JOY FULL Horses: Animal Emotions

Emotions: To Feel or Not To Feel – That Is The Question
When you begin talking about animal emotions, emotions run high.  The belief systems that have grown up around emotions are truly amazing.  In the past people have denied that animals even feel emotions.  They’ll tell you animals may feel pain, but they aren’t really aware that they feel pain.

Wait a minute.  What are they saying!?  That just made my head spin.

What nonsense.  Clearly these people have never been on a thoroughbred.  Thoroughbreds are wonderfully emotional creatures.  That’s their charm.  They let you know everything they are feeling – the excitement, the fear, the worry, the joy.  They truly “wear their emotions on their sleeve”.  To say that these wonderful horses are not aware of their emotions is nonsense.

With his work on the seven core Affective circuits, Jaak Panksepp has helped bring the discussion of emotions “out of the closet”.  Suddenly talking about emotions is the “in” thing.  If an animal is being “too emotional”, people will tell you you’re clearly doing something wrong in your training.

Wait a minute.  What did you say?  Too emotional.

Words are amazing.  They show us our belief systems.

Too emotional.  What does that mean?

One of the roles of a behavioral analyst is to make us think about the words we use.  Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz would say we are always emotional.  Emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant.  You can feel excited and agitated, calm and serene, but they are all emotions.

The Emotions of Extinction
We can look at a particular process, such as extinction.  Suppose you have been consistently reinforcing your horse for standing on a mat.  He has your undivided attention, so the clicks have been very consistent.  But now you’re interrupted.  Your friend has asked you to watch how her horse is trotting.  She’s not sure if he’s lame.

Your attention shifts away from your own horse.  He’s still standing on the mat, but now he’s not being reinforced.  You’ve just put him into the early stages of an extinction process.

While you’re focusing on your friend’s lame horse, your own horse is going through his most recent repertoire of behaviors.  What is going to work to get you paying attention to him?  He puts his ears forward, he poses, he drops his head, he paws, he nudges your arm.

While he’s presenting those obvious behaviors, he’s also experiencing emotions.  He’s feeling confused, then frustrated, then possibly angry.  If the extinction process continues on long enough, he may begin to feel helpless because nothing is working.  Finally, he’ll become resigned as he gives up and settles into a more subdued state of acceptance.

Extinction’s Emotional Pattern
We see this extinction process as a negative thing because it “produces emotions.”

Jesús reminds us that ALL processes produce emotions.  We tend to think about emotions when they are the size of a five alarm fire, but really we are always “being emotional”. There are emotions associated with ALL behaviors.  Ideally in training we’d like to avoid the five-alarm-fire type. That’s why it is so important to understand these processes.  The sooner you recognize that you are in an extinction process, the sooner you can do something to get out of it.

In extinction the individual (rat, human, horse, etc.) follows a predictable emotional pattern.

First, you see response bursting.

rat-pressing-leverHere’s what that means:  You are observing a rat that has been reinforced consistently for pressing a lever.  Abruptly the lever pressing no longer produces the expected result.

What does the rat do?  It presses the lever with even more energy trying to get it to work. This has been equated with the classic hitting the button over and over again on the vending machine when your coke doesn’t fall out.

In the next stage you get angry.  Now you’re kicking the coke machine.

Next you see regression.  Behaviors which have been useful to you in the past reappear.  What have you seen modeled? What is your past history when things like this fail?

Then there is a pause followed by another period of response bursting. Gradually the cycles become less pronounced.  Each phase becomes smaller both in scale and duration until the individual settles into a calmer stage of acceptance.

Grief
Some psychologists have equated this pattern with the stages people go through when they are grieving.  When you lose a loved one, a job, a home, you are thrown into an extinction process.  Your loved one is gone.  The reinforcers associated with that individual are gone, and your behavior is ineffective.  Nothing you can do will change the reality of your loss.

The stages of grief begin with denial, followed by anger, then depression, bargaining, and finally acceptance and a return to a meaningful life.

It’s interesting to see the comparison people make between the process of grief and the process of extinction. Understanding does bring with it coping skills.  If you understand the process you are in, you can keep things in perspective and find a faster way out of the worst of the emotional tangles.  You can also be more understanding towards others (horse or human) if they are caught up in an extinction or grief process.

One of my Click That Teaches coaches, Cindy Martin wrote:

“Your description of the process people and horses go through, when things don’t work the way they expected, was so accurate and yet so full of empathy. The more I do clicker training, and teach and share clicker training, the more I realize there are some very profound lessons in the process; forgiveness, compassion, consideration. Those occupy a deeper layer, beneath the observation, handling skills, planning and preparation.  Lately, I’ve been describing this type of clicker training, the kind that emphasizes details, and consideration for the learner, as ‘thoughtful clicker training.’”

When people ask Kay Laurence how she trained a particular behavior, the answer she often gives is: thoughtfully.  As we gain more of an understanding of this work, we converge along similar paths.  They all lead in the same direction – toward an ever deepening appreciation of others – whatever the species.

Coming Next: Understanding Extinction to Master 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 theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Leaving History Behind

Emitted and Permitted Behaviors
It’s all too easy to find yourself in an extinction process.  You thought you could hold out for just a few more steps of beautiful trot, but your horse got distracted and now he’s not giving you anything you like.  In fact, the more you withhold your click, the worse it gets.  Now he’s regressing back to behaviors that you thought were long gone.  What are the keys to unraveling this regression mess?

The first is to tighten up your training and learn how to set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur.  In his presentation on regression and resurgence, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz made the distinction between emitted and permitted behaviors.

When behavior is emitted, you are waiting to see what the learner offers.  When behavior is permitted, you set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur.

If you’re waiting, waiting, waiting for the dog to sit or the horse to step on a mat, you may see lots of experimenting before you get something you want to click. All that experimenting can end up being part of your final behavior.

When your horse isn’t certain what to do next, waiting for something to click can lead to frustration.  He’ll start trying previously learned, but unwanted behavior.

To avoid this kind of confusion and frustration we start horses off with very simple, easily isolated behaviors such as targeting and backing.  We set up the environment so the behavior is likely to occur.  You aren’t surfing an extinction wave of behaviors.  Your horse doesn’t have to do a lot of guessing.  The right answer is obvious and easy.

Data Collecting
When I’m working with novice horses and novice trainers, I have people put just a few treats into their pockets.  Limiting the treats means you’re limiting the amount of training you can do all in one go. Before your horse can get too confused or frustrated, you’re stepping away to get another round of treats.  You’re also assessing what just occurred in that session.  That first targeting session is just data collecting.

You’re finding out if that’s a good starting point, or perhaps you need to find a different lesson.  A horse that is very shut down, or becomes easily stressed when he’s not told exactly what to do, may need you to start with an even simpler step than targeting.  This is a horse who may need his introduction into clicker training very carefully structured.

You may need to begin by feeding without making the food contingent on anything.  You reach into your pocket and hand him a treat. Repeat this.  When he’s at ease with the hand feeding, you can click and feed, click and feed.  He won’t have time in between mouthfuls to do very much so you don’t have to worry about introducing unwanted behaviors.

When you click and you see him looking for the food, you can begin to make the click contingent on a specific behavior.  In the early days of clicker training this was called charging the clicker.  Normally, we can go straight to targeting or some other very simple lesson, but for some horses this is an important beginning step.

Tuning Up the Handler’s Skills
Designing an appropriate lesson plan is just part of the solution.  You also need to have clean handling and good timing.  Clicking late, clicking the wrong thing, clicking because you haven’t clicked for a while – all of these things will confuse your learner and lock in more unwanted behavior.  So work on your handling skills. Use your video camera, practice in front of a mirror, borrow a friend to be your “horse”.

When your handling is quiet, clean, organized, and second nature, that’s what your training will become – quiet, clean, organized, and second nature.

Building Your Repertoire
Good handling is part of the solution.  Another is developing a broad repertoire of behaviors.  The more skills you teach your horse, the more options he’ll have besides the one you don’t want. Instead of falling back into old habits of biting or spooking, he’ll respond with the newer, more recently reinforced behaviors you’ve taught him.

This is where the phrase “trust the process” begins to make sense. We’ve all read the stories.  Someone has been struggling with a horse, not seeing much progress, and then suddenly the pieces all fall into place.  Instead of snapping at his handler, the horse is backing up and dropping his head. Instead of pulling away, he’s offering beautiful lateral flexions.

The older repertoire is still there. Given the right triggers, you might still see him regressing back into “childhood”, just as we sometimes find ourselves regressing back and behaving like our four year old selves in need of a nap.  But you’ve given him more tools. That broader repertoire gives him more options.  Now when he’s uncertain, he’ll go first into head lowering instead of snapping at you.

Coming Next: Animal Emotions

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 theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Resurgence and Regression

Reverting to Past Behaviors
Imagine you have joined us for the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  You have just come from breakfast which you enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the open waters of the Carribbean.  You have now settled yourself comfortably in the Reflection’s conference room to listen to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on resurgence and regression.

Jesús began by sharing the story of a professor who was attending a conference in Mexico.  She got trapped in an elevator.  At first she tried pushing all the buttons, calling out for help, things we would all think to do.  Two hours later, when they finally got the elevator working again and the doors open, they found her huddled in the corner of the elevator calling for her mother – and her mother had been dead for years.

What does this story tell us?  We regress in predictable patterns that reveals our history.

When a behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you enter an extinction process in which you regress back to previously learned behavior.  When the first behaviors you try don’t work, you go back another step and then another.

As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled for us in our childhood.  If you want to learn about someone’s early family dynamics, watch what happens to them when they are under stress.  If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me.  Blame your parents.  You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.”

So extinction can reveal history.  That’s definitely a gem to take away from our Caribbean treasure trove and carry back to our horses.

Extinction Reveals Your Horse’s Past
When a horse is first learning about clicker training, much of what he knows no longer applies.  You’re holding a target up for him to touch.  A lot of horses figure out quickly how the game is played, but some get confused.  Suppose you’re working with a horse you recently adopted from a horse rescue.  He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. Consider the dilemma he finds himself in.  You only mean well, but he doesn’t know that.  Past experience has told him wrong answers get punished, but the few things he knows how to do aren’t working.   He is plunging head long into an extinction process.

The extinction process can reveal a horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?

In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing.  The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups.  You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat.  Easy.  Unless he’s one of those horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.

If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous.  The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do.

This is why I put well-behaved in quotes. Is he well mannered in the way a clicker-trained horse can be? Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior? There’s a huge difference.  In the first, the personality is expressed. In the later, it is suppressed.

When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers.  He doesn’t know what you want.  The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation.  This horse finds himself in a difficult position.  He knows he’s supposed to do something, but past experience tells him if he guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.  He’s not sure what the answer is so he’s plunged into an extinction process.

Extinction follows a predictable pattern.  At first he may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation.  When those don’t work, he’ll shift rapidly from feeling frustrated and worried to being aggressive. That’s the next, predictable stage in the extinction process.  Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly coming at you with teeth bared.

It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently. I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed.  Jesús’ presentation on resurgence and regression confirmed this.  It helped me understand even more clearly this dynamic. Sadly, there are all too many horses who have been at the receiving end of excessive punishment.  Often you don’t know which is the horse who really is sweet and well behaved, and which is shut down through punishment.  This is one of the reasons I put so much structure around the beginning steps of clicker training.  The support of these lessons helps insulate the punished horses from their history.

Well Behaved or Shut Down?
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses (and people) are really individuals whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections. They have learned to wait to be told what to do.  Offering behavior, and expressing their personality has been punished.  Give them a command, and they will respond promptly.  They can seem like such perfect horses.  Safe, easy to direct. But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in fact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see things unravel.  As the extinction process unfolds, they will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.

Clicker training did not cause these outbursts.  When these horses are not sure of the “safe” answer, they’ll began to regress back through their training history. You are seeing the behavior that others “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with punishment.

When you are brand new to clicker training, and, especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand.  What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it.  So you give it a try.  But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart.  Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth.

You’ve been promised a dream horse and all you have is a nightmare. How could you not blame clicker training?  But just as equally, how can you go back? How can you return to the use of punishment to suppress the behavior you’re now dealing with?

You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process.  That can seem like a hard choice, especially when you don’t really understand what the process is, but what other choice is there?  You don’t want to go back to your correction-based training, so you plunge ahead, clicker in hand.

Coming Next: Leaving History Behind

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 theclickercenter.com

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com