Use extinction to stop unwanted behaviors

Tuesday, June 07, 2016 4:37PM

Jumping on people and barking seem to be the top two annoying behaviors performed by our dogs. Running away, counter surfing (a form of jumping) and digging are also problem behaviors, but it’s not happening as much as jumping and barking. My favorite technique to stop these unwanted behaviors is by using extinction.

Operant conditioning is about consequences maintaining behaviors. Said another way, if Fido sits, she gets a biscuit, assuming that Fido liked the biscuit, she’ll sit again. The behavior of sit has been maintained by the consequence of yummy food. The behavior of coming when called is maintained by the consequence of a handful of chicken.

Extinction is the opposite of operant conditioning. Behaviors that had been reinforced, from the dog’s perspective, that suddenly stop being reinforced will eventually go away.

The behaviors will stop happening because there is no positive consequence to maintain them.

Said another way, if you stop giving your dog treats (reinforcement) when she comes to you, eventually your dog will stop coming to you. If you stop treating your dog when she sits, eventually she’ll stop sitting when asked.

Extinction has two important processes: the extinction burst and spontaneous recovery.

Imagine you sit down on your couch, cold beer in hand and a bowl of chips in front of you, fully prepared to watch a favorite sporting event.

When you push the power button on the remote control, nothing happens. What do you do? You push the button harder, you push the button faster, you dig your nail into it, you push and hold for a few seconds, then out of frustration, you may even yell, scream or even throw the remote across the room.

All of these things are called the extinction burst. You try harder and use every variation of pushing the button to get it to work, because it has ALWAYS worked. When you are completely frustrated, you stop pushing the button and go to the closet for new batteries or a new remote control.

How do you use extinction to get rid of barking and jumping? By completely, totally and 100 percent ignoring her. If she is barking at you for attention (barking out the window at your neighbor isn’t the same) you must, 100 percent, totally and completely ignore her.

No eye contact, no talking to her, no petting her, no getting a toy, NOTHING. Barking will stop, but first, you’ll have to live through the extinction burst.

It’s as if the dog is saying “Hey, lady, don’t you hear me barking at you? You’ve always gotten me a toy when I bark. Get me a toy, Get Me a Toy, GET ME A TOY!”

The dog may add pawing at you, jumping at you or anything else she can muster to try to get barking to work the way it always has.

It you stay the course and ignore her 100 percent, the barking will stop. A word of caution: Do not start extinction if you cannot ignore her 100 percent. If you start ignoring her, but after five minutes of barking, you give her attention (seen as a reinforcement) pet her (another reinforcement) or get her the toy that is stuck under the couch, (a huge reinforcement) you’ve just added duration to barking. Now, she’ll bark more intensely and longer to get your attention.

When I go to a client’s house and their dog jumps on me, I act as if the dog doesn’t exist. I do not talk to her; I do not make eye contact; I do not pet her. I ignore her 100 percent.

When she gets down and stays down for five seconds I’ll say hello and pet her, if she begins jumping again, I stop and wait for her to stop. Sound familiar? This is also extinction.

Depending on how long your dog has successfully been barking at you or jumping on you will depend how long you’ll have to practice extinction. If you have a new puppy, this is a perfect technique to use. If you have an older dog, say 5 years old, it will take a bit longer because she has more success with the naughty behavior.

I like using extinction because it requires the dog to problem solve. It makes them think. They are hard wired to do behaviors that work, if you make the annoying behaviors NOT work, your dog will stop doing them.

Remember to expect the extinction burst meaning you’ll experience a more intense form of the naughty behavior before it completely goes away.

Expect some spontaneous recovery where you’re dog will ask the question, “Does barking work? Does jumping work?” As long as you are 100 percent ignoring each of these behaviors, they will stop happening.

It’s science.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of DeniseMazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 20 years. She offers private lessons, group classes in Rindge and Swanzey, board and train, as well as day training services. She lives in Keene with her partner, Amy Willey. They share their home with five dogs and three daughters. For more information, see www.everythingdognh.com.