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Cues Vs. Commands

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 04 February 2013 · 1,151 views

It is very popular for dog trainers nowadays to say that they use only positive reinforcement methods.  Although I’m a great believer in positive reinforcement and encourage people to use it whenever possible, I don’t believe that ANYONE uses ONLY positive reinforcement.  In fact, I think it’s impossible to use ONLY positive reinforcement.  For one thing, when you’re training a new behavior, and the animal doesn’t perform it correctly so you withhold its treat, I believe that, from the animal’s point of view, you’ve just punished it for the incorrect response.

Like reinforcement, punishment can be positive or negative, in the mathematical sense.  “Positive” means you add something, and “negative” means you subtract something.  So, in positive reinforcement, you ADD something good (like a treat), and in positive punishment, you ADD something bad (like a swat with a crop).  In negative reinforcement, you SUBTRACT something bad (like dropping the crop, so it’s no longer a threat), and in negative punishment, you SUBTRACT something good (like taking the car keys away from your kids).  So, if an animal does something for which it expects a treat and you withhold the treat, I believe you’ve just dished out a negative punishment.

In addition, there are secondary punishers, just as there are secondary reinforcers.  A clicker provides secondary reinforcement when the click becomes associated with a treat.  A “no” provides secondary punishment when it becomes associated with swat (or something else that’s negative).  I suspect it’s very rare for anyone who spends much time with an animal to do so without ever saying “no” or “uh-uh” or “quit” or something else that technically counts as punishment.  So, I don’t believe that ANYONE uses ONLY positive reinforcement.

However, unlike horse trainers, many dog trainers use MOSTLY positive reinforcement, and the knowledgeable ones differentiate between a “cue” and a “command.”  In positive reinforcement training, a “cue” tells the animal it can earn a reward if it performs the cued behavior --- a cue is a promise of good things, a “safe” signal.  If the animal doesn’t perform the behavior, the only result is that it doesn’t get the reward.  Animals usually eagerly perform cued behaviors because they want the treats, but occasionally, they may choose not to perform.

If an animal is punished for not performing the behavior (or for performing it incorrectly), then the request for the behavior is not a cue --- it is a command.  Dog trainers may cue behaviors, but horse trainers almost always command them.  If the animal knows it might be punished for failing to perform correctly, then the “request” for the behavior becomes a secondary negative reinforcer; that is, the animal performs the behavior at least partly to avoid punishment, rather than solely to earn a positive reward such as a treat.  A command is a threat of something bad, even when it is also a promise of something good.  It is NOT a “safe” signal.  An animal’s performance of a commanded behavior is likely to show more reluctance than the usual eagerness displayed when performing a cued behavior.  The animal may show signs of stress, if it is performing the behavior only out of fear of punishment.  At best, a command is an ambiguous signal, and the animal’s response reflects that ambiguity.  If the animal is punished for failure to perform correctly (even when it tried), the animal may become so fearful of the command that it fails to perform BECAUSE of that fear.  In that case, punishment makes the animal LESS likely to perform correctly.

Because even pet horses are generally also work animals, and people are therefore reluctant to give them the option of choosing not to perform requested behaviors, almost all horses are trained with commands rather than cues.  (It should be noted that animals responding to cues usually perform the behavior AT LEAST as reliably as animals responding to commands, but most horse trainers are more comfortable with commands.  Horses are also mostly trained with negative reinforcement, which means every signal is a command rather than a cue.  Positive reinforcement training would be a break with tradition that required a whole new methodology.)   Nevertheless, it is profitable for people to understand the difference between cues and commands and to use cues whenever they can.  For example, my horse performs many behaviors (such as fetching or painting) that are not “essential”, and for those behaviors, I use only positive reinforcement.  If she chooses not to perform, she simply doesn’t get her treat.  The fact that there are some behaviors that are cued rather than commanded means that she has more choices in her relationship with me than most horses have with their owners/riders/trainers, and that fact improves both our relationship and her welfare.  Many people think that training horses to do “tricks” is a waste of time, but if it is properly done, it actually enriches the horse’s life.

By “properly done”, of course, I mean that it should be done with positive reinforcement, not punishment --- not even negative reinforcement.  Positive reinforcement makes it fun for the horse, and it is the fun that improves the horse’s life.  Once they learn how to learn (that is, learn to try different behaviors to see which ones get rewarded), they enjoy the challenge as much as they enjoy the treats.

You don’t really HAVE to use a clicker, but clickers are cheap and readily available at pet supply stores such as Petsmart.  You begin by just clicking and feeding, until the horse clearly expects a treat when it hears the click.  You don’t have to use commercial treats.  I use pieces of carrot.  You can also use handfuls of pellets.  I would steer clear of using grain, but cubed hay would also work --- anything the horse likes that’s easy for you to carry.  Hand feeding will not cause problems if you give the treat only if the horse takes it gently, but if you don’t want to hand feed, have a bucket available and throw the treat in there.  When the horse has learned that the click means food, you are ready to begin training games.

The easiest thing to do is to “capture” a behavior the horse performs on its own.  For example, if the horse always rolls when it is turned loose, you can teach it to roll on command by clicking and feeding whenever it rolls on its own.  It might be easier to start with a less complicated behavior, but whatever behavior you choose, all you have to do is click and feed when the horse performs the behavior.  Once the horse has figured out that performing the behavior earns it a treat, you can “put it on cue” by saying the cue word whenever the horse performs the behavior and you reward it.  When it seems to associate the cue with the behavior, then you stop rewarding the behavior unless you’ve asked for it.  Remember that, if the horse DOESN’T perform the behavior on cue, its only punishment is that it doesn’t get the treat.

Another easy way to teach a trick is called “luring.”  For example, many horses will bow if you hold a treat between their front legs.  If they don’t do it immediately, you can approach it in steps.  Hold the treat at knee level first, then gradually move it back between their legs.  This trick is hard on the legs, though, so don’t do it if your horse has leg problems.

Yet another easy way to teach tricks is through “targeting.”  You teach the horse to touch a target, then use the target to guide it to perform a trick.  You can make a target just by putting a ball on the end of a stick, and you can teach the horse to touch the target (the ball) with various body parts (nose, foot, ear, whatever).  Then, you can move the target to get the response you want.  It’s easiest to start with the nose, because the horse is likely to touch the target with its nose when you first present this new object.  When it does, you click and feed until the horse figures out to touch the target when you say “nose.”  Then, for example, you can teach it to say “yes” and “no” by moving the target up and down or back and forth.  To teach “foot”, you would touch the foot, then click and feed.  When the horse understands it gets a reward when the target touches its foot, you hold the target just a little bit away from the foot so the horse has to move its own foot to touch the target.  Once a horse learns how to learn (that is, learns how this game is played), you’ll be able to teach new tricks very quickly.  You just need to make sure to take steps that are small enough for the horse to find the right answer easily, then be sure to click and feed immediately so it knows it got things right.

When you use only positive reinforcement (and use it correctly), training truly does become a game that is fun for both you and the horse.  It gives the horse mental stimulation, more control over its life, and lots of good treats.  It gives you the satisfaction of a good relationship and some tangible accomplishments you can show off to your friends.  There are certainly other uses for positive reinforcement training, but teaching tricks is easy, fun, and a win-win situation for both the horse and the trainer.  I wish more horse people would realize the benefits of such training and begin to use it with their horses.  “Try it --- you’ll like it!”




October 2014

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