Monday, January 9, 2012

Let's Talk About Ex...tinction!

Generally speaking, when you hear the word "extinction" your mind instantly drifts to dinosaurs. Or maybe some endangered penguins. Or maybe you're like me and regardless of the word your mind wanders to food, the weather, something shiny or how that guy's hair looks like Elvis hair. Whatever. It's cool. In a training context, extinction means the same as in other contexts, but with a small twist. It simply means that a behavior is on its way out, i.e. the behavior is going extinct. When I explain this to dog owners, they get very excited to hear that they can make an undesirable behavior die. Oftentimes, this excitement quickly turns to despair in the span of a coupe days because the undesirable behavior is getting worse, not better. Oops. Did I forget to mention that there is usually an extinction burst?

Prior to an undesirable behavior dying off, an animal (even people!) will try that very same behavior at an escalating intensity and frequency until they are sure that it really, really, really doesn't work anymore. A human example is the child who got a toy at the store once after throwing a tantrum and the next few times throws longer and louder tantrums in an attempt to gain the same reinforcement. Yes. Reinforcement. You'll probably hear that word a lot in my articles. Every behavior that your dog, your child or you do is based off of reinforcement. If you have been reinforced for something, you repeat it. Dogs in particular are quite sharp, and even though we may not be intentionally reinforcing them, they seem to pick up bad habits pretty easily. Leash pulling is a prime example. Puppy wants to go somewhere so it pulls, person follows along behind, puppy gets to go where it wanted: the puppy has been reinforced for pulling. This applies to adult dogs too.

Most people don't notice a behavior like pulling on leash until their puppy grows into a large, lumbering pulling machine, and by then the habit is so deeply established that remedying it could take months of consistent work. A great way to prevent some of these predictable (but still super annoying) habits from taking root is to use a "Nothing in Life is Free" approach with your puppy. Teaching a puppy, and even an adult dog, that if they want something they need to "ask" for it nicely not only helps to teach your dog that giving you their undivided attention is the best thing ever, but also a great way to teach important life skills like impulse control, prolonged focus and an automatic "sit"/"look." The value of teaching a puppy/dog to do something "nice" (sit, down etc) before receiving anything (attention, sitting on the couch with you, getting to play with other dogs) is that in your dog's mind it becomes very cemented that you are the bringer of all good things. When a dog realizes that you can make it rain goodies, they become very eager to offer a variety of behaviors, all you have to do is reward the ones that you like.

By rewarding the behaviors you like and ignoring (yes, ignoring) the rest, the undesirable behaviors will drop off into extinction. No yelling, hitting, scruffing, rolling or frustration needed. It is a lot more fun to watch your dog for good behavior than bad behavior. Admittedly, it can be very irritating to watch an undesirable behavior be repeated again and again until extinction, so here are some things to think about:

1) Is there any environmental management you can do to keep the dog from practicing the undesirable behavior? example: the dog pees in the house, solution: tether the dog to you until you are able to establish that outside is the best place to go.
2) Is there an incompatible behavior that can be taught instead? example: the dog jumps up to greet people, solution: teach it to "sit" when greeting people (it only gets attention if it sits, otherwise it is put in a time out or ignored)
3) What is so reinforcing about the undesirable behavior to the dog? example: the dog jumps on people and gets yelled at and kneed in the chest, solution: the dog will take any attention or is very tactile and just touching is rewarding to the dog
4) Can the reinforcement for the undesirable behavior be applied to the desirable behavior? example: the same dog from the above example jumps on people, solution: before the dog has a chance to jump it is asked to sit, or is praised and showered with attention when all four paws are on the floor (it is being rewarded with the attention and touch that it loves and put away or ignored for jumping up.)

A brief word about punishment:
As humans, we tend to get very irate when a dog (or child or another adult) does something we find rude or "bad." When it comes to dogs, they do not have the self-awareness or morals to be "bad." A dog is a dog and will act like a dog, which means they may engage in behaviors from time to time that we do not approve of. Punishing a dog (or any other being) for undesirable behavior is time consuming and emotionally draining... not fun at all. I would like to use an example that trainer Terry Ryan of Legacy Canine uses (paraphrased and with my own twist): imagine you are a taxi cab driver and someone gets into your cab and starts listing the places s/he doesn't want to go... how long would it be before you got upset and demanded to know where they wanted to go?
It sounds silly, but that is what punishment is; "Don't do this, that, that or this." Punishment does not offer the animal any alternatives, so they are forced to make a series of mistakes (many of which they will be punished for because they guessed wrong) until they find the "right" answer. Not only is this extremely damaging to the dog as well as to the dog-handler relationship, but it would have been much quicker to just teach and reinforce and alternative behavior (ignoring the old behavior) until the old annoying behavior went extinct. It is a common misconception that mixing aversives (positive punishment and negative reinforcement) with positive reinforcement will get better and faster results. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It creates friction between the dog and handler, has the potential for fall out (the dog responding negatively to the aversive methods by either shutting down or getting worse) and such methods also carry the risk of physical harm to the dog.

When it comes to dealing with unruly behavior, adding fuel to the fire by responding in anger (yelling, hitting etc) tends to make the problem worse. It is much more fun to teach a dog an alternative behavior and reinforce the crap out of that behavior until the good habit is established. The real art and science behind dog training is to catch your dog in the act of doing something right and to reinforce it. Using this approach is quick, fun, safe and not just limited to animals;-)

No comments:

Post a Comment