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.

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Impulse Control

When I am working with any species of animal, I will work to balance instincts and responses. Reinforcing innate drives and motivations will make them stronger. This is not always a good thing. It is, if you are working them and need to develop that drive, but if you think about it, you develop a specific aspect and application of it, you don’t just reinforce it as a whole, or the animal is likely to perform it whenever he wants to, regardless of whether it is the right application or not. You want to reinforce the motivation when in the correct context, not generally. It’s about putting it on cue so that you don’t get it when it’s inappropriate. That cue may be anything, it could be a voice cue or visual cue from you, or it could be cued to an environment, particular place, or specific circumstances.

A racehorse will race when he is on the racetrack. A sight hound will chase when he sees small animals moving. If that drive is reinforced without any focus, how difficult is it going to be to interrupt it? Very difficult. The behaviour is self rewarding, and the more it is practised, the stronger it becomes. If that behaviour is tempered with training so the horse or dog can interrupt it, is taught where to perform it and where it is not safe to do so, then you can balance those motivations. If left unchecked, the behaviour will not be a balanced part of the personality, but an overriding trait that will be difficult to counter. It is not much fun if your racehorse thinks that a canter always turns into an all out race, and every long stretch is for running as fast as possible. That does not make for a safe or enjoyable experience. Neither will you enjoy walking your dog if he chases off after everything in sight, and you have to continually go and find him.

Teaching impulse control is a very important part of learning, and invaluable for being safe around any animal. This means that the racehorse can interrupt his instinct to run, and the sight hound can interrupt his instinct to chase, making both animals safer and more reliable. It also means that humans have the ability to keep him, and those around him, safe. The only way to achieve this level of safety, and control of the situation and the animal’s behaviour is if the horse or dog does it himself. You are not, and never will be in control of his mind.

There is no denying it, if your horse has taken it upon himself to race, you are going to have a hard time trying to stop him on your own. And by on your own, I mean without any input from the horse. Yes, you could use all your aids with increasing force, try to turn him so that he has to stop or run into something, but this should be an emergency situation, not a normal part of your interactions. It is not safe, has a created negative associations for the horse and the behaviour is not likely to change if it is regularly repeated. Besides, any horse is far stronger than the strongest human, so there is every chance that he will be sufficiently motivated to ignore whatever force you use to try to stop him. What options do you have if you are on a horse that is immune to all you do? One. And that is to teach him to manage his own behaviour, have awareness, and learn lots of exercises and routines that you can then employ to diffuse the situation safely.

The same applies to your sight hound. Off lead, this is imperative, as there is no chance of running after him and regaining control of the situation, he’ll be gone, and your two human legs will not keep up! On lead, it may seem as though you have control, but how many people have their arm pulled off every time their dog sees something and decides to chase? His chase is cut short, but only at the expense of your arm and his neck if wearing a collar, or body if on a harness.

Control is something you perceive you have over animals, but in reality, you do not. You cannot control their thoughts, instincts, motivations, or actions. You can shape, balance and guide these things, and the best way to do this is through positive reinforcement. The result is that they will find what you teach them enjoyable, which means they will be happy, even eager to repeat these behaviours. And that is what will give you the confidence to know you can successfully and reliably manage your horse or dog, whatever situation you both find yourself in.

Introducing the emotional aspect

Emotions influence everything you think, and everything you do. For some, they are at the forefront, the driving force behind every response and action, for others emotions are in the background and are more of a guide. Every person and animal is subject to the influence of their emotional mind. So working in a way that enables the emotions to be balanced and calm, is optimum for reliability, safety, and learning. That said, emotions are often overlooked, not adequately appreciated, or dismissed entirely. This is particularly apparent when considering our equine friends.

There are always potential risks to being around animals, but the size and weight of horses is a substantial risk, before we consider anything else. Getting stood on, walked into or squashed against a wall by a horse is going to be somewhat more of an issue than if it were a dog. Although, living with a Great Dane can result in dead legs when he sits on your knee – at least the horses don’t do that! Add to this that horses are a prey species, and however calm, they can all spook and flee before you’ve had chance to register what is happening. Therefore it makes sense to include their emotional state in your decisions when around them and in training and work situations.

What are the benefits to including emotions in how you interact, train and work with your horse?

Health & Safety

What you do with your horse should keep him healthy, and not cause injuries or illnesses, bruises, scrapes or anything else if it could be avoided. Horses do seem prone to scrapes and scratches, so it makes sense to check stables and fencing to minimise this possibility. The same goes for how your horse interacts with you. You should come away without squashed toes, fingers intact, and no bumps or bruises.

You should also set things up so that both of you are safe, and aside from accidents, you both remain so. This means that the horse is in an area where the ground is suitable for the activity you are doing. That he is not going to get caught up in loose wire, ropes, or anything else that horses are so good at getting wrapped around their legs. There are not sharp edges, or things sticking out to catch his skin. It also means that you are in an area where you can move away from the horse should you need to. The ground should also be suitable for you, so you will not get injured, or be compromised if you need to move quickly.

On the surface, none the above has anything to do with emotions, but the emotional state of the horse makes quite a difference. A healthy horse is one who is able to give his full attention when learning. A horse with an illness or injury, will also be a stressed horse, and the combination of these will mean he is less able to focus and concentrate.

Despite our best efforts, many horses do seem to be accident prone, and unusual incidents can happen when we think we’ve got everything covered. A horse who is emotionally balanced and calm, will be a far safer horse should something go wrong. If the worst happens and he is injured, a person is going to have to get close enough to help him at some stage. A necessary risk, but how much of a risk is down to how well the horse can manage his emotions and instincts.

Being on the ground in the same area as a horse also has its risks. If the horse spooks, or is frightened, he may not even register you are there if he is compelled to flee. Being ran into by a fleeing horse is not a good place to be. If he has an emotionally balanced mind, he is less likely to panic, and any response will be less intense than if he was in an emotionally unbalanced state. You can never be 100% sure of the response he will give, so your safety dictates that you should always be in a position relative to the horse where you can move out of the way if necessary.

Reliability and Predictability

This links in with health and safety. A more reliable horse is a safer horse. A horse with a mind that runs from one emotional extreme to another is not at all reliable. He is unpredictable, and his behaviours and responses will seem to happen out of the blue, with no warning. He is also less tolerant. A horse with a balanced mind is reliable and predictable in most situations. You will know what his responses will be, and how much or little he will act on them. There will be situations where he reacts in a way you did not anticipate, but it is easier and quicker to bring him back to a balanced state.

Improved learning

it is scientific fact that optimum learning conditions are achieved when the learner is in a balanced state of mind, engaged, and able to focus on learning. I don’t see the point in working through difficulties that could be avoided. Train smart and your horses progress will be that much better.

Enhanced performance

All of the above things contribute to this. Athletes pay close attention to every aspect of their mind and body in order to be at their very best. Even those of you who don’t compete will know that if you feel down or stressed it impairs your performance, as does being ill or injured.

There is no point in ignoring or pretending emotions don’t exist or that they have no bearing on what you do, they are still there and influencing your horses behaviour, whether you want them to or not. Starting out with sound ethical principles and including the emotional aspect in your approach and methods will set you and your horse up to achieve great things.

© Copyright Kathie Gregory 2015