Sometimes Extinction Is A Good Thing!

Behavioral science is full of screwy, confusing terminology.  “Positive reinforcement” isn’t necessarily good. “Negative reinforcement” gets a bad rap partly because of the word, “negative”.  “Negative” and “extinction” can actually be good things.

In the highly derivative and somewhat esoteric language of behavioral science, “extinction” means the withholding of reinforcement (reward) for a previously learned behavior.  Let’s look at a typical example.

Fido, a little Shih Tsu, has developed a habit of whining and jumping up on your legs when he wants attention.  This is previously learned behavior.  Guess who taught it to him?  Yes, that would be you.  Now your friendly neighborhood behaviorist (dog trainer) tells you to ignore Fido when he jumps on you and that will cause the behavior to stop.  This is what we call behavioral extinction.  The behavior (jumping) will eventually go “extinct” when the reward (your attention) is no longer reinforcing the behavior.

 As a trainer, this is a very familiar scenario to me.  It’s also one of my biggest challenges because people find that when they stop rewarding a behavior, the behavior actually INCREASES!!!  In our example, you have stopped rewarding Fido’s jumping.  Each time he jumps, you turn away from him and completely ignore him as long as he has his little paws on your legs.  The problem is that you find he is now getting really frantic and jumping and whining and pawing even more.  You then decide that “extinction” is just a crock of behaviorist crapola and you surrender to your dog’s frantic attention-getting strategy.

What actually happened in the preceding paragraph is called an “extinction burst”.  It is extremely common and quite predictable in most cases.  Fido’s attention getting strategy is suddenly not working, so he tries even harder to get your attention, leaping, whining, barking, etc. until you finally give in and pick him up just to get the noise to stop.

Too bad.  By picking him up you just made the problem even worse.  And you were so close to the goal line too!  You see, typically an extinction burst marks the beginning of behavioral change within the brain.  If you can get through 3 or 4 of these kinds of burst-episodes, that’s all it normally takes for Fido to give up the jumping behavior because he understands that it just doesn’t work anymore.

Once you have successfully modified this undesired behavior, you can give Fido a new behavior by rewarding a SIT with your attention and affection.

Still think “extinction” is behaviorist crapola?  How long would you continue to go to work if they stopped paying you?  How frantic would you be to get the pay that you had already earned?  When it was obvious that your place of work was not going to pay, would you keep getting up at 6:00 AM every morning and going to the same office demanding your paycheck?  Probably not.  At some point even the most dogged (pun intended) of us would give up and try something else.

So… what undesirable behaviors are you currently reinforcing and how would you go about bringing them to extinction?


4 thoughts on “Sometimes Extinction Is A Good Thing!

  1. Ignoring a behavior to extinction is the most effective way to eliminate an undesirable behavior. It is also the HARDEST thing to do! And you are correct, when you begin to ignore to extinction the behavior will DRAMATICALLY increase for about 2 weeks. It is critical not to cave in and reward the behavior- OR you start all over again. LOL ( This is true for people AND dogs. )

  2. I agree that extinction can be very useful for a lot of training issues. Jumping, begging at the table, and even pulling on the leash come to mind. That being said, I can think of a couple of training situations where extinction really isn’t the greatest technique. What about marking in the house? Something tells me the dog is not going to stop peeing on your furniture because you’re ignoring the behavior. Also, what about biting? I for one am not willing to go through an extinction burst of harder and harder biting.

    I’ve used the extinction method to stop unwanted behavior at my house successfully, but I also use other techniques when I think those techniques will work better.

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