Animals Learn Faster Through Positive Reinforcement



Driving home from the Clicker Expo, which was in Los Angeles, I have had lots of time to think about what I learned during this three-day seminar. The focus of Clicker Expo is positive reinforcement. You will be hearing more about it in this and future columns.

But on the way home, I learned about the death of Barbaro, a horse that I and thousands of others have been cheering for over these past eight months. He has been in the news since breaking his leg in full view of millions of people shortly after coming through the starting gate at the Preakness Stakes. He was expected to win the race and move on to win the Triple Crown. Not often is this much attention focused on a horse. Many thousands of dollars were spent trying to save him, but when the time came that he began to suffer, he was euthanized. Some say he should have been euthanized immediately.


Sea creatures love the mental and physical challenges of training. They happily work in order to hear the whistle which means a fish or a scratch behind the ears will soon follow.

Barbaro was not just a famous racehorse, he was the pet of a family who could afford every medical advantage. He was a gallant horse with a huge heart and a love for life. He was a fighter. Sadly he is gone, but his months of treatment will provide the foundation for further medical advances in the treatment of laminitis and broken bones in horses and other hoofed animals. Not only was a great deal learned through the attempts at saving his life, the Barbaro Fund has raised $1.2 million for needed equipment at the new Bolton Center where this horse was treated. Although he could not pass on his amazing bloodlines to future thoroughbreds, his legacy will live on and what has been learned will save other horses.

Speaking of horses and Clicker Expo, lots of positive reinforcement training is done with horses. We saw amazing film clips of uncontrollable and dangerous horses transformed with positive training methods. Actually, this kind of training is done with all kinds of animals and even people.

These methods are proving very successful in gymnastics and dance training and new techniques are benefiting autistic children.

Karen Prior is the founder and brains behind Clicker Expo. An animal behaviorist, she began her professional career training dolphins. It was obvious that you could not force a dolphin to jump into the air.

You have to let him know what you want him to do, encourage him to want to do it and then reward him when he does it so that he will want to do it some more.

In order to let the dolphins and other sea animals know that you liked what they did and wanted them to do it again, a method of communication was needed that could be heard under water. A police whistle was chosen. With people, dogs and most other animals, we use a simple clicker.

One of the speakers at Clicker Expo was Ken Ramirez. He is director of training and husbandry at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He is incredible. After attending several of his seminars, I allowed myself to buy his 550+ page book.

I have only begun reading, but one bit of information jumped out at me. Ramirez says that animals in the aquarium are not trained primarily to entertain people. In their natural environment, they spend their day looking for food and pursuing other needs for their survival.

When they are brought into this unnatural environment, all their survival needs are provided for them. It is essential to provide stimulation or they become bored and depressed and they will not thrive.

This led me to think about the family dog. Dogs throughout history have had a job to do. They hunted, herded or guarded. Some fortunate dogs still have jobs but most of their stimulation comes from activities fabricated to keep their minds and bodies active such as agility. These are the lucky ones.

Way too many dogs remain in back yards, the unluckiest of all are tied night and day, with no stimulation and no exercise.

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