As positive dog training experts, when we get called in to help owners with their dogs, it’s almost always to get rid of behavior that has already been happening and is now a big enough problem they’ve decided to call for help. This can include anything from jumping up to aggression. Of course, the problem with behaviors that have been happening for a while is that they’ve got a solid history of reinforcement behind them, making them much harder to deal with.
Many trainers recommend extinction for annoying behaviors that require reinforcement from the owners, such as jumping up and barking. But just how effective is extinction? Theoretically, it works great. Simply withhold the reinforcement that has previously maintained the behavior. Simple, right?
Not so much, in practice. Owners have to be “on guard” at all times to avoid accidentally reinforcing the behavior. If they accidentally reinforce the behavior, it’ll come back stronger than ever, which often makes them think the behavior is getting worse. It’s very hard to ignore an annoying behavior—and I speak from experience!
I once tried to extinguish my dog’s scratching-at-the-door-to-be-let-in behavior. What a disaster. I’d do really well for a while, then something would happen—I’d be on the phone, talking to someone, doing something—and I’d end up letting him in. And most importantly, I totally understood the science behind extinction—I knew about extinction bursts, spontaneous recovery, resurgence, the importance of consistency, and on, and on, and on. I knew what I needed to know and I still couldn’t do it.
That experience made me start thinking about owners trying to extinguish behavior. If it was that hard for me, how hard must it be for an owner who doesn’t have the depth of knowledge I have, or even just the normal desire to modify behavior that most positive dog training experts have? Probably close to impossible for them. So, that was my turning point in moving from using extinction to straight differential reinforcement with great timing.
Now, having said all that, it’s still very important for trainers to understand extinction because extinction affects behavior in more subtle ways – such as when we raise criteria. So, extinction isn’t all bad – just not a great way for owners to modify behavior.