Mastering Micro: Building Unlikely Behaviors with Resurgence
Nothing is either all good or all bad.
We want to use positive reinforcement with our animals because we see it as being both effective and more humane. But the associations created through positive reinforcement can create addictions to harmful behaviors. Think about the way advertisers manipulate our behavior to encourage smoking or overeating.
Resurgence and regression can be very negative procedures, but they can also be used to produce what might otherwise be very difficult behaviors to obtain.
If you aren’t sure how you can turn what seems like a negative procedure into a positive teaching strategy, PORTL can once again help to illustrate how this works.
Here’s the set up:
The trainer sets a toy chair on the table for her learner to interact with. The goal is to get the learner to push the chair over the table the way she might push a toy car.
We’ll now observe quietly in the background while the learner begins to interact with the chair. The trainer could get lucky. The learner might begin offering the behavior she’s after within the first couple of clicks. But with this learner there’s no sign of any chair pushing behavior. Why?
The learner is going to draw on all of her previous repertoire of things she has done with chairs. In this case we have a learner who was scolded as a child for pushing her chair over the floor, so she’s not very likely to offer this type of behavior with the toy chair.
A history of punishment has played a role in depressing chair pushing behavior for this learner, but pushing would also have been an unlikely behavior if the trainer had set down a dice. The learner would have tossed the dice or shaken it in her hand because that’s what you do with this kind of object. Pushing a dice over the table like a toy car is not an obvious behavior to try.
Through a series of small approximations, the trainer could try to shaping the behavior she wants. Her first step would be reinforcing the learner for touching the chair.
The learner in this case is not particularly creative. She offers simple touches, but nothing else. Again, the trainer may be dealing with a history of punishment. Her learner doesn’t have a lot of experience being reinforced for trying things. In fact, quite the opposite – she may have been punished for stepping “outside the lines”. She is like so many of our animal learners – hesitant, lacking in confidence, and not showing any outward signs of curiosity. In her first few attempts she touches the chair, but she doesn’t try any other behaviors. Getting her to push the chair is going to be hard.
So the trainer takes the chair away and sets out a toy car. Using an object that normally would be pushed makes it very easy to get the desired action. The learner pushes the car over the table top. Click and treat.
This is repeated several times, and then the trainer takes the car away and sets the chair out. The learner goes back to touching it. The chair accidentally falls over – click and treat. The learner latches on to that, expanding her repertoire to two behaviors – touching the chair and knocking it over.
We see this so many times with our animal learners. One click and suddenly you’ve locked in a behavior you don’t want. With a creative learner this isn’t a problem. You can quickly shift the behavior into something you want, but with these “one trick ponies” you have to be so very careful what you click. In this case the learner persists in knocking the chair over even when she is no longer getting reinforced for the action.
Her trainer makes a quick decision and decides to put everything but pushing the chair like a car on extinction. Her learner is clearly becoming frustrated. To avoid having her shut down completely, the trainer takes the chair away and sets the car out again. The learner immediately starts pushing the car over the table top. Click and treat.
To help with the generalization the trainer puts a third object out – a small block. The learner pushes the block. Click and treat. This is repeated several times, then the trainer takes the block away and sets out the car. The car is pushed. Click and treat.
The trainer sets the chair out, and the learner pushes the chair. Job done.
Resurgence and Dog “Yoga”
Using the car in this way is an elegant teaching strategy. Often when we come up with these clever ways of helping our learner to be successful, we know that it works, but we don’t really have good explanations for why. Understanding resurgence helps us with the why in this case. And it helps us to be more deliberate in the use of this kind of teaching strategy. Here’s another example.
One of Kay Laurence’s students taught her dog to step up with his hind legs onto a chair. It was elegant training, a beautiful example of setting the learner up for success. In his talk on extinction, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz helped us to see that it was also a great example of using resurgence.
Here’s the lesson: First, the dog learned to stand one foot each on four small plastic pods. This alone was impressive training. The pods were the same ones physiotherapists use to help people improve their balance and proprioception. It took great coordination for the dog to stay balanced on the four pods. But that was only step 1. Next he learned to keep his front feet on the floor while he maneuvered his hind feet up onto the brick ledge of a fireplace hearth.
Adding in the precision of the pods came next. Now the dog wasn’t just standing with his front paws on the floor and his hind end up on the ledge. He was also balancing on all four pods.
This was not done as a cute party trick. The dog’s owner is a yoga teacher. Her interest was very much the same as mine – helping her animal learner maintain a healthy spine. In this orientation she could ask her dog for weight shifts that contribute to a flexible spine.
The last step was setting up a training session next to a chair. The handler withheld the click, putting the dog into an extinction process. With very little experimentation, the dog oriented himself so his hind end was to the chair. He certainly demonstrated the flexibility of his spine by stepping up onto the chair with his hind legs so he was standing hind end up on the chair and front feet on the floor.
Generalization and Creativity
Jesús commented that if we didn’t know about resurgence we would simply be saying the dog generalized. That’s not a sufficient explanation. What we were seeing was a great example of resurgence. PORTL has given us a better understanding of how to encourage this kind of problem solving. When we want to train for this type of generalization, knowing about the “why” of resurgence helps us to be more deliberate and efficient in our training.
It isn’t positive reinforcement by itself that creates a positive learning experience. An eagerness for learning comes from being a successful puzzle solver. That success in turn comes from the kind of efficient, clean training that the clever use of resurgence encourages.
These examples give us a great perspective on creativity. When we’re training, we aren’t waiting and waiting for our animals to do something we can reinforce. Instead we can “seed” the behaviors we want them to draw on. Then we set up the conditions and let them have the pleasure of discovering for themselves new or unlikely combinations.
We have a procedure for setting up the creative process. You give your learner the repertoire, the components that form more complex behaviors, and then you set a puzzle and let extinction be the catalyst for solving it.
Coming Next: The “Pose”
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