All Sections

Home | Animals

Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: A key to eliminating annoying behavior

June 08. 2018 5:28PM

Despite your best efforts to eliminate a behavior you don't like, your dog doesn't get it. Right? The reason is simple - behaviors that are reinforced tend to be repeated. "But I don't give him a treat!" Of course you don't, but treats are not the only form of reinforcement.

How do you know a dog's behavior is being reinforced if you aren't aware of what's reinforcing it? This might sound like circular logic, but we know it's reinforced because the dog continues to offer the behavior despite your efforts to eliminate it. One of the first steps in trying to eliminate a behavior is to figure out what the dog is getting out of it - what reinforces that behavior.

Reinforcement is anything that strengthens a behavior - not just "rewards." For example, petting reinforces pawing behavior. Getting let out strengthens scratching on the door. Rushing up to sniff a tree reinforces pulling on the leash.

In dog training, there are basically two reinforcement schedules - continuous, which means a behavior is rewarded every time it occurs, and random, which means sometimes a behavior is reinforced, and other times not, with no predictable pattern. Here's an example:

Your new car is reliable. It always starts when you turn the key, even on the coldest mornings. Then one day you turn the key and nothing happens. No ignition. No sound at all. What do you do? You'll probably turn the key once or twice more, and then give up and call for help. You know it serves no purpose to keep turning the key. That's continuous reinforcement - each and every time is successful. When reinforcement stops, the behavior goes away.

Now, what if you have a clunker that rarely starts the first time. Sometimes it takes 10, 12 or maybe even 20 times turning the key before it starts. You'll keep trying for a long time before giving up. This is an example of a random schedule of reinforcement. You don't know just which key turn will result in the engine starting.

A random schedule of reinforcement results in much stronger key-turning behavior. When behavior has been reinforced for each and every response and then isn't rewarded, the behavior stops very quickly - or extinguishes. On the other hand, when the driver is used to random reinforcement, the behavior takes much longer to extinguish.

For your dog, the result is the same. Random reinforcement strengthens dog behavior, making it much more resistant to extinction.

A dog that barks for attention, for example, is sometimes rewarded - he's let outside, thrown a ball or goes for a walk. Sometimes he receives unpleasant attention - he's yelled at. Sometimes his barking is ignored. This random reinforcement strengthens barking behavior, making it even more persistent and insistent.

This is why so many annoying behaviors are difficult to get rid of. Most dog owners deal with bothersome conduct inconsistently. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they reinforce it (either wittingly or unwittingly), and sometimes they punish it.

To extinguish undesirable behavior, first recognize what reinforcements are in play, and eliminate them all. The behavior might actually get worse before it gets better - an "extinction burst" that is a last-ditch effort. Consider what the car owner will do before giving up on the clunker. Likely he'd turn the key again and again, cajole, implore, hit the steering wheel and stomp on the gas pedal, trying over and over with different behaviors before ultimately giving up. That's what happens in an extinction burst.

With annoying behaviors, such as barking for attention, if a dog owner sticks it out through the extinction burst, they'll win. If they give in when the barking becomes more insistent, they've not only randomly reinforced the behavior, they've rewarded the dog's persistence, making it more difficult to win in the future.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog" and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. Her column appears every other Sunday, To contact her, email

Animals Lifestyle

More Headlines

Fire ruins home, but cat is rescued