Can you explain the concept of positive reinforcement training? What exactly does it mean? I was recently in New Zealand, where I was with a group that seems “converted” to what they call “all-positive training.” It sounds like good old-fashioned treats and bribes, just what I was taught not to do with horses.           via e-mail


Positive training and the “all-positive reinforcement” training movement you mention would include all those methods of training horses, or kids, or dogs, or even interacting with colleagues and family, using primarily positive reinforcement, with minimal negative reinforcement and, certainly, no punishment. You patiently wait for the desired response, or you prompt the desired response, then reinforce it. For loading a problem horse, for example, you get it to come into the trailer with positive enticement (usually a bucket of grain) and reward every step. Negative reinforcement, including pushing from behind, pestering with whips, rope, a plastic bag, or any aversive stimulus, are not used, or they are used only mildly. Punishment is generally avoided altogether–it’s just not an option.

The reason there is so much talk about positive training, and the reason people often become quite evangelistic about new versions, is that it works very well if you can do it right. When you pay attention to how much time it really takes and the effectiveness of the results, on average, it wins over forceful methods hands down. Gaining results by using all-positive methods seems like a perfect human-animal partnership. You end up with a horse that seems highly motivated to learn new ways to please you and “loves to work hard” for the reward.

There are pitfalls. The timing and consistency of the reinforcement needs to be correct to teach the horse the desired behavior. If the timing is