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.

-Cheryl