Training acceptance of bad-tasting medications

acceptance of bad-tasting medications

(published to the PCEM list)

Target elephant in position allowing delivery of medication
paste or liquid via blunt syringe to the mouth

Allow elephant to see,
feel, smell, hear and possibly touch (on its own) medication syringe

Assemble a variety
of good tasting items to fill syringe with during training

  • Using good tasting items, teach the medication process, including:
  • Targeting for a duration of up to a minute
  • Maintaining firm target contact while syringe is brought to lips and put in position
  • Maintaining firm target contact while various liquids are delivered –
  • At this point, start isolating and naming concept of swallowing liquid or paste
  • Preferentially bridge for swallowing, and for the elephant moving into better position to be able
    to capture all liquid,
  • Negate when any substance escapes,
  • Make it a challenge
  • – try to make some liquid escape
  • Name “swallow”
    – identify as the desired endpoint
  • Name “dribbling”
    (or maybe “spitting”) – identify as an undesired endpoint
  • Name various substances.
    Identify which the elephant prefers and name these “tasty” or some such descriptor

When elephant is proficient at the above, assemble some harmless but neutral and not-so-good tasting substances to train with, such as:

  • Water
  • Carbonated water
  • Tonic water
  • (Mild) hot sauce
  • Coffee, various
    flavors and strengths
  • Dissolved supplements

Introduce each substance and name, and pay the elephant for maintaining criteria:

  • Maintaining firm
    target contact
  • Allowing introduction
    of substance
  • Swallowing introduced

If the elephant starts
to withdraw from contact, withdraw yourself – further, and initiate a time out
(for a few seconds- you can just look down if the elephant stops but does not
withdraw from the target). Act as mirror of the elephant, approaching as the
elephant approaches the target, withdrawing as the elephant does. Do not change
the fluid, do not apologize for the substance.. Name the substance. Intermediate
bridge for staying on target, accepting the substance and terminal bridge for
swallowing the substance. Wait the elephant out, if necessary, till you get
compliance. This can be done in short sessions outside normal training time,
so that any necessity to time out does not dash the rest of your training goals.

As the elephant accepts
the neutral and mildly distasteful substances, bridge and praise for swallowing
and keeping all introduced substance.

Compare the tastes of the preferred to the non-preferred substances. Introduce
the descriptors “bland” and “crummy” or some such identifiers.
Randomly present, with naming, the substances, but the less desirable the taste,
the greater the reward

Working with the vets,
assemble some foul-tasting substances to use for training. These might be actual
medications that might need to eventually be used, although probably in small
doses for training purposes.

Introduce each new substance, naming it, and requiring the elephant maintain
firm target contact, acceptance and swallow of substance

If the elephant reacts
to the taste, apply a fourth descriptor, such as “foul”, decrease
the increment, and bridge and praise generously for the elephant agreeing to
take the substance despite its taste. The first tiny acceptance of an actual
aversive taste could warrant a treat

jackpot and the end of the session. It could also warrant a preferred substance,
delivered just as the foul tasting stuff was, to keep the apparatus a positive,
or at least a neutral stimulus. It could also warrant a taste chaser, such as
a mint, a tic tac, or peanut butter, to help the elephant get rid of the undesired
taste. The various substances used to mask medications might all serve to dispel
the taste of the unmasked medication, after it is consciously accepted by the

Do not try to cover
the taste of the substances during training. Instead, label them with specific
names and “category of taste” names (tasty, bland, crummy, foul) and
show that the worse the taste is, the greater the reinforcer. Be inexorable
about not dropping the process, even if the elephant times you out frequently
when the foul tasting stuff is first introduced.

Once the elephant will
agree to take “foul” substances, for maintenance, substances can be
randomly presented, a la blunt medication syringe, and “foul” tasting
things can be followed by favored substances and by things to dispel the flavors.

Harvest at end of training plan:

  • Competency and compliance
    in getting substance from syringe
  • Identification of
    limits of behavior (dribbling and spitting not allowed)
  • Identification of
    “swallow” and assignment of a cue
  • Vocabulary expansion
    to include various taste identifications, and the concepts “tasty”,
    “bland”, “crummy” and “foul”
  • Conscious appreciation
    of a sliding pay scale, depending on relative taste of substance

Further applications:

  • Relative desirability
    of substances can be charted and might give insight for preference and expansion
    of reinforcers
  • The above process
    might contribute to the training of other care procedures, such as tooth examination
    and brushing (with toothpaste?), and
  • Medication of the
    head area with ointments or other liquids or pastes, acceptance of aversive
    smells from topical medications

Plan by Kayce Cover contributions by Inge Teblick, Julie Alexander

Copyright 2002 Kayce