Ross Jacobs is an Australian horse trainer who writes frequently of controversial topics in the horse world. This post on the cons of clicker training is an example of his willingness to step into brambly issues with his opinions and experiences. Kudos to Ross for taking on tough topics. Visit his Facebook page here and his website here.
Ross Jacobs writes:
Let me shout from the start, CLICKER TRAINING IS NOT A NON-STRESSFUL APPROACH TO HORSE TRAINING.
I know this is a controversial topic, but I believe it is worth discussing. I will try to be as clear and plain-speaking as I can and hope I do the topic justice and make myself clear.
It is a myth to assume that because clicker training involves a reward or the addition of something a horse likes, that it is, therefore, a kinder and less stressful form of training.
I’ll try to break it down why I believe this:
We all know that when it comes to training horses both positive and negative reinforcement methods work. Whether you remove a pressure (-r) or give a treat (+r), both approaches can be effective in teaching a horse to do what we want.
On the surface, +r appears to be the polar opposite approach to –r (one removes a stressor and one adds a reward). So how can both work?
A horse’s behavior is triggered by its need for comfort. Horses are comfort seekers and it is this need to seek comfort that motivates them to make the choices they do. I think this is a universally accepted principle.
So a horse chooses a response or behavior based on its perception of which response will lead to the most comfort (or least discomfort). It doesn’t matter whether we use positive or negative reinforcement training methods – the motivation to search for the correct response is the same. – the desire for comfort.
The horse’s decision is based on which option is the most comfortable. Therefore, from the horse’s point of view, both +r and -r are working through the identically same mechanism. They both impose an uncomfortable situation for a horse and they both finish with a more comfortable situation for a horse. This is what most clicker trainers don’t get.
So how does this work?
Most of us get that when we apply a pressure in –r training (eg, reins, rider’s legs etc), it causes a physical and/or emotional discomfort to a horse. Then it searches for a way to relieve the pressure and when it does we release the pressure, and comfort is restored. In this way, we train horses to give the correct response.
Now with positive reinforcement, it is much the same. Let’s just stick to the idea of using a food treat as the positive reward and the clicker as the marker since that is familiar what most people.
In clicker training, we first target train a horse to teach them the association of the marker (click sound) with the reward (food treat). When they do something correctly, they hear the clicker and this is followed by a food reward. So the food reward creates the comfort – just as in negative reinforcement methods when we remove the pressure it creates comfort.
As I said earlier, horses are comfort seekers and experiencing discomfort is what drives their responses to seek comfort. So in clicker training, it is the promise of a food reward that motivates a horse to search for the correct response. We have already trained them to understand that if they do the right thing they are given a food treat when we first target trained them. So then we exploit this concept of comfort through food treats by withholding of the food treat. This withholding creates discomfort – just like when we apply an uncomfortable pressure with the reins and release that pressure when the horse does the right thing.
Have you ever noticed how anxious and excited some horses or dogs or people get at meal times? The food treat is a source of comfort and withholding the food treat is a discomfort. If you don’t believe me, try using a food treat that a horse doesn’t like eating and see how successful the training is. You’ll have as much success as you would training a child to clean their room with the promise of a raw asparagus.
Now that we have programmed a horse to seek our food treat (comfort food), we use the horse’s need for comfort to bribe him to search for a response that will result in the food treat.
Here is the part that many people don’t appreciate:
The stress created to stimulate a horse to search for a way of getting the food reward is exactly the same degree of stress created to stimulate a horse to search for removal of the pressure when we use negative reinforcement methods. Both methods have to create enough discomfort to motivate a horse to search for a response to find comfort. If this weren’t true, a horse would not search for a new response no matter if you used –r or +r methods.
In positive reinforcement strategies, withholding the food treat creates stress and in negative reinforcement, the stress is created by the addition of pressure.
In positive reinforcement, the brainwashing between the sound of the clicker and the food reward can become so strong that eventually treats can be done away with and the horse associates the click as the reward.
I have tried to be as logical as I can in stating that positive reinforcement is not the stress-free form of training that many think it is. Even though I don’t use clicker training in my work very much, I have found it useful very rarely when horses have been irreparably damaged by improper use of negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement has its place in the horse world, albeit a limited one. If a person is using it because they think it is kinder and less stressful than more traditional negative reinforcement methods, they have their work cut out proving that to me.