Extinction: When you stop reinforcing a behaviour, the behaviour fades away.

Behavioural extinction is a learning principle that is extremely efficient in resolving dog behaviour issues such asJumping on people, pulling on the leash, begging at the table, and whining when placed inside the crate.

Extinction learning refers to the gradual decrease in response to a conditioned stimulus that occurs when the stimulus is presented without reinforcement.

When you stop reinforcing a behaviour,

the behaviour fades away.

An example of this is if your GSD begs for food at the dinner table and you STOP giving him/her food sooner or later he/she will stop begging. It takes time, patience, and consistency. Although the concept is straightforward (stop reinforcing the bad behaviour), in practice it can be difficult for the following reasons:

  • What is the reinforcer? Sometimes the reward that your GSD is gaining from the unwanted behaviour is not blatantly obvious requiring you to observe and analyse the behaviour to determine the reward.
  • Extinction burst: The behaviour will get worse before it improves.
  • Spontaneous recovery: Each training trial you will see improvement but from time to time you will see a regression back to the unwanted behaviour.

What is the reinforcer?

Frequent behaviour occurs when the behaviour is reinforced. Sometimes the reinforcer/reward is obvious, e.g. begging at dinner table to obtain food – all one has to do is stop giving the food. Other behaviours are not as blatantly obvious, such as jumping on people or barking.

Jumping up on people is a common behaviour that we see in our GSDs when they want attention. Attention is ANY interaction e.g., yelling, pushing away, eye contact. Weather the attention is good, bad, or indifferent, it is still attention. Therefore, to extinguish jumping behaviour you need to completely ignore this behaviour – NO eye contact or physical contact of any form. In fact, you should look away, fold your arms, and turn your back to them.

Barking occurs for a variety of reasons the majority of which we ourselves cannot hear or see. Other times barking occurs through boredom, in which case the act of barking is reinforcing/rewarding in itself. In this situation extinction will not work as the reinforcement is self-rewarding. These situations require distraction by providing other stimuli and teaching him/her other means to amuse themselves.

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Before you can irradicate the unwanted behaviour, you need to ascertain what the reinforcer/reward is in order to remove it.

Beware of the Extinction Burst

When you first remove the reinforcer/reward the dog will try even harder! This is behaviour is referred to as an Extinction Burst. E.g., you’re shopping with your toddler who continually nags you for lollies or a toy, you ignore the nagging and next thing you know your toddler is throwing a full-scale tantrum and throwing themselves on the ground kicking and screaming

When extinguishing a behaviour, remain focused through the burst.

Do not give in!

Giving in is a backward step, teaching your GSD that persistence will sometimes gain them their reward. You have to be strict and consistent. No food at the table EVER.

Spontaneous recovery

Extinction does not mean forgetting. When one forgets something, it means the memory faded away. During extinction there is new learning, but the old memory remains.

When you start extinguishing a behaviour you will note that dog gets better during one training session but then the next day they revert back to the same undesired behaviour. This is normal, don’t despair – keep going, keep training, be consistent.

Eventually with regular training sessions, the bad behaviour will slowly be reduced until one day it will be gone.

Spontaneous recovery can occur:

  • If there are long gaps between training sessions, this could be several hours or days.
  • a change of location,
  • a different person is training the GSD or even
  • a change in time of the day

When do I use behavioural extinction training?

Use behavioural extinction training when you want to eliminate am unwanted behaviour.

Steps to achieve this are:

  • Find out what is the actual reinforcer.
  • Completely remove the reward.
  • Repeat…repeat…repeat! Patience, consistency and practice is key!
  • If the behaviour doesn’t go away with time, you probably did not find the reinforcer, or the behaviour is the actual reinforcer.
  • Be patient, especially through the extinction burst and spontaneous recoveries. Behaviours take time to “sink in” and they also take time to “sink out”.

Now that we have covered how to remove bad behaviour, learning positive training methods to teach your GSD behaviour and commands by reading the following:

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