Monday, March 31, 2014

Saddling up the Endorphins

ME:  Give me your hoof [click!]!

ZIP:  Say what?  You...what?  What's that again?

ME:  [click!]  Hoof!

ZIP:  [sniffing, noticing the clicker and treat bag] I know this!  I know this!  I can do this!

[Herewith follows a series of random behaviors Zip has been reinforced for in the past...]

ZIP:  Okay!  Cookie me!

I can see the cookie bag.  

We all know from research and experience that animals (including humans) learn better, catch on faster, and recall longer when training involves a reward.  Food rewards are preferable to all others (except for the humans who prefer expensive gifts), and will ensure that whatever point you were making will be remembered better than you hoped.

But why?  What is it about this process that makes it such a slam-dunk?  This isn't a question that can be answered by trainers or owners.  Most of us are just happy to find a way to get our subject--equine or otherwise--to perform as required.  We don't go much beyond buying the book and the clicker and the treat bag (this one is perfect) and setting out to get Whizzboy to sit up or whatever fuels our personal water craft.

Not so the research physiologists among us.  I mentioned in an earlier post a book with the title The Hour Between Dog and Wolf.   I'm assuming you've been too busy shoveling snow or manure and haven't bought the book yet.  When you finally do (and you will), turn to Chapter 5 and read along as we talk about endorphins and the role the play in training, habit, addiction, and behavior modification.

I would love to simply cut and paste the whole chapter here, but that's neither possible nor legal.  Instead I will summarize the pertinent facts.

1.  ENDORPHINS  are neurotransmitters that encourage and facilitate the transmission of electrical signals in the brain.  We all have them.  So do other animals.

2. The release of endorphins, which are the body's natural morphine feel-alike, is what we live for.  It's what motivates us to do anything at all.  Without that, we sink into what we interpret as boredom and depression and anxiety.  In humans, the release cues the release of testosterone, which is the chemical that makes us move, and adrenaline, which gives us the super-power boost to move faster.

3.  You can tell when you're enjoying an endorphin rush (and a hit of the other chemicals) because you will feel as if you can do anything, all is right with the world, and whatever you did to feel that way needs to be repeated indefinitely.  The good news is that it even boosts your immune system and makes you (briefly) smarter and more focused.  Party on!

You take a bite of chocolate and you get an endorphin burst because the sensation the chocolate creates in your mouth, your throat, and after swallowing is pleasant.  Whether it's pleasant because of the endorphin release or vice-versa is moot at this point.

You give your horse or dog or partner a cookie, and s/he has the same feeling of well-being.  That's what makes him/her want to recreate the situation.  What's interesting is that if you do the same thing a few times--reward a behavior with a treat--in no time the endorphin release will precede the treat.  That's the classic Pavlovian effect.  The subject will find a pre-cue to let him/her suspect a treat is coming, and the party will begin before you reach for the bag or pick up the clicker or put on the sexy shoes or whatever.  That's where the clicker can come in handy, as it helps create that heads-up that something good is going to happen.
Good horses like to work for a living.

Take it one step farther in the research, though, and something even more intriguing happens, and this is where you need to read Chapter 5.  Research has shown that if you give the horse a cookie repeatedly, he will have a flood of endorphins (along with adrenaline) at a certain level each time...for a while.  Then the flow will level off.  Add another cookie--give him two instead of one--and make it a surprise, and the flow will burst higher than before, then level off at the previous level.

So there's more at work here.  There is the Novelty effect.  Novelty is information.  If it's not new to the subject's brain, it's not worthy of note.  Part of what happens when we bathe in brain chemicals is that we begin to look for more and more novelty.  If the "treat" is a drug--cocaine, for instance--we want more and greater effects.  We anticipate the "high" as soon as we see the pipe or the baggie, and it's that anticipatory response that is the actual addiction, not the drug.  Read the book to find out how we're screwing up on addictions therapy.

In your horse, if you want to control the effect, controlling the pre-cue is important.  He's going to find one anyway, so you  might as well set the one that works best for you.  If you approach the training the same way every time, show him the bag or the cone or the stick or the cookie or whatever (in the pic above, it's the little whisk broom that's the cue) so he's not being cued into behavior at odd times (like when the light goes on in the tack room, or he hears the barn door open, or the horse in the next stall coughs, or he turns his head to the left) and you are better able to focus his attention at the same time yours is focused on the experience at hand.

But there's another interesting twist reported in the research.  It seems our animals (and we) prefer to work for our rewards.  Animals (and teenagers...just sayin') rewarded without doing anything to earn it don't have that same physiological response.  Zip might love his cookies, but if I try to give him more than one without cuing a behavior, he will throw some tricks in anyway.  This is very good to know.  They (and we) want to work!

So armed with all this understanding of the physiology behind the psychology of training, go forth and click!  Your brain and your horses will thank you.


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