How do animals learn using Positive Reward Force Free training?

Animals are learning all the time, right from the moment they are born for every minute of every day. Right now your animals are learning irrespective of where they are and who is with them. They may be learning behaviours we like or behaviours we don’t like.

They  learn via two main methods:

1) Classical-Conditioning (CC) – where the environment is acting on the animal to cause behaviour to occur.

Horse example: open the feed shed door and the horses come running. CC has taught them that the noise of the door predicts food is coming.   Show the worming paste tube and horses run or clench their jaws – tube has come to predict a not nice taste and an argument with the handler.

Dog example: go to the cupboard where the treats are kept and you will get a dog that wants a treat.

2) Operant Conditioning (OC) – conditioning in which an operant response is brought under stimulus control by virtue of presenting reinforcement contingent upon the occurrence of the operant response. Conditioning – a learning process in which an organism’s behaviour becomes dependent on the occurrence of a stimulus in its environment (official dictionary definition) 

Let’s put that in English:  Unlike CC where the environment acts on the animal, OC is what we traditionally think of as training. It is when a verbal or non verbal cue, or tool is used to ensure a predictable (85% of the time) response to provide a learned cue.

Horse example: Horse moves from one pace to another on verbal cue, In +ve training – horse opens mouth when worming syringe appears, horse is taught to move backwards on cue without being touched or forced with pressure release, horse moves left when touched in a specific spot and/or a cue word is used.  Note: the words are mostly for our benefit as most animals use non verbal body language cues.

Dog example: you say sit and the dog sits. You touch the dog’s lead and they go crazy jumping all over the place.

How do we achieve OC?

All good and bad behaviour is achieved by the use of the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning.

These are positive (+ve) and negative (–ve)  reinforcement (R) and positive (+ve) and  negative (–ve) punishment (P) with the four words all having very specific meanings in terms of learning theory.

  • +ve means to add
  • -ve means to remove
  • Reinforcement means to ensure behaviour occurs again not necessarily to reward
  • Punishment means to ensure behaviour decreases not necessarily to punish – but for most of the time it is punishing; it depends on what you are doing and how you are doing it. Punishment being in the eye of the animal not the trainer.

4 quadrants table

4 quadrants of Operant Conditioning. Click on image to enlarge 

Take Home Message:

Don’t get caught up in the terminology and differences in methods.

Set your animal up for success and don’t get caught up in the terminology.  Do no harm and try wherever possible to work on the animal providing the behaviour you want rather than being coerced into it.  I.e. stand on your head and turn your brain inside out as we have been conditioned to using +P and – R and not +R and -P.  If you find you are always using -P then you are doing something wrong and need to go back and look at what you are asking the animal to do.

At first it is hard then soon it becomes the only way you think. The fun comes back into the relationship as you are not in a WIN/ LOOSE relationship but in a WIN/WIN that both parties want to continue. You are having fun and so is your animal. I call it laughter therapy for trainers and handlers.

What is positive reward (FF) training and how does it differ?

  • It is not just a training method it is a method that allows a deeper more meaningful relationship with any animal, even strange animals you have never met before. This is because it works with the animal where they offer behaviour because they want to not because they are forced to. It is mostly trained with the animal not restrained in any way.  In horses I start with them totally at liberty in a large paddock. With dogs start off lead in a secure large area.
  • Aims to stay as much as possible in the quadrants of +R however that is not always possible and occasionally –P is used. In fact many things we do even outside of training are –P. We have no choice at times but to tie up a horse or dog, make them take wormers, have dental work done etc. Using positive reward means that we become aware of the impact we are having on them and get used to the fact that we allow for them to want to retreat at times.
  • It integrates +R and –P so that least impact occurs for the desired outcome.
  • The basics can be altered to address many training situations, especially for horses where it can also be used during riding.
  • Using positive training we can not only train an animal for tricks but also train them in basic husbandry methods such as:

Worming, fitting equipment, lifting feet, moving in any direction, loading onto a trailer or into a crate, standing still for mounting, changing gait, having a saddle placed on an unbroken horse, coming when called,  improving flexing of neck and all limbs, ear cleaning, nail trimming and medication. In fact once the basic skills of targeting and learning a marker work are mastered there is not one thing that positive reward cannot be used for.

  • Once practiced regularly it improves the overall relationship between human and the animal horse and the animal keeps asking for opportunities to interact. NO more forcing behaviours that we require to happen such as trying to catch them.

For a demonstration on using positive reward force free training with horses please click here.

To see examples of this method in use with dogs please view our YouTube channel. Clicke here


Louise Kerr
The Pet Care Magician   |    Like us on Facebook

Facebook groups: Talk to me about Positive Reward Based Dog Training

Australian Pet Professionals | Dogs, Horses, Cats, Pocket Pets +Animal Businesses (Mid Nth Coast NSW) 

Louise Kerr (aka The Pet Care Magician) runs the Pet Care Magic club where devil dogs, horrible horses and crazy cats are turned into perfect pets. The program provides owners and pet professionals assistance with with common pet behavior  training, feeding and grooming issues such as barking, escaping, scratching, aggression and fleas  She consults and writes widely on a range of pet care issues for owners and also assists pet care professionals in setting up and growing their businesses by the provision of customer handling advice, sales and marketing strategies and up to date product information that allows for the differentiation of their pet care business from their competitors. The Pet Care Magic Club is part of Elite Pet Care & Education based in the Nambucca Valley NSW Australia but can be found on internet enabled devices worldwide.

About Me 


Posted on October 6, 2013, in Behaviour, Dog Training, Horse Training, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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