Understanding Extinction Bursts in 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 as a T-Rex dinosaur. However, the real definition of this term does have a bit more to do with pyrotechnics than dinosaurs, even though some behaviors may become a thing of the past and hopefully extinct after some time.
So what are extinction bursts? First, let's take a closer look into what is extinction in general. In psychology, the term extinction 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 extinguishing, thus stopping from occurring. Sounds complicated? Let's make an example...
Say your dog begs at the table and you always end up giving up 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 sometime, 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. This "increase" in behavior phenomena that 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. In doggie terms 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!"
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 gain a 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, but it is crucial to not give in at this point or you will experience serious setbacks 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. 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."
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 ad 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!
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