Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Popularity of Positive Reinforcement

Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement methods are in an interesting place right now and I have to be honest and say it's a little scary. Its successes are attracting attention and getting press. There has been a 2 series article in "Practical Horseman" magazine recently as well as mention of it in a feature article on the jumper stallion Judgment in "The Chronicle of the Horse". So it's getting out there to the masses which is a good thing.

But along with the popularity comes a lot of misunderstanding and that's what worries me. People try to simplify it into an easy recipe: "just reward your horse when he does something right". Yeah, well, sorta. Or they think pressure and release is positive reinforcement (it's not- it's negative reinforcement). Or they feed their horses sugar cubes, thinking they are doing some good when their timing is such that if the horse learns anything from it, it's not what the people intended. Or they refuse to "bribe" their horses with food (clicker training is not bribery).

When it comes to teaching other humans, people fall into the trap of mindless praise. They think positive reinforcement means not screaming at students, but instead gushing over them and telling them "good job" every time they cross the street without falling down. That just creates "praise junkies"- people who can't function without begin told how wonderful they are all the time, and that is pretty damaging to kids. In the world of TAGteach, we use positive reinforcement along with an acoustical marker and other specific techniques. TAG teachers are certified after training and hours of documented and approved practice.

My current feeling is that to understand Clicker Training and positive reinforcement, you really have to have a basic understanding of Operant Conditioning. But some people just glaze over when you try to explain that. They don't want the gory details. They just want the magic that is in the little clicker box and well, sorry, no magic involved.

The whole thing makes me occasionally want to bang my head against a wall because the very notion of positive reinforcement does not allow me to shake these people and scream "You don't get it!". My biggest fear is for all those who try this watered down, incorrect and/or misunderstood version and walk away from it because it didn't "work". It works. But you have to do more than scratch the surface. And for those who do, we are rewarded with some of the most amazing
eye-opening experiences and relationships you could ask for.

So I shall try to refrain from banging my head and shaking people. Instead I will remember the tenet of "babysteps". I will try to teach one person at a time, in a way that they find reinforcing and hopefully thereby help one horse at a time. And I will be so appreciative of those who are willing to educate themselves rather than look for someone to hand them a magic potion which will ensure rapid success.


Ark Lady said...

LOL leave the head banging to those who do it best...and don't worry about the rest.

Hmm, that rhymes!

In the world of animal training it has always been tough to teach others. I found that only about 1 in 20 actually get it and can take if forward (at least that is how it was when we were training trainers).

Try being inserted into multiple species situations--there isn't much cross over in techniques.

Dog training began to get on the bandwagon in the 1990s but, as you know, the horse world is still lagging.

In the 1980s the zoo industry was not very receptive and now it is the norm.


I use integrated techniques and that is a whole other level since intuition is scoffed at by many of the academics.

Anyway, it is a good thing change is in the air--but like most things--growing pains can be frustrating.

But please, no head banging...we need your brains intact!

Bookends Farm said...

Ah thank you- downer of a morning. Thankfully I have since gotten appreciation from others and will try to leave today's temper tantrum behind!

Mad Dog Ranch said...

Hi Jane, appreciated your post. My friend "promoted" me at a local dressage society meeting. Friend is an acupuncture/postural rehab vet. In her presentation, she noted that much of the postural rehab is easier with clicker training, if anyone is interested, see Cindy. A successful local event/dressage trainer/rider asked me, "Oh are you going to bring out your castanets during the Christmas Party?" What do you say?

Bookends Farm said...

It's a challenge isn't it? At times like that I revert to my simplest responses....reward the good, ignore the bad. If it isn't someone you interact with regularly, it's tough to have much of an affect but at least you don't reward them by rising to the bait and/or showing irritation. They may get feedback (positive or negative)from others there. And if someone asks a question that can be taken seriously, then you can respond positively. I did a demo this spring where one person did her best to ignore me (looking off in the distance and showing her lack of interest quite clearly). That was fine, but then she got obsessed with the food thing- not even feeding, but having to carry food with her! "I just can't be bothered to carry a little food pouch around with me all the time". Well if THAT'S what's in your way honey, I sure can't help you! (thought that, didn't say it) But I admit to being floored as to what I could say in that instance because she obviously wasn't seriously interested...just being obnoxious.

Mad Dog Ranch said...

And.... there's always the "it works for dolphins and killer whales, with no ropes or sticks or bits or leashes or chains."