What is a Time Out ?
A time out is when you give the horse space from you during a training session. It’s not like a time out for children in that, we can’t tell the horse what they are getting a time out for. We have to hope they will figure it out. And that is a risky approach.
When we decide to apply a time out we first have to stop what we are doing, then we have to start to walk away. So immediately we have to ask ourselves. “at what time does the time out begin ?”, is it when we stop what we are doing, start to walk away, disengage eye contact, or are out of sight ?. Should we go completely out of sight, or should we just turn our backs ? Already I am seeing a problem with the use of a time out because there are so many variables I need to think about.
How Does a Time Out Work ?
If your horse wants you to be there
On top of this I need to know if my horse wants me to be there or not. If my horse wants me to be there then leaving acts as a negative punisher (-P), yes its a punisher….negative means you remove something the horse wants and punisher means that the behaviour that was happening at the time the punisher was applied is less likely to happen again. Do I want to be actively using punishers when I train with my horse ? As a clicker trainer, my answer is a firm no.
If your horse does not want you to be there
If your horse does not want you to be near then a time out acts in a very different way. You are removing your presence (negative) but your presence is unwanted so taking it away acts as a reinforcer (the behaviour that was happening at the time you leave is more likely to happen again). So if your horse wants you to leave, leaving is a -R (negative reinforcer).
With a negative reinforcer we are ending up in the correct part of the operant conditioning spectrum, but we’re still not working with positive reinforcement (+R).
What happens if I turn my back during a time out ?
Quite simply all that happens is that you don’t get to see what your horse is doing. As such, you are missing out on all sorts of behaviour that is happening and you are not able to make judgements on the efficacy of your time out, your continued presence or when you should turn back. If you did look at your horse you would likely see, assuming your horse did want you to be there, that your horse is offering lots of behaviours and you are not responding.
By not responding to behaviours offered you will cause confusion and may even cause regression of behaviours (a topic of another blog to come soon).
How Do Punishers work
Punishers work, there is no getting away from that. May people are shocked when they hear me say that, but it is true, they work. However, that statement must always be followed up immediately with discussion about the many caveats to using punishers and how that makes them very difficult to use correctly. The outcome of a punisher is potentially only going to be known until after the punisher is applied.
The emotional fallout of the use of a punisher also has to be considered. As clicker trainers we spend a lot of time, well all of our time, building a relationship with our horse that is based in mutual trust and respect. The use of one punisher could break that trust significantly and for a long period of time. The emotional fallout will be significant. If in doubt about the effect of punishers then a great read is ‘Coercion and Its Fallout‘, Murray Sidman. Alas, this book is very hard to come by now but it definitely a great book.