E162: Sharon Carroll - "Positive Training with Horses"

How does training horses differ from training dogs? Are there overlooked side effects of introducing positive training to our equine friends? Sharon Carroll and I talk about the reality of training horses.


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Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Sharon Carroll.

Sharon started competing with dogs over 30 years ago. She then made the change from competing with dogs to competing with horses.

For the next few decades, Sharon had a successful career riding and coaching through to the International levels of both eventing and dressage. She has been an Australian representative rider, and in 2013 acquired her EA Level 3 dressage specialist coaching certificate, the highest equestrian coaching qualification attainable.

She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science, a Graduate Diploma in Captive Vertebrate Management, and a Master of Animal Science. She is currently completing a Ph.D.

Animal behavior, training, species-specific cognition, and welfare are key areas of Sharon's focus.

Sharon assists owners with behavioral issues in both horses and dogs. She is a fully certified behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) in both species. Much of Sharon's routine work is with anxiety-based issues and aggressive behaviors in dogs.

Just under two years ago, Sharon made the transition back from competing with horses to competing with dogs, and is now looking forward to progressing in a range of dog sports.

Hi Sharon, welcome to the podcast!

Sharon Carroll: Hi Melissa. I'm really happy to be chatting with you today.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you tell us a bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them?

Sharon Carroll: Sure. My oldest dog is a 13-year-old Papillion and he basically is allowed to do whatever he wants. I have a just-turned 3-year-old Standard Poodle. He's got his CDX and he's got his RM, and we're currently working on the UD training. He's got most of that sorted, but not quite ready to compete yet. We're also fiddling around a little bit with some scent work and also some trick dog work. And the baby of the family is a 10-month-old Standard Poodle, so he's just lots of fun doing mostly whatever he wants and just starting to work on foundation work.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I mentioned that you started in horses and then transitioned to dogs. What originally got you into this world?

Sharon Carroll: I think like most people I started with pet dogs. I had this obsession with training them to do lots of things, and then I moved from there into competing in conformation and obedience with dogs. And then I made the transition to horses. I decided to leave my job and go work with an international rider. From there I rode Spanish dancing stallions in performing shows, and after that I went to start my riding school and spent years and years teaching and riding.

Melissa Breau: Have you always been a positive trainer? If not, what got you started down that track?

Sharon Carroll: I haven't always been a positive trainer, sadly. I think anyone who started in obedience over thirty years ago didn't start as a positive trainer. There certainly was not much influence at that time.

I guess what got me started really was in my university work, in the post-graduate work, I was working with zoo species, and that was when the big steep change was happening to a lot of changes in management and a lot of changes in training of the zoo species. That's where I really learned about the positive benefits of positive reinforcement training and also the implications of not doing it that way. I think that's really what got me started on that path.

Melissa Breau: I'm curious: What species were you working with?

Sharon Carroll: All sorts. Zoo species and wildlife, so I covered a lot of different areas.

Melissa Breau: If I asked you to describe your philosophy now, how would you do that?

Sharon Carroll: I guess there's two key things I'm always trying to be: I'm trying to be effective and I'm trying to be kind. I think if I keep looking at those two things all the time, that's really important.

I think if you're just trying to be effective and you don't worry about the kind part, you can certainly go down some pretty dark parts. But equally, I think if you don't worry about the effective part, it's not just that you're not achieving what you want, but as soon as you're not being effective, you know that something is going wrong with the training itself. If you're not progressing, then something's happening. Either you're not setting that environment up well enough for that animal to perform the task, or you're not explaining the task well enough to the animal. And so I guess if you're not being effective, then you're also risking some frustration for the animal, which is less than ideal.

If I'm looking at training philosophy, there's probably two things I'm trying not to be always. One would be I'm trying not to be a lazy trainer. To my mind that's when you're just trying to get a result really fast and with less effort and to the detriment of the animal. The other thing I'm trying not to be is an ignorant trainer, which is just not keeping on looking for all the new ways that are happening and all the new ways that people are doing things. So that would be part of my training philosophy.

Melissa Breau: I know that these days there are quite a few positive dog trainers, and they're starting to apply those same principles to training with their horses. Most people probably hear that and are like, "That's a good thing." But my understanding is there's also some downsides to this. Can you talk us through that?

Sharon Carroll: I think overall it's a great thing and it should be happening. We should be looking to do anything we can to be kinder to horses, just like we do with other species. But we are seeing a lot of accidents. We're seeing a lot of people getting hurt trying to do this, mainly associated with those behaviors that are associated with frustration on the part of the animal. And also people not taking into account the horse's previous learning experiences.

Horses tend to come to us with a lot of learning experience onboard. Horses are bought and sold a lot more than dogs are, and so they come with a background, and if that animal has had a history of punishment-based training, for example, and then we turn up and go, "No, we're never going to punish you, and we have treats and everything's great," the animal doesn't necessarily understand that. And when you're just standing there, pausing, waiting for the animal to give you the behavior, those animals can get really stressed because they're just pausing waiting for punishment. They think they're not working out what you want, and they're worried punishment's going to follow. And so those animals can get quite stressed and then you can also see behaviors that you don't want that can be dangerous.

Melissa Breau: Can you get into that just a little bit more? What are some of the dangers that crop up for handlers? Are there options for better managing those risks?

Sharon Carroll: Horses, just by their sheer size, can be dangerous. You've got an animal that's ten to a hundred times bigger than the average dog, and they can bite, they can kick, they can strike, they can trample you. They tend to go to aggression in a different way, or in a quicker way, than dogs will. So there's a definite risk of injury just because of the types of frustration behaviors you see in horses compared to dogs.

And also a little bit to do with 8:26. In dogs, we see dogs that have maybe a very optimistic view, and their frustration behaviors might be excitement-based. But with horses we tend to see more the negative 8:40, so the horses that are a little fearful, a little anxious, and then going down the road, those frustration behaviors coming from that 8:47 and that's a little more dangerous.

I think in order to answer your question about what are the things we can do to manage those risks, protecting contact is one that people don't often think about as being an option with horses. But certainly with any large, dangerous animal other than horses, we tend to think of that option. In a zoo setting, people primarily are using protective contact, so often you will hear that argument that if a zoo animal can be taught through positive-only training, then horses can be too.

But there's a little bit of that thing you have to remember that you also have to survive, and you're in that same space as that animal. So taking that out of the equation and just putting that person in a protective contact setting, at least initially in the training phase, is quite doable, and a lot of people don't think about doing that.

But also not just teaching straightaway things like hand targeting, or things that are getting the horse to be close to you and follow you and being in close contact with you. Maybe teaching things like a target that is on a wall, just taking that animal initially to doing those skills not targeted at you can help that if they get frustrated, they don't swing a front leg at you, or they don't lunge and bite at you, they're not in that same sort of space.

Also I think spending a lot of time working on desensitizing and counter-conditioning. We're very aware with dogs. We wouldn't be trying to get them to perform an actual exercise or an actual activity if they were so over-aroused that they were leaping around and barking and lunging at the end of the lead.

But people actually do that with horses. The horses are naturally neophobic; they're naturally scared of new things. And so they'll take them into a new place, and the horse is very nervous and it's very tense, and then they try to get the animal to perform tasks, and you're like, "Hang on. This animal just needs some desensitizing first."

So focusing on that desensitizing and counter-conditioning, just like we do with the dogs, doing the same thing with the horses, remembering that they're often coming from that fearful place, as opposed to most people not dealing with fearful dogs. There's lots of fearful dogs out there, but the average trainer isn't dealing with a fearful dog, whereas the average horse trainer probably is.

And also I think sometimes just remembering that although our goal is positive-only reinforcement-based training, we should remember that sometimes when we're training that horse, sometimes we're just surviving. It's no use getting trampled just going, "I don't want to put my hands up and block the horse because that would be horrible and that would be aversive." You do have to remember you've got to survive in there as well. Now if that's happening a lot, you need to look at your training strategy. Are you setting it up well? Is the horse in a mental frame of mind to do that task? Are you explaining it well enough? But at that moment in time, it's just management.

It would be the same as if the dog was suddenly going to jump off the back deck. We don't go, "Oh no, we can't grab his collar." We just save the dog at that moment. It's not part of their training. It's just saving the dog. It's the same with the horses. Sometimes you're just saving yourself for that moment. So just remembering that it's not a bad thing to block that horse or to say, "No, back up a bit. Give me some space." That's not a bad thing. It's not part of the training, it's just part of the surviving, and people need to remember that.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned protective contact and I want to talk about that for a second, in case people can't picture what that looks like with a horse. Can you describe the setup that you're talking about there?

Sharon Carroll: A lot of horses are in a stall, so a lot of horses are automatically inside a box that has a door that you can reach over. You can go in and set up a target square on the inside of that door and then shut that door and then stay on the other side of that door and then be rewarding over the door, so that if the horse does get frustrated … and remember that dogs can get frustrated, they can go down the path of becoming quiet and showing some displacement behaviors and things like that, or they can start barking at you and those sort of things. But horses almost always will go down the route of biting, striking, and getting annoyed rather than just shutting down and becoming emotionally quiet at that point. You can certainly produce learned helplessness, but that's a different setting.

So remembering that if these horses get frustrated, they're possibly going to target you. You're the person with the food. So just setting up initially that door between you and them, or having them on the other side of a fence, just until you're really familiar with that animal and you've built that relationship with that animal and you know what its behaviors are going to be when it gets frustrated. And then, sure enough, we might go in with the animal.

Melissa Breau: As somebody who has worked with both horses and dogs, I want to dive into that a little bit. How is training a horse different from training a dog? You've talked about it a little bit, but I'd like to talk a little bit more. We hear the saying that all animals are animals, and behavior science is behavior science, so I want to dig into that a little bit too. How is that maybe oversimplifying the issue when we're talking about dogs versus horses?

Sharon Carroll: I think the first thing to think about is that we tend to think of these four quadrants as some sort of training method, but of course they're not. It's about learning. It actually happens with or without us. Of course we can utilize our knowledge of those four quadrants to achieve our training goals, but that's happening all the time, and so those four boxes are not as clear as what a lot of people think they are, and quite often things flow a little bit from one box into another box.

Those things, for example, with a horse, might occur naturally when a fly lands on the horse's leg. The fly lands on its leg, it starts walking around, it's quite annoying for the horse, and eventually the horse is going to extend its leg and the fly moves away. That's negative reinforcement. Now there's nothing painful, there's nothing fear-inducing, but what happened was it was irritating, it was annoying, and the stomp of the foot got rid of it. That's negative reinforcement.

I think that negative reinforcement is a common method in the horse industry and horses do tend to respond well to it. They're a herd animal. They're an animal that do put pressure on each other, spatial pressure on each other, it's part of what they do, so they're used to moving away from pressure. And so negative reinforcement isn't that foreign a concept to a horse.

What we need to remember at this point is that negative reinforcement I think a lot of people confuse with punishment because it involves an aversive. The other thing to remember is it doesn't have to be a really bad aversive. It can just be something that's a little bit annoying and the animal moves away and you take that pressure off, or you take that irritation off, and that's all negative reinforcement is.

Now negative reinforcement can slide into some pretty ugly territories, because if we were to put both our legs on the horse and squeeze with our legs, ask the horse to go forward, when we squeeze with our legs, if the horse then walks forward, we take our legs off, that is exactly negative reinforcement. But if we squeeze with our legs and the horse doesn't move, so we have to squeeze harder, and then we squeeze harder again, then we start kicking harder and harder and then we start hitting, now we're positively punishing the horse for standing still. And so it's pretty quickly a slope that can get messy. That's an important thing to remember when training all animals is that those four boxes are not as defined as a lot of people think.

Coming back to the difference between dogs and horses, there's a lot of differences. One's a 16:50, one's a predator. Problem solving is inherent to all animals, but certainly problem solving for dogs — it's really, really important. For horses, they don't have to hunt their food. It's grass. It grows on the ground. They don't have to learn how to track it. They don't have to learn how to capture it. There's nothing really tricky about it. So they don't have that same desire to do some of the things that dogs have that desire to do.

One of the most important things for horses is that horses primarily love being left alone. They love peace. That's why negative reinforcement works so well for them. So when a horse has done something really well, we often just stop. We stop and let that animal rest for a moment before we do anything else. We might even put that horse back in its box. We might go, "You've done so amazingly that I'll put you back away for a little while and just leave you in peace."

If we did that with a dog and went, "You've done so amazing, I'm going to pop you in your crate and leave you in there for fifteen minutes," it wouldn't be very reinforcing for the dog. It's going to be reinforcing for the horse, but not reinforcing for the dog. So whenever you're working with different species, it's so important that you know what's going to motivate that species, because if you don't know what the motivators are for that species, your positive reinforcement is not going to be effective. And so I think that's a couple of key differences between working with dogs and horses.

Melissa Breau: How popular is positive training popular in the horse world these days? Can you share a little bit for those people who aren't involved in that world what that looks like today?

Sharon Carroll: Unfortunately, it's not super-popular. Horses traditionally have been trained with a lot of positive punishment, with a lot of negative reinforcement, and with a lot of flooding.

For people who aren't familiar with flooding, flooding is like this horrendously extreme end of desensitization where you really aren't giving the animal an option at all. With a young foal, for example, they may lay that animal down, they may tie its legs together, they might put it in a position where it definitely cannot escape, it cannot avoid, and then they will just cover that animal with whatever they want, cover sacks, rub it all over with bags and sacks, they might introduce clippers to that animal, they might just pat it all over. They'll do a whole heap of things to that animal. But the animal is not able to avoid that. It's not able to escape. It can't fight. It can't flee. That's what flooding is.

Flooding is a very common technique in horses where they're restrained, not just as foals, as adults. They're restrained, or their ability to fight or flee is taken away from them, and then they're made to endure whatever they're scared of. The result, unfortunately, is there's a lot of learned helplessness in horses. There's also a lot of behavioral issues where horses do eventually try and fight back and people get injured, and horses get put down or get sent to sell yards or get rehomed over and over again because they're performing behaviors that in fairness to them make a lot of sense, but for the humans they're dangerous and unwanted behaviors.

It's better than it used to be. I think certainly we're seeing less positive punishment and more use of well thought out negative reinforcement. We're not seeing a lot of positive reinforcement. We're seeing a lot less nasty negative reinforcement, meaning we're seeing just subtle annoying techniques as opposed to techniques that were quite brutal in the past. Some sports have made massive inroads, and those Olympic sports are under a lot of scrutiny. Some sports haven't. You will still actually see blood on horses at competitions in some sports, just from spurs and just from bits. Unfortunately, even in magazines, even in just common discussions in the horse industry, you will still mainly hear of horses talked of as being difficult or stubborn or problem horses. Very rare do the owners or riders or trainers consider it could possibly have anything to do with their input. They mainly think it's the horse that's doing all these horrible things.

So it's a little disappointing but it certainly is the case that there's still a lot of traditional-style training happening in horses, even in the developed world, and certainly where they're still very much working animals there's even worse treatment often.

But we've seen a slight shift and there's certainly some people making some big pushes for positive reinforcement. I guess the main thing there is I'd like to see people be really honest about the training techniques that they're using, and I'm not trying to be controversial there.

What I'm saying is things like liberty work, which has become very popular over recent times. Liberty work does not equal positive reinforcement training. I think to a lot of people that are less familiar with that sector, they probably see this animal that doesn't have a lead attached to it, it doesn't have a bridle or a bit, it's got no equipment, and yet the animal is still working alongside this person in the open. They're led to believe that it must be because the animal wants to be there, but I would point out that compulsion-based training doesn't necessarily rely on there actually being control, but more that the animal believes there's control.

And so a lot of times if you look at the behaviors of those liberty horses, you will see a lot of signs that the animal is actually quite stressed and the animal is not very comfortable and not very "happy." So I think we need to try and make sure that people realize that just because the animal is at liberty doesn't mean that the animal is undergoing positive-only training. I think that's a key thing.

There certainly are people, even in the competition sector, that are trying really hard to make inroads into introducing positive reinforcement to establish movements in horses, but also to improve movements in horses. And that's really exciting to see.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned this idea early on about horses have learning history often when you start working with them, and you mentioned just now that a lot of the times they have this learned helplessness. It totally makes sense to me that yes, when they first start to realize they have choice, their choices may not be the choices you want them to make, because they're anticipating pain. That totally makes sense to me. I wanted to call that out. And then you mentioned liberty training, and maybe it's just me, but I'm not familiar with it, so can you explain a little bit about what it is?

Sharon Carroll: Sure. Because horses tend to be seen with a rider on their back with some sort of lead attached to the horse's mouth, a bridle with a bit in the horse's mouth or whether it's just a halter around the horse, that's the more traditional thing that we think of when we think of someone riding a horse. And when they're on the ground, same thing. People are used to seeing the horse attached to the rider via a lead or a set of reins.

In liberty work, it's specifically an animal that has no equipment on it. It's in an open space with no equipment. Now that animal sometimes is just fine with the person. Sometimes it's performing a whole range of tricks or performances. I think it's that idea of seeing a horse with no equipment, just in the open, with the ability to run off to the other corner and stand in the other corner, it makes people believe that that's what the animal would do if it wanted to.

What I'm saying is that that animal sometimes has undergone some fairly tough training to explain to the animal that that's actually not an option and it shouldn't think about doing that. And so a little bit like a shock collar on a dog, where we see that there's no lead attached and the dog is still walking alongside in a busy shopping center, for example. It's still compelled to do that because it doesn't believe it has an option, even though there's no lead there. And that's the same thing pretty much exactly that happens in the liberty sector.

Melissa Breau: I want to switch gears a little bit here and talk about actual training. How does some of the different things that we do train horses to do, how do those things differ when we're talking about training competition behavior, for example, versus tricks or something like cooperative care? Do they require different thought processes or different methods or techniques? How are those things similar and different?

Sharon Carroll: I think that, and this is completely my opinion, and I'm very prepared to eat my words in years to come, because I've certainly had to in the dog world, because I started training with dogs in an environment where there was no one doing anything but mainly punishment-based training. So I know that I probably at that time believed that there was no better way, and now I certainly know there is. So I'm prepared to say that I might be saying this again in a few years time that I was wrong, and that's OK.

But, at the moment, my opinion would be that we can use positive-only for tricks, I think we can use positive-only for cooperative care, I think we can use positive-only for basic riding. So if I want to be able to get on my horse and walk, trot, and cantor around, take it to the beach, have it with no equipment on it, I think all of those things are very achievable, providing you're prepared to put the time and effort in using positive-only.

I think in competition at the moment, this is my opinion, in dressage as an example, because that's the sport I know the most about, I think it's going to be difficult because we're not allowed to use our voice, so there's no voice commands possible, and we're on the horse's back. There's no visual hand signals that we can give to the horse. We have to keep our hands very close together and very low down, and we have to keep our legs quite still on the horse's sides. So really what we're left with are our two 27:35, our two legs, and our two hands to communicate all of the different things that we need them to do.

That's a lot of different paces within the paces, there's different paces, and lots of different tricks. I think in order to do that, we're still a little bit left with squeeze with your legs, horse goes forward, take your leg off, place your right leg on, horse moves to the left, take your leg off. Now whether you want to call that a tactile cue, not negative reinforcement training, that's where the waters become quite muddy, because if you're prepared to call that a tactile cue, then maybe we can completely do it with positive reinforcement only. But I would think that somewhere in that training of that movement, you are applying some pressure with that leg, and I would say at that point it's negative reinforcement.

This is where it gets very complicated, because a lot of people, without even realizing it, in multiple animals, will use negative reinforcement combined with positive reinforcement and believe that they're using positive reinforcement.

For example, if I wanted a dog to back up, I could teach it to target back to a mat and then treat it, and that's positive reinforcement. But if I was to step into that dog's space and somewhat use spatial pressure to push the dog backwards, then I'm using negative reinforcement. Now the fact that I give the dog a treat afterwards, I may think that I'm using just positive reinforcement, but in actual fact what I've done is I've applied spatial pressure, and when the dog stepped backwards I stopped applying that spatial pressure, and hence it was negative reinforcement that actually got the animal to go backwards. And then we can add to that a treat. But we are combining things. We aren't doing just one thing.

And that's where the confusion comes with the dressage horses, for example. I know there are a few people that are desperate to produce high-end horses all the way from the bottom to the top with positive only, and I think some of them are just maybe being a little elastic on the fact that when they're applying that pressure, they may be considering it just a tactile cue, as opposed to believing that's part of what's making the animal do what it's doing.

Melissa Breau: It's like you were saying earlier, those quadrants can be awful muddy, and sometimes even that may or may not be the best way to think about it. It goes back to the way you were describing your philosophy about kind and effective rather than 30:13.

Sharon Carroll: If we could absolutely get rid of the quadrant idea, I think that would be the most amazing thing, because people just want to live in that one quadrant and not appreciate that … for example, with horses, there's a lot of studies that have shown, and it's just a recent one actually not that long ago that someone was showing me the results for, and unfortunately it's not showing what people want it to show, and that is that people want it to show that these horses are doing so much better on positive reinforcement training.

But in actual fact, when you look at the end result, there's always one or more of the horses in the positive reinforcement group that hasn't made it to the end criteria. So it's not as effective. That's OK, but when you look at the kindness part, in actual fact you sometimes see that the markers they're using to assess the stress levels of the horses don't even completely indicate that the horse was more comfortable in the positive-only sector.

This is possibly in this case just to do with those particular horses may have had a lot of experience in negative reinforcement training, so they really understood it, and when the new task was shown to them using negative reinforcement, they went, "I've got that. I fully understand that," and away they go and they learn a new task. Whereas the positive reinforcement aspect to it, they're like, "Why are we doing this? I don't understand. I'm a little confused."

Now it could be that had those same animals, those same horses, been consistently exposed to that, there may be a very different outcome. But I think it's important to remember that once we look at those four quadrants, we probably should be just looking at how happy was the animal during the training, how keen did the animal seem to be to come back and train again, did we see any signs that the animal was not enjoying it, were we at any time using any painful or fear-inducing stimulus.

Certainly for me, that's absolutely a territory I don't go into. I'm not interested in things that induce pain, or things that are fear-inducing for the animal, so I'm certainly not saying we should be entering those sort of quadrants. But in terms of for horses, negative reinforcement does seem to be something that, providing it's used with an aversive that's very subtle, something that's just a little bit annoying but not something that's painful or fear-inducing, then I don't think we should be so terrified of entering that sector.

Melissa Breau: I totally agree with you that sometimes the quadrants are more messy than they're worth, and it certainly seems like they lead to a lot of division amongst trainers, rather than really helping clarify things. Often they just lead to arguments. But you don't have to get into that today. So … are there areas where you feel like positive reinforcement could really have a big impact in the horse-training world that maybe a lot of trainers are overlooking, or that we should really seriously consider how we can apply positive training to work on those things?

Sharon Carroll: Absolutely. There's definitely a few key areas, and I think one thing would be those regular tasks that are performed for horses, so the furriers come and trim their feet or put their shoes on, clipping is often performed on horses, and yet time and time again I see people using sedation because it's quick and easy.

And I think that would be a nice place to take that time to train the animal, to do the desensitizing work, so that the animal is genuinely comfortable there, because one of the things we know is that the sedations that are commonly handed out for people to use on horses have no anti-anxiety component. They are just sedations, 34:09 sedatives, and so what you've potentially got is an animal that's getting no anti-anxiety part. It's not enjoying the process but it's not able to react, and so you're getting a flooding-type principal. And that can be happening over and over again, because they're doing that every time the animal is clipped or every time the furrier comes or every time the vet comes.

I think that would be the number one thing is if we really looked at tasks that need to be performed regularly, whether it's using 34:42 paste on a horse, whether it's injecting a horse, clipping, doing furrier-type work, and really getting those horses genuinely comfortable, not just scared into standing still, but actually comfortable about standing still. They're prime times that people use positive punishment because what happens is the furrier gets annoyed, they're frustrated, they're trying to get to the next job, this horse is moving around, and then they yank on the horse's head or they smack the horse in the ribs, they're like, "Stand up!" because they're just trying to get their job done.

The owners need to put that work in for their own horse's sake, because we know that psychological trauma is cumulative, and why would we be wanting to expose our horses over and over again when we could be avoiding that? And veterinary visits, definitely, we'd love to keep the vet safer, we'd love to get the furriers safer, and horses, when they're scared, they're big animals, they're very reactive, they can do a lot of damage fairly quickly, so there's really only two options: either someone gets hurt or the animal gets restrained.

When the animal is restrained and still undergoing a process that it's not enjoying, we're leading toward potential psychological trauma, and if we can avoid it, would be fantastic. Teaching cooperative care would be the best thing we could do to avoid having to restrain horses, to have them enjoy the processes, or at least be comfortable with the processes, that are happening on a regular basis.

Melissa Breau: We're getting to the end here, and I've got three questions I usually ask people at the end of their first interview, so I'd like to walk through those. The first one is what's the training-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Sharon Carroll: I've just come back to obedience competing, so I'm actually hoping the best is yet to come. But I think at the moment, probably because it's my latest pet project, but probably at the moment, it would be my work with teaching dogs to communicate through symbols. I actually have a project 36:49 where we train the dogs to be able to identify the symbols and be able to identify the consequence that's going to happen as a result of touching that symbol. This way we can put a whole group of symbols on a wall and the dog can say, "I'd like to play tug," or "I'd like to go for a walk now," or whatever, "I'd like my jacket on," or "I'd like my jacket off."

There's an amazing study done with horses proving that horses could totally determine what they'd like to have done, based on their thermal comfort, whether they'd like their rug on or whether they'd like it off or they'd like to remain as is. So it's based on that work. And then there's also a "no" sign, so if you put up a heap of signs and the dog doesn't like any of them, it can say, "No, I don't want to do any of those things," and still get rewarded for saying no.

I think that gives people the opportunity to have a two-way communication with their dogs that they maybe haven't really had before, and lots of people that are working on that are getting really excited about watching their dogs tell them what they like to do. So I think that's probably at the moment my training-related accomplishment that I'm proudest of.

Melissa Breau: That's pretty neat. My next one is what's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Sharon Carroll: It's based in show jumping, so I'll tell you from the show jumping perspective. It was said to me, "You're always better off jumping a jump that's thirty centimeters too low, thirty times too many, than jumping one jump too high once." The honest truth is that's so important for all animals. I use that in every animal.

I probably heard that 25 years ago and I use it all the time, because yes, you're trying to progress, yes, you want to move forward, but you have to make sure that you're always better off just doing that task one extra time, a few extra times, really making sure the animal is confident before you move up, rather than going that next step up, shattering their confidence in some way, and then having to repair a heap of work.

So taking your time. If it means you're going a bit slower and you repeat that same task quite a few times before you move on to the harder task, that's fine. I'd rather do that and protect the animal's confidence than go up a little too quick and shatter their confidence and then have to deal with the problem.

Melissa Breau: And the last one: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Sharon Carroll: I think if I had to look across all species, because I've spent a lot of time across lots of species, for his amazing problem-solving abilities it would have to be Ken Ramirez.

However, I would say if I was looking at just being broader on my answer, I'd say that I genuinely look up to any person who has been effective and successful as a trainer using one technique and then decided to change techniques purely to be kinder to the animal. Because I think if you're changing techniques because you just want to be more successful, want to have a better outcome, that's pretty normal. That's what we're all doing as trainers all the time.

But when you're already successful and you're already effective and you decide to make that really tough decision to challenge yourself to then try and produce animals to that same level or better, using a completely different approach purely because you're trying to look at the animal's perspective, I think I look up to anyone that does that. I think that's an amazing effort to do that.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Sharon!

Sharon Carroll: Thank you. It's been great. I've been enjoying chatting with you.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, lots of fun. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week with Executive Director of the International Association of Animal Behavior consultants, IIABC, Marjie Alonso.

Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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