[00:00:00] Michelle: It’s more, “Okay, how can I add some enrichment to get to the goal of whatever it is that we’re trying to get?” Which in most cases is be able to touch the animal, handle the animal, have the animal feel safe. So, usually when I’m talking through a case with somebody, I’m thinking, “Okay, what can I, what can we add to this animal’s life to help increase their confidence?”
[00:00:25] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…
[00:00:42] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…
[00:00:44] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.
The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Michelle Martiya. Michelle is a certified exotic animal trainer from Boca Raton, Florida, who coaches people virtually in training their equids and exotic pets.
Michelle specializes in working with fearful and feral equids, from those who have never been in contact with humans, to those who have suffered trauma and abuse with a relationship-based approach, Michelle focuses on developing connection and communication between human and animal through training, movement, and enrichment.
I love getting to hear people talk about working with species that I’m not as familiar with. One, just cuz I think it’s interesting and I like learning new things, but two, because I usually find a little nugget of gold in whatever they say that I can apply to a species that I do work with. It helps to get those creative juices flowing, and I’m sure this episode is going to do the same for you as it did for me.
In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Michelle talk about zebra’s, servals, leopards, oh my, horse enrichment, crate training kinkajous, and it doesn’t always have to be a fight.
Alright, here it is, today’s episode, Michelle Martiya: The Benefit of Working with Multiple Species.
[00:02:24] Emily: All right. Tell us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.
[00:02:28] Michelle: Hi, my name is Michelle Martiya, and pronouns would be she, her. Um, my pets are, have Bosco, he’s a Manchester Terrier. I have Spirit and Netiri are both Bengal cats, and Thailan is a longhaired domestic cat. And then I have Robinhood, who is my 20, almost 27-year-old Mustang horse.
[00:02:54] Emily: Excellent. So, tell us your story. How did you get to where you are today?
[00:02:59] Michelle: It’s, it’s funny cuz I, I’ve heard from listening to other podcasts that most people kind of come to positive reinforcement through, um, other training methods first, and then they discover “Don’t Shoot the Dog.” And they read that and they kind of, you know, get on board, I actually had a completely different, um, experience.
I had not done any training prior to learning about positive reinforcement. I was actually a dog groomer. I worked as a dog groomer, that was my career for 25 plus years, and I was kind of burnt out and looking for something different to do. And I stumbled across a, uh, dog training course through Animal Behavior College.
So, I thought, “Oh, this would be perfect.” You know, help me learn to handle the dogs better and I can, uh, you know, improve my grooming. So, I took the course and I was totally hooked, obsessed. I was like, “Oh my gosh, where has this been all my life?” It kind of, it felt like it, it like opened doors to something that I had already been doing, in a way.
But never, never had, you know, it was like I had all these pieces but hadn’t put them all together. So, yeah, it was kind of like learning a new language, but having the foundation of the language already. So yeah, it was really cool. I, I became very, very obsessed, took all the courses, did all the things, and started branching out to working with multiple species.
For me, it came very easy to see how positive reinforcement applied, not just to dog training, but to relationships with other people, training other animals, other species. I kind of delved in headfirst, so now I’m, I’m here training all different species. I’ve worked with multiple, multiple species from dogs, to equids, to exotics, and it’s been quite a ride. It’s only been about nine years, but it feels like it’s been a lifetime.
[00:05:02] Emily: Yeah. So how did you get into the equids and exotics? Was that more, uh, were you already working with horses in other hoof stock, or did you get into that through kind of the positive reinforcement world? How did, how did that end up happening?
[00:05:16] Michelle: I had actually worked with horses when I was young. Just taking care of them. Nothing, no training or anything like that. So, I was familiar with the species, and it kind of happened the same way, just by chance. Um, I was, dog training, and I met another dog trainer, and she happened to have a Mustang and she was talking to me about it one day and, and kind of complaining that she was having some trouble. She wasn’t able to catch the horse. She wasn’t able to touch the horse. And I said, “Well, why don’t we, why don’t we try some, you know, positive reinforcement and see where we get? Um, and that, was very successful right away. I was able to catch her within the first hour that I was there, while not even maybe the first 15 minutes, hands on the horse able to do stuff with her that, that the owner previously hadn’t been able to do.
So, then from there, I started, kind of got back into that world of horses, and started looking for places to volunteer. And, just a few rescue, local rescues. I started to, uh, to get into, volunteering and helping the rescues with their tougher cases, the horses that were unapproachable. I kind of discovered right away that that was definitely my forte.
That was, that was definitely what I was good at, was working with the fearful, untouchable, unapproachable. Uh, and then from there I had, I ended up, well, kind of a long story so I won’t go through the whole story, but I ended up with a horse. Um, this was not my plan, but it happened. And when I was going out to see my horse, um, I looked over as I was driving past somebody’s yard and there was a zebra. Not something you see every day when you’re just randomly driving around.
So, of course I stopped, and I went to their door, and “oh my gosh, you have a zebra? Can I see it?” And the owner said, ” You can go back there and see her, but she’s not friendly. Um, we can’t get near her she’s afraid.” And me being me said, “Well, I might be able to help you with that.” And she, she just set me loose back there, sent me back there on my own.
As I walked back to where she had instructed me to go, by myself to see this zebra, I had to cut through a posture with a whole bunch of other animals that I never even knew existed. So, she had a, a bunch of exotics. So, I started working with the Zebra, and that led to working with foxes, porcupine, Kinkajou, just a bunch of different animals. So yeah, all of it happened by chance.
[00:07:49] Emily: I love that I, I kind of stumbled into lots of different species in Austin in the same way, like when I was new and entering the field, I just ended up having all of these opportunities and, I miss that. Like, I kind of have gotten sort of niche down into dogs, and I love dogs, but, um, one of the things that I love about you and enjoy, you know, talking to you and learning from you is, that you also have that kind of multiple species thing.
And I miss that a lot. I miss that about being in Austin, and having all those opportunities because it is a totally different experience to take what you know about learning science and all, you know, the, all the behavior sciences, and then apply it to a different species and go, “Oh, this is how it works.” Like, it’s the same fundamental principles, but how it looks is different in different species. And uh, so that’s just like a great joy of mine and I don’t get to do it nearly as much as I used to. So, I’m living vicariously through you.
[00:08:46] Michelle: Well, unfortunately, I’m feeling the same way now, because I have, I have subsequently kind of lost many of those opportunities. The Zebra was, ended up being rehomed, so I was no longer there with her and the other exotics there. And the, the opportunities to work with other exotics just kind of dwindled.
So once in a great while, I do get a call from somebody who, you know, they stumbled across my website, or a video or something that I’d posted, they’ll ask questions and I might be able to do a little bit of work with them. I’ve worked with dogs all my life, but it’s not really what I’m like really, really good at. It’s not what I really am passionate and, and love, um, I do enjoy working with dogs, but it’s almost too easy in a way. So, yeah, I miss working with the other species. I don’t get nearly enough opportunity to work with the other species. I’m doing a lot more with dogs now.
[00:09:42] Emily: Right. Yeah, I, I can empathize with that. And it, it sounds terrible to say, and it’s not, like you said, we both love dogs. We love working with them. They’re, they’re great and sweet, but I think that is, there’s an element of that, and for me, it’s not that the training is easy because behavior, is behavior, is behavior, right, across species. But it’s that when you’re working with an animal that has been domesticated for thousands, and thousands of years, and so just as a species, they just wanna work with people. Like, you can make so many mistakes, and they’re still like, “Yeah, I’m here for it, whatever. As long as we’re doing stuff together.” That there’s not the same joy as when you’re working with the species who’s like, “I’m sorry, I’m gonna need you to give me a 60-minute PowerPoint presentation explaining to me why I should care about you at all.” Right? And then having to like earn that relationship and show them why it’s beneficial to, to work together.
And what’s funny about that is when I was working at the sanctuary where Allie and I met, when I moved to the dog department, I found myself being drawn to what everybody would call the jerk dogs, which were essentially the dogs who had that kind of like exotic personality of like, “I, why should I care about you?”
And I would, I just would be so enamored with them, and it took me a while to realize it’s because I missed working with species that don’t just automatically want to work with you. And so, I’m very sympathetic to that. There’s something really fulfilling about meeting an individual who doesn’t by default love you, and, and then having to go, “Okay, let’s build that relationship from the ground up.” I think it’s, it’s really beautiful.
So, one of the reasons I wanted to bring you on today is because, I, obviously we care a lot about enrichment and how we, you use enrichment to improve welfare and wellbeing and, allow animals to kind of be the best version of themselves, right? And I love your approach to enrichment.
I think I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that equids and other exotic species are probably the least enriched in the kind of world of, pets of, of, you know, animal care. What I’ve heard a lot of people say is, how do you do horse enrichment? Like, I’ve actually like friends of mine who are horse people, when I’ve talked about enriching horses, they’re like, ” What do you mean? Like jolly balls?” I, I think you are a really good person to have on the podcast to talk about what enrichment looks like for a species that people don’t typically think of as needing to be enriched. So, I would love to hear you talk about your approach, how you do that, how you structure your enrichment plans for Equids.
[00:12:22] Michelle: It’s interesting that, I, I would agree that equids are probably the least enriched of all species, in a, in a private, you know, pet setting. I have found surprisingly that my, my, exotic. pet owners are actually pretty knowledgeable about enrichment, in comparison to even dog owners.
So, exotics do tend to, as pets, do tend to get a little bit more enrichment than you would think. But horses, yeah, horses are kind of throw ’em out there in the field or, you know, have them in a stall, and just keep them there and take ’em out when you want to ride. So not a lot of thought is put into giving them more stuff to do because they just, they, you know, they’re so easygoing and just kind of, they just stay there.
You know, most horses aren’t trying to break out of their stalls or you get the occasional, somebody says, you know, Oh, my horse won’t stay, and it’s pasture and is always breaking through fences. And then you have to, you know, you have to deal with that. But for the most part, most horses are, they just stay where they are, and meander around, or stand where they are and just deal with their lives as is.
So, people don’t really think, there’s not that need that, that obvious need that, “Oh, my horse needs something more.” When I, when I talk to people about their horses, or other equids, mules, donkeys, that type of, not so much. Zebras, because again, zebras fall into that exotics category and people are a little bit more aware and do provide a little bit more enrichment.
But horses, donkeys, mules, are, are very much working animals. You know, they have a specific purpose and when they’re not being used for that specific purpose, they’re oftentimes just left. So, when I work on a case with somebody who’s having an issue with their animal, and usually I focus mostly on animals that are very fearful.
So, these are animals that are afraid of people, and their people often can’t get near them. So, the main goal is to be able to get close to the animal. So, it’s a little bit different than maybe what some other people are working on, behavioral problems that, uh, that are more close up. So for me, I’ve never really taken on a case where my focus has been enrichment.
It’s more, “Okay, how can I add some enrichment to get to the goal of whatever it is that we’re trying to get?” which in most cases is be able to touch the animal, handle the animal, have the animal feel safe. So, usually when I’m talking through a case with somebody, I’m thinking, “Okay, what can I, what can we add to this animal’s life to help increase their confidence?”
So, that might be adding friends. equid species do not do well alone, especially horses. They, they really need the companion of other horses. So, that’s hugely, hugely important for them. Grazing opportunities. Surprisingly, you know, you think these animals naturally in the wild, they’re out grazing 16, 18 hours a day, and in captivity, we put them in stalls and they’re just stuck in a stall all day long, and they get fed twice a day. So, when I talk to, to people and they’re describing that, that’s kind of their, the way their animals kept, and we start looking at how can we provide grazing opportunity, foraging opportunity to alleviate that need that the animal has, and again, increase, increased confidence and get them to feel more, uh, comfortable, and trusting, and open to behavior change.
[00:16:07] Emily: Yeah. Yeah, that was great. I think that’s, a really important thing that there’s, there are actually a few things that you brought up that I think are really important. One is that we don’t actually talk to clients about enrichment either. So, I think, that idea of like, I’m not, I don’t need to sell my clients on enrichment.
I just need to help them, help their animal become more physically, emotionally, and behaviorally healthy so that they can be the best version of themselves. And what we’re doing is enrichment, but we don’t have to sell that on clients. We have to tell them, ” If you give your animal this grazing opportunity, then it’ll alleviate the, the problem that you hired me for.” I think that that is a really important point that, You don’t have to frame it as enrichment in order for you to help your clients enrich their pets.
I think it’s interesting that your experience is that people with exotic animals are more knowledgeable about enrichment, because that wasn’t my experience in Austin. I don’t know if it’s a difference in location, or if it’s the fact that I’ve been out of Austin for almost a decade, and people know more about enrichment now than they did a decade ago, but I think that’s fascinating and encouraging to hear that.
A lot of people who have equids also have exotics, at least in my experience, a connection that I’ve seen a lot, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts about that disconnect between like what they’ll provide for their exotic species and what they’ll provide for their equid.
[00:17:33] Michelle: I think it has to do with familiarity. So, with horses and dogs, we’ve kept them for thousands of years in a certain way. And so, this is acceptable, this is, this is what we do. You get a horse and you put it in a stall, and you, you know, maybe have a little turnout for it, um, and you come two or three times a week and you go for a ride, and you put them back in their stall and, and that’s it.
Or your dog, you know, your, your dog just lives in your house, and they have plenty of toys and they have plenty of, of chew items, and they have their little crate and they’re, you know, they’re just there. And you know, you might be somebody who does a lot of stuff, well, you know, you go out hiking with your dog, or you do sports, or, or whatever.
But most people, they just, they have a dog, and the dog is just there. And that’s familiar and that’s acceptable, and that’s just what we do. With exotics, you have a lot of problems right away. It’s, it’s not familiar. It’s not a normal, you know, most people do not own a fox. So, they get a fox and they’re like, “Okay, my fox is peeing everywhere. My fox is destroying my stuff. My fox screams at 3:00 AM.”
And they’re immediately kind of thrust into this world of, I have this animal, but this animal is, is problematic. There’s a lot of issues that we’re running into. And so, then they, they go, they’ve gotta solve that somehow. And so, I think, I think that they come to a lot more knowledge about enrichment because they, they go and they start asking, what do I do to get this animals to stop screaming at 3:00 AM, or to stop biting, or, you know, whatever it.
And I think as, at least as far as I’ve seen on the groups and from talking to, to the few clients that I’ve had here and there, enrichment is usually, enrichment as, so as far as giving them species appropriate things to do, usually pops up often. people who have had exotics for a while, they’re a little bit more knowledgeable.
I do see quite often, options for, you know, does your, does your fox have a digging pit? Does your fox have, you know, is, is he, are you just giving him food in a bowl or are you maybe making it a little bit more harder for him to get his food? You know, some of the, some of the cats, servals, you know, people have, it’s been very interesting some of the ways that people have come up with to feed their servals to make it more interesting than just plopping food in a bowl.
So I, I think that’s the difference. They’re, they’re unfamiliar and people have to resolve a lot more problems than, than you would with the more domestic and familiar animals like dogs and, and horses.
[00:20:18] Emily: Yeah, so I think that’s interesting that we’re seeing this trend towards people who have exotic animals are being solution oriented when they have these problems, like, “Okay, I need to learn about the species and what do I do to help them be better?”
Um, whereas when I started out it was like, “Oh, they’re wild, they’re dangerous. Just keep ’em in a cage.” Right? And so, I, I love to see that that’s a kind of cultural shift that’s happening, and it brings me a lot of joy to see that more people are, are caring about that in the exotics world, cuz if we’re gonna keep wild animals, we should do our best to meet their needs.
[00:20:56] Michelle: Well, you figure that if you’re, you know, if you’ve gone out and you’ve gotten a a lemur, you didn’t get the lemur to keep it in the cage, right? If you’ve gotten any of these animals, like you’ve got it so that you could have it and interact with it and have a relationship with it. So, if, if you’ve had to stick it in a cage and, and that’s kind of it.
Like that’s not, I don’t think that’s enough for most people. Like, that’s not good enough. They want more from the animal. That’s what they got it for. So, I just, I think personally that we need more people, working with exotics and pushing to help educate people because no matter how you feel about it, I mean, most people are, you know, in, in positive reinforcement circles especially, are really against exotic pet ownership, but it’s not gonna go away. And it’s, it’s gonna be a thing, and there’s laws that protect people, you know, and they’re allowed to own these animals. So, I think that if more people are pushing for the welfare of these animals within private ownership, I think we’ll see a huge improvement to that.
And we’ll see these animals, lives improve, improved with enrichment, and training, and all of the things that we take for granted and just accept as the norm with dogs, and which is becoming kind of the norm with horses too. And birds for sure. I think birds probably started it, that real trend towards enrichment, and having more stuff to do and instead of just being stuck in a cage.
Yeah, I, I think that if, if we have more people that get interested and start trying to work with pet owners, or facilities, and push for more training, and enrichment, I think we’ll see a huge, a huge shift in, in that area and better welfare for those animals.
[00:22:38] Emily: I so agree with you. I, it’s a really complicated topic and an emotionally fraught topic about, the, you know, having exotics as pets. And I am really sympathetic to that notion that like we just shouldn’t have them as pets. And I agree like in a, in an ideal world, we would’ve just let wild animals stay wild and not have them. Wouldn’t that be nice? But, that that ship has sailed, right?
Like, I mean, this has been a practice that’s been going on for thousands of years. I’m not saying that it can never stop, but it’s not gonna stop within our lifetime. Right? I think the phrase, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is really salient here. Because yes, the perfect situation would be that this would never have happened. But a good situation is that because it is happening, we can at least help the owners of exotic animals be more knowledgeable, and informed, and give their animals a really high quality of life, right?
[00:23:38] Michelle: Ultimately, you know, I, I have heard the argument people who, who think that that, you know, we shouldn’t own exotic animals. And, and that’s great, but the animals have nothing to do with that.
You know, the animals are completely innocent this, and they’re the ones stuck in these situations. So, I’m not willing, me, myself as a, you know, the person I am, I’m not willing to condemn those animals to a miserable life just because I don’t agree with the practice of owning them. I don’t agree with the practice of owning exotic pets, but here we are. People own them. So, because the situation is what it is, I’m going to do my best to ensure that those animals have quality of life and that they can thrive in the situations that they find them in, because they didn’t ask for that.
[00:24:22] Emily: Right. Yeah. That I, that’s exactly my stance. We are very like-minded in that way, that like, yes, ideally they wouldn’t be here, but also I, it doesn’t help to get angry at people who got exotic pets because almost everyone who did that did it because they love animals, and they’re fascinated by them, and they wanna share their lives with them, and if they’re wanting to hire you to help them, then obviously they’re trying to do the right thing. So, don’t punish people for trying to make better choices. So, along those lines, if so, we’re, we are both proponents of more behavior professionals, learning how to work with exotic species so that there can be more support for the people who end up with these animals in one way or another.
So, how would you recommend that behavior professionals start to interact with other species, and, and learn how to work with them as behavior professionals. What, what are, what are your thoughts on.
[00:25:16] Michelle: that, that’s a tough question to a, to answer actually, because I, I kind of just fell into it. But I think that probably the best place to start is rescue. There’s, you know, just right here in my area where I live, there’s like three or four Fox rescues, right here in the actual city where I am in Boca Raton.
There’s the only kinkajou sanctuary in the whole entire world is right here, like 20 minutes from my house. So, if you look, you know, and you get out there and you kind of start looking for, for exotic animal rescues, you’ll find them. They are out there. Again, I think the biggest question that people ask me when, especially other professionals when they find out that I work with exotics is, ” How? like, I, I had no idea that people own these animals as pets.”
And, and I think that’s, you know, probably the biggest reason why there aren’t more professionals doing what, what we’re doing because they just, they didn’t know that it even existed. I didn’t know it existed until I saw the Zebra. So, I, I think that just looking for rescues is probably a good place to start.
There are a ton of rescues because like with every other species, if people own them, then we, we need a rescue to exist to take on the animals that get dumped, or rehomed or, you know, whatever happens to those, those animals. So that, that will probably be the best place to start, and then going through your state, you know, looking through your state laws and finding out what are the laws in my state regarding animal ownership? What animals are allowed to be owned here?
And if you’re looking to work locally, start focusing on those animals, that specific species. You know, like, um, I think, so here in Florida we have pretty strict laws about owning Servals and you have to have special licensing, and special education to, to, to own them. But, it’s either North or South Carolina, I’m not sure which, um, you can just go out and buy a serval. There’s no restrictions. So, if you are in one of those states, and you like cats, that might be something you wanna look into, because there’s probably a lot of people in your area who own servals because it’s, you can just go and buy one.
[00:27:31] Emily: Yeah, I think that’s really good advice and that’s where I certainly got a lot of my experiences from working with different rescue groups of different species. And I was in wildlife rehab for a while and that, you know, like yeah, exposure to animals that need a home and, and also probably could benefit from some interaction with somebody who knows something about behavior.
I think that’s a really good idea. And I think one thing that’s interesting is a lot of people are afraid, they’re like, “I don’t know anything about the species.” And you would be surprised at how much you can learn by just like googling the species name and the natural history and like when you like, look at like serval natural history, like a lot of good information comes up about like where they are from, and what they eat, and how they hunt, and how they, what their social structures look like and all of those things.
And you can learn a lot about a species from just searching for information about their natural history. So, I, I would, I would say like if you wanna work with other species, and you’re afraid to do it because they’re, they’re scary and new and you don’t know them, like, yeah, you can learn a little bit on their, on the internet and then yeah, go to a rescue.
[00:28:41] Michelle: Yeah. I’m so glad you brought that up because I, I was gonna say that I, and I, I know I’ve, I’ve gotten a lot of flack for this before because there is this idea that you need to know the species and you need to, um, be familiar with their behaviors and all of that before you can start working with them.
And I will say that, no, you don’t and the reason why I say that is because I didn’t. I knew nothing about zebras and, and here I am, and you know this lady’s house, “Oh, I can help you fix that problem you’re having with your zebra.” Being as, I had never seen a zebra other than in a zoo. I knew nothing about their behavior, I knew nothing about them. But behavior is behavior. Behaviors, behavior. Behavior is behavior. There’s, if you spend some time with the animal, they will show you who they are, and you go from there.
[00:29:33] Emily: Yeah, there are many times when I’ve been, you know, just stuck in a situation with the species I was unfamiliar with, I had, pot belly pig clients, you know, in, in wildlife rehab ending up with all kinds of actually wild animals.
And it is very helpful to know the body language of species within the same genus or family, because you can map over a lot of those body language signals and sort of piece together the rest. And I think where, I think the reason that people say you have to know the species before you get to work with them is really that body language component.
You really, it’s harder to communicate with an animal if you can’t understand what they’re saying, but there’s a lot of shared body language across species within the same genus or family. And so that, that’s a something to remember if you’re working with a totally new species, from a totally separate, like, evolutionary branch of the tree than, than anything you’ve worked with before. It’s gonna be harder than if you’re working with something that is related to a species you’re already familiar with.
[00:30:34] Michelle: Yes. Harder but not impossible. I do not work with birds. I don’t work with birds at all. Love birds, fascinated by birds. I think they’re the coolest animals, but I don’t work with them because I do not understand them. For the life of me, I cannot understand birds when they talk to me unless they actually speak with words.
So yes, there are obviously some limitations, just, you know, by who you are and what you can understand. But for the most part, most of the species that I’ve worked with, I’ve been able to figure out pretty quickly just because I’ve been open to it. I think that if you go in and with an open mind and are prepared to observe the animal and let them be who they are, you can pretty quickly start to, like you said, kind of map over because there’s so many behaviors that are, common to all species. Yawning, the paw lift, you know, turning away, like sneezing. There’s so many behaviors that are, that are very universal to all species that you can kind of start to pick, you know, that looks familiar, that looks familiar, and you start putting it all together.
Does it mean the same thing? And in some cases, yes, in some cases, no. But, um, but yeah, I think it is possible to, dive in and kind of wing it. Not knocking people who have gone the education route, obviously is the best way to go, but I think that that poses some limitations in and of itself as well. When you are, very educated, sometimes you miss things because you’re, you’re coming from an educated mind as opposed to an open mind, so,
[00:32:09] Emily: Well, yeah. So, I think the, the phrase that we use is, don’t let ideology get in the way of observation. Right? Or see with your eyes, not your ideas. And that is a thing if you, if you’ve learned a lot first, one of the risks of, there’s pros and cons to every approach, but one of the risks of learning first and then getting hands on experience is that you have all these ideas in your head that sometimes can get in the way of you actually observing what’s happening right in front of you.
And that that is, that is there. And also, this is another example of don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, right? Because if we all waited until we were super, super educated before we like worked with animals, we might never actually jump in and do it because we’d be like, I don’t know enough yet. I don’t know enough yet. And it’s like, sometimes you just gotta dive in.
[00:32:51] Michelle: You really do, because ultimately, behavior’s behavior. When I, when I started working at the kinkajou sanctuary, I worked there for about a year and a half helping with training the animals. It, it was kind of funny because I’d had a few different experiences right around the same time. I, volunteered for a little while at a large cat facility. And one of the problems that they were having was, um, shifting the cats out of their enclosure into a smaller pen so that they could go in and clean the enclosures. And so I was, I was there kind of helping with that a little bit. And then when I was at the, the kinkajou sanctuary, we had the same, the same issue.
You know, we needed to move the kinkjous to, into a certain space, so that the owner of the facility could go in and clean their area, and prep their food bowls, and that sort of thing, and then, let the kinkajou back out again. And, to me it was, it was kind of like, it’s just crate training, dog crate training.
That literally, that’s it’s crate training. I mean, yes, these are three, dog, kinkajou and, and a clouded leopard was what we were working with. Yeah, I think clouded leopard, I, I’m probably wrong on that one, some sort of leopard. Completely different species. I mean completely different species, but the training was the same.
The process to get them to be comfortable in those spaces and to go in on cue and to be able to close them in there and have them be comfortable in there while we worked in their spaces. It is just crate training.
[00:34:19] Emily: Yeah, there’s so much, I mean, there’s just some basic skills that any animal who’s living and working with humans or interacting with humans should know, like respond to your name, come when called, stationing, being able to go into some kind of enclosure or crate, like these are kind of universal skills that every, every species that we live with will need to learn.
And it’s just a matter of like what changes in terms of their actual physical body and, and how we get them there, and what are their motivations, and what are their reinforcers and all of that. But those skills, those life skills are, have pretty broad applicability across species. Alright. Well, I could keep nerding out with you about, equids and exotics forever. But we should probably move into the kind of standard questions that we like to ask everybody at the end of the interview.
So, first of all, what are our observable goals and actionable items that people can take away from this discussion?
[00:35:17] Michelle: I think if you’re, if you’re a professional, I think that getting out of your comfort zone and getting into some other species, even if you don’t end up working with that other species, it will improve your current training with the current species that you do work with tenfold. You’ll be, you’ll have so much better observational skills, you’ll be able to think out of the box, and tackle problems in ways that you might not have thought of before because of your experience with working with other species. So, I highly encourage, even if you never wanna work with any other animals than what you’re working with now, I highly, highly, highly recommend going out and working with some other animals anyway. Just for that experience, just to broaden your, your repertoire of, of behavior yourself, and be able to look at things in a different way than what you’re accustomed to looking at ’em.
But I think for, for pet owners, it doesn’t matter what species that you own, um, you can enrich their lives, you can improve their quality of life, by learning more about your species-, and species-specific behaviors and how you can replicate some of that behavior through enrichment activities, through training, through whatever you’re, you’re gonna do with them.
[00:36:35] Emily: Yeah. Yeah. Those, those, self-limiting beliefs that happen where it’s like, “Well, I can’t do this because I have this species”, or “This species doesn’t fill in the blank.” That’s, that I think is really common. And I agree with you that we can remove those stories and, and explore the possibilities.
So, we let our Pro Campus and Mentorship Program members submit questions for our guests.
And the most popular question I got for you is, when working with horses, what are the most common types of myths or on this topic actually, limiting beliefs that you encounter? And how do you navigate that? How do you help people move past those limiting beliefs?
[00:37:23] Michelle: So with horses, um, similar to to dogs, there is a very firm belief that there is a hierarchy in their social structure, and that if you own a horse, um, because they’re big and dangerous animals, you have to be at the top of that hierarchy and they have to obey you without question, no matter what. It’s a, it’s a very ingrained belief, not just because that’s kind of our belief system anyway, across species.
And you know, with dogs we still are, are dealing with that same belief system. But with horses it’s a little bit different because not only do people believe that there’s this, hierarchy in their social structure, but most people are actually also, afraid of horses because, there’s another belief system that, that says that horses are dangerous and they can kill you, and they will kill you if you are not the top of the hierarchy. So, it’s a tough, it’s a tough, thing to navigate because the two are so intertwined and fear is a very, very powerful motivator. So, it can be really difficult to, to change those beliefs without first changing people’s emotional responses to their animals.
So, a lot of times to tackle that belief of dominance, and being the herd leader, you first have to just help people be not afraid of their, of their horses. And it’s kind of, it’s an odd belief because horses are one of the most nonconfrontational animals on the planet. Like their MO is if you see a problem just run away.
So, um, but they are big, and they can accidentally hurt you. It’s, it’s very uncommon for a horse to purposely hurt someone. They, they have to have been really pushed to a point, in order for that to happen. So, it’s not common. so, but for a lot of people, because they’ve had this drilled into their heads from childhood, horses are dangerous, and you have to be careful, and you have to show them whose boss, and you have to make sure that they, they never get the other upper hand because they can hurt you and they can kill you.
It’s, for, for a lot of people, it’s just making them feel comfortable around their animals, especially when we start working with food. Because it’s different when you start working with food with horses than with dogs. because most dogs aren’t that big. And they might get excited about the food, but they’re not going to knock you over for the food, or you know, bite you for it. And they’re, they’re usually not that, that crazy about the food. Horses can get really excited when they figure out, “Oh my gosh, there’s food accessible and available on this person, and they’re, they’re giving it to me and, you know, I just have to do this or that to get it.” And so, they start throwing out these behaviors that they’re learning and they get very excited, and they default to some behaviors that they have from infancy, like cutting you off, which is really scary for some people, bumping into you, which is also very scary for people. So, helping people to see that they can move their animals with the way that they feed them, or it’s, it’s actually not a horrible thing if you’re a horse bumps into you, they’re not trying to kill you. You can interact with the animal without fearing for your life, I think that’s, that’s probably the way I most navigate that is just showing people how to move around their horses, to get their horses to move so that they feel comfortable and safe.
[00:41:03] Emily: Yeah, that I definitely resonate with that. I’ve had so many people just be floored that you can actually teach a horse to take food without scaring you, so I love that. I love that. What is one thing you wish people knew about either this topic, your profession, or enrichment in general?
[00:41:22] Michelle: Probably that horses are not actually that dangerous. They’re just, they’re just not. I would be much more concerned walking, working with an aggressive dog than I would with an aggressive horse. Because it’s just not a natural behavior, it’s just not an, it’s, it’s, i Dogs are, are much more quick to aggression, whereas horses, it takes a while to get there.
That’s not usually their first choice, um, or even their second, or third, or fourth choice. So, if you have an aggressive horse, it’s either something you know, really has gone wrong, somewhere along the lines, or, you know, the, the horse is in pain or something along those lines. But I’ve found that there, it’s usually pretty quick turnaround.
I had a client years ago who she, her first interaction was with me was she sent me a picture of her face with her, her face split open from her forehead to, corner of her eye, from the middle of her forehead to the corner of her eye. Her horse had bitten her in the face, split her, her face open.
She had to have, you know, multiple stitches. And that was her very, you know, she just sent me that picture, and then she sent me the background story. And the horse had been very aggressive for quite some time, people were telling her she should put the horse down. Um, and I went over there, and we literally fixed it in an afternoon.
It was maybe five hours of just working off and on with this horse throughout the day and showing her how to interact differently with this horse. She never had an episode again, there was never any aggression ever again after that. Um, because she followed my, my instructions. She, you know, she kind of ran with what I had given her that afternoon.
So, um, so yeah, I, I, I guess that’s probably the biggest thing that I’d like people to, to know is that horses, they’re really not that dangerous and they do wanna connect and, and work with you. So, doesn’t always have to be a fight.
[00:43:17] Emily: It doesn’t always have to be a fight, and euthanasia’s not the only solution for aggression in horses. Yeah, I love that. What is something you’d love to see improved in your field?
[00:43:29] Michelle: I’m probably gonna get a lot of grief for this, but I’m going to say that I wish that more positive reinforcement people would explore negative reinforcement with horses. The reason is because we have this idea that negative reinforcement is this absolute horrible, terrible thing. But that idea is based on very poorly done negative reinforcement, or negative reinforcement that is not actually negative reinforcement.
So, if you watch multiple, multiple trainers in the equine world, um, top trainers who are, you know, their whole thing is pressure and release and training with, dominance and, and all of that. Um, if you watch their training, most of it’s really bad. It’s not actually pressure and release, um, most of it is, is some mix up of, maybe the idea is there, but there’s too much pressure, there’s not enough release.
So, for those who, who don’t know, the terminology pressure and release is, is basically negative reinforcement, and I think that although so, so this idea that negative reinforcement is this terrible, horrible thing, I think is based off of, off of that.
And the problem that I’m seeing is that when people make that leap from what they’re doing all the way to positive reinforcement, it’s really, really difficult. It’s very difficult for people to make that leap because what they’re doing is so far removed from actual good training that for them to switch to positive reinforcement, it’s, it’s almost impossible.
It’s like a completely different world. So, I have found that teaching people to do what they do better first brings them quicker along to reaching positive reinforcement. And even if they don’t end up ultimately embracing positive reinforcement, I’ve still improved their relationship with their animal, and improved their communication and their, um, animal’s life.
So, I think we need a little bit of, of a more middle ground somewhere in there if we really want people to move towards positive reinforcement. And if professionals who use positive reinforcement now have a better understanding of negative reinforcement, and can apply it skillfully, um, I think they’re going to win people over much faster when they can actually teach them, let me show you what you’re doing and let me show you how to do it better, and then I’ll show you what I do.
[00:46:00] Emily: This is what you just said is really important, and I’m going to to support you in saying this. I think what happens when people are learning about the behavior sciences is, and there’s kind of these dog trainer-ized versions of the behavior sciences that get taught and then passed around in this echo chamber, where everybody thinks that positive reinforcement is intrinsically appetitive, and any of the other consequences available are intrinsically aversive.
And that’s not actually how consequences work in the real world. And so, what we’re looking for in training, I, I wish, my wish for our profession is that we would move away from thinking of it in terms of just operant consequences. And think of it in terms of how much control does the learner have, and how appetitive are their experiences.
Right? And if we focused on that, instead of focusing on, you know, which operant consequences going on, I think people would be more open to what you’re describing. And the reason that that can be so effective, not just shaping human skills, which I am so glad you brought that up, because that is really important, to help people be comfortable with your end goal by giving them an approximation towards that end goal.
But I think the other reason that’s so effective with horses is because if you watch how horses interact with each other, a lot of what they do is pressure and release, and it’s not aversive for them, it’s just how they communicate. Like, ” I need you to move over so I can get my head in this food bucket with you.”
And the other horse is like, “Oh, okay.” Right? And they move over, they’ll kind of like shift a little bit. And, and especially when we are not, when the aversive thing that’s happening is not socially mediated, we’re not the ones doing it, but it’s happening in the environment, and then we empower the learner to learn how to escape it or get released from that pressure on their own, that is far more appetitive than the type of negative reinforcement where we’re the ones who are adding the aversive stimulus, and then removing it when the horse wants us to, does what we want them to do. Right? So, I would encourage everybody who just heard you, promote negative reinforcement to, to kind of sit with those emotions for a little bit, and reframe how you’re thinking about it.
So instead of focusing on what operant consequence is it? Focus on does the learner have control? And how appetitive is it for them? And I guess my third one is, which what we’re describing is, how species typical is it? Horses do kind of jostle each other and move into each other’s space, and so that’s not really an aversive experience for them if we’re doing it skillfully, like you said.
[00:48:30] Michelle: Just to clarify, I don’t use negative reinforcement in general. I mean, in my training is all positive reinforcement, people have seen my videos everywhere. You know, I do train with positive reinforcement, but there are, there are times, and I’ll, I’ll say specifically, because this is the only time I’ve ever needed to use, negative reinforcement is an emergency.
In an emergency where the animal is so over threshold, there’s nothing that you can reinforce them with positively. There’s, they’re not taking food, they’re not, you know, there, there’s nothing that you can give them, that you can add, that’s going to reinforce whatever behavior you need. So, if you’re very, very skilled at negative reinforcement, you can still give that animal choice and control.
And still be able to accomplish, you know, maybe you need to give them an injection or, you know, a medicine that you, you know, you can’t, I mean, you can’t, some, sometimes medicine, you can’t give the medicine, and then give food. so in an emergency situation, negative reinforcement can be very, very useful to still allow for the animal to have some control over what’s happening to them, while still being able to, you know, take care of them however you need to take care of them in a situation where positive reinforcement’s just not even an option.
[00:49:47] Emily: Yeah, exactly. If our focus is on learner, giving the learner control, and making sure that their experience is appetitive or as appetitive as possible, then most of the time the outcome of that is that we are using, like the operant consequences are positive reinforcement, but sometimes they’re not going to be.
Sometimes there’ll be negative reinforcement, or negative punishment, or something, and, and that’s not evil. It’s just. We’re focusing on more, uh, we’re looking at broader picture in terms of that animal’s experience than just getting tunnel visioned about the operant consequences.
[00:50:21] Michelle: And you can always change it later. You know, if you have to give the, the animal an injection right now, they have to have this. You’ve gotta sedate them to be able to take care of something. You, you get that done. But then later on you go back and you start training the animal for injections, so that next time the injections not an issue.
[00:50:40] Emily: Right. Or even like a lot like, um, as you were describing, a lot of times when we’re working with super fearful animals, we have nothing to offer them except giving them space. And so, we have to use giving them space as the reinforcer in order to be, get close enough to them, to then be able to offer them other reinforcers.
So, a lot of times we have to start there with animals who want nothing from us other than us going away. So, going away becomes the only tool in our toolbox until we build that relationship. Yeah, I love that. Thank you for being brave enough to say that cuz I think it needs to be said. It’s very important.
All right. What do you love about what you do?
[00:51:17] Michelle: Everything um, light bulb moments. I love, absolutely love. And this is twofold because it’s not just enough to see that the animal got it. I love to see that the animal got it. And a few seconds later, the realization from the human that the animal got it. It’s probably the coolest thing about working with people in their animals is you’re, you’re no longer there, like there’s nothing else in the room. Just the person like, “Oh my God, he got it.” and animals’ excitement and you see that everybody’s suddenly on the same page and they’re all like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve communicated.”
[00:52:05] Emily: Yes. Yeah, it is. It is a magic moment when people are like, ” Oh my God, I’m actually talking to my pet.”
[00:52:14] Michelle: That’s definitely by far my, my most favorite thing. It’s really, really cool to see the animal trying to puzzling through, and they’re thinking about it and they’re like, you know, it’s right there, and then they get it, and you see that they’ve got it, and they’re suddenly offering the behavior with purpose.
And then it clicks with the human and they’re like, “Oh my gosh. Oh my, I can, I can talk to my animal. Now we’re communicating. They understood what I wanted. They’re doing the thing.” And, and then the, the reciprocation, the animal gets excited because they feel that too. And they, they realize, “My God, I just talked to my human. They actually understood me.” Yeah. So that’s, that’s my favorite part.
[00:52:50] Emily: I love that. Me too. What are you currently working on? If people wanna work more with or learn from you, where can they find you?
[00:52:57] Michelle: Okay. So, I currently am working with, mostly with dogs, just by default because that just happens to be what I’m getting the most, uh, inquiries about. Um, I get a lot of referrals from, the local vets, um, and the veterinary behaviorists that we have local to us. And then I’m also, I do as much as possible when I get inquiries, I work with people virtually with their equids. So, I, I know a lot of people are doing virtual work with people, but I think what I do is a little bit different. Um, I actually meet with people on, through like Zoom or, you know, video call with their animal. So, we are out in the pasture with your horse, wherever your horse may be in that pasture, and I’m coaching you, in real time live as if I was there, on how to connect with that animal and work with them and, and get whatever behaviors it is you’re trying to get from the animal. So, um, that’s most of my work is virtual. My website is www.essentialanimaltraining.com. Um, I have another website specific to equids, it’s essential equine training.com, but you can actually find everything, just from the essential animal training.com. And I’m on Instagram at essential equine training and Better Dog Behavior. Both, both Facebook and Instagram. YouTube at Essential Equine Training as well, so most of its Essential Equine Training.
[00:54:30] Emily: Well, thank you again so much for chatting with me today. It has been such a pleasure to geek out about non dog species with you, and hopefully we’ll talk again.
[00:54:42] Michelle: Great. Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun and I’m, I’m so glad that, that we were able to do this.
[00:54:48] Allie: I love getting to hear about other species, especially species that I don’t work with frequently or at all, so it was really interesting to hear about all of the species that Michelle works with. And I love the emphasis that she puts on getting to know the individual in front of you and to let the animal tell you who they are.
I hope y’all are excited to get out there and train another species after this one. Next week we’re going to dive further into training a species other than dogs and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.
Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.
Thank you for listening and happy training.
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