Extinction: Not Just for Dinosaurs

One of the four principles of behavior that govern how all organisms learn is extinction.  This is a separate principle from punishment and reinforcement, but it can work in tandem with them to change your dog’s behavior. What is it? Extinction is when a behavior that was previously reinforced isn’t reinforced any longer.

Some examples would be:

  • Your dog used to bark and get let outside; now you don’t let him outside when he barks anymore.
  • Your dog used to whine to come up on the bed and you would invite him up; now you don’t invite him up anymore.
  • Your child used to be praised every time he cleaned up his toys; lately you’ve been forgetting to do so.

Extinction can be used to stop a behavior we don’t want occurring- which is good for training our dogs! But it can also put an end to a behavior we like, if we neglect to reinforce it- which is not so good for training our dogs.

Like anything with behavior, extinction is not inherently good or bad, and understanding the principle can really empower your training.  However, it is frequently misused and misunderstood because of two major features: the extinction burst and spontaneous recovery.

To explain those, let’s use the example of a golden retriever mix, Polly, that jumps on everyone that she meets.  As a puppy this dog was, of course, ADORABLE.  Nobody minded when she jumped up on them to say hello.  In fact, they encouraged the jumping with cuddles, pats, and lots of high-pitched baby talk.  Who could blame them? Unfortunately, like all puppies, Polly started to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.  Suddenly, the jumping up went from adorable, to uncomfortable, to downright dangerous to kids or unstable adults. At this point, the jumping up had been thoroughly reinforced by hundreds of experiences.  The owners took Polly to a trainer and the first piece of advice they received was to ignore the behavior- turn around, walk away, close a door between them and the dog- whatever they had to do in order to completely ignore the behavior.  In other words- they were told to put Polly’s jumping behavior on extinction.

Polly’s owners went home and dutifully began to ignore her jumping.  They managed to recruit their friends as well, and nobody reinforced Polly’s jumping any longer. But instead of getting better, Polly’s jumping got worse! She was now flinging herself at people and jumping, jumping, jumping until they manage to get out of her reach.  What happened?! Very simply put, this is a classic Extinction Burst.  An extinction burst is when a behavior is placed on extinction and it gets worse (often much worse) before it gets better.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  In the past the jumping worked, so now when Polly jumps and doesn’t receive attention she tries harder and harder, just like a person presses the elevator button over and over again when it doesn’t immediately light up.  The good thing is, this means extinction is working- you just have to power through until the burst is over.  It can be tough, but the worst thing Polly’s owners can do at this point is to give in- if they do, they will have to start over and the extinction burst will be even worse the next time.

As you may be able to tell, a trainer has to be careful when recommending extinction.  If the behavior is something that could be dangerous to people or the dog if it worsens, like rough play, biting, nipping, or really even something like jumping, then extinction might not be a good idea.  There are lots of other things you could try instead that will be discussed later.

A couple months later, Polly’s jumping has almost completely disappeared! Her owners managed to stay the course and not respond to her jumping, the extinction burst passed, and she’s a much easier dog to have around these days.  Then, one day, they invite several friends over for brunch and as soon as they walk in the door, there’s Polly- jumping all over them.  WHAT?! They worked so hard! The behavior was so much better! Where is this coming from? Polly is exhibiting a Spontaneous Recovery of the jumping behavior.  Basically, any behavior that has been exhibited and reinforced in the past and has gone through extinction, always has the possibility of recurring at an unpredictable moment. Luckily, Polly’s owners know just what to do- they instruct their friends to ignore her, and in just a few minutes, Polly is back to her new normal un-jumpy self- hurray!

This is a great example of why I’m writing these posts.  If you don’t understand what’s happening when you start ignoring your dog, it can be incredibly disheartening when the behavior suddenly worsens or recurs- but if you know to expect an extinction burst, you can respond accordingly, know that it is working, and not get discouraged- your training will be that much more effective!