Thursday, February 25, 2010

Extinction Burst

Is an operant conditioning term and happens when a reinforcement that followed a behavior routinely in the past doesn’t manifest any longer. That is frustrating, and frustration needs a release; the organism is forced to do something and either tries the known behavior harder, frantically or furiously even, or tries another, new behavior to elicit the consequence it expects.

If you’re stopped behind a car at a red traffic light, and then the light turns green, you expect the car ahead of you to start driving because that is what you learned normally happens. If the car doesn’t move, likely you will do something: Honk the horn, yell, swear, snap at your partner sitting beside you, try to back up and drive around the car, or get out of yours to check if the person not moving needs help if you are a nice person, or to stab him if you have extreme road rage. Which one it is depends on your personality, what kind of a day you’re having, and how important it is that you get to your destination fast.

Dogs also learn that a certain event leads to a predictable outcome, and once learned anticipate and expect it. They learn it when we purposely reward a “good boy”, or clicking sound with a treat, and when we accidentally always play ball at the same park or grab the leash to go for a walk at a certain time.
Sequences of routine events that are important to the dog lead to a dog who anticipates and expects what comes next as soon as the first cue in that sequence presents itself. And if what should come next is not forthcoming, the dog becomes frustrated just like we would at the green light, or when the chocolate bar doesn’t come out after we put the coin in the vending machine, or when our employer doesn’t pay us.
And as it is with humans, the intensity of a dog’s frustration outburst depends on her personality, pre-existing stress level and how important the expected event, the reward is for her. Most dogs paw, jump, whine or bark – behaviors often described as nuisance and bratty ones, and some dogs can be quite persistent in turning it up a few notches. Some aggress, hard-stare, growl and warn, and once I was bitten in the hand when I did not release a treat right away.

We humans have a bigger and better cerebral cortex than other animals, which means that our rational brain can overrule the frustrations we feel. We know that we can complain to the manager and get the coin back, know that we’ll eventually get to our destination even if the car in front doesn’t move right away, and know that we can sue the employer for the money that is due to us.
The dog just reacts. Not because he is bad or dominant, but because he has no rational options. That doesn’t change the fact that dogs’ frustration behaviors annoy people, which leaves us with the question what to do.
How can we avoid the barking and whining when we begin an extinction procedure to challenge our dog for better behaviors? How can we still play ball in the park without having the dog bug us for one more toss?

One way is to change the consequence; change what happens next. That lowers the expectation for that specific reward and raises attention to you at the same time. You can still reward mark with a clicking sound or “good-boy”, still shape for an automated behavior, but you wouldn’t always follow up with a cookie, but vary the rewards and interact, play a game, use any life reward your dog likes.
Another is to teach your dog an off-switch command. Mine is a verbal “all-done” combined with a hand signal that looks something like slicing the air in front of my chest. An off-switch command gives the dog needed information that nothing further will happen, and information always lowers frustration. That’s how I got to stop Davie from insisting, with high-pitched, super annoying barks, for yet another ball throw.

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