Understanding Spontaneous Recovery in Dogs

Updated on July 22, 2019
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinarian assistant and has completed a course on canine theriogenology (reproduction).

Spontaneous Recovery in Dogs
Spontaneous Recovery in Dogs | Source

Understanding Spontaneous Recovery in Dogs

You may have never heard about this term, yet its dynamics must have occurred at one time or another. These dynamics are universal, meaning that they can take place in humans, dogs, and even the laboratory rat. It's part of one of those things that play an integral role in the psychological makeup of animals and it's not under control. So what exactly is spontaneous recovery and how does it affect your dog? Let's take a look.

Spontaneous recovery is related to learning and memory, and in technical terms, it's the re-emergence of an extinguished conditioned response after a delay. It's associated with classical conditioning, when you pair two stimuli and produce a response.

Pavlov is the father of classical conditioning. He discovered how dogs tend to pair stimuli and develop a response. He was basically studying the digestive system by using dogs that he exposed to a variety of foods. After presenting food day after day, he noticed how the dogs started associating the experimenter's footsteps with food and started drooling even before the food was presented. Intrigued, his digestive studies took a detour as he tried to sound a bell before presenting food until the dogs started drooling just at the sound of the bell. Even though the study dates back to the late 1800s you can see Pavlov's work at play anytime your dog gets excited by the leash, because he associates it with walks, or comes running at the sound of the can opener because he associates it with the delivery of tasty morsels of food.

Spontaneous recovery is something that we must date back to Pavlov as well. After the drooling response was extinguished, it did eventually re-emerge after a delay. If you're confused about this term (and it is not that easy of a concept to grasp) let's look at some examples in the next paragraph.

Spontaneous recovery in dogs
Spontaneous recovery in dogs | Source

Spontaneous Recovery in Dog Training and Dog Behavior Modification


Let's assume you train your dog to touch a yellow post-it note placed on the floor. You say "touch" and Rover touches the post-it note with his paw. When he does so successfully, you praise him and give him a treat. Then you progress and place a book on the floor next to the post-it note. You start praising him and rewarding him for touching the book now. Once your dog reliably touches the book with his paw, you can say that the behavior of touching the post-it note has extinguished. Then, the next day, after touching the book several times, out of nowhere, he ends up touching the post-it note again. This an example of spontaneous recovery, the response you thought extinguished re-presents itself out of nowhere (that's why it's caused spontaneous).

Behavior Modification

You can see this phenomenon happen also in behavior modification. In the picture above is my male dog Kaiser. He had this habit of barking at people he saw out of the window. Through force-free behavior modification, I was able to get him to be calm and no longer bark. In the picture, you can barely see it, but we had a gardener walk back and forth by our window. You can see how he learned to look at me rather than barking madly at the gardener.

Sometime during the program though, he initially had an extinction burst, an increase in the barking behavior. In an extinction burst, a dog increases his behavior because it's no longer rewarded. It's a good sign that the process is working. Basically, since the people behind the window (I had volunteers) were no longer leaving, it was as if he was saying "Hey, I'm here barking, don't you see it? why aren't you leaving as you usually do? Okay, I guess I will have to increase my barking so that you'll take me more seriously".

Luckily, an extinction burst is short-lived if you remove the reinforcement, that is, whatever fuels the behavior. In this case, the reinforcement is having the people leave, basically from the dog's perspective "my barking sends people away" so in this case, I asked my volunteers to stay put and leave, not when he was actively barking, but only once he was quiet. To learn more about this phenomenon read my article about "dog extinction bursts."

Now, spontaneous recovery is a more isolated event that in my experience happens further down the road, once you're deeper into behavior modification and the barking behavior seems almost extinguished...until.... out of nowhere you get that muffled bark. It may look like a setback (and it may likely be if you accidentally sent the dog over threshold), but in most cases, it's a natural phenomenon that should also eventually extinguish if you continue to not allow reinforcement and work on differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior.

A Great Explanation of Spontaneous Recovery

Spontaneous Recovery vs. Extinction Bursts in Dogs

Both extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery seem to be quite similar, so how do we differentiate an extinction burst from spontaneous recovery? An extinction burst occurs when a behavior gets temporarily worse when the reinforcement stops. Spontaneous recovery occurs when a behavior reoccurs after being extinguished for some time. In my experience, the recurring behavior in spontaneous recovery presents less intense than the initial, original pre-behavior modification behavior. In my dog's case, during spontaneous recovery indeed, he did a muffled bark versus the bad barking he did before we started behavior modification.

Both extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery are part of the extinction process and are signs that whatever you're doing is working, explains Terri Ryan, a reputable trainer and owner of Legacy Canine Behavior and Training. Just make sure to continue to withhold the reinforcement or you will make the behavior worst!

Spontaneous recovery as mentioned is not only a canine phenomenon. Indeed, it's also a human one too. For instance, patients who lost their ability to talk after a stroke were studied. They were given speech therapy for weeks and then they weren't given it for some time. During this time interestingly, improvement was seen despite the lack of treatment.This was spontaneous recovery at play.

As seen, it's important to be aware of spontaneous recovery when training or doing behavior modification. A good grasp on these phenomena will help you be a better owner and trainer and will help set your dog up for success!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by Eiddwen! I am happy you found the article on dog spontaneous recovery interesting!~

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting indeed and thank you for sharing.

      Great work alexadry.


    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for the votes up agility match!

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 

      7 years ago

      Interesting. I've seen spontaneous recovery at play many times. I'll have to watch for it more carefully from now on. :) Voted up and Interesting!!


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