Understanding Extinction Bursts in Dogs
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
What Are Extinction Bursts in Dogs?
The term "dog extinction burst" may sound like an odd term for those who have never heard it before. No, your dog is not about to explode or implode, nor is he going to become extinct.
First, What is Extinction in Dog Training?
First, let's take a closer look into what "extinction" means in general. In psychology, the term is used to depict a phenomenon where a behavior with a history of being reinforced no longer leads to reinforcing consequences, with the end result of it extinguishing or stopping from occurring. Sounds complicated? Let's make an example...
Say your dog begs at the table and you always end up giving in and feeding your dog a bit of food when your dog starts pawing at you because you think it is cute. This begging behavior is reinforced by the food you give.
If you suddenly stop giving food one day, your dog will likely continue begging for some time, but since you are no longer "feeding" the behavior, your dog will eventually start giving up and the behavior may eventually reduce and extinguish over time.
Interestingly, in the initial stages, when you decide to stop feeding your dog, you will see an increase in the begging behavior. Your dog may paw repeatedly at you with more insistence, or he may even come up with a new behavior such as barking.
"Bursting" a Dog's Bubble
The "increase" in behavior phenomena described above which makes you think you are doing something wrong, is referred to as an "extinction burst." Why does this happen? Let's get in your dog's mind.
Your dog has been pawing at you for food for quite some time and you always gave in when he pawed at you. Suddenly you stop feeding and ignore your dog's pawing behavior. What happens next? Your dog starts getting a bit frustrated. He is thinking, "hey, I always get fed when I paw at you, what's up today? Maybe you didn't notice, so I will increase my pawing and perhaps try doing something else to make you pay attention to me, hellooo? Anybody there? I'm here!"
Like a Toddler Throwing a Tantrum
I like to explain this phenomena to my clients by comparing it with a child throwing a tantrum at the supermarket. If your child wants a bag of candy and you say no and your child starts crying, you may give in and buy the candy to keep him quiet and avoid a big scene. Your child soon learns that whining and crying makes you buy the candy so he does it over and over.
Finally, a day comes where you think that things are getting a bit ridiculous and out of hand, so you decide to enforce some rules, so from today no more candy. When your child starts whining in the candy aisle, you say no and walk with your cart past the aisle. Within seconds, your child's face turns red, then purple and then green as he transforms into a small version of the Incredible Hulk and makes the most disturbing sounds.
Since people start staring at him as if he were a wild animal, you are forced to escape the store with your little monster to protect yourself from a lawsuit for breaking the barrier of sound. What was that? Very likely a full-blown volcanic extinction burst!
So "extinction bursts" are simply behaviors with a history of being strongly reinforced that burst when they no longer get reinforcement.
As much as an extinction burst sounds like trouble, the good news is that they are ultimately a sign that whatever your are doing is working, so make sure to keep it up. It is crucial to not give in at this point or you will experience serious setback in training!
Advantages of Extinction Bursts in Dog Training and Behavior Modification
So an extinction burst is a good sign, meaning that you are progressing in your plan. Your dog would not keep trying harder if you did not implement some substantial changes by no longer reinforcing a behavior.
Terry Ryan, dog trainer and author of the book "Coaching people to train their dogs" tells her clients when they experience the first extinction bursts and get discouraged: "Great! He got worst! That means extinction is working!"
The great thing is that if you continue withholding the rewards, the extinction will eventually prevail and the behavior will eventually weaken and vanish.
According to Karen Pryor's clicker training website extinction bursts are defined as:
"A characteristic of extinction. If a previously reinforced behavior is not reinforced, the animal will increase the intensity or frequency of the behavior in an attempt to earn the reinforcement again. If the behavior is not reinforced it will diminish again after an extinction burst."
Using Extinction Bursts to Your Advantage
Extinction bursts can be used at times to your advantage in training. Say you want to train your dog to accomplish a specific task, but you are not too happy with the results and want to see more motivation.
If you have been rewarding your dog with treats consistently, and then out of the blue, you stop rewarding, you may notice your dog will work harder and with more intensity. Make sure you reward this increase in behavior so to maintain it since in this case you do not want the behavior to extinguish! To see how this works, watch the video below.
As seen, dog extinction bursts are a very good thing, whether you are training your dog or trying to do some dog behavior modification. Just keep it up and your dog's extinction burst will go away and the unwanted behavior will eventually reduce and ultimately extinguish over time!
Watch how the behavior becomes more intense when the owner stops providing reinforcement!
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 22, 2012:
Giblingirl,Yes, knowing about extinction bursts is very useful because often people see the fact a behavior comes back stronger than before as a bad thing and that their training methods are not working so they may give up.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 22, 2012:
Thanks for stopping by Bob!
Bob Bamberg on October 22, 2012:
Hi alexadry, I knew about the phenomenon but never knew they had a name for it. That makes it easier to explain to people. I always told customers that when they stopped a certain practice, the dog may go ballistic a couple of times, but that shows that it's working and he'll give up on it soon.
I've got a grandson who will be three next month and he's starting to have meltdowns. He had one at the library last week so my daughter in law left immediately and took him home. He begged to go back but she didn't give in. It's what you have to do. He won't meltdown in the library again. Dogs eventually learn that less0n, too.
Thanks for the validation and enlightenment. Regards, Bob
GiblinGirl from New Jersey on October 22, 2012:
I've never heard of extinction behavior but it certainly seems like a good thing to understand. Thanks for explaining it.
Peter Nehemia from Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia on October 21, 2012:
Wow. Nice tips. Extinction. Just heart about it.
What Is Extinction?
The process of extinction is not restricted to dog training. It’s a word that behavioral scientists use to describe something that we can see happening all around us, in our homes and communities, and in the natural world.
It refers to the death of behavior.
Everything that your dog does comes at a cost, whether simply in terms of the calories it burn to fuel the activity, or in the risks inherent in that activity.
The process of extinction is triggered by a fall in the cost/benefit balance.
If the cost of a behavior outweighs the benefits, then that behavior will die out or become “extinct.” It needs to do this in order that animals can survive in a hazardous world.
If your boss stops paying you, for example, you will stop going to work. If a water hole dries up, animals will stop visiting it when they are thirsty. All living things do what benefits them. They wouldn’t still be here otherwise.
You can read more about extinction here: What is Extinction . But for now, let’s explain with an example how this works in dog training.
What is the definition of extinction bursts as it relates to clicker training dogs?
Clicker training is a method of dog training whereby the animal performs the desired behavior and then the trainer or owner clicks or says a quick “yes!” as that behavior happens. Then it’s immediately followed by a reinforcement or reward –which is almost always food.
Positive reinforcement dog trainers, who often rely on this method, believe that treating your dog for desired behaviors, will increase the likelihood that your dog will engage in these in the future, rather than just dwelling on the behavior you wish to eliminate.
Concentrate on what you want your dog to do instead of what you want your dog to stop doing, they say. However, be prepared for the “extinction burst.”
You need to understand the progression of this training.
First, there’s extinction: That involves the principal of “non-punishment, non-reinforcement”—basically, ignoring the behavior. A lot of owners unwittingly “reward” their dogs for unwanted behaviors for example, dogs will continue to pull on leash because it gets their owners to move forward/faster on walks, dogs bark for attention or jump to greet..Often, ignoring the behavior is the best bet wait the dog out and then reinforce when he offers an alternative behavior (sits instead of jumping, for example). Extinction requires some patience, especially if the behavior has “paid off” for quite some time.
Then there’s the extinction burst: When the specific behavior has been reinforced strongly in past, but it suddenly gets no reinforcement—such as barking, growling or begging—the behavior might actually get worse before it gets better. The dog, in an effort to get back the attention that behavior once brought on, because will perform that behavior over and over again—sometimes it can even be frantic—in the hopes of getting a reward.
It is like an elevator. You might want it to come faster so, even though you know it won’t help, you just keep pushing and pushing that button.
The Problem With "Ignoring" Unwanted Behavior
If you’re even vaguely familiar with positive reinforcement training, at some point you have received the advice to ignore unwanted behavior.
As with the advice to redirect to a preferred behavior, this advice is rooted in good science, but has become so divorced from the understanding of the underlying principle that it sometimes does more harm than good.
The process people are trying to use when they ignore behavior is called extinction. Extinction is nonreinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior. It’s not the withdrawal of a reinforcer that’s already been offered, and it’s not something taken away contingent on the performance of the unwanted behavior. Whatever was reinforcing the behavior is simply is no longer available for doing that behavior.
Reinforcement is what makes a behavior stronger, and removing reinforcement, permanently, will eventually make it weaker. But it’s not a straightforward or tidy process—and beyond that, ignoring is only nonreinforcement if your attention was the reinforcer your dog was behaving to get. Your attention is not generally the reason your dog starts pulling on the leash, barking at strangers, or peeing in the house (though through accidental training, it can certainly come to be).
And even if your attention is the reinforcer, you need to be aware of what will happen when you stop giving it.
Extinction is best used in conjunction with reinforcement of another behavior—ideally one that serves the same function as the unwanted behavior, and definitely one that will provide at least the same quantity and quality of reinforcement.
That’s because the problems with using extinction by itself are many. The ones I’ll discuss here aren’t even all of them. Extinction is different from punishment (where something is added to or removed from the learner’s environment, contingent on the behavior, to decrease the behavior), but that doesn’t mean it’s more pleasant for either the learner or the teacher. In fact, it can have some of the same side effects as punishment, including the emergence of frustration-related behaviors and aggression.
Before a behavior starts to decline due to nonreinforcement, it will predictably flare up in what’s called an extinction burst. If you and your dog live in a condo or an apartment, or you have a headache or are tired, or you have a guest with whom you are trying to have a nice meal, an extinction burst of barking will be very hard to ignore. You’re more likely to end up reinforcing it—thus teaching your dog to bark more or more intensely.
This Family Guy clip has probably been shown at least once at every dog training conference I’ve ever attended, and it is a rather perfect example of reinforcing an extinction burst:
Extinction isn’t fast, either. A single session “is often not enough to extinguish behavior . . . even when the extinction session lasts for several hours and involves hundreds or even thousands of unreinforced acts,” writes Paul Chance in the textbook Learning and Behavior. And once it does go away, it can come back. In the phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery, Chance continues, “what usually happens is this: The rate of the previously reinforced behavior declines and finally stabilizes at or near its pretraining level. Extinction appears to be complete. If, however, the animal or person is later put back into the training situation, the extinguished behavior occurs again, almost as though it had not been on extinction.” Chance wraps up his chapter on extinction by noting that “there’s considerable doubt, in fact, about whether a well-established behavior can ever be truly extinguished.”
Another extinction-related phenomenon is called resurgence. When one behavior is no longer reinforced, other, previously reinforced behaviors tend to emerge. In other words, when the behavior doesn't work, the dog tries other behaviors that have worked before.
Many dog owners have seen this in a scenario like the following: You’ve stood up and collected your training or walking gear, but get temporarily distracted or fumble with the equipment. Or you’re in class, with your dog in front of you, but the teacher is talking. Your dog first offers an expectant sit—a behavior that probably has been reinforced a lot by you in this context. But you’re listening to the teacher, and so there’s no reinforcement. Your dog then offers a paw, goes into a down, rolls over, then barks and paws at you.
And when you do finally turn your attention to him, because pawing your leg hurts, what have you just reinforced?
But if we stay focused on our learner, we can actually take advantage of resurgence.
One of my favorite brief training articles to send clients is this item by Dr. Caryn Self-Sullivan, a KPA CTP in Virginia: Stop, Watch, Wait, Reward. It’s just a quick hit, so she doesn’t go into extinction or resurgence or any other technical business, but I think it’s revelatory to read it with the science in mind:
For example, if your dog jumps or barks when you enter your home:
STOP: Stand perfectly still and be absolutely silent.
WATCH: Observe your dog out of the corner of your eye and watch for a behavior you want to reinforce.
WAIT: Wait, wait, wait for a desired behavior, such as a sit or even just eye contact with four-on-the-floor.
REWARD: Mark (click) the desired behavior, and then toss a treat. Proceed into the house.
I love this. I also love thinking about what we can do, before we actually find ourselves in this pickle, to make it likely that when we do, the dog will offer a previously learned behavior we’d like to see more of, instead of another one we don't like.
One simple thing we can do is to make sure our dogs have a big, fat repertoire of other, frequently and recently reinforced behaviors to call upon. We know that animals, when they have a choice, tend to allocate their behavior in direct proportion to how much reinforcement those behaviors have received in the past. Teaching simple but acceptable behaviors and reinforcing them regularly in a variety of contexts will make it more likely that the dog will go to one of these when another behavior isn’t working. Orienting to the handler, sitting, lying down, and settling on a mat or bed are behaviors that a dog can offer in many situations to the delight of their humans.
Here's a quick video of Horton—a dog with a history of barking long and loudly at humans who are holding food without giving him any. (He's also pictured at the top of this post.) Trying to ignore him failed, and may have contributed to the development of this persistent behavior in the first place. But here he is choosing to lie down (without being explicitly "redirected") instead because he has recently had a ton of reinforcement for doing so.
To help give your dog lots of good alternatives, pay attention to all the acceptable behavior you don’t explicitly teach or ask for. Many times behaviors we like are happening right in front of our noses, while we’re absorbed in something else. Meanwhile, behaviors we don’t like rarely fail to get our attention. The dog walks on a loose lead near us for five steps—a completely unreinforcing activity by many dogs’ standards—then pulls ahead, which is when we call him back for a treat. What behavior is he probably going to do more of? If instead we notice and give a treat for those five steps, we will get more like them. When the dog pulls ahead, we don’t go along—but should the dog check in of his own accord, we have something else we can reinforce.
We can also sometimes rig the environment to make the right choice more likely and the wrong choice less so. Take the jumping dog in Caryn’s example above. We don't even have to wait for him to jump and then wait for other behaviors. Placing a gate between the dog and the door could prevent both jumping and reinforcement of jumping by family members or visitors who pet the dog when he jumps. It's also easier to watch for preferred behaviors and reinforce them when you're not getting jumped on.
After all, humans respond to the laws of behavior just like dogs. You can make the right behavior easier for yourself, too.
This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.
Understanding Extinction Bursts in Dogs - pets
7 Steps to Survive the Extinction Burst
Dog behavior can be quite simple. Dogs will continue to do the behavior that is reinforced. Some behavior is reinforced by the owner, while some is relf-reinforced. Today we're talking about the behavior that we don't like, and want to go away, that is accidentally reinforced by the owner. Reinforcement can be the obvious such as food, treats, toys, and physical praise. It can also be the less obvious such as playing, eye contact, talking to them, pushing them away, picking them up, and even telling them “no”.
An extinction burst can be described simply: "if this has always worked, it always will work, and if it doesn’t, I just need to try harder." For example, if you walk into a dark room and flip a light switch, the light will turn on. But what happens when the light doesn’t turn on? Do you immediately check if your power is still on, or do you change the light bulb? Not likely you most likely flip the light switch a few times before giving up and trying something else. That is an extinction burst.
Let’s use an example with your dog. If every time your dog jumps, you reinforce the behavior (eye contact, talk to, play, wrestle, pet, pick up, etc.) they will continue to jump. But if you stop reinforcing the behavior, your dog won’t just immediately stop jumping. They’ll think: “I just need to try harder!” They will jump higher, maybe more frantically, maybe try nipping or play biting you. They will have an extinction burst. To get through the extinction burst, you have to have a plan, be prepared to follow through, and be more stubborn than your dog.
There is a tricky part to all of this. It’s hard, like really hard, to ignore behavior. Especially during the extinction burst. Let’s go back to our light switch example. If while flipping the switch over and over, the light turns on, we learn that if I try really hard, it will work. Not that the bulb needs replacing, or you have a power outage, or even that maybe the wiring is a little faulty. You don’t need to find a different way to get the light on, because of your stubbornness you were able to turn on the light. How this applies to your dog: if during the extinction burst you reinforce the behavior (give them the positive or negative attention they’re looking for) they will learn that if they try harder and are more stubborn, they will get what they want. The next time you attempt to ignore their undesired behavior, it will take longer, and require you to be even more stubborn to see the extinction burst through to the end. This is even harder when you have multiple people trying to train the dog. A weak link can cause all sorts of problems.
Here are 7 steps to help you through the extinction burst:
- Identify the reinforcement. Is your dog trying to get you to pet or play with them, take them outside, or maybe feed them? What are they finding rewarding? Negative attention can be rewarding just as much as positive attention.
- Remove the reinforcer. If your dog is trying to get you to pet them, ignore them while they’re doing it.
- Reward the behavior you want. In the above example, if the dog is jumping, turn your back on them and when they put all four feet on the floor for at least a few seconds give them a reward. Once they start to catch on wait a few second longer each time to lengthen the time until the behavior is gone altogether.
- Remember it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. The worst thing you can do is to reinforce the behavior during the extinction burst.
- Communicate with your partners in training. If you have a family of 2 or 20, communication is the key to success. Help everyone stay on the same page by finding a successful way to include everyone and keep everyone accountable.
- Track your progress. Sometimes it feels like you’re not making any progress at all. If you like to see immediate results, and you have a stubborn dog, you may want to find a way to track how much progress you’re making. If jumping is the behavior you’re addressing, track how long it takes for your dog to keep four feet on the floor for 4 seconds. You should see within days that it’s getting less and less time.
- Be more stubborn than your dog. An extinction burst will only last as long as your dog is stubborn. If you have an especially stubborn dog, it’s probably going to last longer than a family with a dog that likes to just go with the flow.
So far we've talked about jumping, however there are other behaviors dogs will do to get your attention. All of these behaviors will have an extinction burst when you try to change your response to your dog. Follow the steps above and you should see these behaviors slip away.
- Play Biting or nipping. This is usually a puppy behavior and usually dogs mature out of this, however if it's a great go-to to get attention many puppies will do this long into adolescence and young adulthood. Some puppies are looking just for attention, however this could be a way to get you to play, take them outside, that they're REALLY tired, maybe they want food or water.
- Barking. Dogs bark for so many reasons. Some of that barking directed at you could be their way to get something from you. If you don't like your dog barking at you, find out what they're looking for. Are they trying to get you to play, give them table scraps, fill their water/food dish, take them outside?
- Bumping you. This could be with their nose, shoulder or hip. It's usually a way for them to get attention.
- Whining. This is very much like barking, but more subtle. It's easier to respond to because the sound is so annoying, yet not as obvious as barking.
As always, please ask any time you have questions. I love to talk dogs! Thanks so much for reading this post. If you found it helpful, please share on social media!