Reverting to Past Behaviors
Imagine you have joined us for the Five Go To Sea conference cruise. You have just come from breakfast which you enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the open waters of the Carribbean. You have now settled yourself comfortably in the Reflection’s conference room to listen to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on resurgence and regression.
Jesús began by sharing the story of a professor who was attending a conference in Mexico. She got trapped in an elevator. At first she tried pushing all the buttons, calling out for help, things we would all think to do. Two hours later, when they finally got the elevator working again and the doors open, they found her huddled in the corner of the elevator calling for her mother – and her mother had been dead for years.
What does this story tell us? We regress in predictable patterns that reveals our history.
When a behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you enter an extinction process in which you regress back to previously learned behavior. When the first behaviors you try don’t work, you go back another step and then another.
As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled for us in our childhood. If you want to learn about someone’s early family dynamics, watch what happens to them when they are under stress. If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me. Blame your parents. You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.”
So extinction can reveal history. That’s definitely a gem to take away from our Caribbean treasure trove and carry back to our horses.
Extinction Reveals Your Horse’s Past
When a horse is first learning about clicker training, much of what he knows no longer applies. You’re holding a target up for him to touch. A lot of horses figure out quickly how the game is played, but some get confused. Suppose you’re working with a horse you recently adopted from a horse rescue. He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. Consider the dilemma he finds himself in. You only mean well, but he doesn’t know that. Past experience has told him wrong answers get punished, but the few things he knows how to do aren’t working. He is plunging head long into an extinction process.
The extinction process can reveal a 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 those 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 mannered 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 finds himself in a difficult position. He knows he’s supposed to do something, but past experience tells him if he guesses wrong, he’ll be punished. He’s not sure what the answer is so he’s plunged into an extinction process.
Extinction follows a predictable pattern. At first he may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation. When those don’t work, he’ll shift rapidly from feeling frustrated and worried to being aggressive. That’s the next, predictable stage in the extinction process. Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly coming at 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’ presentation on resurgence and regression confirmed this. It helped me understand even more clearly this dynamic. Sadly, there are all too many horses who have been at the receiving end of excessive punishment. Often you don’t know which is the horse who really is sweet and well behaved, and which is shut down through punishment. This is one of the reasons I put so much structure around the beginning steps of clicker training. The support of these lessons helps insulate the punished horses from their history.
Well Behaved or Shut Down?
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses (and people) are really individuals 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, and expressing their personality has been punished. Give them a command, and they will respond promptly. They can seem like such perfect horses. 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 things unravel. As the extinction process unfolds, they 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.
Clicker training did not cause these outbursts. When these horses are not sure of the “safe” answer, they’ll began to regress back through their training history. You are seeing the behavior that others “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with punishment.
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. How could you not blame clicker training? But just as equally, how can you go back? How can you return to the use of punishment to suppress the behavior you’re now dealing with?
You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process. That can seem like a hard choice, especially when you don’t really understand what the process is, but what other choice is there? You don’t want to go back to your correction-based training, so you plunge ahead, clicker in hand.
Coming Next: Leaving History Behind
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