JOY Full Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 4

Extinction: Big, Small and Accidental

Accidental Extinction
Extinction is not a rarity.  Extinction is going on all the time, but we aren’t always aware of it.  Suppose you’re working with your horse. Perhaps you’re in the early stages of clicker training and the focus of your lesson is “grown-ups are talking”.  You’re walking a few steps, stopping and asking your horse to stand quietly with his nose centered between his shoulders.  He’s been doing well.  You’re almost done with the session when your cell phone rings.   You answer it, taking your attention away from your horse.

Your horse doesn’t realize that you’ve disconnected from him.  You haven’t gone through a teaching process to tell him that the ring tone of your cell phone is a cue for him to take a nap.  While you are on the phone, you will not be engaging with him.  Your horse doesn’t know this, and he doesn’t understand why the flow of your session has so abruptly changed.

He offers you a nice bit of “grown-ups” that meets all the previous criteria, but you aren’t paying any attention.  He doesn’t get clicked.  He tries harder, maybe throwing in some head lowering.  That doesn’t work either so he tries some earlier experiments – some head bobbing, some lip flapping, some gentle nudging, and finally a hard nudge.  That gets your attention, but now you’re thinking what an impatient, muggy horse you have!

Your horse is offering “rude” behavior, bumping, nudging your arm, snuffling around your pockets.  He’s scrolling through the behaviors that he’s tried in the past.  You click something, anything out of desperation.

What you are reinforcing is not just that single moment, but all the scrolling through his repertoire he’s been doing trying to get you to click. You have just locked into your future training all those other unwanted behaviors.  It’s going to be very hard to convince your horse to put into moth balls those unwanted segments. They’ve become an instant part of the whole sequence.  If the current behavior isn’t working, scroll through all your past mugging behavior.  That will get your person’s attention back where it belongs – on you!  That’s what he has just learned through that one desperation click.

Case in point: Jesús showed a video of an experienced trainer teaching a dog to retrieve a dumbbell.  The dog had been successfully delivering the dumbbell to the handler, but now she wanted to raise the criterion and have the dog place it more firmly in her hands. When the dog did not get reinforced for the usual behavior, he dropped the dumbbell, did a quick head bob, and then picked the dumbbell up again. Just as the handler clicked, the dog sat. Oh oops!

She lowered her criteria.  The dog handed her the dumbbell, but now he was also sitting as he did so.  Her hand reaching to take the dumbbell had in one click become a cue to sit.

Mini versus Maxi Extinctions
When the dog started offering behavior to get his handler to click, that’s the extinction process at work.  We don’t tend to think of it in this way.  To develop the behavior we are training we actively want the offering of behavior.  Shaping depends upon differential reinforcement.  The dog offers a head bob, a paw lift, a sit.  We pick and choose among these behaviors.  We think of extinction as something separate, something to be avoided. It’s a long drawn out process with lots of painful emotions associated with it.

Jesús wants us to understand that the process can occur in seconds. When you are shaping, you are working with mini extinctions.  When learners are offering behavior, they are going through a resurgence process.  You don’t have to go hours or even minutes for the extinction process to begin.  It happens in seconds.

My ears perked up the first time I heard Jesús talk about extinction in this way.  I love this concept of mini extinctions.  It fits with microshaping and shaping on a point of contact.  All three are learner-friendly because they make use of thin slicing and create high rates of reinforcement.

We looked at Microshaping in previous sections (  Kay Laurence stresses that it’s not thin slicing alone that defines microshaping.  It is high rates of reinforcement.  In microshaping Kay wants a success rate of 98% or higher. To get that you have to be very skilled at setting up the training environment.  The learner is not surfing through a long series of behaviors trying to find the one that is “hot”.

Instead the learner is set up to keep giving correct responses. There are very few opportunities for unwanted behaviors to creep in.

Kay contrasts microshaping with what she refers to as sloppy or dirty shaping. Here the handler lets the animal offer behavior after behavior looking for the one that will satisfy the criterion.  I’ve always been uncomfortable watching people freeshape in this clumsy fashion.  They miss so many opportunities to click because they are looking for too much.

Now Jesús has helped me understand why this type of shaping makes me so uncomfortable.  Mini extinctions are part of puzzle solving.  But they are mini. Success happens frequently so the frustration level stays low.  You could in fact see it as a positive motivator.  That little bit of: “is it this or is it that?” leads to a feeling of satisfaction each time you make the right choice.

Contrast that with macro extinction.  Now it’s not “this or that, or this other solution either.”  In fact nothing you try seems to work.  The frustration level rises to a level that takes away the fun. You can see this when you play shaping games with people who are new to training.  It’s supposed to be a fun experience, but when the one doing the clicking doesn’t have a clear plan, it’s anything but.

Training Game Mishaps
Suppose you’re the learner in one of these games.  The person who is acting as your trainer sets a teacup on the table. You get clicked a couple of times for touching the teacup.  Okay, so far so good.  The teacup is clearly a “hot” item, but what are you supposed to do with it?

You try turning the teacup, picking it up, turning it upside down.  Nothing works.  You pretend to drink out of it, you spin it, you hold it delicately with your little finger out, you scoot it over the table. Nothing gets clicked.  Your frustration rises in direct contrast to your willingness to play the game.  You’re in a macro extinction that can be painful to watch.  You go back through the history you have with teacups.  What else can you try?  Nothing is working.  You want to give up or better yet throw the tea cup at your trainer!

This offering of behavior is part of the extinction process.  You are experiencing a resurgence of previously reinforced behaviors.  In the teacup example, when you were no longer reinforced for just touching the teacup, when reinforcement for that behavior stopped, you tried things that you had done with tea cups or tea cuplike objects in the past. But in this case your trainer is a new shaper.  She is outcome oriented, so she is looking for big macro responses. She doesn’t yet know how to set her learner up to give her the small reaction patterns that would lead seamlessly to an end goal.  The result is an unhappy and very frustrated learner.  Both the learner and the trainer go away feeling unsuccessful, and they both vow never to play the training game again!

Micro Extinctions
When someone is shaping and they want to raise the criterion, they stop reinforcing for a behavior that was just successful. The learner goes through a resurgence/regression process.  She begins to offer other behaviors that have worked in the past.  People tend to think of extinction as happening over a long period of time, but Jesús kept emphasizing that it happens over seconds.  Two to three seconds is all you need for a mini extinction. You’ll begin to see the learner offering behavior other than the one that was just being reinforced.

Again, this got my attention.  I don’t like the frustration you see when a puzzle appears to be unsolvable.  Shaping shouldn’t be marked by sharp drop offs in reinforcement.  I don’t want to see macro extinctions.  If reinforcement is that sticky, it’s time to change your lesson plan.  Either put the horse away altogether while you go have a think, or regroup by shifting to another activity.  If you keep waiting, waiting, waiting until your learner finally gets close to the answer, you could lock in some unwanted behavior, and you will almost certainly lock in some unwanted emotions.

What are some good teaching strategies that help you avoid the frustration of macro extinctions, and that lead you instead to the elegant use of micro extinctions?  That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next section.

Coming Next: Using “Hot” Behaviors

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.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

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: