This morning I watched my 4 year old training his rabbits with differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour. He didn’t realise that’s what he was doing, but he was. Is his lack of understanding an issue, considering that his methods were effective?
I had sent him out to give his bunnies their breakfast. They were crowding the gate, but instead of just squeezing past, or growling, or pushing them, he put the pellets down and went to pick some spinach leaves. When the bunnies hopped along the fence-line after him he dropped the spinach to them well away from the gate, then he picked up the pellet box and in he went to fill up their bowls.
I was busy watering plants and only looked over in time to see the end of this sequence but it made me smile. Making ethical and humane training decisions doesn’t need to be complicated or counter-intuitive. My pre-schooler does it without even thinking much about it. Pity we can sometimes lose that clarity as we get older.
Most of the people I teach are already training animals on a daily basis. Even if they’re a novice horse owner they have very likely had other animals in their lives. And every time we interact with our animals, even if we aren’t setting out to “train” them, we are influencing their future behaviour. They’re learning all the time. About us, the environment and the way we interact with it, about our behaviour and how it impacts upon them, about how they can influence human behaviour to their own benefit.
So whether we realise it or not, we are all trainers. Some people are naturals, with sound instincts, excellent timing and observation skills. Others of us need to go through a process to learn those skills. I am a firm believer that the mechanics of good training (including the elusive “feel” that horse people go on about) are not mystical abilities that one is born with, they are able to be learned.
Often I have students attend my clinics who are naturally gifted trainers and have been training horses, sometimes to quite high levels, for decades. It is not my role to teach them “how to train better” (how presumptuous and condescending), but rather how to put a layer of logic and consciousness over the everyday training decisions they’re already making. To enable them to continue to be guided by their gut instinct, and to know when to question it. My goal is for these trainers to understand and clearly articulate WHY they make the training choices they do, and why what they are doing is working (or not!). This means they can more effectively transfer their training to other animals or to new problems, and they’ll be better at teaching others.
If I asked my 4 year old how or why he trained his rabbits to station away from the gate when he approaches, he would probably not have an answer but would simply point to its effectiveness. What will one day (hopefully!) make him an excellent trainer of animals and teacher of people, is the ability to take the knowledge from that particular scenario and utilise it elsewhere. To draw parallels between rabbits and dogs or horses, between gate-crowding and jumping up or stepping away at the mounting block, and therefore be able to influence and inspire behaviour change wherever it's required.
A key goal on our journey as a trainer is to be able to look THROUGH the surface layers of species or problem or behaviour and see the bare bones beneath; to understand the universal principles that underpin all learning, whether our learner has fur, fins or human skin.