Ignore Behaviors and Watch Them Disappear
Last reviewed on January 4, 2016
My daughter and I are done with breakfast, but we are still seated at the table. We can’t get up because Maverick is in his crate and he is barking. If we move from the table, he will see us. If he sees us, he will be rewarded for barking. If we reward him for barking today, he will learn to bark at us when he is separated from us. If he learns to bark for this purpose, he will learn to bark when he wants to communicate with us. I don’t want that to happen.
My life is chaotic enough. I don’t want to have a dog barking at me all day. I certainly appreciate it when my dog barks when there is a reason to bark, but constant barking makes my blood pressure rise. It is also a common client complaint.
Creating and fostering obedience and calm behavior in your adult dog starts with what you do in puppyhood. This is a familiar concept because we know that what we teach our children affects their behavior as adults. It is also much easier to prevent a behavior than to treat it once it has become a problem.
Many behaviors can simply be corrected by ignoring them. These are called attention seeking behaviors. Attention seeking behaviors include jumping, barking, pushiness, mouthing, stealing, and pawing. We talked about jumping in a previous blog.
(You can find a handout on jumping here.)
Dog owners often inadvertently reinforce (reward) these behaviors by interacting with the dog. Any attention can be regarded as a reward, even yelling.
Anxious dogs who don’t have enough social relationships and structure in their environment often resort to attention seeking behaviors in order to ease their stress. Dogs who exhibit attention seeking behaviors because of anxiety often need help from a professional to get better. If you think that your dog is anxious, speak to your veterinarian.
Attention seeking behaviors can often be extinguished (eliminated) by simply ignoring the puppy. Before you begin trying to extinguish a behavior by taking away your attention, you should understand what the definition of "attention" is for our purposes. In addition, you should understand the "extinction burst."
Attention, for our purposes, is defined as any engagement with the dog, even through body language. In other words, if you are ignoring your dog, you may not make eye contact, turn toward your dog, yell "no!", push him off of you, or say anything else to him. You must be silent and turn away from him.
Next, the extinction burst. The extinction burst occurs when a previously rewarded behavior is suddenly not rewarded. Just as the name implies, the behavior undergoes a burst. This could mean an increase in intensity, frequency, or both, exceeding the original intensity and/or frequency.
The final piece of the puzzle is rewarding the dog when he is exhibiting positive behaviors. In Maverick’s case, we have inadvertently rewarded barking. When Maverick was a bit younger and we were in the midst of intense housetraining, we paid a lot of attention to his barks. When he barked, we all jumped to take him out whether he was loose in the house with us or in his crate. We didn’t want to ignore the barking because we wanted to get his housetraining just right. I knew that this would be an issue for us later. However, I also knew that we could extinguish the barking later on.
Times have changed and we want the barking to stop. Now, when the puppy barks, we completely ignore him. We don’t let him see us at all even if it means that we are stuck in a certain room until he is quiet. Before we started ignoring Maverick, I tried to find a pattern to the barking bouts. A bout is one episode of barking. Most dogs have a pattern. Understanding my puppy’s pattern would help me to understand when I could pay attention to (reward) him.
In Maverick’s case, he barked for approximately three barks and then he would take a 3-5 second break. I knew that I couldn’t get to his crate in time to reward him in 3 seconds. If I walked into the room just as he was barking (if it took me 4 seconds to get to the room), I would be rewarding the barking. So, I knew that I either had to wait for a longer period of time than 5 seconds (his longest natural pause), or I had to use a clicker to mark his behavior so that I could improve my timing. I decided to wait him out. I waited until Maverick was calm for 10 seconds, over twice his natural pause, before using my clicker. I clicked and then headed for his crate. I threw the crate door open with lots of praise for his wonderful behavior. Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen an overall decrease in the barking, but it has not extinguished yet. For a while there, it was touch and go as the behavior underwent an extinction burst. We had to really be patient.
From now on, after every interaction with your puppy, ask yourself, "What did I just reward?" The answer should always be, "a desirable behavior."
For example, your puppy approaches you and pushes your hand. In response, you pet him. What behavior did you reward? You rewarded your puppy for pushing your hand with his nose. If you like that behavior, great! If you don’t like it, don’t reward it. These tiny steps add up in the long run to produce a happier, loving relationship between you and your puppy.
Dr. Lisa Radosta