Extinction: Bad for Dinosaurs, Good for Canine Behavior

The dictionary offers a few definitions for the word “extinction.” The first is, “the death or ceasing to exist of all members of a species or family of organisms.” That describes what happened to our hapless prehistoric friends. The one that applies to canine behavior is, “the decreasing or dying out of a behavioral response created by conditioning because of a lack of reinforcement.”

Forget the technical jargon—let’s use a real life example. You have a dog who jumps on visitors. This elicits a different response depending on the person. Your grandmother waves her hands while exclaiming, “Shoo! Off!” Your next-door neighbor, a mom of three, looks your dog in the eye, smiles, and says, “Come on now, you know better than that.” Your girlfriend pets your dog as his paws rest on her waist. And your brother shoves your dog down while saying, “Get down!” Depending on the dog, each and every one of those responses can be rewarding.

Dogs jump on us to get our attention. Attention means looking at a dog, talking to a dog, or interacting with a dog. Each of the examples above involves at least one of those things. Grandma probably won’t fare well because dogs are easily excited by arm waving (this is why many dogs who nip at children become even more nippy when children respond by flailing about). Your neighbor rewarded your dog by looking at him, smiling, and talking to him. Petting the dog while he’s jumping is an obvious reward. And your brother’s shoving at the dog’s chest can be reinforcing too, assuming the dog likes to roughhouse. So now we have “a behavioral response created by conditioning.” In other words, that which has been rewarded—the jumping—is more likely to happen again.

Extinction in this case means the jumping will stop because the dog no longer receives a reward when he jumps. So how do you apply the extinction principle? By ignoring your dog. The next time your dog jumps, remove the very thing he wants—your attention. Turn to the side, fold your arms, and refrain from looking at or talking to him. If your dog has learned that sitting earns all sorts of good things, he may offer a sit. At the least, unless he’s levitating (which is beyond the scope of this article!), he’ll eventually have four paws on the ground. Once he does, after a few seconds, turn and calmly offer some calm attention. The jumping behavior will soon extinguish because it’s not being rewarded, and at the same time, your dog will learn that sitting or four-on-the-floor earns your attention.

Something that should be mentioned is the “extinction burst.” If a bid for attention has been successful in the past, and now fails, a dog may up the ante before giving up. It’s like the child who seeks his mother’s attention while she’s on the phone. “Mom?” Nothing. Louder: “Mom?” Still nothing. If the mother continues to ignore the child, before giving up, he may increase the intensity of his attempt, for example, by screaming and/or pulling at her clothing. If the tantrum is ignored, the child will give up. Likewise, a dog who is no longer rewarded for jumping may, before ceasing the behavior, increase its intensity by jumping more frantically and/or mouthing at the person. If the person continues to ignore the behavior, it will stop.

Extinction is not the solution for every dog, nor every behavior. There are dogs who jump and mouth so aggressively that ignoring them is simply not an option. And if a dog is engaging in an unwanted behavior—chewing the garden hose for example—ignoring him is not going to accomplish anything. Extinction is, however, a good solution for attention-seeking behaviors, so don’t ignore it!

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


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