The pretty good books of Susan Larson

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A Click and a Goodie

Two Ways of Being With Your Animal

So how would you like it if your boss at work tied you to your desk? If he made you wear a corset and poked you with a stick when he thought you were not working hard enough? If when you asked for a coffee break he swatted you with a rolled-up newspaper and said he’d tell damn well tell you when you could stop? What, on top of all this, if you didn’t get paid?

Would you be happy in your work? Does it matter if you are happy in your work? Plenty of systems in human history worked just fine when people were not happy in their work. Feudalism, Serfdom, Sweatshops, Slavery, all got the job done. Or else.

Aversive conditioning. Many of us trained our animals– and our children– like this. Many still do. Do this or I’ll make you do it; and if you resist or avoid, or develop an attitude, there will be escalating discomfort for you.

Positive conditioning. We say to our dog or horse, ‘If you want to do this thing I like, I’ll pay you.’ No coercion. No whips, spurs, choke collars, tie-downs, electric shocks, rolled-up newspapers, yelling, cursing or defaming your pet by calling her lazy, stubborn, or stupid.

Guess what? It works just as well as the other way. Actually, it works better, faster, provides is more fun for human and animal, and certainly less degrading and soul-killing for both.

I have just been watching a video of the positive-reinforcement training of a seeing-eye horse! She is learning to guide the blind, in downtown Boston traffic no less! She is a mini, about two feet high; but she can lead her person around obstacles, up and down stairs, and into buildings; at the end of the day she can climb right into the back seat of a taxi. At the time of the filming she was ten months old. See for yourself:

These and many other training feats with horses and dogs etc., are the result of a revolutionary idea that has been getting more attention lately: the animal works for pay. It starts with food, but eventually can be a scratch, a pat, a word of praise, with the promise a treat coming later. The trainer clicks a cricket, which the horse soon realizes means ‘yes!’, and then offers up a goodie. The horse gets the connection in about two minutes. His brain starts whirring as he tries to figure out what he needs to do to get another click and treat.

Do not believe horses are dumb. They can figure out seventeen ways to get out of real or imagined unpleasantness in a second. Why waste their brains teaching them avoidance when you both could be doing something useful and fun?

Some folks are really hostile to the idea of animals working for rewards, calling it bribery and holding fast to the traditional aversive-conditioning pressure-and-release methods (don’t do that or you will be sorry; all the reward you get is that nice feeling when I stop poking or swatting you). But really, what’s the problem with working for rewards? You work for rewards, don’t you?

I had never heard of clicker training when I rode the back country on Old Sam. Although I think my communication with him was not entirely terrible, I feel like a total moron when I see little kids doing clicker training with their ponies; the learning curve is astonishing (for both species), and there is no frustration, no avoidance behaviors or acting out, and best of all, trust, respect, and playfulness. I so wish I could have done this with Sam!

This kind of training started with dolphins. Trainers at Sea World and other aquaria had to figure out how to get dolphins to pay attention to them, since you can’t halter a dolphin, or tie up a dolphin and you can’t beat on a dolphin and force her to knuckle under and do what you want. But. Give her a stake in the game, and your dolphin will get interested, learn things joyfully and invent ever-more-imaginative moves on her own to get bonus pay. As would you.

This strategy is used on movie animals, zoo animals, dogs, cows, chickens and horses and many other of God’s creatures. Lots of the trainers seem to be women, who perhaps are culturally less invested in the threat/dominance paradigm. But there are lots of men doing it too.

You can use this fine method on humans, too, rewarding desirable behavior and making work into play. A person in authority doesn’t have to ‘show ‘em who’s boss’ with bullying, as much as some perhaps fearful, perhaps psychopathic persons crave doing this. A good boss is, may I add, still the boss– and one must be the respected, trusted leader of your horse or dog or chicken– but you are the boss who hands out the paycheck, who gives his happy employees room to think, grow and increase in accomplishment and confidence. What’s not to love?