Negative Reinforcement aka Harassment Training

I love this article called Understanding Bird Behavior written by Steve Martin the internationally known positive reinforcement free flight bird trainer.  Although the article was written about birds, simply insert the word ‘horse’ where it says bird and you’ll find some fabulous insights.

Here’s my favorite excerpt:

Negative reinforcement: Another reinforcer widely used by bird owners and bird behaviorists is negative reinforcement. It is something the subject works to avoid. An example of how negative reinforcement can be used to train birds: A woman at a seminar once told me she didn’t have to use treats to get her bird to do tricks. She demonstrated how she taught her bird to kiss and do a big eagle. She held her Cockatoo up to her mouth and said, “kiss! kiss! kiss” pushing her face into the bird’s. The bird finally pecked her on the lips, and she stopped the harassment. Mission accomplished. Then, with the bird on her fist, she extended her arm and rolled it back and forth until the bird put its wings out to maintain its balance. The action stopped the harassment. This lady was training her bird using negative reinforcement. I also call it harassment training. This bird finally learned a peck on the lips was the only way to stop the harassment.

How many of these examples do we have in our day-to-day relationship with our horses? Although a gentle push, push, push, on a horse’s shoulders to move over may seem benign to us, there’s a giant possibility that it feels harassed. Shoot, I’d feel harassed if someone were pushing me physically to do something when a they could have used words or pointed instead.

I think the more we collectively realize that negative reinforcement has the potential to feel like harassment to any animal, the more we may begin treating our animals, hmm, and maybe each other, and fancy this, ourselves with communication that feels good.



4 thoughts on “Negative Reinforcement aka Harassment Training

  1. Cheryl
    This is brilliant. You have given two examples of touch in training (or near touch) that feel invasive rather than pleasant.
    If the trainer’s goal is immediate response, then it works well.

    And I guess that’s the ticket for most people. Especially those who don’t seriously think about what they’re doing. I have to admit that I was like that once.

    This makes me think that the entire “increasing pressure until you get a response” method of training is suspect.

    • Perhaps if we inserted the word harassment for pressure the statement would read “increasing the harassment until you get a response”. In my point of view it’s not only suspect, it’s plain old fashioned intimidation. If it’s gentle pressure, it’s most likely annoyance from the horse’s point of view, but when that pressure increases that’s probably when all the stress hormones kick in and the horse begins to experience fall out after the fact. The fall out can be anything from avoiding being caught to super reactive flight responses or aggressive behavior.

      I think too, we live in a punishment based society so it will be most likely second nature for us all to resort to some type of force to get the job done. I think the shift occurs in a big way when we look at how the force affects whomever we’re forcing. IMO force doesn’t feel good. I can’t imagine it feels good to any creature.

      I hope the new bar for horse training/communication will go beyond getting the response, to how one gets the response, and how the animal is responding. Is it moving away from an irritating/harassing/intimidating stimuli or moving toward a stimulus out of an invitation or curious expectancy?

      The horse makes for an interesting study because determining how they feel is not necessarily as easy as it is to recognize the happy wag of a dog’s tail, or a contented cat’s purr. . .

      Thanks so much for your comment!

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  3. Cheryl,
    Thank you sooomuch for experimenting with your horses! I had thought the same approach (no pressure techniques) but don’t have a horse to try it on.
    I am helping my sister learn to clicker train her horse from 1500 miles away but its hard to explain what i mean and that it’s possible without seeing that pressure is not needed. You just have to be creative about how you train and keep an open mind without trying to fit clicker training into the old molds!
    I love your videos and will be adding them as a link to my blog as it progresses. I hope that’s okay with you! Please let me know.
    Nanaimo, BC

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