Contradicting Ourselves: Shaming and Judgement in the Positive Reinforcement Community

We talk a lot about poisoned cues, but what happens when those of us who could be ambassadors of positive reinforcement are poisoning the movement by being aversive?

What happened to the idea of successive approximation?
Allowing behavior extinction as something is no longer found reinforcing?
If we know that Pavlov is always on our shoulder, how can we ignore the classical conditioning fallout of using aversives to try to motivate our fellow trainers?

The reality is, in the horse community, the number of trainers who will attempt to use only +R is marginal. So where does that leave the rest of us?
The majority of people who work with horses and choose to utilize clicker training/positive reinforcement (+R) are going to mix that with our traditional training/pressure and release/negative reinforcement (-R).
Call it what you will, we are going to mix.
What’s important for us, is to create a space that feels safe for us to discuss how to best approach that.

In Equine Facilitated Therapy, we call that ‘Holding Space’ for someone, Observation Without Judgement; humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called it ‘Unconditional Positive Regard.’
This doesn’t mean we’re not being objective, honest about the pitfalls of mixing, and the potential fallout of aversives, but that we feel like we’re being met where we’re at, without judgement, so we can all brainstorm and evolve as trainers together, finding more and more ways to be +R.

This means prioritizing people, and the animals we work with, over our idealism.
We give a lot of lip service to how much we care about the animals’ experience, but if we’re pushing people away who are looking for a better way to do things, we’re not helping the animals at all, but instead, merely virtue signaling, engaging in moral posturing, maybe stemming from a need to make up for our own past transgressions.

Food for thought. Pun intended.

2 thoughts on “Contradicting Ourselves: Shaming and Judgement in the Positive Reinforcement Community”

  1. Thank you for your wisdom. I recently asked in a clicker training FB group how to teach my horse to be a partner in ear clipping. BIG MISTAKE! All I got was judgmental questions, “why would anyone clip the inside of the ear?” and scolding about how I’m so cruel for removing hair from the ear.
    I’m sure they were all intending to educate me for the better, but do you believe their adversive response towards my question reinforced a behavior change in me? No, it didn’t. I’m still going to clip my horse’s ears.
    (FWIW… In an attempt to get help from them I did answer their questions. I clip my horses ears for healthcare and competitive reasons. In my area we have tiny buffalo gnats that bed in the ear hair and bite the insides of the ear. Their bites are painful and cause ear plaques and sarcoids, which can lead to cancer. Buffalo gnats are small enough to get under the fly masks. Keeping the ear shaven and clean protects the horse without using chemicals. That’s the healthcare reason and it’s my vet’s instructions.
    The competitive reasons are pretty common and obvious. If I enter in a show, I intend to be competitive and ear shaving is cultural requirement.)
    And yet members of this same group often ask why R+ training isn’t commonplace in the horse world. Your blog post explains the reason perfectly!
    Thank you for your wisdom and for advocating.

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