We often say in puppy training that one of the best ways to minimise or indeed stop an undesirable behaviour is to ignore it. We often apply this to many different behaviours, from jumping up, to begging for food, to barking. But how does this work? And what should we be aware of and expect?
Ignoring a behaviour is deemed to work so well because any reinforcement the pup has previously gained for a behaviour, is removed. No reinforcement = no continuation of the behaviour. Now, pups are determined little beings, and they will have learned what is reinforcing and what isn’t, so if a behaviour which was once highly rewarding for them suddenly isn’t, they may well continue the behaviour for a time in an attempt to gain that reward again.
We know pups will try anything, they’re opportunists, they’ll have a go at something and if it works, if it provides satisfaction of some sort, they’ll repeat it. If it doesn’t, they’ll abandon it. They will do what is reinforcing and what they get some form of pleasure from. But this takes time, if we remember it takes THREE repetitions of a behaviour being reinforced for it to become a learned behaviour, we then have the task of helping our pups ‘unlearn’ that, if you like. Decreasing a learned behaviour is much harder than increasing one!
Extinction is, by definition, “the weakening of a behaviour through non-reinforcement or ‘ignoring’ the behaviour”. So, nothing is added, no treats or attention or rewards or reinforcement, and nothing is taken away, the behaviour is merely completely ignored. However, there is also an ‘extinction burst’, something it is hugely important to be aware of. This occurs when “a previously reinforced behaviour is not reinforced, the behaviour will increase in intensity/frequency in an attempt to gain the reinforcement again”.
So, what this essentially mean is, if we ignore a behaviour, in the hopes it will become extinct, you may well find the behaviour WORSENS for a time, before it lessens. This is something incredibly important to take note of, because it is at THIS stage a lot of owners will start to become exacerbated and frustrated, and will either change their tactic and tell the pup off, or pick the pup up, or ask for a sit, etc etc, thereby giving the pup the reinforcement it wanted, attention in this case. So, for the pup, it may have taken 30 minutes but in the end he did get the reinforcement he wanted by heightening that behaviour. Next time, he may increase the behaviour for 40 minutes, as he is aware the reinforcement WILL come, he just has to keep trying. It is essential, if you are planning to ignore a behaviour, you must must must follow through with it. If your pup is a ‘jumper’, he loves to jump up at you and others, and you plan to ignore this behaviour to remove the reinforcement, do not be surprised if your pups jumping increases and possibly worsens before it improves. Do not lose hope and ‘give up’, be consistent and stick with your original plan. don’t chop and change the way you deal with the behaviour.
Of course, extinction or ‘ignoring’ isn’t always the best plan of action, for some behaviours it is highly recommended but for others, for example certain types of barking behaviours, it may not be appropriate. If you are to use extinction during your pups training and development, be aware of exactly what it is and what it means to completely ignore a behaviour, it is far more than simply not talking to your pup. Also, be aware of the extinction burst and the possibility the behaviour may get worse before it gets better.
If you would like any more information about anything I have discussed just get in touch!