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Extinguishing a Behaviour Protocol

An Up With Pup Protocol
version 1-2, 5 July, 2012

Purpose: This protocol is designed to put an end to an unwanted behaviour in your dog.

Applicable to: Demand barking, Boredom barking, Jumping on visitors

The mechanics are quite simple. First, ensure your dog is not being rewarded for the behaviour we are trying to extinguish. Be aware that the environment can sometimes be rewarding in and of themselves. Dogs that bark at people walking by the front window of your house are rewarded when the people leave. So we need to take steps to ensure your dog is not being rewarded (cover the windows, etc.)  Second, we reward the behaviour we do want.

If we wanted to stop our dog from scratching at the door, we would ignore her until she stopped scratching for a number of seconds and then we would calmly let her in (waiting calmly at the door is the behaviour we do want.)

Understanding Rewards

Some behaviours are easier than others to extinguish. If we put money in a coke machine and no soda bottle comes out, most of us would try once or twice more before we come to the conclusion that the machine is broken. But when it comes to slot machines, most of us will continue to insert coins for a much longer time because every once in a while, we get rewarded for our efforts.

We are working to create a system that is like a coke machine and not a slot machine. This means the behaviour has to stop achieving any payout or reward. If it works even once, your dog is going to quickly assume they are playing a slot machine and extinguishing this behaviour just got really difficult.

WARNING! It is important to set achievable goals. It is unrealistic to expect a highly agitated dog that doesn’t like being left alone to stop barking for a full minute or longer at the start of our training. We need our dogs to succeed in order to learn the lesson we are attempting to teach: “Oh, I was quiet and now I get a reward!”

Also, remember to stay positive. Yelling at our dog does not work. In fact, yelling at our dog is another form of attention for many dogs. If they are barking because they don’t want to be left alone, someone running into the room to yell at them is actually a reward.

The Extinction Burst

The most challenging part of extinguishing a behavior is what is referred to as an “extinction burst.” This is a sudden and temporary increase in the frequency of the undesired behaviour, followed by the eventual decline and extinction of the behaviour.

The 'extinction burst': occurrence of the behaviour peaks before it finally drops off An extinction burst is challenging because it is a sudden manifestation of the behaviour at a level hitherto considered unthinkable. If you are working to extinguish demand barking, the barking might suddenly go from intermittent wuffing for 30 seconds to insanely loud barking for 20 minutes or more!

I find it helps to look at this from the dog’s point of view. The behaviour you are trying to eliminate is a useful part of her repertoire. It has proven to be an effective strategy that makes something she loves happen (demand barking gets her what she wants) or it has made something that stresses her go away (barking at people on the street causes them to walk past and go away).

Then all of a sudden, this trusted tool stops working. She will become quite perplexed. Maybe we didn’t hear her? Maybe we are broken? And sooner or later she is going to try this behaviour at a much higher level of intensity. You can think of it as a tantrum or just devoting every bit of energy she has to get this behaviour to start working again.

It is critical to be prepared for an extinction burst (or two!). If you give in during the burst, you are telling her that if she can find a high enough level of intensity for the behaviour, that behaviour will work again. We just became a slot machine that sometimes pays out.

Working with Barking

One of the more common types of barking to be put on an extinction curve is demand barking. This is where the dog barks to get something they want. As they get more frustrated, the barking generally escalates in velocity and volume. It can be insanely annoying and many people give in just to stop the dog from barking and inadvertently reward the dog for their barking. Your dog just has to figure out how loud to bark before you give in. 

Step 1: Ignore your dog when she is demand barking. Turn your head away from her. Give her NO attention. Do not talk to her, shout at her or make any moves towards her. Turn your back on her or leave the room if necessary. 

Step 2: We have to consistently reward the behaviour we do want.

With demand barking, we are generally waiting for a brief period of quiet – a pause in the barking, if you will. I generally set my initial desired behaviour as a pause of 5 seconds in the barking. 

Once you get the desired behaviour, in this case 5 seconds of quiet, give her what she was demanding – open the door, come back into the room if she was barking to be near you, etc. 

That's it.

Step 3: Go back to step 1 only now we are going to slowly increase the amount of quiet we are asking for. Once she starts to reliably offer you 5 second pauses, move to 10 seconds of silence before rewarding her.

Aim for success. If she can't manage 10 seconds, go back to 5 seconds for a couple of times and then try 7 seconds.

The idea is to create a program where she is able to be successful and slowly achieve longer and longer periods of silence without barking.

Alternate Extinguishing Strategy

Our dog Mikka had started with some intermittent barking as he wanted past the baby gate and out of the living room. I had been in the kitchen when the barking started and had calmly left the room. I was now sitting out of his view on my basement stairs slowly counting up to 15 seconds. 

Every once in a while he would stop barking and I would start counting. Our criteria was 15 seconds of quiet. Time and again I would be counting down and reach  5 seconds when the barking would start up again. 

Finally I reached 3… 2… 1… We had been doing this for quite some time and I remember being exalted that it was finally over. I walked into the kitchen with a big smile on my face and was reaching for a treat when Mikka barked.  Loudly.

I froze. Mikka froze. You have a choice when this happens. You can leave and start again or you can go for what is called a reverse CAT procedure. This is just trainer speak for waiting for him to offer a polite behavior before we give him what he wants.

I went for the latter. I stood in the hall, my gaze averted from him and started counting down from 15 again. It took a few times but he managed to stay quiet on the fourth countdown. When I got to 0, I started to walk very slowly towards him. I got about 3 steps before he barked and jumped up on the baby gate. I simply halted my forward motion and backed up to the end of the hall. I didn’t yell. I didn’t get excited. I just said “Uh Oh” and backed up.

He cocked his head at me as this is not what he expected.  I started counting down from 15 seconds. I made it to zero so I started slowly inching towards him again. I made it to 2 feet away before he barked out of excitement and so I calmly said “Uh Oh” and walked backwards to the end of the hall to start again.

I counted down from 15 and was able to walk all the way to him, his tail thumping madly. I then rewarded him with a treat and a "good boy" with a happy but subdued voice. I then proceeded to take him into the yard where we could play together, calling out to my partner Eli to turn off the stove and order pizza. Again. 

© 2012 Up With Pup