Tools – Aversive or “Just Objects”?

spurIt is so interesting how we humans use language.  Sometimes it is to clarify things and sometimes it is used to obfuscate or hide the real meaning.

When training animals (or humans) and we use tools, are the tools aversive?  Or is it just how they’re used?

If I said that a prong collar was aversive, would you agree with me or say that the prong collar is just a tool, an object, that is not aversive in and of itself.  How about an e-collar or shock collar?  How about spurs or a whip or a lip chain?  Where do you draw the line?  Why there?  What information do you go on to decide?  Science?  Your experience?  Your feelings?

If we agreed that tools in and of themselves are NOT aversive while they’re just sitting there waiting to be used, when and how do they become aversive?  And who decides?

It is said that the learner decides what is reinforcing.  Does the learner also have the prerogative to decide what is aversive?

If I throw a handful of chain at (but not hitting) my Golden Retriever, Jackie, and she dives under my truck the very first time I do this, what has just happened?

I’ve punished some behavior that I didn’t like.  I may have punished some other behavior that I wasn’t even paying attention to.  And now my lovely, sweet, soft dog is under the truck and won’t come out.

A few days later, all I have to do to make my lovely, sweet, soft dog run and hide is to pick up that handful of chain.

I think I have also punished (soured) my relationship with her and broken her trust in me.

Was the handful of chain “just an object” when I first picked it up?  Probably.  But how long did it take before that handful of chain became one of the most aversive things I could have done to my dog?  One throw.  A handful of seconds to make a handful of chain very, very aversive.

Now what about that prong collar?  How many jerks on the collar will it take before it’s aversive and not “just an object”?  That one’s harder for me to describe because I had a weird dog who “loved” his prong collar and “hated” his Gentle Leader head collar.  But then I think his neck was so tough and tight that he never really felt anything with that collar because he still dragged me down groundhog holes!

And the shock collar?  I’ve watched my neighbor’s lovely, sweet child-safe Rottie mix become a rather berserk, crazed dog running the invisible fence line at anything, including her own humans, because of the shock collar used with the fence.  How many “buzzes” did she receive before she decided that everything outside her yard was a threat?shock-collar

Whips?  They can be used either as targets with R+ training or as enforcers and punishers in traditional training.  How long does it take before the whip becomes aversive?  How many hits?  One, ten, twenty?  My horse, Ollie, clearly fears them.  He was never abused by one as far as I know, but his training was traditional.  Now that it’s not and I take my time and use all my observational skills, it’s not hard to see that just carrying a whip under my arm stresses him.

How about spurs?  Are they big enough for the horses to see whether or not you’re actually wearing them?  I don’t know.  I never got good enough with spurs to wear them and not have them accidentally touch the horse when I didn’t want them to.  I just never wore them.

But spurs are used in pressure release.  Even if the pressure is used mildly, but released when the desired behavior happens, it’s still R- training.  And that means that by definition, spurs are an aversive.  They can also be used severely in such a way as to actually punish.  For example, if the spur is used to enforce a move away from the leg and the horse doesn’t move over and the spur is used even more forcefully, it’s possible that the very behavior the rider wants is being punished because the horse resists even more.  Then the rider is not gaining anything.  If the rider gets really nasty with the spurs, does the horse get more willing or more upset?  Does the horse getting upset improve the training or cause more problems?

Are tools just tools, just objects sitting there waiting to be used?  Or does the intent with which they are used just as or even more important than the tool itself?  What does the animal think about it?

Look at the functional analysis of A>B>C:  Antecedent>Behavior>Consequences.

How has the behavior been trained?  Through R+ training or R-?  What’s the reinforcer?  Release of pressure (an aversive) or an appetitive?  Is the learner working for something that it wants or likes?  Or trying to avoid something it doesn’t want or like?

Who gets to choose?Fleck Super Flex DRESSAGE Whip

About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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3 Responses to Tools – Aversive or “Just Objects”?

  1. HippoLogic says:

    It is an interesting question if horse see spurs or notice them when the rider approaches.
    Most training devices are unfortunately meant to use as aversive, one has to be really creative to use them otherwise.


    • That is so true. And if the horse can’t or doesn’t see that the rider is wearing spurs, but then finds out the hard way that spurs are nearly always used, does the rider become aversive on sight? Does being ridden become an aversive activity?


  2. Pingback: Tools – Aversive or “Just Objects”? | Hest

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