Positive Reinforcement – What’s it all about?

Simply put, positive reinforcement means;

Adding something the animal will work for to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behaviour.

It looks fairly straight forward, what’s the big deal?

Every being has a motivational system, so why would you not tap into that and make life easy for yourself? You can make training difficult if you like, but why would you, when there is a much more effective and easily understood way. The natural motivations for food, comfort, play and affection are already in place in the animals, you don’t need to teach them. I know that my dog will come to me if I have a bit of sausage in my hand. I know my horse will follow me if I have a carrot in my hand. This is easy. It uses built-in behaviours and emotional drives to great effect. And crucially? It is all positive reinforcement. Which means the dog or horse is very likely to want to do it again.

When you think about the various training methods and what to use, think of these sayings;

Don’t fix something if it isn’t broken.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Keeping things simple, straightforward and making the most of things that are already in place can be more effective than trying to invent it all yourself, and makes life easier.

It doesn’t make any sense to use aversion and force, as you have to teach these things. Yes, I know animals also have motivational systems for avoidance, but not as humans apply it. That is learned the hard way by the horse, through repetitive means until the horse complies. To make matters worse, it is not clear to the horse what the correct response should be, until he happens to stumble onto it. It is all very ambiguous, inefficient, and ethically wrong.

Give your horse an enjoyable motivation to do what is being taught and he will learn quickly. Not only that, what he has learnt will be reliable, and transferable to many other situations. This is very different to getting him to do something by giving him the motivation to avoid something else. This is also transferable to different situations, but who wants a horse that is conditioned to avoidance? Horses are quite good at this without any additional reinforcement from us! If this is his default strategy, this is what he will do in any new situation that he finds he doesn’t want to be in, and that makes it very hard for you to achieve a different response and outcome.

So what will motivate a horse to do something, rather than avoid something?

What will motivate a dog to do something, rather than avoid something?

Every horse or dog may have different likes and dislikes, so what have you found that works? Please leave a comment, I’ll discuss this in the next post.

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 10th May

Monday

Today we practised with distractions. When out and about their behaviour needs to be reliable, and I need to know what their reaction to various interesting or scary things is. It’s a busy morning, and people, horses, cars and tractors are about. Quite unusual, as we live in a very quiet area and nothing much happens. We practice ‘ready’, ‘look up’, ‘lets go’ when there is a distraction, adding in other exercises once their attention is back on me.

Wednesday

Charlie and Star are doing really well. Star was really interested today, and I worked with her most of the time. Charlie decided that he didn’t want to play and spent most of his time eating the hedgerow! No problem, it’s quite a straightforward matter to build up length of attentiveness, whereas if I try to get him to do more than he is able he is not going to enjoy it, and will be more reluctant the next time.

Thursday

Charlie has decided that he doesn’t want to miss out on training games today! He’s happily following me around like a shadow. I do a little more with him and leave him eating grass to work with Star. She’s doing well, and we’re back to balancing movements. I often talk out loud to myself, and I was deciding what to do next, when I said, ‘Right’. Star immediately turned right! Clever girl, she was listening to me when I wasn’t talking to her.

Saturday

A busy weekend for us, so not much training time. I did find time to just be with them, and give them a nice brush, which as usual results in a good roll in the grass. I also now have Chilli the cat asking to play. She tears around the exercise yard when we are out there, playing with anything she can find. Once I finish with Charlie and Star, Chilli runs into the barn ready to ambush me! She’s not ambushed Charlie and Star yet, but it’s only a matter of time..