Extinction: Don't Reward Behavior You Don't Want

Extinction is a behaviorist's term and has nothing to do with the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Simply put, extinction is the disappearance of a behavior through lack of reinforcement. One technique of solving certain types of behavior problems is to do nothing.

Nothing?  Nothing!

Many times, unwanted behavior is rewarded accidentally and most of my dog training clients don't even realize what they are doing wrong. 

This is a hard concept for a lot of people to grasp and isn't always the proper technique for certain types of unwanted behavior. However, for some behavior problems, it can be very appropriate. Does that make it easy to pull off? No. Let's face it...a dog that is misbehaving is hard to ignore.

Let me give you an example:

One of my clients calls me to tell me they have a new, cute little puppy that they are integrating into the family. They tell me this little puppy is mouthing them like crazy (like 99% of all little puppies do). I've seen this scenario a thousand times. When I go into people's homes for private dog training sessions, I can see that the typical reaction to the puppy mouthing them is to sharply pull their hand away with every little nip while making high pitched noises that resemble "oh", "ouch", "stop", don't", "ehh". As a bonus, there may be a sibling near by that is enjoying watching his little brother get chewed on by the new pup and laughter and rolling around on the ground ensues. Guess what? In the eyes of the puppy, nipping and biting has just become a game. The victim has just turned himself into a great big squeaky toy and the pup is getting all kinds of attention which is all very rewarding. If this scene were a cartoon strip, the bubble thought above the puppy's head would read, "this is my favorite game of all time...the humans must love it too because they keep playing it with me day after day".

The best thing to do in this situation is to be as non-reactive as possible. Don't squeak, don't jump - just do nothing. I know this is hard, especially since those little puppy teeth don't feel so great on the skin, but by being as non-reactive as possible, the puppy will get very bored very quickly with a boring ol' lifeless hand just laying there. When the puppy starts mouthing, being as non-reactive as possible and then redirecting him to a toy is key. Make the hands boring and make the toy exciting.

Many people have been accidentally rewarding bad behavior for a long period of time and are just now deciding to react differently to unwanted behavior...maybe after reading this blog. That is great, but here is something to be prepared for if choosing extinction over punishment or correction.

The Extinction Burst

An extinction burst is when the unwanted behavior gets worse before it gets better during the onset of  being ignored. The dog is saying this sentence to himself. "Hey, this always worked before. I must not be jumping high enough or biting hard enough. Somehow they're just not noticing me. I must have to try harder."  If you can stick to your guns and get through that curve, the problem will eventually become extinct.

Don't fall victim to this mistake

Let's say there is a dog named Buster and he likes to scratch at the back door to be let in the house. Let's also say that for the past 3 years, every time Buster decided he wanted to come into the house that he would scratch and get let in, even if the humans didn't want Buster in the house for whatever reason. The dog has trained his humans very well to do what he wants, when he wants it.  Now let's say the day has come that the backdoor needed to be replaced because it has been destroyed by Buster and the family has decided to use extinction over punishment. "That's it. Time for some new house rules." Moving forward, Buster will not be rewarded (let in) for scratching at the backdoor.    note: humans may want to wait to replace the door until the bad behavior is fully extinguished.

Buster used to have to scratch 10-15 times before he'd be let in. Now that the family is ignoring him he's up to scratching 20 times. When Buster notices that door is still not opening, he scratches 25 times. (We have an extinction burst on our hands folks). 35 times. Finally, the humans can't take it anymore so they make a huge extinction technique mistake. They let Buster in on his 45th scratch. Game over! Dog wins. Buster has just been trained that if he is persistent enough that he will win. That is bad all the way around.

To pull this off correctly, the humans will have to get through that burst. They should put on some headphones, turn up the music, whatever it takes to not go crazy, but, whatever happens, that door should not be opened when scratching is going on. Buster will eventually get bored and give up when he realizes that door isn't opening.  The humans' job at this point is to let Buster in when he has finally stopped scratching.  Essentially Buster will be rewarded for not scratching at the door instead of rewarded for the unwanted behavior and this will, over time, become the new normal.

Extinction is one of many behavior modification techniques and will not work for everything but works well to eliminate attention seeking behavior without going down the road of using punishment, which for some of you readers is important. Survey where you could be doing a better job at not rewarded unwanted behavior in your home and try it out. Be patient and consistent and you'll start to see some results.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2012