JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction Part 7

The Training Game
I’ve mentioned training games several times.  The original clicker training game was a close cousin to the children’s game “Hot and Cold”.  The learner was sent out of ear shot while the rest of the group chose a goal behavior.  When the learner returned, the only instructions she was given were to offer behavior.  If she did something that her designated trainer liked, she would be clicked. She was then to go to her handler for a treat.

I’ve seen situations where the learner got the behavior seamlessly.  One easy click after another led the learner directly to the goal behavior.  I’ve seen other situations where the same behavior tripped people up completely.

When we train our animals, we want the first scenario – seamless, successful training.  That’s what we want for our equine learners.  But in the training game, we often learn the most when we experience clumsy shaping.  It can be frustrating to struggle through a session that lacks a clear training plan, but you do gain a great appreciation for what NOT to do.

Kay Laurence developed a different style of training game.  In this one trainer and learner are seated opposite one another at a table.  Instead of acting out the behavior like a game of charades, the learner manipulates objects which the trainer has set out on the table.


Kay always has great fun collecting objects for the table game.  She has small plastic fruits and cakes, toy cars, small cones, plastic insects of various varieties.  It’s a colourful mixture that she hands over to her trainers.  When I play the table game at clinics, I raid the host’s kitchen junk drawer.  My toys aren’t as much fun as Kay’s, but they serve the purpose just as well.

Kay calls her game Genabacab.  It has very few instructions and really only one rule: the only person who is allowed to talk is the learner. The trainer and spectators are not to give any verbal hints or to discuss what is going on until afterwards.

The table game lets you work out shaping plans BEFORE you go to your animal.  Do you want to learn how to attach a cue to a behavior and then change that cue to a new cue? You can work out the process playing the table game and spare your animals the frustration of your learning curve.

Kay has described workshops at her training center where someone arrives with a “how do I teach this?” type of question.  Maybe the handler wants to teach match to sample, or she wants to see if her dog can indicate which object is bigger or smaller.  Instead of going straight out to the dog and confusing it with missteps and false starts, everyone in the group will pull out their Genabacab games. Kay says people will often spend half the day happily absorbed in developing the best teaching strategies for their dogs.  The dogs spend the day relaxing while their people work away at the puzzle.  It’s only once the process is well understood, that the dogs are brought in for training.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and his students at the University of North Texas have been using Genabacab to understand basic principles of behavior.  He wants to bring the game to the scientific community as a research tool, so he gave his version a new name:  PORTL – Portable Operant Research and Teaching Laboratory.   Kay still has her Genabacab for teaching her canine handlers and Jesús has PORTL for teaching behavior analysis.  On the surface they are similar games, but they serve different functions.

Animal studies are increasingly difficult to do because of ethical concerns and expense.  PORTL offers an alternative for research.  You can have a question about how a particular process works, design an experiment using the PORTL game, and in hour’s time have gathered enough data to write a paper – all without frustrating a single lab rat. Now that’s progress!

His students meet on a regular basis to play PORTL games. When they turned their attention to the extinction process, they made some interesting discoveries.

In one game, the learner was shaped to place one hand over the other – right hand over left, and then to reverse it – left hand over right.  The behavior was put on a fixed ratio of 5, meaning the learner was clicked and reinforced on every fifth swap of hands.

The second task was tapping a block.  Again the learner was put on a fixed ratio of 5. (The learner was to tap the block five times for each click and treat.)

The trainer then increased the ratio for the tapping to 30. The learner began to tap the block, but now there was no click and treat after 5 taps.  The learner kept going to about 13 taps.  At that point she began to experiment.  She reverted back to swapping hands.  Then she tried a few more taps, before going back to hand swaps.  She tapped the block a few more times.  The trainer was still keeping track so each of these taps was counting towards the count of 30 she was looking for.

In the twenties the learner began to be creative.  She tried different ways to move hand over hand.  She’d go back and forth between experimenting with hand swaps and tapping the block.  Finally she reached a count of 30 at which point her handler clicked and reinforced her.  All the extra gunk was also chained in.  Now as the handler kept reinforcing the tapping of the block, the frequency of the hand swapping also skyrocketed.  That behavior was no longer being intentionally reinforced, but it increased right along with the tapping.

Now you may be thinking:  “Well that’s just poor training.  No one is going to jump from a fixed ratio of 5 to one of 30.” My response would be to say that this can happen inadvertently.

Suppose a handler has had a behavior on a high rate of reinforcement. The horse is responding on a consistent basis, but then he’s distracted. He’s no longer offering the same consistent response.  Instead the handler is seeing a string of unwanted behaviors.  Sometimes the horse almost meets criterion, but not enough to click. And then he comes through with the right answer.  The handler captures that moment with a click and a treat.  The question is: what is the long term result of that click? Has the handler just identified a single clickable moment or has she chained in a long string of “junk” behavior?

The horse’s future responses will answer that particular question, but Jesús’ response in general is: if you want clean behavior, you need to train in clean loops.  Kay and I would add that you need to microshape.  You need to learn to set up your training so the behavior you want is the behavior you get.

Here’s a link to a great youtube video of  a PORTL game presented by Mary Hunter.   Many of you will know Mary from her blogs. Mary is president of The Art and Science of Animal Training, the organization that puts on the annual conference of that same name in Dallas TX.  She and Jesús will be presenting a program on PORTL at this year’s clicker Expos.

Coming Next: Mastering Extinction

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:          

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