I wanted to give another illustration in an attempt to show how giving choice in a situation can radically alter the effectiveness of our training.
I was at a Clicker Expo and saw a lecture given by Dr. Sue Friedman, Ph.D. For those of you who don’t know Dr. Friedman, it is well worth doing a Google search and seeing the volumes of contributions she has made towards improving and refining how we view behavior.
In this lecture she showed a video of two species of animals who were trained, using protective contact, to have their teeth brushed. Actually, in the case of these animals, maybe I should say they allowed a person to brush their fangs. I guarantee you, the process would have been dangerous had it not been for the skilled use of positive reinforcement in training this behavior.
It was pretty amazing to watch these animals open wide and hold their mouths in that position while the technician brushed the fangs. I was impressed and I clicker train for a living.
Then we were showing a video of a parent with a small child. We were told this video was found on a popular parenting site on the internet. The parent had the child securely strapped in a high chair and was demonstrating the proper techniques for teaching a child to have their teeth brushed.
While the mother prepared us for how she was going to approach the task, we saw the child begin to explore, reaching for the toothbrush and showing some interest in the process. Then parent restrained child, held her mouth open, and began to forcibly brush her teeth.
Within a matter of just a few moments, the child changed from a curious and happy child to one who was screaming in frustration and protest.
From the Expo audience, there were a variety of reactions, head shaking, nervous laughter, disbelief or maybe recognition of a process that they themselves had endured.
To me, a significant part is that, yes, on some level all of us have experienced this kind of violation of choice. We probably all have experienced being shut down in the middle of expressing our natural instinct to explore and discover things at our own pace. Maybe we were shut down for our own safety, and in that case it was warranted. Either way, I can guarantee that most of us were forced into a situation that, had our parents known the techniques of shaping and reinforcing behaviors, might have been one in which we would have willingly participated.
Sometimes I scratch my head in dismay trying to figure out why people are so stuck in these punitive teaching techniques. Sometimes I wonder to myself if this early modeling of training is why so many people have the tendency to think coercion is the only training option with a horse. Maybe we learned that resistance is futile so we live out the rest of our lives in that mindset.
What I have learned and continue to learn is that well-placed reinforcers can make learning behaviors an entirely different experience for the learner when those reinforcers are positive, especially when we add the element of choice. I see this as true for people and the same goes for our horses.