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  • Canine Consultant - Emma

'Just Ignore the Bad, Reward the Good...'


Just like for our cute little dinosaur here, extinction in dog training is problematic to say the least. We've all heard the rather tired mantra 'ignore the bad, reward the good' and it has boiled down from some good practice and methodology... but... and it is a big but... It absolutely is not the whole story.

The idea is that if we ignore an unwanted behaviour, we will provide no reinforcement for it. If we also reinforce behaviour we want, then the unwanted behaviour will go extinct - poof, gone.. like magic!


Magic doesn't exist, and behaviours are often inherently reinforcing, i.e. they are fun to do, the dog generates some sort of reward for performing that behaviour, something we are not in control of. It's hard then to prevent reward for those behaviours.


So where does extinction come in... that occurs if we CAN actually remove the reward or fail to supply the reward that was previously supplied in response to a particular behaviour.

Extinction occurs when the dog has tried and tried and tried, and failed, and they finally realise 'this doesn't work any more, I'd better give up, try something else, re-think this'.


But extinction doesn't just happen without any drama - our little dinosaur can tell us all about that too!


Extinction happens following an extinction burst - that is, a period in which the subject, in this case our dog, tries harder and harder and harder before eventually giving up.

Extinction bursts occur all the time, we've all experienced them. When your pen stops writing and you scribble harder, when your car doesn't start and you twist the key over and over, when the TV doesn't work and you bash it on the top in just the right place, when the light doesn't come on and you flick the switch a few times, when you speak to someone and they don't respond so you repeat yourself, a little louder this time... Those are all extinction bursts. We've previously been reinforced for those behaviours - each time the pen works, the car starts, the TV functions, the light comes on, the person responds - those are reinforcers for your behaviour. When they don't work, the first time you try harder. You don't drop the pen and get a new one, call a mechanic, change the bulb or check the fuse box the FIRST time those things do not work.. that would be crazy!

In fact you try harder, and sometimes THAT works and so, next time you'll scribble a few times, turn the key a bit more, bash the telly a bit more.... and that will typically work a few times, and so NOW you've been reinforced for trying several times rather than just once! What has now happened is that you've added an element of persistence to the behaviour! If the pen had NEVER EVER worked again despite much scribbling, you would probably have learned to get a new pen the first time that happened, you would never have figured out the special spot to hit the TV on - that behaviour of trying harder wouldn't have been reinforced, so it wouldn't exist for long.

What then, happens to our dogs when something which HAS worked for them over and over, no longer works? They do exactly what we would do, they try harder. If you, as the dogs owner, then assume 'ah, this isn't working, the behaviour got worse' and you give in - you throw the ball for the dog yelling at you, you keep moving forward for the dog pulling on the lead..... you've actually reinforced "trying harder", maybe you reinforced 'bark louder' or 'pull harder' as well.

So does that mean that you should just be consistent and stay strong and keep ignoring unwanted behaviour? Um... yes, and also, no. Because remember where I said some behaviours are inherently reinforcing - well there's even more to it than that. Not only are some behaviours enjoyable to do, but many dogs do not know what it is we would prefer them to do. So if you simply ignore unwanted behaviour, you are leaving the dog to perform a behaviour they LIKE doing, in a situation where the dog has no idea what ELSE to do in any case, AND you are adding in a ton of frustration.

Extreme frustration rarely helps learning. It does however often push the subject to... try harder. When dogs try harder, they bark louder, pull harder, jump higher, bite... that's almost never going to be what we want and those behaviours are going to be even harder to ignore, some of them impossible!


So, what should we do?


The phrase should be 'ignore that which is not self reinforcing, after you have taught the behaviour you DO like, given it a history of reinforcement, ensured the dogs needs are well met, the dog has sufficient attention, attempted to pre-empt, redirect or otherwise manage so that the unwanted behaviour does not occur... and set yourself up so that if you MUST, ignoring the unwanted behaviour is actually possible'.. Snappy and memorable it is not. On the whole, trying to ignore a behaviour into extinction is not the route you want to take. Before you attempt to do so: Teach the behaviour you do want in its place - note that dogs are absolutely god-awful at 'do nothing' so it'll need to be a pro-active, 'doing' thing not a 'don't do that' thing. For example, jumping up can be replaced with a sit or a down. Barking could be replaced with holding a toy. Rushing at the front door to eat the post could be replaced with going to the bed. These are just examples, do what suits your dog and your home of course! Now look at your dogs typical day, a lot of the behaviours people wish to extinguish like this are a result of not enough attention or the wrong kind of attention. If your dog is attention seeking or generally being annoying, up the amount of mental exercise they get first, then the physical exercise, see if that reduces the incidences of irritating behaviour. Now look at ways you could spot the behaviour about to occur and step in and do something to redirect it - dog about to rush at the door, you could lob some treats down the hallway. Dog going to jump on a visitor, answer the door with the dog on a lead or behind a gate. Again, work out what suits your home and your dog. If after all that you still have incidences of the unwanted behaviour, now you need to set things up so you CAN ignore it if you want to. Lets say your dog yells at you when you are prepping his meal. You would like him to sit on his bed where his meal will be served, without barking. You have taught him to sit on his bed whilst you move around, clatter about in the kitchen. You have upped his food so you are sure he is not hungry. You have given him more chew toys and puzzles so his brain is well occupied. You suspect he will bark louder, maybe growl, maybe jump up at the food bowl. You have a gate so you can keep him out of the kitchen but he can still see you. You have enough time to stick with this. So if his barking is intended to speed up your prepping and delivery of his food, then to non-reward that you need to make it clear you have stopped prepping his food, the opposite of what he wanted. You could walk out of the room but that is likely to increase frustration even more so I would not advise it. Ask your dog to sit on his bed, reward that with a treat, start to prep his meal. The MOMENT he starts to shout at you, in one swift movement, step away from the bowl, drop any knife or spoon or whatever on the counter as you do so, stare at the ceiling and fold your arms. This will show your dog that you are NOT prepping food, any dog with eyes can see this! The SECOND he stops barking, return to food prep. The second he begins barking repeat the above. Effectively the barking becomes your 'off switch'. He IS going to try harder. You are NOT going to be feeding him any time soon! You must remain absolutely consistent! I predict you are likely to step away from prep and 'time out' multiple times the first day, and the second day and maybe the third day will be worse, and possibly the fourth or fifth day will be significantly better. If you balls up and you prep as he barks, you shout at him, you put food down as he shouts at you... you've made the behaviour worse because you've not only reinforced the original behaviour but NOW you've actually built persistence into it as well, so where your dog barked for a few minutes whilst you prepped food NOW he barks for half an HOUR whilst you prep food. It is so very difficult to be consistent, to avoid your dog becoming frustrated, to understand all the underlying factors behind the unwanted behaviour so that you are sure your timing is accurate and your understanding of what drives the behaviour is accurate... that in all honesty, I do NOT advise trying to create extinction this way. There are rare times I do, and typically those times are when some other human has taught a dog to do something extremely annoying that is also EXTREMELY enjoyable for the dog that no amount of offering alternative behaviours will work - and even THEN... unlike our dinosaurs, extinct behaviours can easily come back to life! Is there any good news?


There is - most of the time if you teach the alternative behaviour you want, address the dogs needs so that they are getting enough of whatever, not too much of the other, avoid them performing the unwanted behaviour in the first place, then it will improve all by itself without you having to try to eradicate it by any other means. Hurrah!

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