How many times have you been told that one of the best ways to stop a behaviour is to simply ignore it? Parents often tell it to their children when their siblings are being annoying, we may say this about a dog jumping up, or a cat meowing at us for attention. Does it work? It can do! But do you understand why?
One of things I love most about training is how you can use it in all walks of life, not just around dogs. The science is simple. Rewarding a behaviour will increase the chances of that behaviour being repeated. Withholding the reward for a behaviour will decrease the chances of that behaviour being repeated. You go to work every day and you get paid for it. How quickly would you stop going to work if you stopped being paid? You put money into a vending machine and you get a chocolate bar out. How quickly would you stop putting money into the vending machine if it stopped dispensing chocolate bars? You’d maybe be tempted to try it one more time before giving up and maybe jab at the buttons a little more forcefully on that second attempt. You may put pound after pound into a fruit machine though, having won once before. How long would it take you to stop putting money into that machine if you didn’t get a pay out? At some point, if you stop getting a reward, you will very likely stop repeating a behaviour. But before you do, you may increase the speed and agitation that goes into that behaviour. This is called an extinction burst.
Seeing as all animals (including fish!) can be trained by leveraging rewards – it stands to reason that withholding that reward can be a useful tactic in getting our animals to ‘unlearn’ a behaviour. So if our attention is the motivation behind our pet’s behaviour, withholding that attention when they do those behaviours will mean that get nothing from acting in that way and they will eventually stop. But, before they do, they may increase the force and urgency behind those behaviours, the extinction burst. If your cat meows at you till you pick her up and you then completely ignore her, she may become more frantic in her attempts to get your attention. Give in then, and your cat will learn that those frantic attempts work, and keep doing them! Some trainers use this method to their advantage in training, they withhold the reward to make the behaviours faster and stronger.
So how is this relevant to you and your pets? Well, if your pet is annoying you with a certain habit or behaviour, find out what they are getting from it. What is their reward? Then find a way to prevent them getting this reward and be prepared to stick it out even if it gets a little tough, this is a sign that you are on the right track! Be aware of inadvertently rewarding it whilst your pet is in the extinction burst stage, you’ll only make the behaviour stronger. Do talk to us if you are experiencing troublesome behaviour, we’re happy to help!
A word of warning though, don’t use extinction bursts for any behaviours that are motivated by emotions, such as phobias, fear or aggression – extinction bursts fall into the ‘operant conditioning’ side of training (cause and effect manipulated by the animal) and emotional behaviours are ‘classically conditioned’ meaning that they are automatic reactions that cannot be controlled by the animal. Ignoring an emotional behaviour will not affect it in a good way and it could actually make it much worse.