Behavior Hare Training

How to Train a Hare Step 2: Desensitisation

Check out Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation for a great systematic desensitisation method. Adapt it for your own uses.

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 behavior problem and often our answer is to attempt to suppress the behavior they are using to tell us they are not comfortable.

The behaviors 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 behavior 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 wireless pet containment system 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 behavior.

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 behavior that will tell you why things aren’t going according to plan.

Kit Training