Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It
This is Part 2 of a 15 Part series.
Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Personality Expressed or Suppressed
In the opening of his presentation on regression and resurgence Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz defined regression and gave some examples in terms of human behavior. I ended yesterday’s post with this statement:
How does this translate to horse training? At the very beginning of clicker training the extinction process may reveal your horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had. Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?
In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing. The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups. You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat. Easy. Unless he’s one of the horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.
If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous. The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do. This is why I put well-behaved in quotes. Is he well behaved in the way a clicker-trained horse can be? Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior? There’s a huge difference. In the first, the personality is expressed. In the later, it is suppressed.
When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers. He doesn’t know what you want. The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation. This horse is being presented with a puzzle that can make him feel very uneasy. In the past guessing wrong has meant being punished.
Extinction Reveals the Past
At first this horse may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation. When those don’t work, he’ll become aggressive. He’s going to protect himself from the punishment he’s knows is coming when he doesn’t respond right away. Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly charging you with teeth bared. It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently. I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed. Jesús’ talk confirmed this.
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses are really horses whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections. They have learned to wait to be told what to do. Offering behavior, expressing their personality has been punished. Give them a command they know, and they will respond promptly. They can seem like the perfect horse. Safe, easy to direct. But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in fact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see the extinction process unfold. Extinction follows a predictable pattern. These horses will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.
When a horse is not sure of the “safe” answer, he’ll begin to regress back through his training history. You will see the behavior that has been “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with corrections.
How do you avoid this regression back into unsafe behavior? The early steps of clicker training are very structured. I make use of protective contact so the horse is free to interact – or not. This lets me see what kind of a learner I have so I can tailor those early steps to the individual. I design my lessons around very small steps so I can keep the training loop clean. That doesn’t just mean that the horse performs the intended behavior. Everything matters. How he takes the treat matters. How long he hesitates before beginning a new cycle matters. How quickly he performs the desired behavior matters. These all tell me something about the emotions he’s experiencing and those definitely matter. My goal in this first foray into clicker training is to avoid the kind of uncertainty that leads to frustration and a regression back through older learning patterns.
Details matter – especially in shaping. Jesús showed a couple of video examples of shaping where the loop was not kept clean. In one a dog was going to be reinforced for coming back to the handler away from distractions. While the instructor was explaining the lesson, the dog’s handler was listening to her, not paying attention to her dog.
The dog started surfing through all the behaviors that had been reinforced in the past. What should he do to get his person focused back on him? He started with head bobs, moved on to sitting, then a play bow into lying down and finally he started jumping up on his person. These were all behaviors that had previously been reinforced, sometimes unintentionally.
The instructor finished describing what she wanted the handler to do, and the formal “session” began. The instructor deliberately distracted the dog while the handler tried to call him away. The dog returned fairly promptly to his handler, but the behavior included a sit into a play bow followed by the dog lying down, then jumping up on the handler. So yes, the dog did indeed return to the handler, but the recall now included these other unwanted behaviors.
This is why I stress so much how important it is to pay attention to details. When you are first starting, it can be hard to keep track of everything, but details matter. Yes, you can get your horse touching targets. Yes, you can have a lot of fun. Yes, clicker training can be very easy. But if you aren’t being attentive to details, you can miss a lot of important signs that your horse may not be fully understanding this new game. If your horse isn’t sure what is wanted, you could see a regression through his past training history. He’ll be telling you what he thought of how he’s been treated, and often the tale is not a pretty one!
When you are brand new to clicker training, and especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand. What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it. So you give it a try. But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart. Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth. You’ve been promised a dream horse, and all you have is a nightmare. Of course, you blame clicker training and all of the treats you’re feeding for the horrible behavior you’re seeing. But what can you do? You don’t want to go back to punishment-based solutions. You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process, so that’s what you do. You continue on determined to solve the riddle of your horse’s regression into nightmare behavior.
Coming tomorrow: What it means to trust the process: Unraveling the regression mess.
Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: