What is Positive Reinforcement (Clicker) Training?

“Clicker training is fun, it’s safe and it builds a joyful relationship between you and your horse”

Positive Reinforcement, or in short, R+ or Clicker Training or Reward Based Training, are all abbreviations for one of the ways all organisms on the planet learn.  For me personally, R+ or Clicker Training is shorthand for a whole slew of techniques, science and philosophies behind training horses and all animals, including humans.

In its most raw form, the scientific definition of Positive Reinforcement is that we add (positive or +) something following a behaviour, making it more likely for this behaviour to occur again (reinforcement).  What I love, is that when we train, it’s like a little science experiment! We all love science; it’s what describes animals, plants, people and things, what they are and how they work, down to the smallest molecule. That’s what R+ training is, it describes one of the ways we learn, broken down into its smallest parts.  Like all good scientists, we make a prediction ie. we add (+) something we think our horse likes (an appetitive) and we wait to see the outcome of whether the horse repeats the behaviour or if it gets stronger, to know our prediction was correct. Thus learning has occurred, our horse learns that as a consequence of their behaviour, they are given something they like and value and will therefore want to repeat the behaviour. What it doesn’t describe is how we get that behaviour in the first place and why adding something can sometimes be appetitive to our horses and sometimes it may not be reinforcing. That’s where I can help you!

The whole philosophical breadth of what R+ training means to me personally, is understanding, respecting and maintaining the animal we are training in a way that’s appropriate to the species.  It means having some kind of guideline, such as the Humane Hierarchy (Prof Susan Friedman), whereby we have a road map to guide us through our care, management and training priorities and decisions.

This also means that wherever possible, we give our animals choice and control in their management and training, being cognisant of the fact that this improves their welfare and general well being.

R+ training, is an abbreviation of many techniques that enable us to change behaviour.  From Positive Reinforcement (Operant Conditioning), to habituation, to Counter Conditioning and Systematic Desensitisation (Classical Conditioning).  We can change behaviour and the associated emotion of the animal we are training, especially if fear or panic is preventing them from living their life to the fullest.

The following is a great description of Positive Reinforcement and it also describes the other ways we can all learn, the effectiveness and also how the learner perceives the technique used, thanks to WikiHow.