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The Listen Dog Blog

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The Extinction Burst - Make It Work For You!

By listendogtraining, Apr 13 2016 08:22PM

Teaching your dog to do something you want him to do – how do you do it? The simplified answer is: reward him when he does what you want! Whenever we are training a new behaviour, we use lots of high-value rewards to encourage a dog to repeat that behaviour. So when your dog fetches the ball you threw for him and returns it at your feet – reward him! If a good retrieve is what you want, that is.


Likewise, it makes sense that if you’re trying to eradicate an unwanted behaviour, you need to make sure the dog is not getting rewarded for it in any way. Does he jump up at house guests? Then instruct every single person who passes through your front door not to pet, praise, speak to or interact with your dog in ANY WAY – even if it’s to call him a hideous brute (he doesn’t speak English, all he sees is that he’s getting attention, and he LOVES that!) - until he has four paws on the ground. Again, it seems simple... doesn’t it?


But there’s a twist.


A third way you can encourage behaviour, is by introducing a variable schedule of reward. This means that instead of rewarding your dog EVERY time he returns the tennis ball at your feet (expensive, and potentially calorific...), he is only randomly and intermittently rewarded. Sometimes he gets a piece of chicken. Sometimes he gets nothing at all. It has been proven that a variable schedule of reward will more successfully increase the reliability of a behaviour than rewarding the dog every single time he delivers the goods.


Of course, when we are first teaching a new behaviour, lots of rewards are a must, but once you are confident your dog understands what is being asked of him, you can cut back on the kibble.


This concept works because of something called ‘the extinction burst’ – a dog trainer’s blessing... and curse.


If your dog responds to your command (‘Fetch it!’) by returning the ball, and then receives chicken, he’ll be pleased. If however, he repeats the behaviour, and then stops receiving chicken, the behaviour he had to perform to get the original reward will increase, in an attempt to bring back the reward. When the reward is only given intermittently, it becomes more valuable to the dog, and the dog will strive to work harder to receive it again. When it comes to playing fetch, this is great.


When it comes to jumping up at house guests however, this is a nightmare. Say you and your partner completely ignore your dog every time he jumps up at you, when once upon a time, you would have greeted him and patted him down. Your dog will quickly become frustrated, and for a short time, the intensity of the unwanted behaviour will increase, in a bid to bring back that lovely reward of attention and affection that he once received. If you stay strong, and continue to ignore the unwanted behaviour, eventually, in the consistent absence of any reward, the behaviour will become extinct.


The only spanner in the works is when the neighbour pops round, receives an over-the-top welcome from Fido and, so as not to seem rude, pats him on the head and says ‘Hi!’ And there’s his reward, and his proof that he needs to up his game and stay persistent in order to receive that lovely affectionate reward, which has now become even more valuable to him than it was previously. Now, before you know it, your dog is jumping up at visitors even more than he was before, and you’re entirely at your wits’ end.


To put the extinction burst into human terms, it’s the equivalent of playing on a slot machine, and the unfortunate reason why so many people can become addicted to gambling. Imagine you put a coin in the slot machine, and you win, first time! You feel fabulous. So for the next five minutes, you continue to put coins in, but you win nothing back. You are getting no reward whatsoever, yet you are continuing to repeat the behaviour that earned you that first reward, in the hope that you might receive it again. If you don’t win again, after long enough, you will give up and leave the arcade. But if, after six minutes, you hit the jackpot, then you feel even better than you did after the first win, and you’re more than likely going to spend the rest of the afternoon there, repeating the behaviour.


Things to Remember:


1. When training a desired behaviour, once the behaviour is learnt, only reward intermittently.


2. When trying to eliminate an unwanted behaviour, ensure the dog is NEVER rewarded again once rewards have been rescinded... or you’ll end up reinforcing rather than eradicating... Lecture everyone who crosses your doorstep!


3. Remember – some behaviours are entirely self-rewarding for a dog. You don’t need to give your dog a biscuit after he chases the neighbour’s cat for him to feel good about doing it; the act of chasing the cat is great fun and a reward in itself, and won’t be stopped by you ignoring it... but that’s another blog post!


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