Darkest before the Dawn

One of the trickiest issues in dog training is how to get rid of bad habits — behaviors the dog has been doing for a while.  Most of the time, it isn’t that difficult to isolate the problem or plan a strategy to deal with it.  That’s usually pretty simple.  Not EASY, but not complicated.  What makes the whole process more than a lot of owners can deal with is that dogs don’t give up on bad habits without a fight.

Say Butch is used to family members slipping him tidbits at the dinner table.  The family decides that he’s getting too fat and agree to stop “table treating.”  But Butch doesn’t get the memo.  So, he tries what’s always worked in the past.

He’s had the family well-trained and usually, the ole sad-puppy eyes does the trick.  The family holds out against this.  Rather than give up, Butch just moves to DEFCON 2 — nudging elbows.  Still the family, reminding each other, manage to ignore him.  By now, 5-10 minutes has gone by and Butch is going to pull out all the stops.  He barks, and paws at elbows.  The barks get louder and the pace of the pawing picks up!  It’s annoying and because they’re feeling guilty anyway, somebody gives in and slips him a goodie.  And in doing that, they’ve made sure that Butch will do more and for longer at the next meal.

What the family doesn’t realize is that the “ramping up” of Butch’s demands is a signal that he was close to giving up.  The psychological term is EXTINCTION BURST.  Things get worse before they get better; it’s always darkest before the dawn of new behavior.  This happens with humans, too.  The 2-year-old’s tantrum gets louder and louder and louder, but if he’s ignored, he’ll hit a wall where it’s just not worth the trouble and the tantrum will quickly taper off.

Unfortunately, “giving in” — a very natural thing to do as the Extinction Burst is never pleasant to endure — is the worst thing we can do.  In fact, it teaches the dog (or 2-year-old) that he just has to keep going LONGER and LOUDER to get what he wants.  If we aren’t 100% consistent with ignoring the bad behavior, we just reinforce it even more.

“Oh come on,” I hear you say, “Isn’t 95% good enough?”  Well, the way our brains work, no it isn’t!  Psychologists have done studies that prove INTERMITTENT reward is the strongest goad to continuing behavior.  Think of all those folks in casinos putting money into slot machines.  It’s not because they ALWAYS get a payback.  No, it’s BECAUSE the next time MIGHT be the time they hit the JACKPOT!

I’m not saying that ignoring is the solution for every behavior problem.  I’m not even saying that it will always work in my doggie and toddler examples above. There are a lot of other factors.  Is the extinction burst behavior dangerous to anyone?  Is the perp winding himself up into an emotional fugue where the behavior passes beyond his conscious control?  So, it’s best to consult a professional to help evaluate the situation and create a treatment plan.

My point is that dealing with established behaviors is going to involve an INCREASE in that behavior and only by steadfastly working through the darkness  — with no faltering — will we be able to bring better behavior to light.

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