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A word on extinction

 

Somehow your dog has developed an annoying habit.

He barks incessantly, he paws you to get your attention or decides that jumping up really is the best way to get attention. Instead of coming when called, all of a sudden he runs away and hides under the sofa.

There are many reasons why this might have happened and you can spend hours and hours analyzing the reasons.

The main reason however is that somehow, at some point in time that behavior has worked to the dog’s advantage. Something the human did gave the dog satisfaction. The dog remembers this and tries it again.

Really, all you need to know is the mantra: rewarded behaviors increase in frequency. This is a dog behavior modification technique that frequently works.

What I see very often though is that people are unaware of the many behaviors on their part that may inadvertently  reward dogs’ unwanted behaviors.

They might act annoyed, they might correct, they might utter words of frustration, they might even laugh, they might chase the dog who plays keep away and hides under the couch instead of coming when called.

All of those actions: talking to the dog, commenting on the behavior, laughing at the dog, chasing the dog are reinforcing those behaviors by giving the dog a form of attention. And attention is what the dog wanted in the first place.

An excellent remedy for unwanted behaviors is to let them die out: extinction is the technical word for that.

In other words: teach the dog that this particular behavior does not pay off in any way.

It works really well provided that you ignore the unwanted behavior COMPLETELY and UTTERLY,  ALWAYS!

And that really is the pitfall of this technique.

Imagine you  are having dinner and your dog is yapping incessantly while you are trying to have a conversation. At first you are very brave and you ignore the dog, continue to have your conversation even though you can barely hear your partner.

And then you reach a point when you cannot stand it any longer and you finally scream: QUIET!!!!!!! (or something less polite, most probably).

Consider though what you have just done: you have just taught the dog that the attention will indeed come, only instead of getting the attention after a couple of barks the attention comes after a longer time of barking. The dog will work much harder to get what he wants in the future. Intermittent reinforcement is VERY powerful.

For instance gambling is a perfect example of the power or intermittent reinforcement. The player wins intermittently. The player loses an awful lot, yet the fact that he won big once or twice is enticement enough to motivate him very strongly to keep trying to win. The desire to win increases immensely as the losses add up.

It works the same way for dogs. If a dog wins the prized attention for a behavior just once, the dog will expect that prize again, regardless of how long it takes to get it again or how hard he has to try to get it again.

One other remark about this technique: after you make a lot of progress with this, there comes a point at which you will feel that all was for naught because the behavior will get unbelievably strong again. This is called an extinction burst. If you know this you should be jubilating inwardly because it means that you are very, very close to your goal of having the unwanted behavior go away forever.

 

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