Poisoned environments

I’m almost done giving my first online course!

I wanted to share some of the course content here on my blog, and choosing was difficult.

So, I got some help from my students. I asked them:

“Out of the course videos you’ve seen so far, which do you like the best? One that taught you something important that you think the rest of the world of pet owners or animal professionals would benefit from?”

Several students suggested chapter 11 from the GRIEF module entitled Poisoned Environments. So – here it is!

A little bit of background to put this film into context. It’s chapter 11, which means that 10 chapters have been leading up to this discussion. In the previous chapter I described Conditioned Emotional Responses* and how they impact learning and behaviour, and I finished by asking my students to think of a situation where they’ve observed emotional learning impacting their animal’s behaviour.

Then in chapter 11, I follow up with my own example, introducing the concept of poisoned environments to illustrate how emotional learning may impact trainability:

Could you think of other reasons why a cross-over animal, who has been trained using aversive techniques, wouldn’t respond so well to clicker training?

* Conditioned emotional responses result from classical conditioning. Typically many people only consider reflexive responses in classical conditioning, such as salivation or eye blinking, but there is an emotional component too – and it’s way more important and relevant, since it has a huge impact on overt behaviour!

For instance, if seeing a cat (a neutral stimulus) is paired with the pain of being scratched by the cat (an unconditioned stimulus), then the cat may become a conditioned stimulus that elicits FEAR (a conditioned emotional response, and also a core emotion).

FEAR impacts behaviour in several ways. In the training context I see at least four undesirable potential side effects of FEAR:

  • the animal’s learning and cognition is impaired, and
  • the animal may sensitize (become even more fearful)
  • the animal may slip into RAGE (another core emotion).

In the first case, animals may be labelled “stubborn”, “stupid” or “not food motivated” and treated accordingly by the oblivious trainer, and in the latter case, the animal may become dangerous.

Recognizing effects of emotional learning is important – yet it’s only one of the many reasons why we as animal trainers should take emotions into consideration!


This course on animal emotions contains 100+ short films like the one above. They’re 1-12 minutes long and delivered in 10 modules over 10 weeks – and students have access to the course for 12 months. We also discuss the content in the comments’ section of each film as well as in an exclusive Facebook Group. Sound interesting? Sign up to get blog updates, and I’ll keep you posted on when it’s available again, as well as when there’s new blog posts, free webinars – and other courses!

2 Replies to “Poisoned environments”

  1. Thank you for this video. I can relate to this as I’m here for horses and ponies. I am really new to this, so please correct my thinking if I’m way off! I can see that a poisoned environment will make it very hard to clicker train a horse after years of abuse (intentional or not). A perfect horse for most riders is a shut down animal that does what it is asked and no more. Canter here, stop here, go here, head down. A horse that doesn’t, will be whipped or have a bigger bit or tighter noseband applied or lunged for hours. To the ask it to react differently would go against years of training and experiences that animal has had. If none of the core emotions have worked for this animal in the past, and it is in a state of helplessness, none of the SEEKING or PLAY core emotions are able to be accessed in order to create a change in emotional state and therefore behaviour. Am I getting it?

    1. I think you have a point! Emotional components as a result of previous learning will have a huge effect.

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