Extinction & Dog Behavior

By Lisa-Anne Manolius | April 26, 2011 ~ 1 Comment

There’s a pet store in my neighborhood where the kind staff gives all doggy visitors free treats. Naturally it’s one of Vin’s favorite destinations. If he’s within a half-block of the store in any direction he tries to pull towards it. If we walk by the storefront he always wants to go in. I usually give in.

For a long time Vinnie would pull furiously towards the pet store on night time walks especially when his papa stopped at the convenience store a few doors down from the pet place. I worked on training stays with Vin while we waited outside the convenience store but he always had pet store fever and wouldn’t give up on pulling in that direction.

A few months ago I decided to give up that battle. If Vin wanted to go the pet store at night, I let him. I’d stand there silently as he pawed and nosed the door, waiting for him to turn away and leave.

Last week we had a first. During a night time stroll, hubby stopped at the convenience store but Vin did something different. Instead of pulling to the pet store he stayed right next to me waiting for his papa without so much as a glance in the pet store’s direction.

What changed?

Extinction! Extinction means withholding reinforcers for a behavior that’s previously been maintained by reinforcement. The behavior goes away because it no longer works – it’s no longer rewarding to the dog.

Going to the pet store at night had ceased to be rewarding for Vinnie. Every time he’d visited at night the store was closed and the human treat dispensers were away.

Dressing Vin in costume - a behavior he'd love to extinguish!

Dressing Vin in costumer - a behavior he'd love to extinguish!

Extinction is one method positive trainers use to get rid of unwanted behavior. When used correctly, extinction is a powerful tool. The key is 100% consistency – never rewarding the unwanted behavior.

Vin made a total of 8-12 night visits to the pet store over a period of 4-5 months before his breakthrough. During that time he continued visiting the store during the day and scoring treats. If that hadn’t happened night time trips to the store would have stopped sooner.

Extinction can be used to get rid of behaviors like attention barking, counter surfing, jumping up and mouthing. If you decide to use extinction, make a plan and try to be as specific as possible:

  • What behavior do you want to extinguish?
  • How is the dog currently being rewarded for the behavior? How has the dog been rewarded in the past for the behavior?
  • What’s your plan to remove all reinforcers for that behavior?
  • Can you and everyone else in the family realistically commit and follow through with the plan? Is your plan workable for you?

Follow through is crucial. In fact, if you can’t realistically follow through 100% of the time, an extinction plan is a waste of time. Why? If the dog is rewarded even just occasionally for the behavior, it will become more resilient instead of going away!

Follow through needs to continue as long as the dog is doing the behavior, particularly if there’s an extinction burst – a sudden temporary increase in the behavior that sometimes occurs after the start of an extinction plan. Remember, the flare up is normal and temporary, so just dig in and stick to your plan, or you’ll end up with an even stronger more resilient behavior.

Extinction is useful for stopping a variety of behaviors such as attention barking, counter surfing, mouthing and jumping up. My strong preference for getting rid of unwanted behavior is a two-fold strategy: removing all rewards for the undesirable behavior, and training the dog to do another acceptable behavior. (Read more about that here.)

One Response to “Extinction & Dog Behavior”

  1. KellyK 10 May 2011 at 6:51 am Permalink

    I’m trying to use extinction to get my cat to quit meowing for attention, and to get my dog to stop barking at visitors. I’ve realized that by responding to the meows, I’m training the cat to be more demanding. I’m also making it a point to scritch his favorite spot when he’s quiet. Wish me luck!

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