Riding Extinction Bursts

Once a behavior has been learned to be a source of reinforcement and the reinforcement ends extinction will begin. So if a behavior was reinforced but now is not, the behavior will begin to fade. A behavior that is not maintained with reinforcement won’t maintain itself, it will begin to be less reliable, accurate, and consistent. The behavior won’t just fade away, it will actually burst like a bubble. Starting at the narrow point of the accurate, correct, and consistent display of the behavior. As the behavior goes un-backed up the learner will begin to vary the behavior (maybe I really need to do it a little different?) often making the behavior bigger and more dramatic to try to get the reinforcement response they were looking for (if you don’t want it like this, how about I do it twice as big?!)

We might recognize this in the form of a temper tantrum with a child. If last time you were at the store, your child asked you nicely for a candy bar at the counter and you got it for them, but this time they ask and you say “no”, the child may not understand why and become frustrated. They will try asking many more times in various different ways, getting more emotional and frantic while they try to earn this reinforcer they are getting all the more desperate for. Until eventually they are in a full blown temper tantrum screaming and shouting for that candy bar. Now if you give in and reinforce this tantrum, you’re speeding up the process in which the child goes from asking nicely to complete hysterics, because it worked. If you don’t reinforce this behavior it may happen a few more times, until eventually the child gives up trying to get the candy bar (but you’ve also lost the asking politely behavior). The child may also try various other methods that may be inappropriate – like stealing the candy, or trying to sneak it into the basket without you noticing. All the typical ways of avoiding punishment may be attempted that can become dangerous or inappropriate. Because there has been no appropriate alternative way to earn this reinforcement or understanding of why the behavior is no longer working.

If we can remember to a moment where something has worked for us in the past, but is no longer, and how upsetting and frustrating this is for us, we might recognize how easily this tantrum is to trigger. Of course, as adults our tantrums may look different, getting angry might be quieter and more subtle, than screaming and trashing around in a public setting. Remember the last time you put money in a vending machine and your snack got stuck? How mad did that make you? The last time you sought out attention from a special person in your life and it wasn’t given? How heart broken were you? What other attempts did you make? How many ways did you try to fix your behavior to try to earn that social reinforcement you were missing?

This phenomenon of behavior bursting before extinguishing happens with all species and carries with it the same feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, and desperation. So when we’re training our horses and reinforce a behavior we like, then decide later we no longer want that behavior, be aware of extinction bursts. Even if you didn’t originally intend to reinforce that specific behavior. For example, often when people start hand feeding their horses the horse learns to invade the human’s space and take treats out of the human’s pockets directly (why not it’s easier than waiting?) We decide we don’t like this new “mugging” behavior, and find it rather rude, so we stop hand-feeding, but the horse gets worse and worse, eventually even biting! Now we are resorting to punishment to defend ourselves, our horse is frustrated and we think “hand feeding was such a terrible mistake!” But what really happened was a misunderstood extinction burst. The lack of clear behavioral criteria with the food in the beginning, plus the sudden removal of reinforcement for a behavior that had previously worked is the combination that lead to the inappropriate expression. Just like the child at the store counter.

Understanding this pattern can help us recognize it and avoid it. However there are some trainers who try to use this to their advantage in training, we call this “riding the extinction burst”. Where they train a behavior, reinforcing it lightly and unpredictably. This helps the horse understand what behavior is wanted, but then when it’s not reinforced they exaggerate and vary the behavior making it bigger and better. Then the behavior is reinforced again to stop it from growing beyond this exaggerated point. As the behavior settles back into it’s normal lower expression, reinforcement with be withheld again, causing it to begin bursting again. This is extremely upsetting, confusing, frustrating, and enraging for the learner. It becomes just like gambling, even addictive. It’s an inappropriate and dangerous approach to training. It can easily lead to an outburst of behavior that’s misplaced, it creates negative emotions that could easily be turned into aggressive behaviors. This is the most inappropriate use of R+ training I’ve seen out there. Extremely dangerous for human and extremely upsetting for the horse.

So let’s make sure we work well to prevent this dangerous cycle. As we’ve seen removing the reinforcement isn’t the ideal option, avoiding the problem doesn’t solve the problem. So we need to use reinforcement appropriately:

  1. Rate of reinforcement – make sure your RoR is high enough to match the effort of the behavior, in early learning this will begin very rapid and can settle into a more relaxed rate as the horse becomes comfortable with which behavior earns which reinforcement.
  2. Food value – using a lower food value can help reduce the learner’s desperation for the reinforcement and reduce the amount of over the top effort they will put towards that behavior. So make sure to match the value of the food with the difficulty of the behavior (for your individual, a high spirited horse may need more satiating and low value food compared to a mild-mannered, quiet horse, who may need slightly higher value, more interesting food to be a strong motivator)
  3. Food quantity – using larger quantities of lower value food is more appropriate, like getting a bag of rice rather than a candy bar, it’s satiating and satisfying, but not exhilarating.
  4. Alternate source – making sure there are other options available to the learner, so their only source of reinforcement isn’t just through working with you. This will reduce their desperation and frustration levels. Using hay or a treat toy while you’re training can help this.
  5. Focus on calm – reinforce soft, mild expressions of behavior if the horse gets worked up while training…
  6. Dial it down – provide a moment of satiation, using an easy behavior you can reinforce heavily and frequently, then break down the criteria of the behavior you’re having trouble with, into smaller and easier reinforceable steps.