Clicker training or positive reinforcement is based on a simple concept: adding something the learner wants (an ‘appetitive’) in order to strengthen a behaviour. What can possibly go wrong with a simpel concept of noticing (a tiny step towards) the desired behaviour – mark the behaviour (‘click’) and reinforce (strengthen) it by giving the learner something pleasurable?
Theory versus Practice
Like every training method there is the theory which assumes the trainer, the target animal (learner) and the environment are perfect and then there is reality…
History of the Horse
Not all horses are blank slates. It is very rare to come across a horse that hasn’t been handled by humans before he’s trained by an experienced positive reinforcement trainer.
In other words, almost every horse already has a history with humans and he has already made lots of associations with situations, humans, things et cetera. Both good and bad.
If the horse has negative associations with certain cues, tack or situations the trainer has to counter condition (make them ‘neutral’ or ‘positive’) them first.
In positive reinforcement an appetitive is added to strengthen a behaviour. When the horse doesn’t understand what he has to do in order to earn the treat or if the horse is too excited by the high value treat, he can become frustrated.
If the trainer is not noticing little signs of frustration in the horse and doesn’t respond adequately the learned behaviour can regress or the horses loses interest in the exercise. If the frustration builds up the horse can even become aggressive.
Make sure your horse understands when he can and when he can’t expect food rewards. Implement a ‘start session’-signal and an ‘end of session’-signal.
Lumping criteria (making your steps too big) or raising criteria too quickly can cause frustration. Split the goal behaviour into enough steps that you can reward.
If the treats are too distracting and causing frustration, use low(er) value treats and make sure the horse is not hungry during training. Provide a full hay net during training.
Some horses are very excited once they discover that (high value) treats or other very desirable rewards can be earned in training. Due to their excitement they can get aroused or even over-aroused. If not properly addressed the physical signs (like dropping the penis or erection) can be reinforced (unconsciously) in training.
Prevention works best but in order to prevent this you have to have a keen eye for body language and behaviour. (Over)arousal can be caused by frustration, see above.
In order to counter condition and/or prevent reinforcing physical signs of arousal, start marking and reinforcing before the arousal happens. In other words: split the behaviour, increase the rate of reinforcement and counter condition the behaviour.
Like in any other training method there are many mistakes a trainer can make. I think that is inherent to learning a skill.
Find an experienced teacher to guide you around the pitfalls. There are enough things to learn without falling into them.
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