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  • Lisa Mullinax, CDBC

E IS FOR EXTINCTION: Should You Ignore Unwanted Behavior?

In operant conditioning, extinction is when a behavior stops occurring because it is no longer reinforced. In other words, a behavior stops working for the dog, so he gives up. You've probably heard that "positive trainers just ignore bad behavior." The implication is that dogs trained using non-aversive methods are constantly running wild, overturning apple carts (do we still have apple carts?) and wreaking havoc on the general public. As usual, statements like that are based on assumptions, without a basic understanding of how learning works. So, do we recommend ignoring unwanted behavior? Sometimes. We DO NOT ignore behaviors that could result in harm to dogs, people, or property. We DO NOT ignore behaviors that are triggered by fear/anxiety or other forms of stress or are precursors to aggressive behavior. We DO NOT turn our backs when the dog is growling at a visitor or chewing on a chicken bone he just stole from the garbage. We DO ignore behaviors that are reinforced when we give the dog something they want in that moment, which includes food, access, and attention. For instance, a dog that is barking for attention (not because he needs to go outside, is distressed at being isolated in the yard, is reacting to a visitor, etc). Since attention (looking, touching, or talking) is what reinforces the barking, the last thing we should do is look at the dog and say "No bark." Why? Because if the barking gets us to stop what we're doing and give our full attention to the dog, we're essentially rewarding the behavior, rather than punishing it. So, if we ignore the barking until the dog gives up - walks away, lies down, or just pauses for a moment, and THEN give him attention, we can extinguish the barking and reinforce more acceptable behavior. Another example is a dog that jumps when we try to put on the leash. Some people run through a list of commands ("Sit. Stay. EH! You hold still! Leave it! No!"), all the while trying to wrangle the leash on the dog. This is when extinction is going to be a far faster and more effective approach in the long run. What the dog wants is to go for a walk. The walk can't start until the leash is on. You have total control of whether or not the leash goes on and can determine what behavior makes that happen. If you put the leash on while the dog is jumping, you're reinforcing jumping. If you stand still and ignore the dog while she is jumping, the jumping becomes an ineffective behavior. By simply waiting until the dog stops jumping on their own and THEN attaching the leash, you are extinguishing jumping and reinforcing a better behavior. Extinction is also useful for some behaviors that occur when we're not around to practice training. For example, my dog was a dedicated counter surfer for the first six years of his life. Various management failures (like forgetting to put food out of reach before leaving the house) led to a long history of jumping on the counter being very effective at scoring all sorts of food. I vowed to renew my efforts to curb the behavior when we moved to a new house, clearing the counters when I left. After two years of consistent management, I forgot, leaving a loaf of french bread on the counter. When I returned, the bread was still there, undisturbed. Since then, there have been similar incidents with no loss of food. This is extinction. No doubt, Parker investigated the counters many times during those first two years. But each time, his efforts produced nothing. Not a stick of butter, not a loaf of bread, nothing. Over time, it became a wasted effort. He is about to turn 13 and we haven't had a counter-surfing incident in 7 years. EXTINCTION BURST We can't talk about extinction without discussing the dreaded extinction burst. This is when a dog (or child, BTW) suddenly renews their efforts - often at a greater intensity. Believe it or not, this means the training is working! The dog is learning that the behavior isn't working, so they try a new behavior. It's very important to recognize this for what it is and not give up. If you give in during an extinction burst, you can reinforce the new and more intense behavior. Stay consistent, and you will be successful. SHOULD YOU IGNORE BAD BEHAVIOR? Only when it is a behavior that does not pose any risk to dogs, people, or property AND the motivation is to gain something we can control, like food, access, and attention. However, it is important to note that in the examples of the jumping and barking, we also focus on reinforcing the behavior we would like to see more of. Simply ignoring a dog without reinforcing alternative behaviors can lead to frustration. Be sure to reward SOMETHING your dog does right! When extinction is not an appropriate solution, we manage the dog's environment to prevent practice of the unwanted behavior, and then implement a plan to change the behavior through training and counter-conditioning. Note: Extinction also occurs in classical conditioning, but this post is solely about operant behaviors.

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