Adding Nice Things
Positive reinforcement (+R) is about giving the animal something nice (appetitive) when they do something we ask; reinforcing the behaviour that happened. In learning theory terms, positive means ‘adding’, and reinforcement means the behaviour will be more likely to happen again when we ask for it.
Sounds simple !
Are We Having Fun Yet ?
When we use +R to train, our aim to make it fun for the horse to do the things we ask them to do. The horse does what we ask because they know there are reinforcers (things that they want) once they do the behaviour. If they really did not want to do what we ask then the reinforcer would not be powerful (salient) enough and the horse would not perform the behaviour.
It is important that we know that the reinforcer we are using is salient enough for the horse to want to work for it. Saliency means that the reinforcer has to be important enough to the horse at that moment in time for them to want the reinforcer and want to work to earn the reinforcer.
What is salient to the horse at any moment in time can change depending on physiological state; how tired, hungry, stressed, scared etc they are. The saliency of a reinforcer can also increase or decrease depending on the training we have been doing. If we have just done a long training session or a particularly mentally tough session, the saliency of that reinforcer we were using might appear to drop. So we need to be aware of how the reinforcers are working and why.
When a horse stops performing a behaviour for the reinforcer, we have to ask why. We need to understand what has changed, read this as feedback to us as trainers and adapt our training (or the reinforcer we are using) accordingly.
Is My Reinforcer Working ?
How do we know if the reinforcer is working ? The simple way to assess this is; if the behaviour is happening again and again (the horse is working to get the reinforcer) then your reinforcer is doing the job you want it to do. If the behaviour is not happening again when you ask for it, that does not automatically mean your reinforcer is not working, but it would be one thing you want to look at. You also need to check if you have asked too much of your horse, the training session was too long, there are too many distractions etc. While addressing other potential options you also need to look at your reinforcer and test it.
However, if the horse did not want to do the behaviour, we could make them do it but, when we make them do the behaviour, we have to ask why they are performing the behaviour. Are they doing it because they think it is fun, or because they have no other choice ? If it is the latter then we may find the +R we are using is actually not working. The horse is not responding to the +R, rather they are responding because they know if they do not there will be consequences.
What Reinforcer Should I Use ?
However, there are going to be times when food is not what is going to be top on the horses’ priority list. We can use these other reinforcers instead of food when appropriate. These reinforcers could be another behaviour, to move after being stationary, to stand after movement, to approach a mare (for stallions) and more. To use the other reinforcers is getting in to advanced training and requires careful planning and understanding of what the horse will actually find reinforcing.
Stick With Food
If you are in doubt about what to use as a reinforcer, stick with food. If your horse is not taking the food go back a few steps in your training plan, check in with the 10 laws of shaping a behaviour.
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