Emitted and Permitted Behaviors
It’s all too easy to find yourself in an extinction process. You thought you could hold out for just a few more steps of beautiful trot, but your horse got distracted and now he’s not giving you anything you like. In fact, the more you withhold your click, the worse it gets. Now he’s regressing back to behaviors that you thought were long gone. What are the keys to unraveling this regression mess?
The first is to tighten up your training and learn how to set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur. In his presentation on regression and resurgence, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz made the distinction between emitted and permitted behaviors.
When behavior is emitted, you are waiting to see what the learner offers. When behavior is permitted, you set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur.
If you’re waiting, waiting, waiting for the dog to sit or the horse to step on a mat, you may see lots of experimenting before you get something you want to click. All that experimenting can end up being part of your final behavior.
When your horse isn’t certain what to do next, waiting for something to click can lead to frustration. He’ll start trying previously learned, but unwanted behavior.
To avoid this kind of confusion and frustration we start horses off with very simple, easily isolated behaviors such as targeting and backing. We set up the environment so the behavior is likely to occur. You aren’t surfing an extinction wave of behaviors. Your horse doesn’t have to do a lot of guessing. The right answer is obvious and easy.
When I’m working with novice horses and novice trainers, I have people put just a few treats into their pockets. Limiting the treats means you’re limiting the amount of training you can do all in one go. Before your horse can get too confused or frustrated, you’re stepping away to get another round of treats. You’re also assessing what just occurred in that session. That first targeting session is just data collecting.
You’re finding out if that’s a good starting point, or perhaps you need to find a different lesson. A horse that is very shut down, or becomes easily stressed when he’s not told exactly what to do, may need you to start with an even simpler step than targeting. This is a horse who may need his introduction into clicker training very carefully structured.
You may need to begin by feeding without making the food contingent on anything. You reach into your pocket and hand him a treat. Repeat this. When he’s at ease with the hand feeding, you can click and feed, click and feed. He won’t have time in between mouthfuls to do very much so you don’t have to worry about introducing unwanted behaviors.
When you click and you see him looking for the food, you can begin to make the click contingent on a specific behavior. In the early days of clicker training this was called charging the clicker. Normally, we can go straight to targeting or some other very simple lesson, but for some horses this is an important beginning step.
Tuning Up the Handler’s Skills
Designing an appropriate lesson plan is just part of the solution. You also need to have clean handling and good timing. Clicking late, clicking the wrong thing, clicking because you haven’t clicked for a while – all of these things will confuse your learner and lock in more unwanted behavior. So work on your handling skills. Use your video camera, practice in front of a mirror, borrow a friend to be your “horse”.
When your handling is quiet, clean, organized, and second nature, that’s what your training will become – quiet, clean, organized, and second nature.
Building Your Repertoire
Good handling is part of the solution. Another is developing a broad repertoire of behaviors. The more skills you teach your horse, the more options he’ll have besides the one you don’t want. Instead of falling back into old habits of biting or spooking, he’ll respond with the newer, more recently reinforced behaviors you’ve taught him.
This is where the phrase “trust the process” begins to make sense. We’ve all read the stories. Someone has been struggling with a horse, not seeing much progress, and then suddenly the pieces all fall into place. Instead of snapping at his handler, the horse is backing up and dropping his head. Instead of pulling away, he’s offering beautiful lateral flexions.
The older repertoire is still there. Given the right triggers, you might still see him regressing back into “childhood”, just as we sometimes find ourselves regressing back and behaving like our four year old selves in need of a nap. But you’ve given him more tools. That broader repertoire gives him more options. Now when he’s uncertain, he’ll go first into head lowering instead of snapping at you.
Coming Next: Animal Emotions
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Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. 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: