Using Extinction to Get Rid of Unwanted Behavior
The behavioral term extinction refers to the absence of a behavior.
If we extinguish a behavior we have made it less likely to occur in the
future. If we are going to use extinction effectively however we must
follow some guidelines or the very opposite of extinction may occur, we can
actually make the behavior more likely to occur.
Here's how it works: Your dog likes to jump on the counter
(counter surfing) to see if there is anything up there to steal. He jumps
up and nine times out of ten he doesn't find anything, but one out of the
ten times he finds something yummy that he can eat or tear apart.
Everytime he finds something it rewards the behavior of jumping up on the
counter and the behavior becomes stronger and more likely to occur in the
If we were to use extinction to get rid of the unwanted behavior of
counter surfing we would need to make sure that the dog does not get
rewarded for jumping up on the counter. One way to ensure that our little
counter surfer doesn't get rewarded is to clear the counter entirely of
food, napkins, paper towels, dish towels, and all food. I know that this
sounds a bit tedious but for this to work you would need to remove anything
that your dog could drag off the counter to eat or destroy. If you know
your dog really well you will have an easier time deciding what would be
safe to leave up there and what you would absolutely need to remove. In
the case of counter surfing, this is the lazy man's way to train because
all it requires of you is to clear your counter and keep it that way, the
dog does the rest.
The dog from now on jumps on the counter to try to find something
to steal but there is nothing. He tries over and over again to find
something good, but time after time there is nothing. After many
repetitions of jumping on the counter and getting nothing the dog finally
gives up and stops jumping on the counter because the behavior of jumping
up on the counter is not being rewarded.
Now that the behavior has been extinguished you can start leaving
things out on the counter again, but be careful. If you get sloppy or try
to rush the process before the behavior is fully extinguished you can
actually make the behavior of jumping on the counters stronger instead of
extinguished. One morsel of food, a paper towel, pill bottle, pen or
defrosting steak can wreck the whole process. The reason for this is
because the reinforcement came randomly and after many repetitions of the
behavior. If the dog jumped on the counter fifty times and was rewarded on
the fifty first time, he is much more likely to jump up there because the
behavior of jumping was eventually rewarded, he just had to persist at it
until it paid off.
This same principle of random, variable reinforcement is what makes
all your obedience training stick together and explains why your dog still
knows how to sit and lie down and stay and come even if he's an old dog and
hasn't been trained formally in a very long time. In order to be able to
use extinction effectively you need to be sure that the behavior you are
trying to extinguish is never reinforced during the extinguishing process.
The process of extinction can be of a long or short duration
depending on how long the dog has been doing the behavior you are trying to
get rid of, how often he has been rewarded by it and how persistent his
personality. If you choose to use this technique to get rid of unwanted
behavior you have to be sure you can control the reinforcement for the
behavior. For instance, extinguishing excessive barking in the yard by
ignoring the dog when it is barking will only work if the dog is barking
because it wants your attention. For a dog who barks for attention from
it's owner, ignoring him until he is quiet usually works. If however, your
dog is barking at squirrels running along your fence, you can't use
extinction to get rid of the barking because you can't control the
squirrels running along the fence which is the reinforcement for your dog's
When using extinction to get rid of unwanted behavior you can
expect a slight increase in the intensity of the behavior right before the
animal gives up and the unwanted behavior ceases. Some animals can last at
this quite a long time, so if you use this technique to change behavior you
have to be stubborn and patient.
Extinction works on people too, but again you have to follow the
rules. An example of an extinction burst in a dog would be more jumping
or barking. People have particularly dramatic extinction bursts, the best
example that I can think of though often happens in human children. A
child who is whining to get his way often ends up having a full blown
temper tantrum complete with kicking, screaming, yelling, holding his
breath, and in extreme cases vomiting ! The extinction burst will get
louder and more intense if there is any reinforcement for the behavior at
all. Each time the behavior occurs it will be louder and more intense than
the last time because the child is sure if he just has enough of a fit
someone will eventually give in.
The worst thing you could ever do is give in to a temper tantrum.
This goes for adults too, because if you spend enough time observing other
people you will notice that people who are use to getting there way will
start a temper tantrum immediately after you have refused their request.
If you patiently restate your position and stay calm you will see the
person eventually give up. Depending upon how long he carries on will tell
you how other people have responded to the person in the past. If he has
been rewarded for having a fit often enough the extinction burst will be
spectacular, enjoy ! If it's short lived, it will be over as quick as it
started and you can feel good that you haven't encouraged it. The best way
to eliminate a tantrum is to not give in, wait out the extinction burst
(walking away works wonders) and reinforce the absence of the tantrum with
your attention as soon as the person stops.
I hope you enjoy trying this technique not only on your dog, but on
the annoying habits of a crabby customer, a rude salesperson, your spouse,
children or anyone else in your life whose unwanted behavior has been
reinforced by your attention. Have fun !!
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