Progressive Reinforcement and Reciprocity

You can see I’ve added the Progressive Reinforcement Manifesto Logo to my blog in support of Emily Larlham’s ( solution to clarify and create a new term for what it really means to train ethically.

Progressive Reinforcement, the term coined by Emily, means: Teaching animals by rewarding desired behaviors and excluding the intentional use of physical or psychological intimidation. A type of animal training exists that involves no forms of intimidation, confrontation, violence, reprimands, or domination.

This is the type of training I’ve been doing with my horses for almost a decade. I started out as a novice horse owner with a troubled horse and a treat pouch. This horse was so damaged mentally that physical or psychological intimidation turned him into an equine pressure cooker. Results of those explosions weren’t easy to clean up, so I turned off the heat. I began training by rewarding the desired behaviors and promptly dropped intimidation, confrontation, violence, reprimands or domination. In other words, no yanking, shanking, pulling, pushing, prodding, yelling, smacking, whacking, stomping, shushing, poking, waving, flagging, sending, twirling etc. (The absence of all these action words in my training, combined with wearing a treat pouch made me really popular with horses, but sadly, not with people.)

A fascinating thing happened. By rewarding the desired behaviors, my horse kept offering other desirable behaviors. Soon my training sessions felt more like meditation, like I had entered a zen like place where the communication was effortless between us. I call it my law of reciprocity.

When I ‘honored’ or rewarded my horses desired behavior, it made me feel great, and caused me to act toward my horse in a way that felt honorable. In the past, when I was training using pressure/release, and the horse was having difficulty, and I would amp up the pressure. This ‘amping’ would always result in regret and guilt, for which I’d ‘repent’ with pocket full of apple slices. This repenting accomplished nothing other than appeasing my guilt and causing my horse to wonder how it just scored such a juicy treat.

Now, when I train, it’s my aim to enter into this reciprocity because it feels so wonderful. When  I honor/reward my horse, and he honors and rewards me back with more of what feels so good to both of us. And ironically this is a classic dynamic of the Golden Rule. Just for kicks, here are a few translations from a variety of religions:

Hurt not others with that with pains yourself. (Udana v.18)

Never do to others what would pain thyself. (Panchatantra III.104)

One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water, and vegetation disregards his or her own existence, which is entwined with them. (Mahavira, 6th century B.C.E.)

In everything do to others as would have them do to you; for this is the law of the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)

Treat others as thou wouldst be treated thyself. (Adi Granth)

I Feel Goodism
Train animals the way you would like to be trained if you were residing in that animal’s body. (I couldn’t resist)

I especially like the Jainism verse that if we disregard our air or water, not to mention our animals, we disregard our own existence. This rings so true for me in my work with the horses. When I regard their needs, motivation, their point of view, suddenly and almost magically they regard mine in a similar manner and I feel validated by them.

From what I’ve seen of punishment, it’s painful to the punisher. For example, every time before my brother and I got spanked (which wasn’t very often) we’d hear, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you!” My poor father would give us a halfhearted whack and only to leave the room with big tears filling his eyes. I know he didn’t want to spank us, but because of the societal push to spare the rod, spoil the child he had painful peer pressure driving him to do something he didn’t want to do. It wounded him to cause the children he loved, cherished and protected, pain with his own hand.

Too bad he didn’t have all the scientific resources available today that explain the ineffectiveness of punishment and intimidation. It would’ve saved him (and my butt) a lot of anguish. Too bad I can’t go back in time and hand him a copy of the Progressive Training Manifesto. Perhaps I can make up for lost time and supply maternity wards with this information to be sent home with new parents, or more to the point of this post, animal shelters, and veterinary offices.

I think the moral of this story is that when an animal or human is rewarded for correct behavior, the act of rewarding, making the animal feel good, becomes a giant reward for the trainer. I think it feels good to make something else feel good. In contrast, for most folks, it feels bad to make something else feel bad. Unfortunately in our punishment based society it’s not always easy to shift gears to something that feels better and is more effective.

I think Emily Larlham’s Progressive Reinforcement Manifesto is one of the most clear and concise guides to help with this shift. Not only is her manifesto in my opinion, gold, but her website and videos are just as spectacular. Check out the first video on her free videos page to see some examples of phenomenal, progressive dog training.




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