Punishment Callus

How to avoid problems with negative reinforcement.

If we use R- there are certain things we can do to negate possible negative side effects.

1. Use very low level aversive stimulus to form a behaviour. DO NOT trigger a flight response or use escalating aversive stimuli. Horses can habituate to the stimuli and then more is needed for the required reaction.

2. Remove the aversive stimulus as soon as the animal starts the behaviour, DO NOT wait until the behaviour is finished.

3. Use shaping – so reinforce small approximations of the final behaviour

4. Put the behaviour on a command so the animal can avoid the aversive stimulus when they respond. Either verbal or visual, be consistent and predictable.

5. Don’t use the same command for different behaviours.

6. Use a combination of R- and R+ e.g form the behaviour using an aversive stimulus and remove the stimulus and give a appetitive reinforcer at the same time -.e.g food or scratches.
This may counter-condition the aversive stimulus rather than cause poisoned cues.

An interesting phenomenon is Punishment Callus

“Animals habituate to aversives – this is referred to as the punishment callus. So, escalation is typically not the best solution.” Karolina Westlund Friman

Punishment Callus

When the animal habituates to an aversive stimulus and stops responding. So people escalate the aversive stimulus but the animal may habituate to that too. What have you got left for an emergency situation?
We don’t want animals to habituate – aversives need to be kept for emergency (life and death situations) use only.

If we use mild negative reinforcement e.g a light touch until the animal moves and there is no emotional reaction to the stimulus, it is still aversive but not enough to cause flight or avoidance reactions. Just enough for the animal to want it to stop, it then may do no harm and used in combination with a positive reinforcer may counter condition rather than poison the  cue or result in punishment callous. The aversive stimulus must be extremely low level and not escalate.

This is why the LIMA principles and the Humane Hierarchy make more sense than starting with mild aversives and escalating as the animal habituates. It is like the old riding school ponies who had been kicked so much they habituated and switched off.

PS I still prefer to use positive reinforcement but it is good to know that the odd time we use negative reinforcement like this we do very little harm to our relationship.

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong



7 ways to get behaviour

More on poisoned cues – see previous post too





  1. 1.
    moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.
    synonyms: moral code, morals, morality, moral stand, moral principles, moral values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, creed, credo, ethos, rules of conduct, standards (of behaviour), virtues, dictates of conscience

    “the ethics of journalism”
     So what is ethical horsemanship?
    It is different for each of us, for one person it may be following a natural horsemanship program, for another it may be only training using positive reinforcement. For others it may be a combined approach – so using all quadrants of operant conditioning.
    All we can do is share what we do and not try to change other people – they will change when they are ready.
    However we do need the science behind how each quadrant works and how this impacts on equine welfare.This is a useful article – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159117300710 

    Especially useful is the section on Response Prevention (Flooding).
    “Another cause of concern is that, if an animal is being restrained and exposed to uncontrollable aversion, learned helplessness may result. In this case, the animal will be apathetic and may superficially appear to tolerate the aversive stimulus, but its welfare is seriously compromised.”

    So much of what we see in main stream and even natural horsemanship circles is actually flooding, the horse on a longline being “desensitised“ to a scary object. The horse in a round pen can also be experiencing flooding – there is no escape and the only option the horse feels he has is to give in and submit to the handler. This can happen accidentally – e.g trying to clip a horse by restraint and continuing until the horse appears to be OK with the procedure. I know I have done this in the past without realising the consequences.

    So for me personally to be ethical in my horsemanship is to cause no harm to the animal, to be very aware of the emotional impact any training has. Watching for frustration, anxiety and any indicators that tell me the horse is over his emotional threshold.
    The use of positive reinforcement as much as possible at any moment in time, I may have to use negative reinforcement in situations where I have not trained a satisfactory response. So some unforeseen veterinary procedures may need the horse to be restrained – however I can counter condition this to make it easier for the horse. Other people handling the horse may use negative reinforcement e.g pressure and release, so the horse does need to know how to respond appropriately.

    So following Friedman and Fritziers Humane Hierarchy.

    image of the hierarchy of humane training

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

It may well be that – at this moment in time – it is not possible to use only positive reinforcement in equine training.
If people wish to compete in mainstream equestrian events then they will need to use -R unless they retrain or train from scratch everything with +R. There may well be a time when the horse world catches up with other animal trainers in the use of +R.
It isn’t something that many positive reinforcement trainers talk about and talking about -R on some Facebooks groups gets you banned. However we must know how -R works and how it can affect the horse.
If we work on the LIMA principles of using the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive stimuli to train behaviour and apply behaviour modification programs then I think we are doing well.

Negative is just a mathematical notation – so subtracting something to reinforce a behaviour. Of course if we remove something the horse likes and wants that can be construed as negative punishment if the behaviour decreases, as it may well do if the horse can’t get what he wants.
 So to be reinforcing the stimuli removed must be something the horse wishes to avoid, so an aversive stimuli. The removal of the stimuli is felt as a relief to the horse and can be very light leg and rein and weight aids. So the leg is conditioned to mean forward and is reinforced by the removal of the aid.
Negative reinforcement does trigger different neurotransmitters and hormones than those triggered in positive reinforcement. Using Jaak Panksepps 7 emotional systems, that all mammals share, we can see which system is at work in any quadrant. 
So with +R we see the SEEKING system in action in a positive way – horse learn to solve problems, they are empowered to share in their learning. The PLAY system is important too as horses learn through PLAY just as other mammals do e.g human children.
So what system is -R using?
 If we use another behavioural model – Paul Gilberts 3 Circle Model – we can see that using an aversive stimulus to form a behaviour is in the THREAT circle. Panksepp would be the FEAR system, this does not have to be all out flight but aversive enough for the horse to want to avoid the stimulus.

diagram of the 3 circle model of emotional regulation

Of course we need to achieve homeostasis of the emotional systems as soon as possible by removing the aversive stimulus and also by putting the behaviour on a command – so the horse can avoid any escalation. So in any training session the horse can be in the RED zone but we need to get him back in the GREEN zone. Horse stuck in the RED zone can become hypervigilant – if the HPA axis is triggered then cortisol is released and this takes a long time to dissipate, so a little bit of adrenaline keeps them motivated but too much and it tips into distress rather than eustress.

Positive reinforcement works on the DRIVE or SEEKING system, but we can also get horse stuck in this mode too – so they get frustrated if reinforcement isn’t forthcoming or we are slow with reinforcement.
 Whatever we use whether +R or -R we need to understand what is happening and how we can use them for the good of the horse.

Difference between a cue and a command?
A cue is used in +R training to tell the horse reinforcement is coming. In -R we use the word command as the horse rarely has a choice – so often it is a “to it or else” scenario, the horse performs the behaviour to avoid any escalation of an aversive stimulus.

Paul Gilbert  http://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-3-emotion-regulation-systems/

Jaak Panksepp http://mybrainnotes.com/fear-rage-panic.html

HPA axis      https://www.integrativepro.com/Resources/Integrative-Blog/2016/The-HPA-Axis