Best Practices in Husbandry and Handling

Written by Laura Monaco Torelli — Husbandry Content Editor

It has been a very busy and exciting time since the inaugural journal issue. Video submissions have been pouring into my email from talented trainers and veterinary professionals from around the world. Inspiring stories enhance each video, documenting the journey of all involved in these brilliant collaborations.

I am passionate about teaching safe and non-aversive husbandry and handling skills to trainers and pet owners, as well as veterinary and grooming professionals. It is incredibly important because we so often find ourselves providing our expertise after the animal and handler have experienced punishing outcomes. Taking a closer look at the approximations included can help us improve each procedure.

As Dr. Susan Friedman eloquently states, “Effectiveness is not enough. Don’t squander the power of that first intervention.” Kathy Sdao, MA, ACAAB, shares her brilliant insight about common mistakes in her blog: What Not to Pair: The Consequence of Mixing Consequences.

Our first video showcases the importance of how to safely introduce a second person in a dog’s environment through successive approximations. We then move from canine to equine, with a look at the treatment and care of a wound that was sustained on a horse’s neck region.

Teaching “back up” behavior for body handling in a veterinary clinic

Dr. Lore Haug provides this excellent video of her working closely with a client and their 17-month-old German Shepherd dog, named Dutch. Dr. Haug shares, “This dog is not handle-able at the vet currently.  This was his first session in a clinic with a ‘real vet’ (after much practice at home). So I was super proud of how well he did after some initial wariness. And, I can never credit these types of owners enough for all their hard work!”

I couldn’t agree more! Their careful planning, short-duration sessions, and systematic introduction of various stimuli set the stage for success. They also integrated a muzzle for safety. As noted, the owner practiced the training steps at home first before they attempted this next approximation at the veterinary clinic.

Video courtesy of:

Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB
Texas Veterinary Behavior Service


Canine chin rest for voluntary injection and ear care

As Dr. Haug demonstrated, careful planning along with setting up the environment for success can help reduce stress for everyone involved.

In this video tutorial, I taught my dog to offer the chin rest behavior for second-person introductions eventually leading to a voluntary injection. I sought the help of talented training colleague Kiki Yablon, and veterinary technician Alex Garcia, to assist with these goals.

This video discusses the importance of a systematic approach when introducing new people to a dog’s environment. Context cues could quickly become associated with painful outcomes—for example, a dog learning that a person reaching for the ear cleaning solution bottle or nail trimmers leads to stressful restraint and the inability to escape.

Video courtesy of:

Laura Monaco Torelli
Animal Behavior Training Concepts


Equine Husbandry Care

Cindy Martin provided us with this excellent video that features her caring for a 14-year-old mare named Scout. Cindy details the procedure below. Her slow pace, generous reinforcement, and clear communication lead to a successful outcome. We hope Scout heals quickly!

Original injury date: 9/1/16.

Date of video: 9/8/16.

Here is Cindy’s description of the injury and subsequent care:

Upon seeing a photo, the vet said it could not be sutured because the area moves too much and sutures would not hold. He advised us to clean and treat the wound with a combination product line, one product for cleaning and a gel to seal and protect the exposed tissue.


Since acquiring Scout, we have spent a lot of training time developing a reliable response to very light tactile cues for leading, handling, and ridden work.

She used to rear—stand up on her hind legs—when asked to move forward in response to traditional cues such as light leg pressure. She would drag the handler where she chose (usually toward grass), and push through any attempts by the human to change her speed or direction.

Scout has had a fair amount of clicker training, including learning to target various body parts to a human hand or target object, and also to accept (and even enjoy) handling, grooming, and husbandry. Scout’s default behavior during handling is to stand quietly.  We developed it through mat work—targeting her front feet to a mat on the ground. As she stands on the mat, I may touch her in various places on her body, brush her coat, comb her mane or tail, move away from her, return to her, and put tack on her.

Training setup

Scout was loose in a 12-foot by 16-foot stall with an attached 16-foot by 16-foot covered walkout area. There was a chain “stall guard” across the doorway of the stall; I worked from outside the stall guard. She wore a typical flat halter made of nylon; no lead rope was attached. Scout was free to walk away at any time during the process.

With our history of positive reinforcement in training, Scout tends to come to the stall door opening when I appear. Generally, I can present a target to call her forward if she does not come right away. However, this time I wanted to avoid using a target to “lure” her to come forward, so did not use any kind of targeting, including a mat. We did not want targeting to be associated with any discomfort that might be experienced during wound care, or to set her up to experience conflicting feelings between the desire to perform the target behavior and the desire to avoid the discomfort of wound care.

The procedure

1.  I wanted to let Scout know I would be touching her in the area of her wound. So I touched her about three inches above the wound. If she would stand quietly (her task), I would click and deliver an alfalfa hay pellet as a reinforcer. We couldn’t use super high-value reinforcers like carrots, apples, grain, or commercial horse treats because Scout has metabolic issues. I tend to use a tongue click sound, rather than a mechanical clicker, as the marker signal. All our horses, our donkey, and our dogs are conditioned to the tongue click sound and respond promptly to it.

2.  I touched an inch closer to the wound, then clicked/treated. Then I touched a little farther to the side, and clicked/treated. I watched her closely for any signs of retreat—looking at the ears, facial muscles, and the pectoral muscles, which horses contract before backing up. Any sign of retreat would have led me to stop the process.

3.  I cued Scout to target my fist with her nose, then clicked/treated. Then I cued her to lower her head, which was a behavior she would do reliably with solid duration. Both these behaviors are very familiar and reliably earn reinforcement for Scout. I used them to give her a break from the work close to the wound area. Head lowering has an additional benefit, as horses generally lower their heads (to graze or explore) only when they feel safe. A lowered head limits their ability to scan the horizon for potential threats. If Scout had refused to lower her head, I would have interpreted that to mean she did not feel safe or relaxed enough to continue. We would have changed our plan to address this.

4.  I picked up some gauze soaked in chlorhexidine solution, and touched her a few inches from the wound. I clicked and gave her a treat if she stood quietly. I repeated this a few times, moving the gauze to various locations along the edge of the extensive wound.

5.  I started to move closer to the wound. First, I slid the gauze along Scout’s skin, about an inch parallel from the wound, and clicked and treated her for standing quietly. After a few repetitions, I swiped the gauze gently along the edge of the wound—at this point I was not actively trying to clean the dried serum. Scout showed some signs of intent to move away: she raised her head and neck, and directed her ears behind her to verify there were no obstructions to movement.She also began to contract her pectoral muscles. I clicked before she took a step away. (I would not “lump” this much with an unfamiliar horse, or one who was not well-versed in clicker training and specific training for standing in place during handling and husbandry.) As her weight was already in motion (and it’s a lot of weight!) by the time I clicked, she did take a step back. But she came back forward with an eager, willing expression to get the offered hay pellet.

6.  We took another break. I cued her head lowering behavior and clicked when she lowered her head and then exhaled deeply. I then delivered a hay pellet. (There is a strong history of reinforcement for these component behaviors, including in the face of various distractions that might alarm a horse.)

7.  I started to move the gauze along the edges of the wound very gently, allowing the liquid to penetrate the accumulation of dried serum and flow into the areas of exposed flesh. I clicked and gave a treat for standing quietly during my “scrubbing of th e wound,” on an intermittent schedule varying between one and five seconds.

8.  I stopped the cleaning and cued Scout to target her nose to my fist, or to lower her head. I clicked and treated about three times on these simple, familiar behaviors.

9.  I resumed cleaning with fresh gauze, proceeding as in Step 7.

10. I gently wiped the excess chlorhexidine solution from the skin above and below the wound with a clean cloth, clicking and treating on an intermittent schedule.

11.  I presented a bottle of spray cleaner, and clicked and treated for Scout targeting the bottle with her nose. I then touched the skin near her wound with my hand, and clicked and treated Scout for standing still. (This was a preparatory cue.)

12.  I sprayed the wound with the cleaner, and clicked and treated for standing still. (Scout has a history of earning reinforcement for standing still while being sprayed with liquids from a spray bottle.)

13.  To remove any residual cleaner, I wiped the skin around the edges of the wound, clicked and treated.

14.  I sprayed the wound with Gel Spray, to seal and protect the exposed flesh, clicked and treated Scout for standing quietly.

15.  I cued nose to fist targeting, clicked and treated.

16.  I cued head lowering, then clicked and treated.

17.  Finished! I put a handful of hay pellets in her feed bowl, closed the stall door, and stepped away.Notes: There was a lot of inflammation and swelling in the wounds for the first few days, so the process was slow, with multiple repetitions and very brief duration of standing still for the scrubbing, wiping, and spraying processes. The video was taken on the seventh day of wound care.

Video and description courtesy of:

Cindy Martin
Mad Dog Ranch Training

Thank you for joining us as we learned new skills and teaching applications from this issue’s generous contributors. I cannot wait to see our next journal edition!