Sunday, May 23, 2010

On learning

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives. ~Clay P. Bedford

A friend of mine recently bought me a book on clicker training. I was a fan of clicker training before, but after reading this book, Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor, I was sold. And not just sold, but convinced to the point of being a religious follower.
So what’s the big deal?

In two words: positive reinforcement. I didn’t truly understand what a difference clicker training makes on the animal mind until I got a new Jack Russell puppy and tried it with her. It works like a dream! Chai, the puppy, is only three months old, but she has learned a host of things with enthusiasm. Despite her instant dislike of water, she loves to go into the shower; despite her very energetic puppy self, she sits still for nail clipping. Not to mention all the other stuff she can do.

Chai, in all her youth and enthusiasm is endearing, but she is also a clean slate: a dog with no baggage.  Watching her try new things, offer new behaviors with creativity and absolute abandonment is mind-boggling.  Why?  Because I have never seen such ingenuity in an animal.

We have another dog, too, she is three years old. Chili has never been trained with intimidation or punishment; we have given her treats as rewards and guided her behavior gently. She also doesn’t like the shower, but endures it because, well, because she has been told to endure it. She also lets us clip her nails, but when she does, every cell in her body demonstrates how much she hates it.

Chili can do everything Chai does, but the difference is in her attitude. Where Chai says “YES! Can’t wait to do that!”, Chili merely gives you a half-hearted “Okay. I’ll do it because you said so.”

It’s not the positive reinforcement part that surprised me, it is the realization that although I have tried to be positive with our first dog, her learning has obviously not been as much fun as it could have been. Somewhere along the line I have probably also scared her and even forced her against her will. And undoubtedly I have not been clear enough in my feedback.  This has had an effect on her personality, her thinking and her behavior.

So what does this mean when we talk about horses?

Traditional horse training is primarily based on the use of pressure. We apply lots of pressure to the horse and when the horse responds with the desired behavior, we take the pressure away. This method is often combined with correction of bad behavior. This means that bad things happen when a horse does the wrong thing/makes a mistake. This ideology is the polar opposite of clicker training where good things happen when you do the correct thing (and nothing happens when you make a mistake).  Of course, the problem is also the inaccurancy of such a method.  Half the time the horse has no idea why it is getting punished. 

Imagine yourself trying to learn a foreign language with the negative method. First lesson your teacher introduces a noose that you will be wearing tightly around your neck. You can breathe, but it’s very uncomfortable. “Don’t worry,” your teacher says, “I’ll loosen it for a moment every time you learn a new word.” He will then proceed to graciously loosen the noose when you get it right. Of course, he has failed to inform you that every time you give the wrong answer, he will hit you over the head with a stick. And not only that, you soon realize that you have no clue of what your teacher wants; his communication skills are non-existent.

How well do you think you would learn under such circumstances? How willingly would you try? And how would all this affect your attitude towards this foreign language?

Unfortunately, in the animal world this sort of negative training actually works; it gets you a very obedient animal. In fact, often the animal is so obedient that you could call it passive. And that is exactly what most people want. They don’t want a horse that expresses its opinion or tries new things. And god forbid it from thinking on its own. Humans value a bombproof horse.

This sort of training is the reason many people don’t think horses are particularly intelligent; when punishment is the main tool in training, it slows down the learning process. It seems like the animal is “not getting it” when in fact it is merely afraid to try. This “stupidity” for some reason makes it even easier for people to abuse their horses.
I recently engaged in a conversation with my neighbor who also has two dogs. She informed me that she had figured out a way to train her older dog, who before had no obedience or respect towards her and would simply run off if she let him off the leash. Her new secret weapon was a “bark collar” that would squirt citric acid at the dog every time the dog barked. Except that this collar had been taken a step further and actually operated on a remote control. My neighbor couldn’t contain her excitement. She said that for the first time in her life, her dog wouldn’t disobey, because if he did, she was able to punish him with the citric acid. If he strayed too far, she simply had to use the remote control collar and voilĂ , he would return. She said he had taken to sticking very close to her and now she was working on teaching him and her younger dog heeling using the same method.

I was appalled. I tried to explain to the lady what training with the use of only negative reinforcement would do to the animal’s psyche, but she looked at me with a blank look on her face.

“No, no, you don’t understand, it works great,” she said.

I’m sure it does. I’m sure that if she continues this method, in a few months she will have dogs that never bark, never leave her side, never play, never run and never cause any disturbance. She will have passive companions that look like dogs, but don’t act like ones. But it seems like that is exactly what she is looking for. And this is what many people are looking for in a horse, as well. A calm horse that will do as it’s told, no matter what the circumstances.

Sometimes when I walk down the aisles of any given sport horse barn, I am filled with the sense of sadness and loss. I wonder how many of the horses I am seeing standing behind bars in their small boxes are truly expressing themselves as who they are. How many of them are balanced and happy, I mean REALLY balanced and happy by horse standards? To what degree am I looking at live robots that have been oppressed into acting and moving a certain way; horses that have long forgotten how to be horses; human creations: physically functional, but emotionally absent?

Unfortunately I am seldom exposed to truly happy horses. I know there are horses like that out there, even horses that have been trained using only positive reinforcement. Horses with no baggage. Creative and enthusiastic horses.  Sometimes such a thing is hard for me to imagine.  But, I try my best to hold on to that dream tooth and nail.

Still dreaming,

~ K

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