Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Finally some solid examples of positive reinforcement are starting to surface within the scientific community. Three of my favorite people these days and the work they have conducted come from Temple Grandin, Desmond Morris and Carol Sanky. All of course holding PhD’s in animal sciences for those who need that confidence for credibility.

All three have written to explain that without doubt positive reinforcement methods are a more effective/humane way when dealing with animals than negative reinforcement methods. And in my own experience and findings I wholeheartedly agree!

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example of positive reinforcement walking yearling without a lead rope

Here are some examples of positive reinforcement and the results.

This study was led by equine behaviorist Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD involving 21 riding club ponies, aged 10 to 16. They taught the ponies to back up using the vocal command ("Back") without the use of reins or lead lines. The ponies were free-standing in an arena with Carol, who stood in front of them. If the ponies did not step backwards on the first try, she would tap her foot. One group of ponies received positive reinforcement (grain pellets) when they took a step backwards. The other group received negative reinforcement (a whip shaken in front of their heads) when they did not take a step backwards. Each pony was trained for one to three minutes each day for five days.

At the end of the five days, all the ponies had learned the command, but it took much longer for the negative reinforcement group to respond to the command. Every pony in the positive reinforcement group stepped backward by the second try, but that was only true for half the ponies in the negative reinforcement group.

Cardiac assessments of the ponies showed that the negative reinforcement ponies had significantly increased heart rates during and even before training, revealing anxiety. "It's clear that the ponies were anticipating a negative influence even before the training session started," Carol commented.

True to Carol's other studies on equine behavior, the effects of positive and negative reinforcement during those five days stretched beyond that of the training ring. When the ponies were loose in an open paddock at the end of the training period, the positive reinforcement ponies were much more likely to approach her. They stayed close by her eight times longer than the negative reinforcement ponies did, even though before the training period started, all the ponies were equally friendly with people. Even five months later, the negative reinforcement ponies stayed away farther and longer, not only from her but from other humans as well.

"Through these experiments it's obvious that there's no real advantage to using negative reinforcement when training horses and ponies," Sankey said. "But with positive reinforcement, there is much to be gained for everyone."

Other examples of positive reinforcement can be found in Temple Grandin’s book, “Animals Make Us Human” a fantastic compilation of how to understand animal behaviour better. She refers to a published study where the goal was to retrain five fearful horses using positive reinforcement to teach them to trailer load.

The horses were selected because of their past experiences in loading required a huge amount of time, up to 3 hours. (Sound familiar?) With the use of Clicker Training the goal was to get all of them to load themselves on a verbal command and all five horses reached the goal! The trainers totally changed these horses’ entrenched FEAR by using positive reinforcement only. The reason positive reinforcement is so effective is because it turns on the SEEKING system and TURNS OFF the FEAR system in animals.

From these kinds of examples of positive reinforcement it was also noted that the horses’ behavior and attitudes improved in other areas outside of the initial tasks too. For example: horses that have been hard to catch suddenly want to be with humans again. Very powerful stuff!

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