Clicker Training and You

My 8-year old daughter looked at me one day and said, “Mom, you’ve been clicker training me all my life, haven’t you? You train me just like you train the horses.”

Her epiphany came after a morning of sessions with three Welsh ponies which my daughter was helping me start under saddle. They were small–around 12 hands–so I couldn’t ride them, but I had worked out a system to “break” them where I was directing them from the ground and my daughter was on their back providing cues.

In 1995 I began studying the trendy-sounding term “clicker training”, a technique used in Behavioral Learning Theory (Google that and see where it gets you.) I had a problem catching a wild pony, and the positive results of my first few clicker training attempts led me to start to study what I call “Working Behaviorism” the year before my daughter was born.

My daughter had been raised interacting with horses using Behavior Principles (see: ) as her default. They are:

Principle 1: Behavior is largely a product of its immediate environment.

Principle 2: Behavior is strengthened or weakened by its consequences.

Principle 3: Behavior ultimately responds better to positive than to negative consequences.

Principle 4: Whether a behavior has been punished or reinforced is known only by the course of that behavior in the future.

And she was completely right. I used everything (clicker training, pressure/release, extinction, etc.) I’d learned under the heading of behaviorism when raising her. To be truthful, behaviorism practiced while training horses also gave me strategies I used teaching middle school students and selling real estate.

I’m 57 this year and for at least half my life I’ve studied principles which, when applied correctly, have improved my life and my relationships.

What I’ve learned could help countless people improve their lives, too, but yet, I hold back sharing it.

Why hold back?

I don’t hold back because of greed. I’m more than happy to launch into sharing what I’ve learned with anyone who will listen.

It’s also not because of doubt. I’m convinced that what I’ve learned is 100% helpful in nearly every human/human and human/animal interaction.

I’m ashamed to say the reason I hold back is because most of the times I’ve shared what I’ve learned, I’m met with criticism and misunderstanding–or at the least, a blank stare–and I have a hard time getting past those reactions.

(The power of positive punishment can be equally strong when it’s dispensed by peers or so-called professionals.)

I know I shouldn’t interpret others’ ignorance as a negative reaction, but I can’t seem to shake the sour feeling I get when I share the basics of learning. And after watching the horse industry over the past 25+ years, I can see that other trainers who have studied and applied behaviorism have had to face the same negativity.

The power of punishment can be especially strong when it’s dispensed by so-called professionals who haven’t taken the time to learn anything about the fundamentals of teaching. Clinicians who make a living hawking products and videotapes are especially not interested in promoting anything that is free to everyone.

No matter. I do not allow reactions from ignorant people to impact the work I do with horses. Ironically, “dumb” animals never give me the negative reaction “smart” people do. In fact, once they learn what I’m about, they always greet what I do with enthusiastic joy.


Do You Know That You’re Being Trained?

People have been using horses as tools for work and war for at least 5,000 years. In all that time, humans have rarely (if ever!) ASKED a horse to accommodate her master’s needs. In our minds, horses exist to serve us.

Does a horse ever have the dignity to refuse to serve her master?

I have news for you.

Your dignity is at stake, too. In studying behaviorism, I’ve learned that you are being shaped as much or more than a horse ever is. Your behavior is being conditioned, your responses are being reinforced, and your mistakes are being punished all your life.

And in a modern western society, your behavior is being shaped for the exact same reason: to serve your masters.

If you define SUCCESS as engaging in hard work, material acquisition, and constant busyness, your behavior has been shaped.

Since you were a baby, you have been shaped to become an adult who works 40 hours a week at a minimum and then goes home to work more. Everywhere you look you’re being shaped to acquire material things far beyond your daily necessities. You are surrounded by environmental cues planted to get you to desire cosmetics, cuisine, fashion, and all the stuff that, once purchased, resides in piles in your over-sized house and garage.

You may not have noticed, either, that you’ve been conditioned to do everything in your power to ensure that you reproduce. Our society tells you that If you don’t children, our economy will crash and ruin our way of life (the consumer way of life, that is). And while you’re at it, it’s mandatory that you instill in your children the values of your society including using credit responsibly and planning for your 401K portfolio in the stock market or government bonds. Our society wants you to plan for the future–a consumer’s future.

We all subconsciously compete with each other to show that we’re with the program. When anyone asks you what you’re doing these days, you tell them you’re very, very…oh so very busy. And if anyone asks you how you are, you tell them you’re fine.

Meanwhile, your back hurts, you’re overweight, you can’t sleep, your credit cards are maxed, you worry your mortgage check may bounce, and the only thing you manage to do when you get home from work is crash in front of a screen. You buy pills. You buy chips. You buy soft drinks and beer. All of this makes you normal.

“The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

–Erich Fromm

How did you get to where you are?

Powerful people have put a great deal of effort into discovering how to shape your behavior so that you are a predictable cog in the wheel of a consumer society.

Since the beginning of the Industrial age but particularly since WWI, scientists funded by business have learned how to convince you to believe what they want (propaganda), and they’ve learned how to get you to do what they want (behaviorism).

For some reason, most people are somewhat aware of the existence of propaganda even when they’re influenced by it, but woefully oblivious to behaviorism.

For example, you might realize that an over-sized billboard of a beautiful woman standing beside a shiny car may entice you into entering a casino. But you may not know how the blinking lights, sharp noises, and dark backgrounds make you want to stay there (behaviorism.) Behaviorism gets you to put your money in a slot machine over and over. Behaviorism keeps you coming back to lose even more.

Behaviorism operates on a mundane level. It gets you to buy more on your shopping list than what you came for. It gets you to choose certain businesses over others. It gets you to open your junk mail, walk certain places on the street, and put your seat belt on.

Behaviorism also affects big issues such as how well you do at work, the possibility you may experience addiction, and the chances that you’ll go into debt.


Years ago when I was interviewing for teaching jobs, the last thing I wanted to spill in an interview was that I was proficient at shaping the behavior of middle school students because of my experience horse training.

People don’t like being compared to animals. We especially don’t like our children being compared to animals.

We also don’t like to know that our behavior can be shaped by an outside force. We like to believe we are in control of what we do.

Ironically, some of the greatest breakthroughs in horse training recently have come from scientists who are studying the brain to understand such varied human conditions as PTSD, addiction, epilepsy, and autism, etc..

The psychological study of Human Behavior officially began in 1913 when John Watson wrote an article explaining:

‘Psychology as a behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is … prediction and control.’ (p. 158). If psychology was a science, then any theories psychologists would make would have to be supported by empirical data obtained through careful and controlled observation and measurement of behavior.

Behaviorism emphasizes the role of environmental factors in learning, not instinct or genetics. It’s also not interested in emotions because those can’t be empirically measured.

Watson believed there was little difference between the learning that takes place in humans and that in other animals, and that all behavior is the result of stimulus and response.

Now we know that behavior is determined by more than stimulus and response, but yet it’s helpful to understand it’s proven features in order to understand how learning works.

Learning for good or for bad.

Learning in horses.

Learning in humans.

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