JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 4 of 5
Yesterday’s discussion of negative reinforcement considered the impact that each individual’s learning history has on the emotional response to a particular procedure. Something you regard as fun might make someone else run for the hills. When we’re choosing which teaching strategy we’re going to use with our horses or dogs, their past experience matters.
We often think of negative reinforcement in terms of the overt actions someone is taking. We can see the slack being taken out of a lead and understand that pressure is being applied. The release of that pressure is intended to reinforce a desired response. But there’s another form of pressure that’s not as easy to see that plays an important role in horse training. I’ll use an example you can experience yourself. Suppose I’m working with you showing you some of the rope handling techniques that I teach.
I’ll begin by having you stand in balance over your feet. I’ll slide down the lead very softly. You’re relaxed, and I want you to stay that way. If I slide down with a lot of “make it happen” muscle, I’d be picking a fight, and you’ll stiffen into resistance.
I want you to stay soft and relaxed, so I take care how I come down the rope. I slide into a neutral position that doesn’t effect your balance. This is the “get ready” stage of my cue.
Now I shift my own balance. I let my overall balance shift forward onto my toes. This subtle shift rocks you back on your heels. The shift is so subtle, you may at first not even notice. I wait. I’ve taken the slack out of the lead, but I am not pushing on you in any way. I have simply set up a shift in your balance.
After a bit, you’ll begin to feel uncomfortable. You can’t maintain this slightly-out-of-balance position forever. You’re having to use muscle to sustain your position, and it’s creating uneven pressure on your joints. So you take a step back. My hand releases, click and treat.
At clinics people get to feel how subtle this is. All I have to do is rock my balance slightly forward and the other person will shift back into her heels. She won’t feel threatened by the action. In fact she often isn’t even aware that I have created this shift in her balance. Her focus has been on my hands, not the subtle shift in her own balance.
It’s like a magician’s trick. You’re so busy watching where the magician is directing your attention, that you don’t notice when he slips your watch off your wrist. It isn’t the pressure from my hand on the lead that creates the change or causes that slight discomfort. The lead gives me the framework through which to create the shift. It’s the mild discomfort that the balance shift creates that triggers the step back.
This shift out of what feels normal to you draws your attention inside. I want you to become aware of your balance, to learn to pay attention to these subtle shifts and to make adjustments that bring you closer to an optimal state of comfort. I want to help you shift from what feels normal but may actually be a state of imbalance to what feels good because you are now in functional balance. That’s also what I want for the horses. Body aware horses stay sounder longer. And body aware horses not only look very beautiful, they are more athletic than their out-of-balance counterparts.
This set of three photos show Natalie Zielinski and her horse Harrison. In the top left photo he’s standing all higgeldy-piggledy. Whenever he stopped, he was always out of balance. He tended to fall over his left shoulder, so when she led him, he was always crowding into her. The beautiful trot you see in the other two photos evolved out of work that helped him become much more body aware.
What Triggers Change?
Here’s another example of hidden negative reinforcement. This one is a dog example. I’ve watched Kay Laurence teach a puppy to put his paw on a target. It looks like a wonderfully elegant example of shaping with positive reinforcement. But is that all that’s going on there?
If you want a puppy to put his paw on a target, most people would start with the target. Kay doesn’t. Instead she sets the puppy up to offer a consistent motor pattern. She gets the puppy moving his paw, and then she puts the target in the path of where the paw is going to land. Simple and elegant.
She begins by having the puppy lie down. This is the base position she uses to teach the behavior. Lying down limits the behavior which the puppy can offer. Instead of offering responses from the entire range of things a puppy can do with his body, now he’s restricted to those things he can do while lying down. This makes it much easier to get only the desired behavior and to get it without a lot of unwanted add-ons.
Kay jump-starts the process by placing a treat off to the side away from the direction she is eventually going to want the puppy to move his paw. He has to shift his balance and move his paw to the side in order to reach the treat.
He’s left out of balance. If he were to stay in this position, he’d quickly become uncomfortable, so he rights himself. He moves back to center. Kay clicks as he moves his paw back towards a more balanced position, but she doesn’t feed him there.
Instead she again feeds him so he has to move his paw to reach for the treat. He gets his treat and returns to center. Click!
Why does the puppy not just stay out there in this position where all the treats are delivered? Why does he right himself?
Over time the answer becomes because he is being positively reinforced for moving back to center. The function of the click is to identify for the puppy the right-answer behavior that leads to a treat being given. But initially he rights himself because he’s out of balance and that feels odd. So even here there is a negative reinforcement component in what appears on the surface to be the most elegant of positive reinforcement training.
Trying to decide what to call a particular procedure can make your head spin. If you are trying to stay on the positive side of training, of course, you want to avoid the harsh use of aversives, but, as we’ve just seen, not all discomfort creates a negative emotional reaction. Rather than fight against the terminology, I prefer to use it. I think it is useful to understand that that slight feeling of muscle fatigue will cause you to take a step back. I don’t have to push you back or do anything else to get the behavior. I can simply wait and let you figure out the puzzle. The same thing holds true for my horse.
My horse’s emotional reaction will tell me if I am on the side of the angels or sliding fast down the slippery slope that appears when soft words don’t match hard actions. I use the terms to remember the history of the harsh methods modern horse training has evolved out of. At some point we may be able to let go of that trail, but for now I think it is wiser to keep remembering.
Coming Next: Part 5: The Fluid Nature of Langauge
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