Rewards and positive reinforcement are one and the same. Something good immediately follows an action. Rewards can be food, can be verbal, can be tactile. To be effective, rewards must follow within seconds of the desired action.
Punishment and negative reinforcement are opposites. Punishment is something bad happens as a result of an action. With negative reinforcement, something stops happening as a result of an action. For example, a rider applies her leg to the horse, the pressure is released when the horse moves forward. There's a trillion examples of how we use negative reinforcement with horses.
This concept of how animals learn is associationist. Positive associations, such as rewards, increase behavior. Negative reinforcement also uses positive associations to increase behavior. Negative associations, or punishment, decrease behavior. How quickly these associations form is helped or hindered by timing; it must be immediate to be effective. But, what happens when the associations go haywire, as is the case with Decadance? In working with Decadance, it became obvious to me that I had a lot more to learn in order to reformat his misguided reactions.
In "Animals in Translation", author Temple Grandin draws on her career as a ground breaking animal scientist and on her experiences with autism to speculate on how animals, think, act and feel. It's an absolutely fascinating look at animal behavior. Her advice, "I always tell people: whenever you're having a problem with an animal, try to see what the animal is seeing and experience what the animal is experiencing." In order to help Decadance, I have to think like Decadance.
According to Temple Grandin, people see the world as abstractified, they see what they expect to see and are oblivious to most of their environment. Animals see the details people don't see, and every detail is equally important. People can filter out distractions; animals go into information overload. Animals are afraid of the unknown, but they are also curious about it. The most fearful animals are often the most curious. The more fearful an animal is, the more likely he is to investigate his environment. Fear is a powerful survival skill for animals; fear keeps them alive.
With animals, as with people, there's a difference between ordinary fear and traumatic fear. Traumatic fear in animals can last forever, and it can spread. It is difficult to eradicate. Owners and trainers need to match their approach to temperament; high-fear animals need super gentle handling. They are more likely to be traumatized by abuse. No animal should be subject to harsh handling, but low-fear animals seem not to develop the same lasting scars.
"Some trainers swear rough handling is effective. But what's interesting about those trainers is that if you check out their horses, they're all big-boned, low-fear horses who habituate fast to treatment that would crush a high-strung animal. Mark noticed this one time at the racetrack. The rough trainers were all working with big, heavy horses, and they all think Arab horses are crazy. The gentle trainers were working with the fine-boned, nervous animals."
An animal can be inoculated against fears by associating with other animals that do not share the same reactions. Calm can be contagious. Using animal role models to calm fear is an old horse racing trade secret. The racing legend, Seabiscuit was mean and unmanageable until his trainer, Tom Smith, paired him with a bombproof cow pony named Pumpkin. Pumpkin had a sedative effect on Seabiscuit, and Tom Smith credits Pumpkin with Seabiscuit's rehabilitation.
How to react is not the only thing animals learn from one another. Animals do a great deal of observational learning. They can learn from watching others. This branch of behaviorism is called social modeling, and I can vouch for its validity. I have a quarter horse, Bo, who has taught half the horses in my barn how to open stall doors. I didn't teach them that; they watched Bo do it over and over again and developed the talent on their own.
An important message from Temple Grandin, training and understanding why animals do what they do becomes easier if you know the motivations for different behaviors. "Animal behavior is a complex mixture of learned behaviors, biologically based emotion, and hardwired instinctual behavior." The fight-or-flight response is hard-wired instinctual behavior. What stimulates the response can be modified by learning and emotion.
Another important principle in shaping animal behavior is that animals are individuals. Using dogs as an example, one dog may be highly social and respond well to praise alone, another may be more motivated by food treats. The fear factor varies greatly between breeds of animals, but also within breeds as well. On average, Arab horses have higher degrees of reactivity and fearfulness than quarter horses, but there are some Arabian horses who are calmer than quarter horse on the upper end of the fear scale.
"Anyone training an animal should rely on positive emotions and motivations, such as praise, stroking, or food rewards, not negative. Animals learn new skills more easily with positive reinforcement, and learning new behaviors should always be a good experience for the animal."
Behaviors and Behavior Motivators from Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin
- A horse rears when he sees a person wearing a black hat because he was once abused by someone wearing a black hat.
- A horse is calm when ridden at home but goes berserk at a show when he sees balloons for the first time.
- A horse spooks at blowing paper.
- A horse goes berserk when ridden with a type of bit used to abuse him. Changing the bit to one that feels totally different will sometimes prevent this fear-motivated behavior.
- A horse bucks when he changes gaits. This often occurs when training has been done too rapidly. During too rapid training, a horse can be frightened by the new sensations of the saddle when he changes from a walk to a different gait. Trying a different pad and saddle that will feel completely different to the horse may help. Once the different pad and saddle are in place, allow the horse to gradually become accustomed to how they feel on his back at different gaits.
- A horse refuses to load onto a trailer because he hit his head the first time he entered one.
- A horse bites for no apparent reason. This often occurs in a horse who has been abused or subjected to harsh training methods.
Principles of Troubleshooting
- Never punish fear-motivated behavior because the animal will become increasingly frightened.
- Fear-motivated behaviors are more likely to occur in high-strung flighty animals. Flightiness and the tendency to startle easily are inherited, genetically based traits. In all species, animals with fine small bones and slender bodies are usually more fearful than heavier-boned animals with heavier bodies. Horses with a spiral hair whorl above the eyes are more likely to be flighty compared to ones with a spiral hair whorl located below the eyes.
- Fear-motivated behaviors often occur in abused animals.
- Gentle, positive training methods can often prevent fear-motivated behavior. This is especially important with high-fear flighty animals.
- Frightened animals are easier to handle if they are given twenty to thirty minutes to calm down.
- Use calming methods to soothe the animal such as stroking and talking in a calm low voice. Stroke the animal, do not pat him. Some animals interpret pats as hits.
- A frightened animal will often calm down and relax when he hears the calm voice of a familiar trusted person.
- Trainers must work to prevent fear memories from forming, especially in nervous flighty animals. An animal's first experiences with a new person, place or piece of equipment should be positive.
- Fear memories are permanent. Since animals do not have language, fear memories are stored as pictures, sounds, touch sensations, or smells. An animal may become scared if he or she sees, hears, touches, or smells something that is associated with a painful or frightening experience.
- Although fear memories are permanent, desensitization programs can help.
- New novel things are most frightening when they are introduced suddenly, such as an umbrella opening in an animal's face.
- New things are attractive if the animal can voluntarily approach them.
- The paradox of novelty: new things are both the most attractive and the most feared things to animals with flighty, nervous, high-strung genetics. An Arab horse is more likely to spook if a flag is suddenly waved in his face. But he would be more likely than a horse with calmer genetics to approach a flag placed in the middle of a large pasture.
- All animals should be gradually introduced to many new things and new places to prevent panic when they travel to a new place.
- High-strung animals are more aware of new things in their environment.
- Horses are likely to be afraid of novel things that have erratic rapid movements.
- Animal memories are specific. A horse perceives a person on his back and a person on the ground as two different things.