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Understanding Spontaneous Recovery in Dogs

Spontaneous recovery is the reemergence of an extinguished classically conditioned response.

Spontaneous recovery is the reemergence of an extinguished classically conditioned response.

Understanding Spontaneous Recovery in Dogs

You may have never heard about this term, yet you've likely experienced its dynamics at one time or another. These dynamics are universal, meaning that they can take place in humans, dogs, and even laboratory rats. 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, in which two stimuli are paired to 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 had 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 dates back to Pavlov's time 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.

Dogs often exhibit conditioned behaviors to stimuli they have experienced many times.

Dogs often exhibit conditioned behaviors to stimuli they have experienced many times.

Spontaneous Recovery in Dog Training and Dog Behavior Modification

Let's take a look at spontaneous recovery in practice. Here are a few real-world examples to illustrate the concept.


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 been extinguished. Then, the next day, after touching the book several times, out of nowhere, he ends up touching the post-it note again. This is an example of spontaneous recovery. The response that you thought was extinguished re-presents itself out of nowhere (that's why it's caused "spontaneous").

Behavior Modification

You can also see this phenomenon happen 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 bark 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 its 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 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 intensely than the initial, pre-behavior-modification behavior. In my dog's case, during spontaneous recovery, 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 worse!

Spontaneous recovery—as mentioned—is not strictly 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. Interestingly, during this time, 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 of 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


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 21, 2013:

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

Eiddwen from Wales on February 21, 2013:

Very interesting indeed and thank you for sharing.

Great work alexadry.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 11, 2013:

Thanks for the votes up agility match!

Kristin Kaldahl on February 10, 2013:

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!!