negative than positive experiences (e.g. Rozin 2001). Something like my hatred and deep distrust of check chains after being forced to hang my dog a couple of times when an aggressive dog charged her. And lastly, perhaps the most insidious of biases, Inattentional Blindness, where we just don’t see what we’re not looking for (see Simons 2004 for a decent review). There are some good videos on YouTube that will demonstrate this. It’s a lot of fun and very enlightening, so look them up. Do a search for “inattentional blindness” or “change blindness”.  The things we think we will notice we often don’t. That goes for small details and major changes.

These human biases are NOT defects, they are adaptations. We all do it, even scientisits. Scientists have just had it drilled into them to look for bias and always try to find something more concrete than their own interpretation of events. Remember that biases have all run through the natural selection gauntlet and ultimately benefit us in many circumstances. But they can be real pitfalls in training and interpreting behaviour. Our animals are at the mercy of our decisions and interpretations, and the way we make decisions and interpret events is coloured by our biases.

When trying to prove something scientifically, the general rule is numbers don’t lie (although interpreting numbers puts us squarely back in bias wonderland). Our animals can’t tell us directly when we are wrong about them, but they can often tell us indirectly. Count the occurrences of behaviour within a set timeframe to determine whether it is increasing or decreasing or staying the same. Calculate success rate. Get a stopwatch. Record unwanted behaviour in a diary. Familiarise yourself with an ethogram for your species or make one for your animal. Look for the behaviours in your ethogram, even when you don’t expect to see them. That’s what we do to convince ourselves in science. It’s actually not that hard on a small scale for a layperson, and my guess is it will be a real eye opener. Start with one behaviour at a time and do lots of watching. I think it’s a bit more kind to yourself than becoming your own biggest skeptic, which I guess is the second best thing you can do to keep yourself honest. Honestly, the more I learn the less I trust anyone, myself included. I’m glad I have a hund that seems to find every flaw in my behaviour and training methods. He keeps me more honest than I could keep myself!

A note about references:

I spent many weekends putting this together. It seemed crazy to write a post warning about biases without referencing peer reviewed literature. I didn’t have a lot of time to do a proper literature search, so these references mostly come from a few reviews on biases and I generally picked just one or two examples. I’ve added links to free copies of  papers where I could find them, but I didn’t spend much time looking. Please don’t consider it the full story! The literature goes on and on.

Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. 1979. Judgment of contingency in depressed and non-depressed subjects: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 443-479.

Anderson, N.H. 1965. Primacy effects in personality impression formation using a generalized order effect paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2(1): 1-9.

Bornstein, R. F., D’Agostino, P.R. 1992. Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63(4).
Foster, G., Schmidt, C, & Sabatino, D. 1976. Teacher expectancies and the label “learning disabilities.” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 9, 111-114.

Gilovich, T. 1983. Biased evaluation and persistence in gambling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 1110-1126.

Green, L and Myerson, R. 1996. Exponential Versus Hyperbolic Discounting of Delayed Outcomes: Risk and Waiting Time. American Zoologist 36(4): 496-505.

Haselton, M.G., Nettle, D. 2006. The paranoid optimist: An integrative evolutionary model of cognitive biases. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(1):47.

Kitayama S, Markus HR, Matsumoto H, Norasakkunkit V. 1997. Individual and collective processes in the construction of the self: self-enhancement in the United States and self-criticism in Japan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72(6): 1245-1267. http://psych.umb.edu/grdstd/vinai/se.pdf

Koriat, A., Lichtenstein, S., & Fischhoff, B. 1980. Reasons for confidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 107-118.
Matute, H. 1994. Learned helplessness and superstitious behavior as opposite effects of uncontrollable reinforcement. Learning and Motivation, 25, 216-232.

Matute, H. 1995. Human reactions to unavoidable outcomes: Further evidence for superstitions rather than helplessness. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 48, 142-157.

Nickerson, R. 1998 Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology 2(2):175-220.

Pitz, G. F. 1969. An inertia effect (resistance to change) in the revision of opinion. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 23, 24-33.

Pronin, E., Lin, D.Y., Ross, L. 2002. The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(3):369-381.
Ross, L, Lepper, M.R., and Hubbard, M. 1975. Perseverance in Self-Perception and Social Perception: Biased Attributional Processes in the Debriefing Paradigm Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1975, Vol. 32, No. 5, 880-802,5

Roese, N.J., Olson, J.M. 2007. Better, Stronger, Faster: Self-Serving Judgment, Affect Regulation, and the Optimal Vigilance Hypothesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2 (2): 124-141

Rozin, P. 2001. Negative bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (5)4: 296-320.

Simons, D. 2000. Attentional capture and inattentional blindness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(4): 147-155.

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. 1988. Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-201.

Wason, P. C. 1960. On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 14, 246-249.

Introducing Kit

I should probably introduce the animals properly. Kit’s my oldest, so I’ll start with him.

Kit is a European Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus). Hares were introduced into Australia and are therefore considered a feral species and a minor pest. Unlike rabbits, hares are generally solitary, do not dig burrows, and are born fully furred with their eyes open. When I found Kit he weighed 170 grams and fit comfortably in one hand. He was under attack from ants and seemed to be in some distress. Having no quarrel with hares (rabbits are a different matter), I picked all the ants off him and set him back down again. But in my world, when you interfere with an animal’s life you take responsibility for it. The ants were still there, the baby hare was too young to move, and if I moved him, would his mother find him again? While I was trying to decide what to do he started jumping against my leg. I bent down to brush him off and he somehow ended up in my arms, where he settled down instantly. The universe had spoken as far as I was concerned.

That was about 6 1/2 years ago. I raised him and because I felt it was irresponsible to release a feral animal, and because I questioned his ability to look after himself, I kept him. Kit is very, very flighty. Supposedly the fellow who keeps hares for research in Adelaide keeps them in round cages because otherwise they break legs and necks in the corners. I can believe it, although Kit has never been that panicked. Either he’s lucky or I am! I have seen him jump straight up in the air easily as high as my head, which is 170cm. I reckon he could do 2m without much trouble.

Everything Kit does is graceful. He is a beautiful animal. I have never seen him close his eyes. Ever. He will half-lid them when he’s very relaxed. He likes to have his head rubbed. When he is feeling particularly affectionate, which is maybe twice a year, he will gently ‘kiss’ my hand, lipping it with his furry hare lips. He doesn’t like strangers and takes about 6 months to become comfortable with someone if he ever does. If he is frightened he runs fast. Because he is confined, this can have disastrous results. He sometimes cuts himself running into things. Everything I do around him is first and foremost governed by my desire to keep him safe, and that means as calm as possible.

I have been training Kit to target in the hopes of one day getting him to voluntarily enter a crate. I get worried that if we ever have an emergency I won’t be able to catch him fast enough. But more important than targeting is being comfortable with me around him. He won’t go into a crate voluntarily if he’s afraid. So every day I go out and spend time with him giving him bits of strawberry for letting me near him. This is harder than it sounds, because he won’t eat even strawberry unless he is very comfortable. So I spend a lot of time waiting around for him to become comfortable.

Kit turns away

Kit turns awayThis is what he looks like when he doesn’t want to talk to me. Despite the fact he is facing a wall, he can and will spin around and run away if I go any closer.

When he’s ready to interact, his eyes soften a bit and he looks a bit more relaxed and will come closer.

And this is interested Kit. When he wants to interact his ears come right forward and he’ll look almost directly at me. I honestly thought he had a blind spot right in front of his nose, but maybe if I’m far enough away he can still see me. He is so pretty.

So that’s Kit. I am unashamedly wild about him. It’s hard to love an animal that doesn’t really like people, but then again, it’s easy to love an animal that doesn’t like people but will go out of his way to come to you for a head rub or give you harekisses every once in a blue moon.




Behaviour is Perpetual

Last year I attended the APDT conference in Sydney where Ken Ramirez was a keynote speaker. Given how hard it is to find anyone with tips for training hares and Ramirez is one of the world’s great exotic animal trainers, I attended every one of his talks and even managed to corner him at one point to ask about training a hare.

One of the little gems I got from him over the weekend was that an animal is always “doing” something. Even doing nothing is really doing something. Are they standing quietly at ease? Lying down calmly? Sitting and staring into space? They all look like nothing, but they are still behaviours that can be rewarded. Can and should be if they are behaviours that are desirable in that particular circumstance. The example Ramirez used was rewarding an animal for NOT responding to a cue meant for another animal.

This is one I should pay more attention to given Erik can get a bit possessive of training, if that is possible. Just the other day I accidentally rewarded him when I asked Kivi to give me his paw and Erik leapt in and beat him to it with a very quick and perfect paw target. I rewarded it without thinking, because it was a beautiful example of what I had asked for, but I had temporarily forgotten that I had asked Kivi for it and had gone so far as to put Kivi’s name in front of the cue so both dogs knew it was for him. Anxiety in pets is also a determining value of the of how seriously we should push the envelope in regard to perpetual behaviors.  Article reference from Lifestyle pets.

For me this idea has a broader application. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, animals are reacting to the objects, events, and environments around them and learning what is rewarding and what is not. As Temple Grandin says, they are good at noticing details whereas we are good at noticing general patterns. They won’t automatically gather that a behaviour that has been rewarding in one situation will be rewarding in other situations. They will react differently in different environments, whether that be at the dog park, or at home in the yard or everywhere in between. Training never ceases, whether we take an active role in it or not. It sounds tedious, but guiding our animals’ learning and taking charge of their rewards can be as simple as always carrying rewards and looking for opportunities to use them.