Does your dog do things you don’t like? Maybe they bark when they see people walk by your house, paw at you for attention, or sit and stare at you while you eat dinner.
In my case, my dog Penny barks at everything. She’ll bark at my cats, people arriving at our house, the TV, squeaky cabinets, other dogs, and the sound of my neighbors talking. You name it, she’ll bark at it!
I tried everything to curb her barking. She’s a tiny dog, so her bark is shrill and oftentimes pretty loud. I tried distracting her, teaching her the “quiet” cue, putting her in her crate when she barked, and using a dog whistle, which backfired horribly by making her bark even more.
Then I learned about “extinction.” Extinction is the process in which a dog replaces what they’ve learned in the past with new information.
In Penny’s case, she learned that whatever she’s barking at is worth the fuss she’s making over it, because to her, I’m also reacting to whatever stimuli has gotten her so fired up.
She also learned that barking gets her attention. No matter what she was barking at, it would result in treats and toys to distract her, me speaking to her, or she’d get scooped up to be moved to her crate.
I had been unintentionally reinforcing her barking by rewarding it with attention. It’s also easy to accidentally reinforce other unwanted behaviors, such as talking to your dog when they’re begging for your food, or petting them when they paw and nudge at you.
When you react to these unwanted behaviors, your dog learns those behavior cause consequence. Basically, their action results in something else, whether that be treats, attention, or a time out in their crate.
With extinction, you want to eliminate the consequence entirely. Instead of reacting to their behavior and doing whatever you can think of to stop it, just ignore it! I know, it sounds crazy, right? But it truly does work.
By completely ignoring your dog’s unwanted behavior, they’re learning over time that the specific behavior has no consequence for them, so it’s not worth engaging in.
For example, if your dog walks up to you and paws at you repeatedly because they want attention, it’s really easy to reinforce that behavior by petting them and talking to them. But, if you have a big dog who unintentionally hurts you with their pawing (or if you just find pawing annoying!) you might want to extinguish that behavior.
So, when your dog paws at you, completely ignore it. Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them, don’t pet them. Every dog will be different in how long it takes for them to learn, but with consistency they’ll figure out that pawing doesn’t get them the desired result, or any result.
It’s also important to remember that even scolding or pushing your dog away is still going to reinforce the behavior, because to them it’s still attention. Or, if you’re scolding them for barking, for example, they may take it as a sign the stimuli is worth barking at, because you’re also reacting to it.
It can be hard not to react when your dog is doing something you really don’t like, but your reaction is only going to make them more likely to continue doing it in the future.
Consistency is also key here, as in any other training scenario. Dogs don’t understand the concept of “sometimes.” If you sometimes ignore the behavior and other times reinforce it, your dog isn’t going to understand the circumstances that affected your decision. They’re just going to learn that their behavior results in attention from you.
This can be the hardest part of extinguishing a behavior. It takes time, consistency, and a lot of patience. Penny is such a prolific barker that, although I’ve tried extinguishing the behavior, I eventually cave and tell her “quiet” or try to distract her. But I know that if I just tough it out and stick to ignoring it, she will eventually learn it’s not worth it.
However, in some cases extinction may not be the best process. If your dog is chewing up your slippers, it doesn’t make sense to ignore it – they’ll destroy your slippers! But, you can evaluate your dog’s behavior and consider what the consequences of ignoring it would be.
If ignoring the behavior will lead to damage or destruction of your property or endanger your dog, other animals, or people, it’s probably best to explore other training options. But ignoring things like your dog’s barking, pawing, begging, or whining probably won’t lead to any adverse outcomes, so it’s generally safe to use the extinction process in those situations.
Over time, as you consistently ignore your dog’s unwanted behavior, they’ll learn that their action doesn’t amount to anything. The behavior has no worth to them, so eventually they will stop doing it altogether.
Sometimes during the extinction process dogs will experience what’s called an “extinction burst.” Gradually your dog will begin to engage in the unwanted behavior less and less, until it’s nearly gone. Then suddenly, the behavior is back and worse than before!
For example, if you’ve been consistently ignoring your dog’s barking at the TV you may notice they’re barking less and less. Then one day they’re barking louder than ever when you switch on the television. Don’t panic! This is a normal part of the extinction process, and it does not mean your training has failed.
While this can be the hardest time to stick to ignoring your dog’s behavior, it’s crucial that you remain consistent. It might be frustrating to suddenly have an intensely yappy dog on your hands again, but this part of the process will pass.
Once you get through the extinction burst, it should be smooth sailing. Your dog has learned that specific behavior doesn’t result in anything, so it’s not worth doing.
It’s also worth noting that extinction can happen accidentally, and with behaviors you’ve already taught your dog. For example, when you teach your dog a cue, such as “sit,” you would go through the process of teaching them the behavior and the cue for that behavior, rewarding them along the way.
As they get more solid with the cue, you can then phase out the treats, only rewarding their response to the cue on a random schedule. Eventually, they would understand the cue and be motivated to perform the behavior enough that they are following the cue consistently, with or without treats.
However, even after your dog has fully learned a cue, you still have to maintain that cue. While treats may be provided very sparingly, it’s still important to reward your dog occasionally. If you phase out the treats completely, over time your dog will learn that performing the behavior on cue has no consequence to them, so it’s not worth doing.
See where I’m going with this? Without proper maintenance of a cue, your dog will eventually give up on it altogether, and stop performing the behavior when asked.
If this happens, you can reintroduce the cue to your dog much like you would if you were teaching them a brand new cue, or teach them an entirely new cue for the same behavior.
Have any questions about dog training? Do you want to know why your dog does that weird thing, or what he’s trying to tell you? Send me an email at email@example.com to have your questions answered in a future column. Please note as I am still earning my dog training certification I may wait to respond to certain questions until I feel I have the knowledge and skills necessary to provide an accurate response.