In the previous post I gave several examples of how a complex behavior could be taught through the imaginative use of resurgence. Training is not a random process where you hope your learners will offer you something you can reinforce before the intense emotions associated with extinction shuts them down.
Instead you teach your learners a whole range of behaviors. You are in effect planting the seeds for what you want to grow. With this rich repertoire of behaviors to draw on, your learners may come up with some new or unlikely combinations. We have a procedure for setting up the creative process. You give your animals the repertoire, the components that form more complex behaviors, and then you set up a puzzle and let extinction be the catalyst for solving it. Sometimes what pops out of this process is something that wasn’t even on your training radar.
Robin’s pose is the perfect example of this. I’ve told the story of how this behavior evolved many times. I’ll keep it brief here.
Robin first learned a stationary “pose”. It originally was a by-product of cleaning up his treat taking manners when he was two years old. He was such an eager learner. I loved his enthusiasm. He would grab the treat from my hand and immediately be offering me something even more brilliant than whatever brilliant thing he had just done. I was enchanted. The food delivery was a little problematic, but so what. He was brilliant.
Robin drove home the importance of one of my favorite training mantras. “If you don’t notice an unwanted behavior when it is just a little thing, don’t worry about it.” That’s not normally the kind of training advice you expect to get, but here’s where this takes you: “If you don’t do anything about the behavior when it’s just a little thing, don’t worry. It will get bigger. Eventually, it will be too big to ignore and then you will do something about it.”
I ignored his all too hasty treat taking for a while, and then I decided I really did need to do something about it. This was a long time ago. I probably would choose a different method today. Robin, and all the other horses I’ve worked with have been good teachers. They have shown me many more options to replace the one I used. At the time the strategy I chose was to stop the behavior I didn’t want by taking away something Robin wanted. In other words, I was using negative punishment.
Here was the set up: I put Robin in his stall with a stall guard across the door. I picked out the biggest carrot from a bag of big carrots and stood across the aisle from him holding it out. Of course, he reached out for the carrot. Immediately, I snatched it away and turned my back to him. I counted to three and offered the carrot again.
Again he reached for it, and again I snatched it away.
I offered it a third time. This time he hesitated ever so slightly. Click. I reached into my pocket and handed him a piece of carrot.
A couple of clicks later I could hold the carrot directly under his chin, and he was drawing up away from it. He wasn’t going to reach for that carrot! He had learned that drawing back from it generated what he wanted. If he reached for it, it disappeared, and I handed him nothing. But if he drew back from it, click, he got exactly what he wanted – a piece of carrot and my laughter.
Robin being Robin made a quick leap from the carrot cueing this behavior to offering it to me without this prompt. Of course, I clicked him. He was looking so handsome. I wasn’t expecting this added bonus, but I was certainly liking it. As always, when I worked with him, I was enchanted.
He made the leap so fast to offering “the pose” without needing the prompt, I was blown away by his brilliance. He started “posing” more often, arching his neck and looking for all the world like a well-trained dressage horse. I liked the look so much I continued to reinforce it. It became a default behavior. In the absence of any other active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him. In other words I became the cue for the behavior.
It meant that if Robin wanted to interact with me and engage in the clicker game, he had a sure-fire way of doing so. Even if I was busy doing barn chores, if I saw him posing, I would click, interrupt what I was doing, and reinforce him.
At the time I was keeping my horses at a boarding barn where a good portion of their day was spent in their stalls. I didn’t want them to become like the proverbial four year old child banging the kitchen pots and pans trying to get mother’s attention.
Robin wasn’t ignored when I was busy with other things. If he wanted attention, he had a polite way of asking for it. He never had to become that frustrated “toddler with the kitchen pans” banging on the stall door or raking his teeth up and down the stall walls.
I didn’t create a regression into these unwanted behaviors. Instead I was able to reinforce a behavior I liked, one that was a useful warm-up for our formal training sessions. When he asked for attention, Robin was always confident that I would engage with him. He lived secure in a world filled with clicker-training interactions.
Reinforcing him for the pose went on through that winter. I didn’t have any plans for developing the behavior. It was simply something I liked. It was Robin who was the creative one.
It must have been late March. I was lunging him in the arena one evening. He was giving me a ho hum trot. There was nothing there I could reinforce. Robin went once around the circle, twice, three times without reinforcement. Normally I would have been clicking and reinforcing him at a much higher rate, but given the plow-horse trot I was presented with, there was nothing there I wanted to say yes to.
At the time I would not have described it in this way, but I was putting him into an extinction process. I could see him searching, trying to decide what to do. On the third time round he had the answer. He would try his pose. But in order to pose and still stay in the trot, he had to add energy.
Within one stride he transformed his trot into magazine-cover magnificence. I captured the moment with a click, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. That single stride has evolved into horses all over the world moving in magnificent self-carriage. The “pose” has evolved into a major component of my work. Robin showed us that we could indeed shape self carriage. What began as a happy accident has become a deliberate and very systematically-trained behavior.
I don’t introduce the pose to other horses the way I taught Robin. I needed him to show me what was possible, but today I use other shaping methods. I originally called it “the pose”, admittedly not a good name. Since then I’ve expanded the name to the “pilates pose”. Others have called it crunches, rock backs, “look pretty”, etc. It really doesn’t matter the name it is given. What is important is our understanding that horses can become very active partners in maintaining their own good balance and long-term soundness. It was Robin who first showed us just how possible this is.
Seeing Familiar Landscapes with Fresh Eyes
When I first told this story to Jesús, he commented that the pose came out because of resurgence. I remember the comment well, though I didn’t understand the significance of it at the time. Jesús told me later that Robin’s story got him thinking more about resurgence. It prompted him to use PORTL to look at the different extinction processes. I described the results of those experiments in the earlier sections of this chapter on “Understanding Extinction”.
So here is one further result of Robin’s brilliance. We now we have a much more systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors. Because we understand the process better, we can be more deliberate in it’s use. The end result may look like magic, but there is good science behind it.
This is one of my favorite videos. It was taken a long time ago when Robin was three. He is lunging around me at liberty. You’ll see I have two dressage whips in my hands. I am using them as targets, giving him reference points to balance around. When this video was made, he had never been in side reins or any other type of mechanical device. He had not yet had a rider on his back, and yet he is presenting me with this beautiful balance. I know the lighting is terrible. The indoor we worked in was poorly lit, but to me it is a shining example of the connections that form when we mix together science, clear communication, and a lot of love.
Coming Next: The Creative Process
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