I get the question all of the time…“How do I STOP my pet’s (unwanted) behavior?”
Many times when I ask follow up questions, I learn the question was asked because attempts at stopping the behavior have failed.
Here is the thing to keep in mind about behavior. If it is occurring, it is happening because it has a reinforcement history. Simply stated, behavior is a tool that living beings use to get consequences. If the behavior serves to get the animal something of value (to the animal) – meaning the behavior is followed by something the animal values – then you will see more of that behavior.
Okay, so what does this have to do with why those attempts at stopping unwanted behavior are not working?
The simple answer is because that behavior is still getting your pet something it values – maybe it is not every time, but at least sometimes, your pet can count on a consequence it wants. This is called an intermittent reinforcement schedule and it is the best way to build long lasting, strong behaviors as you are also turning your pet into a gambler. That reinforcement may not necessarily be from you (it could be the release of adrenaline when your dog barks at a stimulus or it could be the sensory stimulation of having something in his mouth when a teething puppy grabs a cloth), but it could also be reinforcement you do not even realize you are giving. Maybe when your dog jumps on you, you ask him to sit – a behavior that was taught with a VERY STRONG reinforcement history which makes sitting a reinforcer for jumping because you asked for it immediately upon your dog jumping. Uh oh!
It could also be that the competing reinforcers for doing an unwanted behavior way outweigh any negative punishment you may use (such as a leash jerk). Your dog will then continue to run to the end of a leash toward the distraction because past history tells your dog that action is off the charts in terms of sensory stimulation, adrenal rush, possibility of play, etc. Withstanding a leash jerk may be worth the effort – or it could be that your dog becomes so focused on that distraction that he just physically cannot think about you.
Complicating matters further, in the times that you try to simply just ‘ignore’ a problem behavior, you have probably learned that it is a nearly impossible task to do. You may inadvertently do something that could potentially be reinforcing your pet’s behavior without realizing it, like batting a pawing dog which could be a sign of play or looking at a screaming bird.
Something else that will more than likely happen when you try to ignore an unwanted behavior is that your pet will increase the intensity of that behavior. The scientific explanation for this is called ‘extinction burst’. In operant learning (learning from the consequences of behavior), extinction means withholding the reinforcing consequences of a behavior. While the overall effect of extinction in dogs, parrots and other pets is to reduce the frequency of the behavior, the immediate effect is often an abrupt increase in the behavior. (Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance)
There is a lot to think about here. The overarching theme, however, is that failed attempts at modifying unwanted behaviors make it that much more difficult to create change. The good news is that animals are constantly learning, and so there are teaching opportunities within every day.
So, instead of focusing on ‘stopping’ that unwanted behavior, manage the environment so that your pet doesn’t continue getting reinforced practice of that unwanted behavior and focus on teaching your pet what you would like for it to do instead.
Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.