Welcome to my blog - a diary about living with donkeys, notes about care, my training sessions and the absolute pleasure of donkey companionship.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Negative Reinforcement vs Positive Reinforcement

I've been reading a lot lately about negative reinforcement - this is a confusing term because the word "negative" actually means the removal of the stimulus that is causing some sort of pressure or coercion  ... usually pressure from the lead or bit or reins.  Removing this pressure is actually a positive thing!

So "negative" doesn't mean punishment, it means subtracting or removing the stimulus that the animal would prefer not to have.  Since I am doing ground work with my donkeys, I am thinking about this in terms of lead ropes attached to halters at the moment.  If and when I start ground driving, this will then apply to a bit and reins or long lines and IF I ever get a larger animal that I can ride, this would then be applicable to my legs and seat on the donkey as well as my hands on the reins and how that affects the bit.

Back to lead ropes and halters.  How is negative reinforcement applicable?  I am asking the donkey to walk beside me and ideally, I want no pulling, either forward or to the right, no crowding into me and no stalling.  But all of these are probably going to happen and how I use my hands on the lead to "correct"
or change the behaviour I don't want, is called negative reinforcement ... i.e. pressure and release of pressure.

Say the donkey starts pulling away from me to the right, maybe because there is green grass or another very good donkey reason!  I slide my left hand gently down the lead rope to the snap and ask for a softening or yielding of the donkey's head towards me.  I want to keep my hands soft, not tense, not jerky on the lead rope but the second the donkey complies, I want to release ALL the pressure on the rope.  If I was working in a round pen or on the property, I could even let go of the lead rope completely.

This is negative reinforcement - I am releasing (subtracting) all pressure and this is how the donkey learns what I want.  Because I am using clicker training,  I would add this in too - as soon as the donkey yields, I would click as I release all pressure on the lead and offer a treat - positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement actually occurs before the wanted behaviour - I use pressure to instruct the donkey as to what I want.  Then I take away the pressure when the donkey complies.  Many people stop there but all the animal has learned is to yield from pressure ... not a bad thing but there can be so much more!

Positive reinforcement occurs after the behaviour - I capture the exact moment of the behaviour I want with a click - a signal which marks the moment of the behaviour and I follow this with a reward.

Positive reinforcement really speeds up learning - the food reward given correctly, reinforces the action that I captured or marked with the click, builds a great relationship between handler and animal and keeps the animal feeling supported and positive.  Animals trained this way love the challenge and will offer behaviours they have learned to see if they can make you click them!

As long as we are working with leads, bits, reins, etc.  we are working with both negative and positive reinforcement (but not punishment!)


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