There are a number of common complaints owners and trainers have when training a dog away from unwanted behaviors. I'm going to discuss a couple of them here, and offer some reasons why these frustrations occur and will continue to as we better hone our skills as pet owners and trainers.
As any pet owner can tell you, undesirable behaviors, particularly those that have become habits, take a long time to disappear. Even once we seem to have the unwanted behaviors on cue and largely vanished from our dog's behavioral repertoire, they still seem to pop up every once and while. Sometimes, the behavior even seems to get worse.
Why Does This Happen?
When an unwanted behavior is no longer reinforced, through classical and/or operant conditioning methods, it goes through a period of extinction. During this time, the behavior gradually vanishes, but almost never at a consistent, regular pace. In fact, more often than not we first experience a period where the unwanted behaviors increase in duration, frequency, and intensity.
Let's look at an example. Imagine your dog jumps up to welcome you every time you return home. During the first days of owning your dog, while he was still a puppy, you encouraged the behavior by greeting your dog with excitement and happiness, thereby reinforcing the jumping up behavior and turning it into a habit with each successful (for the dog) repetition. Now that the dog has grown both large and strong, the excited welcome home is more like a physical assault.
After doing a little research, you decide to change the behavior by ignoring the dog whenever you come home. You refuse eye contact, certainly any petting, and walk away from your excited dog. It should be no surprise at this point that the dog doesn't immediately give up the behavior the first time you ignore him. In fact, be ready for the opposite: when the dog isn't immediately rewarded for a behavior that's worked in the past, he will try even harder. Maybe this time he actually does knock you off your feet. How persistent the dog is depends on how many times he's been allowed to jump up in the past. This is known as an extinction burst.
The extinction burst simply means that when we address an unwanted behavior by removing the reward (in this case, the attention of the person returning home), we have to be ready to endure a temporary worsening of the behavior. Even after a long time training and reinforcing an opposite behavior, the old behavior still lives in the back of the dog's mind. The rewards informing the bad habit are never completely forgotten. When the good behaviors are consistently reinforced in a short period of time, and the bad or unwanted behaviors are prevented and not reinforced at all, only then will the new, wanted behavior become a habit.
To make matters even more challenging for us, the owners and the trainers, when working on replacing a poor behavior with a wanted one, we are likely to experience what is known as a spontaneous recovery of an old, unwanted behavior. This can occur even if the behavior is not seen for a very long time. As mentioned before, a dog never forgets the information that surrounds the development of a bad or inappropriate habit. It has simply been overwritten with new information that has been more immediately rewarding for the dog. Let's return to our dog jumping up example:
If housemember A and housemember B are consistently not reinforcing the jumping up any time they return to the house, and then they invite a new guest to come over for coffee, they can expect that the dog will jump up again. This is because the guest does not know to ignore the dog, and inadvertently reinforces the behavior by engaging with the dog, in a positive (rewarding) or negative (punishing) manner. This time however, the extinction burst will be smaller and the extinction time usually much shorter.
Training with any creature, whether it be human, dog, bird, or reptile is never a black-and-white, all-or-nothing process. It requires patience, diligence, good timing, consistency, and above all, a lifelong commitment to a happy and functional relationship with the animal that brightens your life. Learning to train your dog with the help of a qualified, certified trainer will ensure a long and healthy relationship with your canine companion, no matter what behavioral pitfalls may come your way.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.