When I was in college studying sport science, I majored in coaching. I had a knack for teaching and passed my teaching demonstrations with flying colors. The main criticism I received concerning my teaching had to do with the amount and quality of feedback I gave my students: there was too much of it and it was too positive. My teachers explained that if I told my students too many times how great they were doing, I would “wear out” the nice words and they would lose their effectiveness.
I didn’t argue their point then, they were my teachers after all, but secretly I never agreed with their theory. In my eyes, teachers and coaches can never support and encourage their students too much. Through positive feedback I have seen insecure girls grow into self-confident world class athletes; I have seen sullen and shy teenagers turn into captains of their sport team; I have seen adults and children alike learn skills they always thought were out of their reach. When it comes to positive feedback - it works.
Recently I started working with Prince, the fearful little pony, by using “clicker training”. Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. In other words, this teaching method uses solely positive reinforcement.
Before I started my work with Prince, I was relatively familiar with the concept of clicker training, but had never truly used it myself. It has been more than an eye-opening experience to work with him in this way. As Prince has such deep rooted fear over many aspects of his everyday life, the clicker has helped him understand what it is that humans really want.
Using clicker training, Prince has learned how to pick up his front feet without fear, to touch scary objects (target training) and now he is also learning how to stand at the wash rack and, eventually with time, how to get washed.
For example, to teach Prince the wash rack behavior, I utilize a small rubber mat which I place on the ground. Prince has learned that when his two front feet stand on the mat, he gets a click and a treat. This is an easy task for him to perform, if the mat is for instance on the floor next to his box, but when I take it to the wash rack – it’s a different story. It may take him 5 minutes to creep up to the mat, and some days he doesn’t want to do it at all – and that’s ok.
The beauty in clicker training is the fact that you reward desired behavior, but if something goes wrong, nothing happens i.e. there is no punishment. The constant positive feedback and absence of punishment encourages trying and trying encourages learning. And not only is Prince learning, he is choosing to learn, choosing to participate (or not). Having a choice means you have control of the outcome, having control means less fear and more self-confidence.
Clicker training can change lives; it certainly has reinforced my own trust and faith in positive feedback. As teachers, riders, animal handlers, parents, friends - AS HUMANS - we need to be more positive in our daily interactions with animals, with each other and with ourselves. Give credit where credit is due, be it to your horse, your friend, your child or yourself. Good job, well done – we all want to hear those words, so – let’s hear them!