‘Negative’ side effects of Rewards


Although I have read quite a lot on rates of reinforcement and treat value. I discovered by trial that I was giving a too high reinforcement to my mare. She was agitated and frustrated and not able to do anything in a calm manner which made the stand and wait training impossible. She is a fidgety type and that is what I had always put it down to, I did not think it possible to be giving her too much reward as she was only getting pony nuts, the same as she does breakfast and dinner, I certainly could not (in my opinion) lower the value much more. A couple of weeks ago , during a mixed session with targeting and obstacles it occurred to me that maybe I was giving her too many pony nuts at a time, I dropped to one single pellet per click and the results were instant… no more funny faces (most of the time) greatly reduced fidgeting and much more calm overall… I could now leave her standing and walk all the way round and a couple of metres away from her without her moving (she is better one direction than the other for me to walk away but I have yet to discover whether this is down to a sight problem/difference, the right hand being the one that delivers treats, or just general habituation to a particular direction). I had been so eager for her to receive high praise given the difficulty we have in overcoming certain challenges that I had lost sight of the appropriateness of the reward.


All animals can be ‘trained’ using rewards but the value of each type of reward is different based on individual preference. For non human animals it is advised to lay a selection of different rewards down and observe what they choose first. In humans you can ask them and in young children your attention and praise is usually sufficient (I personally would never use food as a reward in children; unless for example, it was that they got to choose where we ate.)


It occurred to me when writing this that I sometimes over praise my daughter as well. She dislikes being the centre of attention and sometimes when she does something that we then clap or say well done for, she initially smiles but it then turns to a frown and closed body language and sometimes crying, similar to embarrassment, this can then lead to her not wanting to try again or avoiding ‘performing’ for a couple of days and this behaviour is particularly common if in presence of more people than just mummy and daddy. It can be difficult to know what to do as we want to celebrate her achievements but have to sometimes be ready to look away and downplay our excitement so as not to overwhelm her and put her off. I personally similarly experience embarrassment if people ‘over’ celebrate something I have done, and it indeed puts me off repeating the behaviour around those people again. This I think can be said of most animals with a sensitive or shy disposition and is important for us to be aware of.


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