Importance of Choice

Does positive reinforcement (R+) and negative reinforcement (R-) present the same amount of choice and partnership? We all want a good relationship, we all want partnership and love - no matter which quadrant we're using.

What is choice? Is there such thing as free choice? If we really want to get into it there is no such thing free choice - every behavior has consequences, consequences influence behavior. No matter whether humans are involved or not. The horse can choose not to run from the predator, but it might not be a smart choice. So honest and complete free choice doesn't really exist. Add in domestication and choices are further limited, because there are some things that are needed for their own well being.

That being said choice and control are important, in fact it's so important it's a primary reinforcer. The ability to control their situation is as valuable to a learner as any other resource needed for survival. Even if it's just a sense of control in a situation with limited choice.

So let's go back to the quadrants, Negative Reinforcement requires the application of an aversive stimulus, maintaining, repeating or increasing the level of aversive until the horse responds with the desired behavior then we relieve the aversive. How does this influence their ability to free choice? The basic nature of this leaves the learner limited to choosing between a rock and a hard place. Most often the desired behavior is easier than tolerating the aversive. If the horse communicates there is conflict, stress or can't do the desired behavior for a physical reason - you as a trainer can accept the horse's answer and release the pressure. Once or twice this may fly without unwanted consequences, but if you make a habit of listening to your horse's requests and releasing the pressure when they say "no", why would they ever say "yes"? With R- there is nothing in it for them to want to participate if they can relieve the aversive without performing the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement is adding an appetitive when the horse does the desired behavior, using antecedent arrangement, shaping, targeting or capturing to inspire the desired behavior. This puts heavy influence on doing the desired behavior to get what they want, outweighing other options, but they can always opt out. If a horse gives you signs of not being ready for this, latency in response to the cue, body language that implies conflict or stress, or just walking away we can see the horse isn't comfortable with the behavior being asked of them and we can reassess the situation. If we cue a behavior trained with R+ and the horse says "no" for whatever reason, it harms nothing to let them walk away. No unintended behaviors have been taught and there is always something in it for them to want to continue to participate when the situation is better. This leads us to some deeper aspects that R+ opens to us, that are doors that can't be used with R-...

R+ also opens the door for a few more signals from our horses to provide them more choice in their life. It opens the door to things like initiator signals (the animal being able to control the beginning of the next repetition of the behavior by showing a sign they are ready). Peggy Hogan had a wonderful discussion on this at the Clicker Expo, a great topic! We can also use "no" signals, cues our horses give us that they aren't able to perform the behavior, don't want to participate, or are conflicted. Many of us use these tools naturally in our training, being observant and caring handlers we should be watching our animals for when they are ready for another rep and when they are *not* ready to continue. However understanding both the ability to say "yes" and "no" can allow us to see these signs more clearly when they happen, and even adapt them to something we can understand more clearly or a safer way of communicating their opinions.

Ultimately choice is a limited thing in domestication, when one person controls all the Antecedents and all the Consequences, free choice is rather limited. But with the use of R+ we can open the door to a great deal more choice for the animal - while maintaining their desire to participate and to continue trying.


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