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History of Operant Conditioning

Clicker training has been in use since the mid 1900s, but it didn’t really catch on until the 1980s and 1990s, particularly for training dogs and wild animals. Clicker training operates on the principles of operant conditioning, originally discussed by B.F. Skinner in 1938.

Operant conditioning is a type of training where behavior is encouraged or discouraged by rewards and consequences. The key concepts of operant conditioning are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

The terms can be confusing, but we will simplify them and define them in terms of working with horses below:

  1. Positive reinforcement: something “pleasant” is added when the desired behavior occurs (clicker training)

  2. Negative reinforcement: something “unpleasant” is removed when the desired behavior occurs (traditional pressure and release training)

  3. Positive punishment: something “unpleasant” is added when an undesired behavior occurs (a correction)

  4. Negative punishment: something “pleasant” is removed when an undesired behavior occurs (taking feed away because a horse is pawing)

Clicker training capitalizes on positive reinforcement. It promptly and precisely pin points desired behavior and gives your horse incentive to repeat the desired behavior, resulting in speedy learning. Clicker training helps keep a horse in the parasympathetic nervous system function (a relaxed state that amplifies learning) as well as developing a horse’s “seeking system.” A horse’s seeking system is their curiosity, their desire to explore and their desire to problem solve. 

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