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The Hidden Implications of Forceful Training

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The Hidden Implications of Forceful Training
(Conditioned Suppression & Frozen Watchfulness)

… positively influencing the wellbeing of animals worldwide …

The rise of smoothly marketed, forceful training methods for horses & dogs has left us at the Natural Animal Centre feeling very uncomfortable that animal owners are being tricked into thinking they are doing the right thing for their animals. This article peals away the slick marketing, exposing the simple learning theory, unravelling the false logic which is often used to justify harsh training. With this new applied science you, as an owner, will be able to make knowledge-based assessments of the training systems on offer & choose the compassionate option for your horse or dog.
As behaviourists & at the Natural Animal Veterinary Centre we see the results of the animals who fail to appease or submit as required by force based training systems.  The animals come to us as a last resort because either their owner is either is not prepared to go to the extremes needed to cause submission or the unfortunate animal does submit & as a result becomes sick through his compromised immune system.

the use of force is proof of not having applied
human intelligence to the problem

The NAC is a working model that proves that the exclusive the use of positive reinforcement works in all cases – none of what we do, teach or advise requires the use of force in any way*.

What is most disturbing is the misunderstanding that a dog or horse that is ‘perfectly
behaved’ or has ‘perfect manners’ may well be suffering from
Conditioned Suppression or Frozen Watchfulness.

So what follows is an introduction to what happens to many animals who are trained using negative reinforcement. Given the risk factors that virtually all of our pets suffer from, many do end up in either Conditioned Suppression or Frozen Watchfulness.

Please feel free to pass on this article to other animal owners who might benefit from this information, all we ask is that you attribute the article to the Natural Animal Centre (otherwise it constitutes plagiarism; which no one wants!).

* the only exception is for emergencies or safety, but these become rare as positive reinforcement enhances calmness

And if you find this subject fascinating, you can get more of the same sort of easy to use applied animal behaviour science through …

Teach Yourself Horse (volume 1 & 2) – simple applied behavioural science for horse owners.
Equine Behaviour Qualification (Distance Learning Programme) – which means you never even have to leave town if you don’t want to, or you can come & do it here at the NAC or in East Sussex as residential course. Get the knowledge to understand your horse better or to become a qualified Equine Behaviourist.
Teach Yourself Dog – simple applied behavioural science for dog owners.
Canine Behaviour Qualification – distance learning coming later in 2016, or come & do it here at the NAC or in East Sussex as a residential course. Get the knowledge to understand your dog better or to become a qualified Canine Behaviourist.
All of these can be purchased from our website

Frozen Watchfulness (Part 1)

Do you know a dog that is or has been trained with negative reinforcement, but still runs to the owner when called? Is this really the behaviour of an enthusiastic animal?

Or perhaps you know a horse that is trained in a round pen and always trots around a quick circuit or two and then voluntarily turns in to the middle to face its trainer? Is the horse really accepting the owner as a partner?

Or the horse that stays with his owner and will not leave her even though she is carrying (& using) a whip? Or the dog who is always watching the owner even though he is trained using ‘dominance reduction’ techniques such as, putting his food down, but making him wait to eat until the family have finished theirs?

How can it be, that negative reinforcement training can cause the opposite behaviour to what you would expect? Negative reinforcement is such an unpleasant experience, so the animal should logically run away. And of course, many do: dog recalls & catching horses are common problems.

But some, paradoxically, when seeing their owner, seem to actively seek them out even though they must perceive their owner as the ‘bringer of bad things’. Read on & we will share with the knowledge as to why this apparently illogical behaviour happens.

The conundrum of the behaviour of the dog or horse that ‘sticks-close-to-ownerdespite-negative-reinforcement training’, is actually a reflection of a psychological phenomenon well-known to animal psychologists called Frozen Watchfulness. This
behaviour is a form of too much (or hyper) vigilance, caused by the animal’s reliable knowledge, based on previous experiences, that unpleasant training always occurs with the owner.

But before you learn more about the complexities and paradoxes of the behaviours of frozen watchfulness, we just need to get some of the related concepts clear first.

Circle Number 1
Positive & Negative Reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement – the idea of adding something nice to increase the behaviour. For instance he comes to you & you reward him with a food treat.

Negative Reinforcement – the idea that you only take away something nasty once he performs the behaviour. For instance flicking a whip/rope until the horse starts to canter or pulling on the lead to get the dog to come to you.

Circle Number 2
Recognising Conditioned Suppression.

Horses & dogs that are subjected to unrelenting negative reinforcement training learn that only very few behaviours are allowed – all the rest are punished. So they stop trying to offer any new creative behaviours because they learn that anything that was not asked for by the trainer is punished. So eventually they learn to just ‘give up’ & reach a state of Conditioned Suppression.

In our experience this is often misunderstood as ‘perfect behaviour’ rather than Conditioned Suppression.

For more on Conditioned Suppression see Teach Yourself Horse (Vol 2).

Circle Number 3

Evolution prepared our pet’s ancestors to live with their parents, siblings & pack or herd members for many years before venturing off on their own to join another group. We consistently wean our animals forcefully, abruptly & earlier than nature intended & this, commonly accepted, practice makes them more susceptible to conditioned suppression & frozen watchfulness.

Circle Number 4

The application of negative reinforcement at levels which are far more intense & far more frequent than evolution has prepared them for, creates a specific type of stress known as long term stress. While short term stress motivates adaption & is what
evolution prepared us to cope with, long term stress resulting from issues such as unnatural management practices & negative reinforcement training, causes our animals to be more susceptible to conditioned suppression & frozen watchfulness.

Circle Number 5
The Trust Circle.
The development of frozen watchfulness in young horses & dogs.

Psychologists have known for a long time that children who feel safe become inoculated or we might even say they become ‘immune’ to this condition. How our horses & dogs become inoculated – or learn to feel safe – happens in exactly the same way as for children. Both youngster & mother want their needs to be met and when this happens, they start to feel secure. The detail on Animal Needs it is available via Teach Yourself Horse, volume 1 or Teach Yourself Dog, but meanwhile here is the impact …

Young animals need their parents for them to be able to feel secure & when they are denied access to their fathers and taken away, too early, from their mothers & siblings the essential sense of security is not created.

But feeling safe is not just a nebulous, intangible thing – it is a powerful driver
for survival & is one of the most important reasons for
bonding between mother & offspring.

So the trust circle is this:

trust circle
In other words, she trusts her mother & now the mother is also encouraged by the foal or puppy to meet those needs – so there is a never-ending circle of needs being met and trust being increased between mother and youngster.

Now we will re-apply the Trust Circle, but this time to the ‘horse or dog + their owner’ as the human may now be a significant attachment figure in the absence of the social group (pack or herd). By changing the circle to represent the abruptly & artificially weaned animal, you will start to understand how important it is that the idea of ‘needs’ and ‘security’ should never be separated when training and managing horses & dogs.

So the trust circle is now:
… the young animal wants her needs to be met …

… the owner uses negative reinforcement to train …

… the young animal fails to feels safe & secure so tries again to have her needs met …

… and so the circle breaks, leaving the young animal insecure & vulnerable …

The unfortunate reality is that most young dogs & horses are taken away too early from their parents and then far too many are trained through the use of negative reinforcement. The impact of the combination of these two events on the young dog or horse, results in him learning to demonstrate his behaviours in one of two ways:

  • He suppresses most of his behaviours
  • He over-react to most things & it is this second response which we are interested in at the moment.

Over-reaction can include frozen watchfulness which is a human psychology term used to describe super-vigilant behaviour in children when in the presence of care-giver who is harsh or abusive towards them. More recently animal behavioural scientists have begun to use this term with respect to animals too, and more particularly, with respect to the behaviour of animals when in the presence of trainers & owners who use negative reinforcement.
So how would you recognise whether a horse or dog was showing frozen watchfulness?
These are just some of the types of behaviour you might see:

  • fixate his eyes on his trainer or owner most of the time;
  • show lots of appeasing behaviours towards the trainer, specifically, in horses head-lowering and mouthing – what is often referred to as ‘licking and chewing’ & in dogs avoidant behaviour such as head lowering, a clamped tail position;
  • be super-vigilant towards the trainer’s cues which may involve the animal trying to orientate himself towards the trainer all the time so that he can observe every nuance of the trainer’s body language. In dogs this often results in instant waking if the owner gets up to leave the room;
  • crowd the trainer by coming in too close to him. With horses some refer to this as the horse ‘invading’ trainer’s personal space which is a very unfortunate description as it implies wrong doing on the animal’s behalf;
  • show displacement behaviours such as yawning in dogs, head-tossing or pawing the ground in horses, to try to diffuse his stress;
  • away from the training session, the animal may be quiet and withdrawn.

As you can see from this list, apart from possibly some of the
displacement behaviours, a person superficially observing an animal in a
state of frozen watchfulness might consider this to be
‘good behaviour’ or the ‘perfect horse or dog! 

You will also encounter behaviours such as ‘crowding the owner’ described as ‘disrespect’; that the horse is showing ill-placed dominance. Or in dogs they are described as always being ‘under the owners feet’ or ‘attention seeking’ which again is put down to ‘dominance’. In fact, this could not be further from the truth and to drive horses away with sticks or ropes is the last thing that should be done if the goal is to improve his sense of security, or in the case of dogs to apply further forceful measures such as more dominance reduction.

Bonding includes being close to the figure you want to be with and horses & dogs
who ‘crowd’ their owners are often merely trying to show their
desperate need for closeness and security.

Environmental clues

But often frozen watchfulness as a state in the horse or dog is deduced not just by observing him but by what is actually happening to the animal in his environment. So you could start by asking three key questions when you watched him:

  •  Was he weaned abruptly and too early?
  • Is he trained through the use of negative reinforcement?
  • Is his management regime stressful?

Because if the answer is ‘yes’ to all three of these, then the animal is at risk from statesof either conditioned suppression or frozen watchfulness. They are flip sides of the same coin; merely individual responses to the same factors.

So over-eager, pushy animals may in fact, not necessarily be showing enthusiasm
for training or their owner. In fact, they may be displaying frozen watchfulness
because this pushiness and apparent eagerness is all they can do
to stop the harsh training happening.

There is often a sense of impending inevitability for the animal when he sees his trainer which triggers the emotions of frozen watchfulness. To help you understand this, we will use some examples for each species.

A typical horse case that we see as behaviourists.

Behavioural scientists see round pen training as one of the more extreme forms of the use of negative reinforcement because of its high intensity & its psychological effect on the horse, so it will act as good example to explain all we have said so far.
In this form of training, the horse quickly learns that he is going to be chased in a round pen during work sessions and so tries to appease the trainer by running towards him as often as he can. Clearly, some trainers do more chasing and driving than others but the emotional effect on the horse is still the same; it is just a matter of degree. From his point of view, the horse has to work out what he needs to do to make the trainer stop – some manage this after only a round of two of being chased whilst others find themselves still being relentlessly driven dozens of circuits later.
And herein lies the real problem, from the horse’s point of view … if the goal of the trainer is to chase the horse around a round pen so that the horse will learn to follow him, then the fact the horse turns in towards him is seen as success by the trainer. The
goal is achieved. Negative reinforcement has worked.
But the reality is that the horse – through stress, fear and super-vigilance – has learnt that appeasement is the only way to stop the negative reinforcement and so he expresses that submission by turning towards the trainer. ‘He loves and respects me so much’ says the trainer ’that he will even follow me even without a halter’.
The submission of the horse has nothing to do with love. Trainers are confusing this appeasing behaviour in the horse with the theory of bonding. They mistake submission, appeasement and frozen watchfulness for attachment …

they erroneously believe that the horse has formed a positive emotional bond with them in a positive way.
The reality, as equine behavioural scientists know, is the complete reverse.

Many of us, as horse owners, have become so caught up in this mantra of ‘bonding’ that negative reinforcement trainers use that we have lost our perspective on what would clearly be madness to anyone else: chase a horse to the end of his emotional tether to get him to follow us.

When a negative reinforcement technique such as using a round pen is used to start (break) horses, the situation is arguably even more of a welfare concern.

  • Given that:
  • most horses are weaned far too early in this country (as academics at an eminent veterinary school have proven) and
  • therefore, it becomes a given that the attachment process has been powerfully disrupted,
  • then, as you now know, even before any form of training begins, the horse is already highly at risk from succumbing to frozen watchfulness.

Surely, therefore, it becomes beholden on us humans – as carers of the young horse – to do all we can to ensure that youngsters develop both physically and emotionally in a healthy way, to do all that we can to build the Trust Circle? To chase a youngster in a round pen to the point of frozen watchfulness is an emotional experience which most of us would shy away from subjecting a puppy or kitten to, but it still widely accepted training technique for horses.
Even on the pure level of training, this is counter-productive; – teaching an ‘away’ response to get a ‘toward’ behaviour has no basis in science. Any scientist trained in the theory of learning will tell you that you should train (or shape) the behaviour you want in an animal by working through steps as though you were climbing a ladder.
But unfortunately for the horse, both round pen training & other forms of negative reinforcement training (such as Natural Horsemanship) seem successful to the trainer because the ultimate behaviour offered by the horse is closeness to the trainer.

Prolonged negative reinforcement coupled with long-term stress causes health
problems so horses that are at risk of frozen watchfulness will ultimately
become more sickly, have more inflammatory problems such as
lameness and suffer from other disorders
such as head-shaking or sweet-itch.

When we begin to appreciate the true reasons for the horse’s behaviour, we start to realise why most behavioural scientists in universities across the world are so concerned about the welfare of horses trained in round pens & other forceful training systems.
In the final analysis, although negative reinforcement unquestionably does work, the short-term gain of a ‘follow’ behaviour has to be viewed as part of a much bigger, longer-lasting picture; not least, because leaving horses in a near-permanent state of frozen watchfulness in the presence of their trainers can be extremely damaging from both an emotional and physical point of view.

So why would you choose all of the above when the simple, compassionate way is to
use positive reinforcement or clicker training? Then you get a fully formed trust circle
as the training becomes a positive experience & your horse’s trust circle with you goes
from strength to strength.

A typical dog case that we see as behaviourists.

A pedigree puppy is taken from the breeder at 7 weeks of age, losing his mother & siblings in one traumatic event. He has never seen his father as is common where breeding dogs are concerned. On his first night the well intentioned owner follows the advice of her dog trainer; start as you plan to continue, so she leaves the puppy alone in the kitchen, & feels bad about the constant crying. In the morning the puppy has urinated on the floor so he gets his nose rubbed in the puddle as a punishment.

a weak trust circle is now going from bad to worse

Later on the young dog becomes extremely boisterous when the owner returns from work & the owner seeks the advice of the same dog trainer. The advice revolves around the concept of needing to become the alpha dog, & is backed up by all sorts of
misinterpreted animal behaviour ‘facts’. The advice ranges from:

  • never let him upstairs, never let him onto your bed …
  • never let him walk through a door before you …
  • never let him eat before you have …
  • if he is he in your way, kick him even if asleep …

And a genuine quote from the web: ‘follow the dog in the evening when he marks on the fence posts and urinate over his scent’ – Really! Clearly this is the radical end of the spectrum, but it is evidence of the nonsense which is being peddled under the misconceived ideas which have sprung up about the need to be alpha dog. Dominance is far more complex than just being nasty – consider that dogs naturally live in social groups so if alpha dogs were to employ force constantly the group would break down – so the ‘alpha dog’ based techniques are clearly based on deeply flawed logic.
All of the above suggestions are leading to one place – a complete breakdown in the Circle of Trust & as you now know the young dog is it at great risk of conditioned suppression or frozen watchfulness, because it is likely he was weaned early & abruptly, he lives on his own etc. And the problem is, that the more we put them at risk through early & abrupt weaning, negative reinforcement etc, the more vulnerable they become. So the need to avoid force is escalating as one generation of dogs pass this learning to the next leading to ever more vulnerable puppies.

And in his life time the problems perpetuate as his immune system is suppressed by the long term stress that any or all of the above has created, so gets ill & has allergy problems such as skin irritations, sore joints due to early onset of arthritis & so on.
So we find ourselves at the same point we reached with the horse case study …
So why would you choose force when the simple, compassionate way is to use positive reinforcement or clicker training? It generates a fully formed Trust Circle as the training becomes a positive experience & the circle goes from strength to strength. 
The situation gets worse for every generation of animals as they become more vulnerable through early & abrupt weaning, negative reinforcement & long term stress, because there is a concept called epigenesis which allows behaviours to pass
from one generation to the next through their genes.

So we need to be moving away from negative reinforcement as matter of urgency for
the welfare of future generations to come.

Now you have the knowledge we want you to do one of the following:

  • share this article with someone who you think can make a difference to the life of animal just as you can.
  • If this has fascinated you, make the leap & become an Animal Behaviourist & we’ll have you consulting within a year, earning a living and making a serious impact on animal welfare.
  • Learn more about applied animal behaviour through one of The Teach Yourself Series & help your own animals through your own knowledge. All the books are available from our website; applied animal behaviour science made simple.


… positively influencing the wellbeing of animals worldwide …