JOY Full Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 2

Yesterday’s post ended with a quote from Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz: “If you don’t understand extinction, you won’t be able to master it.”  Today’s post will begin to unravel what that means.

Regression and Resurgence
I’ve talked about regression in previous posts.  Now we need to add in resurgence and the distinction between them.

In regression you revert back to previously extinguished behaviors.

In resurgence you revert back to previously reinforced behavior.

This isn’t just semantics.  According to Jesús regression and resurgence emerge out of different training strategies and produce different outcomes.

Regression can be defined as: “If the present behavior is not capable of getting reinforcement, one reverts to older forms of response which were once effective, but which have previously been extinguished.” The order in which this unfolds is significant.

Under stress you will revert to an older way of behaving.  If that behavior is not reinforced, you’ll go through another extinction process.  You’ll revert back to even older behaviors. You’ll keep trying things and trying things, until you either give up entirely, or you are pushed to creativity.  This can be a stressful process which is why some people equate creativity with an unpleasant experience.  If you were to suggest to them that they take a creative writing class, they would be running for the hills!  In their experience there’s nothing fun about being creative.  How very sad!

Extinction History
Regression emerges because a behavior which normally earns reinforcement is no longer working.  Often we think of extinction as simply a procedure that’s intended to reduce behavior.  You don’t like a dog’s barking so you never reinforce it in the hope that the behavior will go away.  This simplistic view misses an important key to understanding how to use extinction. A dog that isn’t barking is still doing something.  What is the “something” that takes the place of the barking?  The behaviors that emerge in an extinction process are not random. Understanding the order lets you master the process.

Jesús described extinction as the mirror image of reinforcement.

Extinction tells you what was reinforced in the past.

Reinforcement tells you what behaviors you are building for the future.

I wrote about this is previous posts.  (  When you are first learning about clicker training, if your handling confuses the horse and puts him into an extinction process, you are revealing his past.   You may see his frustration expressed as pawing, pinned ears, even occasionally biting.  Don’t blame yourself for the outburst. You didn’t create the behavior you’re now dodging.  Turn your spotlight instead on his past.  That’s where the behavior was learned.

The Catalyst, Not the Cause
You may be the catalyst, but you are not the cause.  That’s good news. You don’t have to take his behavior personally. The cause sits not in the present, but in the past. It’s only natural to become worried by the emotional reaction you’re seeing. People sometimes inadvertently end up compounding the problem. If their handling skills are clumsy or they don’t yet know how to manage the environment, they can put the horse into even more of an extinction process.

I’ve seen this in beginner handlers.  They don’t yet understand how much a lack of clear criteria can impact a learner.  Everything starts out so wonderfully.  The horse gets clicked and reinforced for touching a target.   What fun!  But then the handler gets distracted.  She misses three or four clickable moments.  Those missed clicks can put the horse into an extinction process that leads to emotional outbursts. That’s where video cameras can be so useful. Video helps the handler see the training from the horse’s point of view.  It reveals the good tries he’s offering and helps the handler understand more clearly what needs to be reinforced.

The solution to the extinction puzzle lies in embracing clicker training.  Through clicker training you’ll be building a repertoire of behaviors that gives the horse alternatives to his old patterns. Instead of reverting back to behaviors you don’t want, now the extinction process will be popping out behaviors you’ve planted, behaviors you like and that you can reinforce.  Suddenly, you aren’t in an extinction process anymore.  You’re back on track with high rates of reinforcement.

This will take bit more unraveling of the extinction puzzle to understand.

Coming Next: Extinction Reveals the Past

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

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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: