7 Steps to Survive the Extinction Burst

Dog behavior can be quite simple. Dogs will continue to do the behavior that is reinforced. Some behavior is reinforced by the owner, while some is relf-reinforced. Today we're talking about the behavior that we don't like, and want to go away, that is accidentally reinforced by the owner. Reinforcement can be the obvious such as food, treats, toys, and physical praise. It can also be the less obvious such as playing, eye contact, talking to them, pushing them away, picking them up, and even telling them “no”.


An extinction burst can be described simply: "if this has always worked, it always will work, and if it doesn’t, I just need to try harder." For example, if you walk into a dark room and flip a light switch, the light will turn on. But what happens when the light doesn’t turn on? Do you immediately check if your power is still on, or do you change the light bulb? Not likely; you most likely flip the light switch a few times before giving up and trying something else. That is an extinction burst. 

Let’s use an example with your dog. If every time your dog jumps, you reinforce the behavior (eye contact, talk to, play, wrestle, pet, pick up, etc.) they will continue to jump. But if you stop reinforcing the behavior, your dog won’t just immediately stop jumping. They’ll think: “I just need to try harder!” They will jump higher, maybe more frantically, maybe try nipping or play biting you. They will have an extinction burst. To get through the extinction burst, you have to have a plan, be prepared to follow through, and be more stubborn than your dog.


There is a tricky part to all of this. It’s hard, like really hard, to ignore behavior. Especially during the extinction burst. Let’s go back to our light switch example. If while flipping the switch over and over, the light turns on, we learn that if I try really hard, it will work. Not that the bulb needs replacing, or you have a power outage, or even that maybe the wiring is a little faulty. You don’t need to find a different way to get the light on, because of your stubbornness you were able to turn on the light. How this applies to your dog: if during the extinction burst you reinforce the behavior (give them the positive or negative attention they’re looking for) they will learn that if they try harder and are more stubborn, they will get what they want. The next time you attempt to ignore their undesired behavior, it will take longer, and require you to be even more stubborn to see the extinction burst through to the end. This is even harder when you have multiple people trying to train the dog. A weak link can cause all sorts of problems.


Here are 7 steps to help you through the extinction burst:

  1. Identify the reinforcement. Is your dog trying to get you to pet or play with them, take them outside, or maybe feed them? What are they finding rewarding? Negative attention can be rewarding just as much as positive attention.
  2. Remove the reinforcer. If your dog is trying to get you to pet them, ignore them while they’re doing it.
  3. Reward the behavior you want. In the above example, if the dog is jumping, turn your back on them and when they put all four feet on the floor for at least a few seconds give them a reward. Once they start to catch on wait a few second longer each time to lengthen the time until the behavior is gone altogether.
  4. Remember it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. The worst thing you can do is to reinforce the behavior during the extinction burst.
  5. Communicate with your partners in training. If you have a family of 2 or 20, communication is the key to success. Help everyone stay on the same page by finding a successful way to include everyone and keep everyone accountable.
  6. Track your progress. Sometimes it feels like you’re not making any progress at all. If you like to see immediate results, and you have a stubborn dog, you may want to find a way to track how much progress you’re making. If jumping is the behavior you’re addressing, track how long it takes for your dog to keep four feet on the floor for 4 seconds. You should see within days that it’s getting less and less time.
  7. Be more stubborn than your dog. An extinction burst will only last as long as your dog is stubborn. If you have an especially stubborn dog, it’s probably going to last longer than a family with a dog that likes to just go with the flow. 

So far we've talked about jumping, however there are other behaviors dogs will do to get your attention. All of these behaviors will have an extinction burst when you try to change your response to your dog. Follow the steps above and you should see these behaviors slip away.

  • Play Biting or nipping. This is usually a puppy behavior and usually dogs mature out of this, however if it's a great go-to to get attention many puppies will do this long into adolescence and young adulthood. Some puppies are looking just for attention, however this could be a way to get you to play, take them outside, that they're REALLY tired, maybe they want food or water.
  • Barking. Dogs bark for so many reasons. Some of that barking directed at you could be their way to get something from you. If you don't like your dog barking at you, find out what they're looking for. Are they trying to get you to play, give them table scraps, fill their water/food dish, take them outside? 
  • Bumping you.​ This could be with their nose, shoulder or hip. It's usually a way for them to get attention.
  • Whining. This is very much like barking, but more subtle. It's easier to respond to because the sound is so annoying, yet not as obvious as barking. 

As always, please ask any time you have questions. I love to talk dogs! Thanks so much for reading this post. If you found it helpful, please share on social media!