Clicker Training and Fear

I've recently been working with more clicker training clients. Have had a lovely example of what it's like to work with fear and clicker training - and why you often shouldn't. The mare in question was very frightened of having her feet handled but had learnt to stand and comply in order to obtain a click and treat. In theory the positive reinforcement should be providing a source of counter conditioning and replacing the fear with a more positive association. And sometimes it does (in which case, great, keep doing what you are doing!). But sometimes it doesn't....

This is a problem for clicker training because fear prevents the experience from being positive over all. And clicker training is very powerful - not only because the horse will want the treat but also because horses often seem to want to be compliant if they understand what to do, suppressing their feelings as they do so.

So, what to do about it?

I tend to use scratches a lot more than clicks and treats. While the principle is the same I find it often does a better job of the counter-conditioning, possibly because scratches have a more calming effect rather than over-focus on the food. I also start the scratches before I actually start expecting the behaviour - yep, I know, that's breaking all the rules in the book. But this is not only about operant conditioning. I am not only trying to reward a behaviour. I am also trying to set up positive associations between the horse and my presence, well before I try to ask anything of the horse.

So for this mare, we started scratching and she liked it. So I interspersed the scratches with running my hands down her legs. And gradually shaped her behaviour to hoof-handling, returning to occasional easier stages of just stroking down the shoulder/quarters/hocks. The whole experience was positive and at no point did she demonstrate that sense of conflict between wanting to continue but fear of the behaviour, as she had with the original clicker trained version. And within very little time she was letting me handle each foot - the first time a stranger had been near her in months.

So to summarise, clicker training is fab but it will create conflict within the horse if fear is present. Careful shaping and counter-conditioning are needed and we need to de-focus our obsession with the final goals. The goal is the positive experience for the horse, not compliance with the behaviour we want.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2017