What horse whisperers can teach modern dog trainers (and vice versa)


The world of animal training can be confusing to navigate, and it’s only natural that we should try to make sense of it by attaching labels to people and their practices. Unfortunately, these labels can sometimes obscure our vision – encouraging us to see only what we expect to see. Worse, they can give us a false sense of moral security, even superiority: “I’m a positive trainer, so all my methods are reward-based. You’ll never see me pressuring an animal!” The reality is often more complicated.

I’m a dog trainer who’s happy to wear the labels “positive trainer” and “marker trainer” (a.k.a. “clicker trainer”). To my mind, being a “positive trainer” means that I focus on reinforcing behavior I like and not on punishing behavior I don’t. I favor science over tradition, and I don’t indulge paranoid fantasies about dogs taking over the world. Being a “marker trainer” means that I use various conditioned stimuli (like clicks and words) to communicate two things clearly to an animal: You got it! And you will be rewarded. What could be simpler?

Buck Brannaman is a widely praised horse trainer. But many “positive reinforcement” trainers do not condone his methods.

Last year I had an opportunity to discover just how distorting labels can be. Like many who dwell outside the world of horses and horsepeople, I only recently became acquainted with Buck Brannaman’s life and work through the beautiful documentary film Buck, which came out last year. The movie tells the true story of the man who helped inspire the Nicholas Evans book The Horse Whisperer (and served as an adviser on the Robert Redford film that followed). It draws a redemptive connection between the abuse that Buck suffered as a child and his efforts as an adult to communicate gently and clearly with the creatures who helped keep his heart and spirit intact. He now travels the country teaching clinics on horse training.

I didn’t know when I saw the film last summer that many of my fellow “positive reinforcement trainers” put Buck in the “natural horsemanship” box; I didn’t know that this was supposed to be a bad thing (or that Buck himself rejects the label). As I later learned, natural horsemanship refers to a training approach that supposedly appeals to horses’ biological instincts. In its pseduo-scientific emphasis on “herd mentality” and “firm but fair leadership,” it mirrors some of the antiquated ideas about “alphas” and dominance that continue to plague dog training. But I didn’t see or hear any of this mumbo-jumbo in the film. Everything I did see persuaded me that Buck had a lot in common with the marker/clicker trainers I most admired.

I wanted to learn more, so late last year I took a firm cushion and a warm blanket up to Spanaway, Washington. For three days, I sat rooted to the bleachers of the arena where Buck was teaching beginning and intermediate horsemanship. I spent most of that time happily lapping up just about everything he had to say and to show about training horses. (I did discover that he’s somewhat less effective as a trainer of people, not only because he clearly finds them blockheaded by comparison with his equine students but also because his charisma sometimes makes them overeager.)

As I’d suspected and hoped, Buck’s core aims overlapped in countless places with those that guide clicker training at its best. Here are just a few:

  • Recognizing and channeling (even liberating) an animal’s inborn gifts, whether they be of intelligence, power, quality of movement, motivation, etc. Respecting and responding in the moment to distinctions among species and among individuals.
  • Practicing patience and incrementalism; breaking challenges down into manageable steps; being ready to have something take an hour, a day, a year, five years, a lifetime.
  • Harnessing the power of observation, repetition, precision, and consistency.
  • Offering a good deal; always asking what’s in it for the animal. Setting the animal up for success; closing off unproductive options.
  • Maintaining calm, focus, and life (or reviving it in a dull or anxious animal).
  • Adapting to circumstance; dealing with what is rather than a fantasy of what ought to be.
  • Using smarts in place of power; teaching the animal to teach you.
  • Building awareness of your own physical, mental, and emotional states. Building your own capacity for equanimity and self-control as a means of building it in the animal and increasing your ability to communicate clearly.
  • Finding a “feel” (a live current of connection and communication, whether it passes through a rein or across an open field).
  • Perfecting your timing. Timing, timing, timing.

What I found most interesting and impressive was the way that Buck expertly used his immediate physical contact with his horse to mark and reward behavior he liked. I knew that the technical term for what he was doing was “negative reinforcement”: the removal of something unpleasant (usually pressure, in this case) in order to encourage the likelihood that a behavior would reoccur. That’s how I would describe what I saw most of his students doing. But with the lightest of touches on the reins or the subtlest shift of the weight in his hips, Buck seemed to be offering his horse an array of potential pleasures. In particular, he offered the pleasures of coherence and grace in movement. His favorite metaphor is the dance, and he looked to me like a generous partner.

At a Q&A session on the third day of the clinic, someone happened to ask Buck what he thought of clicker training. I’d been full of warm fuzzies despite the October chill, so I was shocked by his emphatically contemptuous response. He said he found it worthless at best, exploitative at worst. Good for nothing more than tricks. He recounted a recent run-in with a dangerously spooked steer and joked that a clicker trainer “couldn’t click fast enough” to handle such a situation.

Well, that got me riled. I wanted to protest that just about every behavior you might train is a “trick” as far as the horse is concerned: if the horse found it intrinsically useful, you wouldn’t have to train it. I also wanted to ask Buck then and there how many of his own students could safely manage the “trick” of moving that steer. Not many, from what I’d seen! But I held my tongue ‘til I got back home, then wrote Buck an eight-page letter detailing all the reasons I was convinced that a) he was already a “clicker trainer,” and b) he could be a better one.

I wasn’t surprised never to hear back from him – he’s a busy guy and I’m an unabashed pain in the neck. He probably wants to decrease the amount of correspondence he gets from opinionated spectators, and, like every good animal trainer, he knows that ignoring the annoying subject (me) is the best way to discourage the behavior (unbidden critiques). In animal training terms, this is “negative punishment.”

Positive/Negative Reinforcement and Positive/Negative Punishment, explained by artist Lili Chin.

Well, it is when it works. Unfortunately for Buck’s attempt to train me, I hate to waste my words, so I posted the letter on my old blog. I got some terrific, thoughtful responses from both sides of the “clicker training” / “natural horsemanship” divide. However, I’d failed to anticipate that many clicker trainers would dismiss Buck as emphatically as he had dismissed them. Whatever Buck might say about rejecting fear and pain as training tools, he continued to rely on “negative reinforcement” — eliciting discomfort in order to encourage behavior by taking away the pain with strategic timing. That should be enough, they thought, to quash any admiration a “positive” trainer might feel for him.

I disagree. No matter which methods we favor, we can’t escape from the reality that training requires motivation, and motivation requires pressure. All of us “positive” folks tend to rely on the pressure of desire (for food, for attention, etc.), but those with easily frustrated dogs know very well that desire can sometimes create anxiety and even rage. The quality of our attention to this animal with these needs in this moment is the best predictor of our ability to train with compassion as well as efficacy.

There are many reasons that I prefer positive to negative reinforcement (or punishment) in most situations. If I want to reach people who don’t already agree with me, I can articulate those reasons more persuasively if I first acknowledge that a horse or dog might be better off learning from a truly skilled and receptive “negative reinforcement” trainer than from a clumsy and self-absorbed “positive” one.

I still think I have a lot to learn from Buck Brannaman.

Featured illustration by Don Kilpatrick 


10 Responses

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