The Negative Impact of Positive Reinforcement

Over the past twenty years, there has been an enormous amount of change in the animal training world. I’ve been fortunate enough to witness and participate in a great deal of it, with horses especially, but it has been a really uncomfortable journey. When I began training horses back in 1996, the general mindset was very much about using brute force or domination to get things done. Over the next several years, the natural horsemanship movement flooded in, claiming to use natural horse behavior to achieve desired results. Then came dancing with horses, liberty training, and a wave of people jumping on what they believed to be the kindest form of training thus far – positive reinforcement. For those that don’t know, positive reinforcement means using some sort of reward (usually food) to reinforce desired behavior.

I jumped on all of these movements at one stage or another, but usually only long enough to realize that each one was a bigger lie than the last. For nearly two decades, I let brilliantly-marketed words like “love,” “partnership,” “relationship,” “trust,” and “respect” fool me into looking for better and more “positive” ways to interact with animals. Then, I finally stumbled upon a form of human-animal relationship (through Nevzorov Haute Ecole) that didn’t attempt to use the animal in any way, yet achieved incredible outcomes.  Finally, I took it a step further in recognizing the imbalance in power in all guardian/dependent relationships, and how that significantly impacts the psychology of the dependent when the power of the guardian is abused in any way.

What resulted between my animals and I transformed us all forever. When I look back now, I feel deeply saddened by how much of my precious life has been spent finding ways to use others or get them to do what I wanted or get my needs met through them. I know it sounds harsh, but that’s all training is, no matter how you spin it. 

Domestication may be the biggest distraction of our lives.  There is no way to love someone by domesticating them. To domesticate, at a base understanding, is to bring another under one’s control to make usable. Domestication refers to how someone is treated –  and has nothing to do with their biology. To face what we have done in order to put animals in our direct care is to face the very root of everything that is wrong in our society, in our homes, and in our relationships. It is to look directly into the eyes of the biggest lie we’ve ever been sold – YOU were put here for ME. This is where accountability and responsibility come in to shed a light on the dangers of positive reinforcement.

When we use rewards to elicit specific behaviors from others, we’ve basically said, “I’m not trustworthy, so here’s something you like in exchange for what I want from you.” Think about that for a moment. If I have a great relationship with someone, why would I need to bribe them in order to gain their cooperation? An even better question might be to ask ourselves why we are trying to get someone to do something if they have to be manipulated into it in the first place? If it isn’t for the animal’s immediate safety and well-being or to meet one of their basic needs, it is likely not a loving act.

Calm, balanced energy and a consistency of kind but strong leadership are all anyone needs to earn the full cooperation of animals.

The potential of the relationship risks being wrecked when manipulation is the basis for most conversations.  We can’t exactly earn trust if we believe we need something outside of ourselves to get someone to listen to us. The main problem is many of us believe we have a right to modify the behavior of others for our own purposes. The energy of agenda can be felt a mile away by anyone that is in tune with their own body.

Without the agenda, there is no need for a reward.

Animals are perfectly willing to do things with us, and even for us, when it is in their best interest to do so as long as we are embodying a presence that is authentic and trustworthy. As animal guardians, it is up to us to be responsible for how we use the power we have over the dependents in our care. They are autonomous beings that depend on us for their survival; they are not our playthings.

One of the biggest pitfalls to positive reinforcement is giving your own power away to the thing you are using as a reward. When a reward is involved in getting an animal to behave a certain way, the relationship is then between the animal and the reward, not with you. This kind of reliance can result in a lifetime of engaging in transactional relationships and never giving yourself the opportunity to experience true love. Tit for tat relationships are about control and getting needs met, not unconditional acceptance or being seen.

The seventh principle of Sanctuary13 (the body of work I teach and what my new book explores much more deeply) is Love is Not a Transaction. When you really love someone, they shouldn’t owe you anything to receive that love. The animals in our care are not equals in the relationship to us. They are dependents, just like children, and they owe us nothing. To make use of them for being in our lives is exploitation.  This is especially true since we are the ones that caused the dependency by creating them or placing them in our care. Unfortunately, most of us have far more experience with transactional and exploitative relationships than truly loving ones so much of the harm we do is completely unknown to us until we have an experience that shifts our awareness.

Try asking the animals in your care to do things without any expectation or reward involved. They might just teach you a few things about the state of your actual relationship, and if you work on it, you’ll soon realize that rewards are unnecessary when unconditional love is in place. Love is always enough – we just have to realize what love really means and how it is applied in action. You owe it to yourself to step into the full power of your loving influence and see how worthy you are without having to give something up to feel it.

Training is only necessary when applied love is absent from the relationship. Notice I didn’t say when affection is absent. Or care. Or concern. Those are all wonderful things to bestow on another, but they hardly make up the entirety of unconditional love, especially in a guardian/dependent dynamic. You can have sincere feelings for someone without knowing how to love them. Real love allows someone to be exactly who they are, free of another’s desire to change them for their own benefit. In that space, the connection and opportunity for healing that is available is beyond anything training could ever offer or create. I hope you’ll put the distractions and tools away long enough to find it. The animals have been waiting a long time for us to meet them there.

Ren Hurst is the author of Riding on the Power of Others: A Horsewoman’s Path to Unconditional Love and the upcoming ANIMAL KIN: Restoring Connection to Wild Wisdom.  Her company, Render Me Wild, LLC, offers interspecies relationship coaching, consulting, and education through a body of work called Sanctuary13.  Find out more at Patreon.com/rendermewild or RenderMeWild.com