Horses and Husbands: positive reinforcement

I’ve been having a lot of fun teaching Jazz to do things and then rewarding her behaviour with a “ssscchhhh” noise (to imitate a click) and a small piece of carrot.
Its called “positive reinforcement” and it means that every time she does something I want her to do she is positively reinforced with a piece of her favorite snack. In the horse world, this somewhat simple idea is actually not that commonly used, with much of the training for horses being of the “negative reinforcement” kind. Ie – if the horse doesn’t do what you want; you tap it with your stick, hold harder with your reins, shout NO, or whatever you choose to do to let your horse know you are not pleased with what they have offered.

With positive reinforcement, I can set up the conditions so that my horse has a good chance of getting something right, and then as soon as I do catch her doing what I asked for, I reward her with the “sssschhh” noise and a treat, or even just a scratch on her neck, which she loves. Whether I am riding or working on the ground with her, it gives me huge pleasure and appreciation to see her “thinking” so hard, trying to figure out what I want and how she can give it to me.

Having studied Nancy Klein’s “Time to Think” and realizing that the ratio of appreciation to criticism needs to be 5:1 in order for one of the essential components of a thinking environment to be present, I am again struck by how easy it actually is to reward good behaviour, thereby encouraging more of the same.

I originally learnt about “clicker training” when I took Boss, the Jack Russell, to puppy school. He learnt to sit, down, stand, “follow me” and all kinds of other things, through a bit of good old-fashioned bribery! He gets frantic watching Jazz earning treats, and tries out all his “good tricks” to earn a small piece of her carrot!

So, with my two “besties” firmly on the path to positive reinforcement, I have really been pondering…. How can I “clicker-train” my husband??

Now, before you all giggle nervously, and ask if he knows about this plan, lets just look at what I really mean here. Obviously, when he comes home with flowers for me, I throw my arms around him and tell him he’s the best husband in the world. But that’s not “cued” behaviour. That’s a special treat that he offers me “just because”. I’m interested to see if I can set up the conditions to help him do things that he may not realize I want him to do, and then “reward” that behaviour, to try and get more of it.

Like what, I hear you ask? Well, how about like having an open and honest discussion about emotions? What about rewarding the places that he steps out of his comfort zone as a strong protector and provider, and tests out what it may feel like to be more vulnerable? What about the areas where he is practicing being a good leader in, at home as well as at work? What are the leadership behaviours I most want him to exhibit more of, and how can I “click and reward” these in the instant they are happening?

As I think about how to answer these questions in a way that makes sense to me, and doesn’t seem too weird for this post, I ask myself: What gets in the way of positive reinforcement training?

Impatience – I need it and I need it NOW. This is common in our world. There seems to be less and less time to experiment with a variety of behaviours; the pressure is on us all to perform, to get it right, and to do it instantly. Can we create a space that allows us to slow down enough to try out some new possibilities?
Hurt for past wrongs – if I ask for something from you that I really need, and you don’t understand me the first time, will I shrivel up and shut down again? How can I be safe enough to stay with it, and keep trying, even though I don’t know if you will ever find the behaviour that I really want?
Trust – how can I trust this new way? It is way out of my own comfort zone, and the way I usually operate. What if you use it as a way to win against me? What if it makes me look stupid and you use that against me? How can I trust you enough to keep trying even if we misunderstand one another the first few (hundred) times?
Habit – I’ve always done it this way, and I don’t think I can change enough to focus only on the good behaviours. How do you expect me to just ignore all the things you are doing wrong?

I’m going to go back to Jazz for a moment, to remind myself what she does when we are trying to learn something new together. Often, she will offer a range of behaviours until she figures out what I want. So, when I taught her to walk backwards by wiggling my finger, she tested what I wanted by stepping forwards, sideways and even by stamping her foot. She only got rewarded when she took a step back. It took a good few tries for her to figure out that that was what I wanted. She really wanted the carrot, so she kept trying until she hit upon the behavior that worked. While she was doing the wrong things, nothing was happening from me; when she took her first step back, the “ssscchhhh” and reward was instant.

Back to the husband…. I decided that the “click” would be a big smile, followed by a reward of some kind – either a cuddle, or a squeeze of the hand, or a back rub. (These are things I know he likes). After dinner last night, he plopped down in front of the TV to relax. I went off to the study to work. He came to check what I was doing. I gave him a huge smile. He sat down. I smiled again. He started talking. More smiling. We had a really lovely and important conversation punctuated by lots of smiling and loving gestures. Sounds simple, right? It actually was really simple. Yet the other side is one that happens all too often; he watches TV, I nag that he never talks to me, he carries on watching TV. Result: no conversation and two grumpy people.

An interesting by-product of this experiment is that I get to smile a lot. And that makes me giggle a bit. Which makes me feel happy.

I will let you know how this develops, as I keep playing with the idea of positive reinforcement…. Give it a try for yourself – you never know what could happen!

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