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Changing Behaviour

Posted in: Equine Training, Positive Reinforcement Training, The Academy of Positive Horsemanship

FB_IMG_1467044169301ParadigmI need to share this excellent article written by my great friend Carolyn Jenkinson!

Why…because this is where we should all be aiming to get to with our horses, even if we aren’t there just yet.

I personally am very lucky to have my horses in an environment where all their needs are met and they don’t experience aversives from an affective perspective at all. I have also worked very hard with them to counter condition every stimulus which was previously aversive to them, turning them into appetitives and now I only form behaviours using those appetitives. It’s been a long journey with two of them to achieve this but I have finally managed to achieve this utopia.

paradigm-shiftMy young horse is taking me to an even deeper level again within this huge paradigm shift due to her lack of history with aversive training and also having brought her into this appetitive lifestyle and environment from the early age of 3 years old.

All three of the horses see me (and other humans who come here) as an opportunity for an appetitive to be applied to their environment, they have cues which they use on humans to gain those appetitive rewards – a scratch, a game of targeting etc. There is no fear, no expectation that an aversive will be experienced and they are quite simply the most incredible three horses I have ever had the pleasure to be around – confident, empowered, self assured, expressive, contented, opinionated, thinking, focused animals who know exactly how to learn.

This is such a well written piece by Carolyn, describing the depths of what is possible within ethical training – our goal should be so much more than just a clicker and some treats – it’s a total paradigm shift, a way of being with our horses in every single interaction that encompasses their emotional and physical needs completely and entirely.

Utopia is possible (my guys are living proof) and whilst we are all at different stages of this journey towards that place – we should always be aiming to progress onwards towards achieving that ultimate goal.

“I recently read this sentence ““until an aversive stimulus is present in the environment the animal doesn’t do anything. He/she only acts when the stimuli is affecting him/her and that stimulus is something he or she wants to avoid or escape from” and it started me thinking… and cogitating, here are some of my thoughts on what this sentence means for me .. I am sorry that I didn’t note who wrote this so cannot cite them, if you recognise these words please let me knows and I will quote them in this post.

If we are thinking about training and coming from the premise of utilising the theory of negative reinforcement we learn that “until an aversive stimulus is present in the environment the animal doesn’t do anything. He/she only acts when the stimulus is affecting him/her and that stimulus is something he or she wants to avoid or escape from” – if this results in a successful outcome for the horse and over time we observe that each instance of presenting the aversive stimulus motivates that change in behaviour then we can assume that the behaviour performed was reinforced by its removal. If subsequently we provide the animal with something it likes after each occurrence of that behaviour such as a good scratch or treats, he/she will still have had to learn how to remove or escape from something unpleasant or unwanted (however minimal). It may indeed motivate the animal to find the answer quicker next time due to the anticipation of the food treat/scratch, however it doesn’t change the fact that the horse experienced an aversive to motivate the change in its behaviour prior to the appearance of the food.

If the other hand , we are thinking about training and coming from the premise of utilising the theory of positive reinforcement and we start from a similar point “that until an appetitive stimulus is present in the environment the animal doesn’t do anything – he/she only acts when the stimulius is affecting him/her” that is more difficult for us (unless we are using the visual stimulus of food to motivate a change in behaviour – think of luring with a bucket or a carrot in front of a horse) …. how do we start (training) if we aren’t luring (presenting a visual appetitive stimulus)? how do we go about changing behaviour in this circumstance? we cant kick start the behaviour using a low or high level irritating, annoying or painful stimulus to cause a change in behaviour so what do we do?

this got me thinking – to start with, this is where knowledge of the ethology, species and individual we are training is needed – the animal in front of us needs to already be in a good positive emotional affective state – any other state means that we are already starting from a place where the animal wants to escape or avoid some aversive (or negative emotional affective state) and anything we do thereafter, that the horse finds appetitive (that it wants more of because it makes him/her feel “better” if you like) means we would have to have removed something in the environment that the horse found unpleasant in the first place ! —- food for thought!!! and semantics I know – but this does cause us to look at the horse’s overall environment and management – health or pain issues, friends, forage and freedom, enrichment , tools, tack and things – before we start any training – this includes how s/he feels about us in his/her environment, he s/he feels about being touched, what food rewards s/he likes and how much and when etc. For example- it would be no good putting a halter on if our horse has a history of pain with that halter because of being made to do things, via that halter, that it would not have done had it not been wearing it- these are the sorts of things that need addressing before we even start to train.

Once we have dealt with all this the best we can in our own individual circumstances (and this includes a knowledge of how and when to use habituation, systematic desensitisation, counter conditioning, classical conditioning , how to avoid flooding the horse – read thresholds, acknowledge trigger stacking in the environment , how emotional states affect learning and health, (gosh- that’s a lot of learning!) then we can start to look at training for behaviours we would like to see from a point of view of utilising positive reinforcement and all the theory that goes along with that!

so… to create behaviours that begin from a positive emotional affective state (as far as is possible!) whilst endeavouring not to deliberately introduce any stimulus into the environment that the horse would want to escape from or avoid in the first place (utopia?) we can try to find and use inherent appetitives ( also knows as primary reinforcers, such as food, scratches if our horse likes or wants them, toys etc) to motivate our horse we can try to find items that are as close to neutral (don’t elicit anything other than low level orienting and interest) as possible, and things that, via classical conditioning, become appetitive (targets, mats, us )these can be called secondary reinforcers . Targets, mats and cones can help us form behaviours when introduced carefully- utilising food rewards, or scratches in tailored incremental sessions, so that when we go out with the aim of training a behaviour in this way our horse is already starting from the most positive emotional affective state that we can contrive – and we can continue to motivate further change in behaviour whilst keeping the horse in that (hopefully) positive emotional state.

We can now ensure , as far as is possible – that when thinking about training and coming from the premise of utilising the theory of positive reinforcement -” until an appetitive stimulus is present in the environment the animal doesn’t do anything – he/she only acts when the stimuli is affecting him/her “… so now the environment , us, the tools we use etc have become/are appetitive stimuli – (or at least that is our aim! our start point is hopefully already appetitive – so from there we want to ensure that we don’t deliberately or carelessly introduce an aversive stimuli into the session to motivate a change in the behaviour – for example if we now want the horse to move forward we want to create that movement using our target (whatever that might be) because we have ensured our horse likes the target and everything that target represents – we don’t want to now get our horse to move by motivating him/her to want to escape from or avoid the stimulus for that movement via ropes, whips for example.

During our training sessions we could use a bridge signal (a clicker for example) to mark behaviours we like before presenting the food/scratch/other reward but it isn’t essential or always appropriate in all circumstances – however we do want to be looking at and striving to be moving towards the goals for training that I have outlined above- and to be moving away from forming and maintaining behaviours via putting the horse into an unpleasant affective emotional state whereby they are actively trying to escape from or avoid a deliberately applied aversive (meaning the deliberate and ongoing use of the usual methods of using escalating pressure – or the threat of escalation , or the inappropriate use of approach and retreat desensitisation , flooding or putting the horse into learned helplessness nor do we want to be suppressing emotions such as fear, due to inability to escape from or avoid an aversive, we do not want to cause the suppression of their innate emotional response due to punishment/correction of those responses).

so always keep that thought in your mind – “until a stimulus is present in the environment the animal doesn’t do anything. He/she only acts when the stimuli is affecting him/her.” – do we want him/ her avoiding or trying to escape that stimulus – or do we want them to be seeking and actively working out how to get more of something they want and like? … I know what I am striving for!”

written by Carolyn Jenkinson