"The use of a small food reward is an extraordinarily simple method for gaining cooperation of horses with veterinary procedures,"
McDonnell says. "At the New Bolton Center, we've gone to what we call treatment treats, which are individually wrapped to meet the needs of our biosecurity risks." The treats are available in handy dispensers
in the patient barns and treatment areas so they can be given regularly. Certain patients that have frequent treatments get
their own bag of treat packets attached to their stall door to encourage everyone to offer a treat before and after each treatment.
"I find the program to be a good teaching tool in the hospital, illustrating the principles of behavior modification," says
McDonnell. "For example, it demonstrates the principle of less is more because small treats given frequently to mark good
behavior are much better than giving the mother lode every time you go in. If the patient has a big mouthful of grain and
then does an undesirable behavior, it tends to chew out of frustration and ends up rewarding itself for the undesirable behavior."
The behavior modification rule is a small treat given quickly so that you can mark the positive behavior. If the patient comes
to the door willingly, you treat them. If you are performing a procedure and the patient is a little bit wiggly, every time
it relaxes you give it a little treat, being careful to mark the relaxation and not the wiggle.
"This has helped instill a more positive-reinforcement-based patient handling program and a more informed understanding of
behavior modification for animals in general," McDonnell says. "How nice to walk through the hospital barns and hear the crinkling
of the treat wrappers and the handlers calmly and confidently saying 'good' as a secondary verbal reinforcer as they deliver
a treat instead of hearing a yank on the chain shank or any of the other negative things that handlers tend to resort to when
they get frustrated with a patient that is struggling with a procedure."
"This sort of thing can be done by the veterinarian making a barn call," Houpt says. "It doesn't have to be much. A small
slice of carrot will be enough so that the horse won't fear you—not quite as much anyway. A major study was done in which
they trained yearlings to stand, where half of them got a handful of sweet feed afterward and the other half did not. A year
later, those that had received the treats would still approach people more quickly, and they retained the training better.
Positive things can have a long-lasting impact."
Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and
veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. He is based in Seattle.