March Ask a Trainer: The Problem With “Ignoring”

Photo-9_2By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

If you’re even vaguely familiar with positive reinforcement training, at some point you have received the advice to “ignore” unwanted behavior.

As with the advice to redirect to another behavior, this chestnut has been so far removed from its context that it sometimes does more harm than good.

The behavioral process it refers to is extinction. Extinction is nonreinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior. It’s not the withdrawal of a reward that’s already been offered, and it’s not contingent on the performance of the unwanted behavior. Whatever was reinforcing that behavior is simply is no longer available.

Reinforcement is what makes behaviors stronger, and removing it, permanently, will eventually reduce the behavior. But it’s not a simple process, and it’s not the same thing as ignoring. “Ignoring” is only nonreinforcement if your attention was the outcome your dog was hoping for. Your attention is not generally the reason your dog starts pulling on the leash, barking at strangers, or peeing in the house (though through accidental training, it can certainly come to be).

And even if your attention is the reinforcer, you need to be aware of what is likely to happen when you withdraw it.

Extinction is best used in conjunction with reinforcement of another behavior—ideally one that serves the same function as the unwanted behavior. (I’ve written before about why we want to replace, not suppress, behaviors, and about what to consider when choosing a replacement behavior.)

That’s because the problems with using extinction alone are many. The ones I’ll discuss here aren’t even all of them. Extinction is distinct from punishment (where something is added to or removed from the learner’s environment, contingent on the behavior, to decrease the behavior), but that doesn’t mean it’s more pleasant for either the learner or the teacher. In fact, it can have some of the same side effects as punishment, including an increase in emotional behavior and aggression.

Before a behavior starts to decline due to nonreinforcement, it will predictably flare up in what’s called an extinction burst. If you and your dog live in a condo or an apartment, or you have a headache or are tired or just hate the sound of barking, an extinction burst of barking will be very hard to ignore. You’re more likely to end up reinforcing it, thus teaching your dog to bark more or more intensely. (I think this Family Guy clip has been presented at every lecture I’ve ever attended related to extinction, and it is rather perfect.)

Extinction isn’t fast, either. A single session “is often not enough to extinguish behavior . . . even when the extinction session lasts for several hours and involves hundreds or even thousands of unreinforced acts,” writes Paul Chance in the textbook Learning and Behavior. And once it does go away, it can come back. In the phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery, Chance continues, “what usually happens is this: The rate of the previously reinforced behavior declines and finally stabilizes at or near its pretraining level. Extinction appears to be complete. If, however, the animal or person is later put back into the training situation, the extinguished behavior occurs again, almost as though it had not been on extinction.” Chance wraps up his chapter on extinction by noting that “there’s considerable doubt, in fact, about whether a well-established behavior can ever be truly extinguished.”

Another extinction-related phenomenon is called resurgence. When one behavior is no longer reinforced, other, previously reinforced behaviors tend to emerge.

Most dog owners have seen this in a scenario like the following: You’ve stood up and collected your training or walking gear, but get temporarily distracted or fumble with the equipment. Or you’re in class, with your dog in front of you, but the teacher is talking. Your dog first offers an expectant sit—a behavior that probably has been reinforced a lot by you in this context. But you’re listening to the teacher, and so there’s no reinforcement. Your dog then offers a paw, goes into a down, rolls over, then barks. He’s running through the repertoire, throwing you what he thinks is his best stuff.

And when you do finally turn your attention to him, what was he doing? What have you just reinforced?

Recently in dog training there’s been a lot of interesting discussion about using resurgence to our advantage, and I’m just starting to learn and think more about it myself. (Behavior analysis professor Jesus Rosales-Ruiz presented on it last summer at Human Animal Learning Opportunities and at ClickerExpo in January, and British trainer Kay Laurence will be talking about it at her seminar this month at For Your K9.)

In the above example, resurgence could lead to the reinforcement of a whole chain of behavior. Now in the presence of the leash or training gear, the dog will sit, lie down, roll over and bark.

But if we stay focused on our learner, we can take advantage of this natural tendency to offer something else when an unwanted behavior is not reinforced.

One of my favorite training articles to send clients is this short but catchy item by Dr. Caryn Self-Sullivan, a KPA CTP in Virginia: Stop, Watch, Wait, Reward. It’s just a quick tip, so she doesn’t go into extinction or resurgence or any other technical business, but I think it’s revelatory to read it with the science in mind:

For example, if your dog jumps or barks when you enter your home:

1   STOP: Stand perfectly still and be absolutely silent.

2   WATCH: Observe your dog out of the corner of your eye and watch for a behavior you want to reinforce.

3   WAIT: Wait, wait, wait for a desired behavior, such as a sit or even just eye contact with four-on-the-floor.

4   REWARD: Mark (click) the desired behavior, and then toss a treat. Proceed into the house.

I love this. I also love thinking about what we can do, before we even find ourselves in this pickle, to make it likely that the dog will offer a previously learned behavior we’d like to see more of.

One simple thing we can do is to make sure our dogs have a big, fat repertoire of other, frequently and recently reinforced behaviors to call on. We know that animals, when they have a choice, tend to allocate their behavior in direct proportion to how much reinforcement those behaviors have received in the past. Teaching simple but acceptable behaviors and reinforcing them regularly in a variety of contexts will make it more likely that the dog will go to one of these when another behavior isn’t working. Orienting to the handler, sitting, lying down, and settling on a specific mat or bed are behaviors that a dog can offer in many situations to the delight of their humans.

We can also pay attention to all the nice behavior we don’t explicitly teach or ask for. Many times behaviors we like are right in front of our noses, while we’re absorbed in something else, while behaviors we don’t like rarely fail to get our attention. The dog walks on a loose lead near us for five steps—a completely unreinforcing activity by many dogs’ standards—then pulls ahead, which is when we call him back for a treat. What’s he going to do more of? If instead we notice and give a treat for those five steps, we will get more like them. When the dog pulls ahead, we don’t go—but should the dog check in of his own accord, we have something else we can reinforce.

We can also sometimes rig the environment to make the right choice more likely and the wrong choice less so. With the jumping dog in Caryn’s tip, placing a gate between the dog and the door could prevent other possible reinforcement for jumping (like getting to smell and touch you, or petting from visitors who “don’t mind, really”) and make it easier and less stressful for you to watch, wait, and reinforce.

Because after all, humans respond to the laws of behavior just like dogs. Make the right choice easier for yourself too.