Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tricks For Treats

I am always amazed at the number of people who are vehemently opposed to clicker training for horses.  I was talking to someone the other day who dismissed it in a highly unflattering way.  I find it disconcerting that anyone could be so casually dismissive of an idea without bothering to educate themselves on it.  There are many ideas that I dismiss, but I always educate myself on the subject before tossing them.

I do not practice clicker training myself, but I know what it is.   I know the science behind it and I have no inherent dislike of it.  I may dislike some people who claim to practice it, but I can assure you that has nothing to do with the clicker training.

I think much of the problem stems from a lack of understanding of what clicker training is.  In operant conditioning, clicker training is positive reinforcement.  But what is positive reinforcement? 

Most people I interact with know that I have a background in animal behavior and neuroscience and that I work with animals.  Thus, I often get asked, "Do you think animals have the same emotions people do?"  Depending on my mood, my answer is either "You realize you are also an animal, right?"  or the much more  accurate, "I think that humans think they have many more emotions than they really do."

We humans love language, it's sort of our thing.  Through our language, we come up with many more ways to express ourselves than our less linguistic animal fellows.  We define every range of our emotions and, in defining them, give them a bit more credence than they really deserve.  What we think of as "emotion", actually boils down to a few chemical reactions in our brains.  After all, even in all our glory, we are simply the sum of our chemical parts.  And, since no other animal has our fancy words to describe emotions, we humans must fall back on our chemistry for interspecies communication.

Clicker training, as positive reinforcement, can be boiled down to a simple chemical reaction.  In every animal's brain, there is a chemical called dopamine.  Dopamine makes us feel "happy".  We like being happy, so we want dopamine.  We want it, we crave it, we will do anything to get it.  A brain typically releases dopamine when the creature it belongs to is engaging in an activity that will increase it's likelihood of reproducing: eating, sex, aggressive displays, and (for social animals) social behaviors.  Whether we humans want to acknowledge it or not, we are animals who are here for the purpose of reproducing ourselves and our physiology is tailored to that end.  Every living thing's physiology is tailored to that end, which makes it a powerful tool.

So, when an animal eats, the brain releases dopamine.  As we have already established, the animal likes that dopamine and wants more.  The idea with positive reinforcement is that you combine that "Food = Happy" chemical release with an action.  So, the horse performs a desirable action and immediately gets a treat, thus releasing dopamine and making the horse feel "happy".  Eventually, when done properly, the brain is fooled and the dopamine is released when only the action is done, no treat required.  It isn't "tricks for treats" anymore, it has become an action ingrained into the animal's behavior.  That's the science behind clicker training.  And remember the list of behaviors dopamine is released for?  "Social behavior" is one of those.  So, if you scratch your horse's withers when he does something well, you're using positive reinforcement.  You don't necessarily need food to use positive reinforcement or clicker training, it just happens to be the easiest thing to use.

How does that compare with the usual method of horse training, the method most of us are accustomed to?   Well, we usually use negative reinforcement.  Many people get upset by that name, because we humans have a tendency to associate the word "negative" with "bad".  That's simply not accurate, though.  The "negative" in negative reinforcement is like a photography negative, it's an absence.  In negative reinforcement, a stimulus is provided until the desired action is displayed, then the stimulus is removed.  For example, in riding, we put our leg on the horse, the horse moves away from the pressure and we remove our leg.   The reward in negative reinforcement is the removal of the stimulus (i.e., our leg), as opposed to positive reinforcement where the reward is the application of the stimulus (i.e.,food). 

But both methods have the same neural pathway.  Both involve a reward, both involve a release of dopamine in the brain.  The reward differs, but in the end both methods hinge on an ability to provide the reward in a way that the trainee, the horse's brain, understands and will release the happy chemical for.  

In short, clicker training is exactly the same as every other acknowledged method of training, so stop being a hater.

Of course, when used improperly, it's a train wreck.  But, that's not any different from the conventional methods of horse training, either.


  1. Great post! Clicker training is really popular with dogs - why couldn't it be applied to horses? It's super humane and if done correctly it gets results. I actually worked with children on a similar topic (not clicker training!) - regarding how the brain wants to learn. It sounds a bit crude, but sometimes I think of kids as animals when trying to apply how they learn to interactive play-based learning opportunities.

  2. I used a form of clicker training - but used clucking my tongue instead of a clicker - to teach my very tall/large mare to drop her head into her halter or bridle.

    But more to your point, I learn faster when the lesson is reinforced with positive, why wouldn't another living creature? I don't ignore bad behavior - it has consequences, a growl or getting big and scary type of consequence, but as soon as I get the behavior I'm looking for it's an immediate positive reinforcement.

    I'm happy, horse is happy, there is peace and harmony.

  3. Great post. People just do NOT get it.
    They think we bribe horses.
    But with click and treat WHEN the horse gives the correct behaviour, not IF he gives the correct behaviour. Both methods are very valid.

    Some horses (especially the cold blooded one) really respond to it.

    Not many trainers understand behaviour theory. They are a bit religious and they think their technique work, so they do not want to learn too much about it, in case it would stop working. Horse people are bigots!

    IMO ALL trainers even teachers should read Karen Pryor's book "lad before the wind" Best book on training for any kind of animals from horses to killer whale, via gold fish, otter and dogs ... Perhaps only cats are not trainable HAHAHAHA ^-^

  4. My cat is clicker trained, and I had him jumping through a hoop. Yes, we can train cats, too!

  5. Well done! Our cats have US very well trained ... Dreadful creatures they are *grin* ^_^

  6. lol; with you on this one. I used to roll my eyes at clicker training until I read more on it...and discovered I do the same thing with my dog only don't need a clicker to mark the correct behavior and use praise instead of a treat! I still maintain that negative reinforcement is often needed; when one is left choosing between a treat or avoiding negative stimulus, they'll chose avoidance first. Which is important for things like not bucking your rider off, or dogs not to run across the road.

  7. I think of it in mathematical terms: positive reinforcement = addition
    negative reinforcement = subtraction

    I've heard the haters too, "doesn't it teach horses to mug you?" Not if it's done right. My horses never mugged until the landowner's daughter started feeding them treats. Fortunately she's gone off to college now so I can get them back on track.

  8. I've never really tried any clicker training, but I do find the concept interesting. I agree that like any training method, it's value is only there if it's done well.

  9. The only explanation I have for bad attitude is that I have seen some really clueless people attempt to use clicker training when they have no concept of what they want from the horse and offer it no consistency.

    I don't trust myself to be coordinated enough to click exactly when I mean to, and never any other time. But I guarantee clicker training done well would be INCREDIBLE for my mom's Friesian cross. She's very food-dominated. My TB doesn't much care about food, but he shows clear joy at being told he's a good boy, so it's still positive reinforcement. I actually have to be careful I only praise him if I want behavior repeated, as telling him he's good once means he will repeat that behavior over and over again.

    One of the first trainers I ever worked with was an old cowboy who also used dressage basics as a matter of course - his attitude was it was good riding, why wouldn't he? He told us that if you punish a horse for a wrong action you have to do it every single time until the horse finally stops doing it. At the same time, if you reward a horse for doing something right, the horse will keep trying to get it right. That simple concept has dominated all my training theories since - and is why clicker training makes so much sense to me, at least for someone more coordinated than I am!

  10. Great post! I really enjoyed the scientific slant of the article.

    I've never used clicker training and I'm not sure if I ever will, but if it works for some people, then that's great for them!

  11. Good post. I think it has a lot of benefits when done by a knowledgable person. It's a fun way to spend time with the horses when riding isn't an option as well.

  12. It's nice to see someone being sensible and informative about a horse related subject. As some of your commenters have said it works for other animals so why wouldn't it work with horses.

  13. THANK YOU! You explain things so well! I now have a place to point the haters to. I love clicker training, but I have a hard time explaining how it works to other people. Heck I have a hard time explaining anything lol. I'm totally linking this post off of my blog sometime. Thank you again. :)


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