Not usually and not by itself. And contrary to popular belief, “ignoring” behavior doesn’t play a huge part in positive reinforcement-based training. There is a lot of confusion about it, so I’m going to have a go at clarifying a bit.
Have you seen this asserted in discourse? That “positive trainers just ignore bad behavior”? It’s a natural misunderstanding in a world that still tends to equate training with punishment. If you assume that a positive reinforcement-based trainer never does anything to diminish behavior, ignoring is all you’ve got left. So the statement can result from an honest misunderstanding, or it can be a rhetorical tool used to make positive reinforcement-base training look silly.
But it’s incorrect. Ignoring undesired behavior is not a major standalone tool in the R+ toolbox. Actually, we try to prevent undesired behavior from happening in the first place and we interrupt it if it starts. (Do people really think anyone would stand by while a bouncy dog knocks over grandma?) Behavior that gets rehearsed becomes stronger, so letting it go on without interruption runs counter to our purposes. Let’s say you walk into the house on Monday and the dog jumps up. You walk into the house on Tuesday and the dog jumps up. You walk into the house on Wednesday and the dog jumps up. What do we think the dog is going to do on Thursday when you walk through the door?
However, sometimes we deliberately ignore behavior as part of a training plan. We do it in a controlled way in combination with reinforcing a different behavior. I’ll talk about that too. There are some perils there because ignoring is harder to do than it sounds. But it’s pretty safe to say that “ignoring” is rarely used by itself, stereotypes notwithstanding.
4 Reasons Ignoring Undesired Behavior Doesn’t Often Work By Itself
- Removing our attention from a behavior in the hopes that it will go away makes the assumption that attention is the sole reinforcer of the behavior. That’s often not the case. Jumping up is the classic example. Some trainers tell you to just ignore the dog when he jumps on you. The problem with lots of dogs is that they enjoy the physical sensation of jumping on you, whatever your response or non-response may be. With these dogs, you can even turn around, as is sometimes recommended, and they will gladly jump on the back of you instead. Also, some dogs (and these two groups can definitely overlap) are simply over aroused. Such a puny attempt at modifying a behavior born of overexcitement won’t get you far.
- If the behavior is maintained by attention, we usually can’t hold out long enough when we try to ignore it. Let’s say your dog barks at you to get to sit on your lap on the couch. You always eventually cave. One day you decide you have had enough. You are tired of the barking and never going to cave again. Can you do it? Even after your dog is clearly confused and has his feelings hurt because he has been trying to get your attention for 45 minutes? He just wants to sit on your lap, after all, and you both enjoy that! If you last 46 minutes and then cave–you haven’t won. Those 46 minutes work against you because you have just taught your dog to be more persistent. And even if you do outlast your dog and don’t cave…how about other members of the household? Can they do it? Forever? Finally, how is this fair to your dog? He is doing the very behavior that gained him access to your lap before. And now, with no warning, it doesn’t work.
- We think we are ignoring but there is bootleg reinforcement. This is kind of an offshoot of #1. The undesired behavior may not be self-reinforcing but there’s an uncontrolled reinforcer available. Let’s say I’m working on “stay” with my dog. She breaks her stay and wanders up to me while I studiously ignore her. Meanwhile, she comes and gives my new shoes a good sniff all over. How handy that I am ignoring her! She has just been reinforced with new, interesting smells for leaving her stay.
- Ignoring by itself gives no guidance about what behavior is desirable. When we change behavior, we need to teach a new behavior to take the place of the old one. If we leave that up to the animal, we may end up with one that was more problematic than the original. So rather than relying on ignoring what we don’t like, it is more effective and generally more humane to teach a different behavior separately and help the dog practice first. When we seek to eliminate a behavior that we see as a problem, we are intervening in something that was functional to the animal. To be fair, we guide the animal to the new behavior, and make sure it pays as high or higher in reinforcement (euphemistically speaking) as the original.
The Difficulties When We Do Need to Ignore
Number 4 above implied that sometimes we might ignore one behavior when we are reinforcing another. That’s when ignoring undesirable behavior will help our progress. But we are still not out of the woods. Ignoring is tricky.
Most of us are confused about what “ignoring” is. Even when we do need to ignore a behavior as part of a training plan, it can be devilishly hard. When we are talking about behaviors that are driven in part by attention, almost any little scrap of attention will do. Dogs read us so well. If a dog is jumping on you and lands a scratch, you might yelp. That’s not ignoring. If a pushy puppy is about to bother your older dog while you pay attention to him, you might push the pup away. That is not ignoring either, and she might even interpret it as an invitation to play. Even looking at the dog can help maintain behavior. A trainer friend shared the following with me:
Almost all my owners with dogs who demand attention can’t stop looking at the dog. They may be able to stop talking, but it’s very hard to stop looking. What works for me is to give them a visual target. I have them look at me or look at something like a magazine.
At the point where she encourages “ignoring,” she has already helped the owner teach the dog some alternative behaviors that get heavily reinforced. Ignoring the old, demanding behaviors is part of a plan. But it still takes a conscious effort to get it right!
Failing to Reinforce is Not the Same as Ignoring
Just a note: when we are teaching a new behavior and do not reinforce an attempt by the dog that fails to meet criteria, that is not the same as ignoring. In most cases, our attention is still fully on the dog. Yes, our attention can be mildly reinforcing, but its power is dwarfed by the reinforcer we are using for correct responses. Attention plus food or play is much stronger than just plain attention, which is why we use food and play to train in the first place.
When Ignoring Is a Good Thing
Some dogs come into our households so fearful that ignoring them can be humane and beneficial. It does go against our every instinct. If we have adopted a dog from the woods, a puppy mill, hoarder, or abuse situation, we want to shower him with love to make up for past hardships or abuses. But if the dog is not accustomed to human attention or is traumatized, this is not generally a good solution. Ignoring can be humane and actually engender trust. Please see my posts, “Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog,” “Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe,” and the attendant photo gallery, “My Dog’s Safe Place.”
I used to have a little feral-born cat named Arabella. She loved my other cats and was comfortable with me, but hid when anyone else came to the house. Then my sister Gail, whom Arabella had never met before, came to help me when I had surgery. Within 24 hours, Arabella came out of hiding and was acting like her normal self. She hopped up on the bed to see me or sit with the other cats even while Gail was right there. I remarked on it, and Gail said she simply never made eye contact with Arabella. After that, I noticed Gail reliably turning her head and looking the other direction when Arabella was around.
The process of helping an animal feel safe is more involved when you have a new, traumatized animal in your house. But removing the pressure of your attention can be helpful in many cases.
All right, back to ignoring as an attempted training method. Does anyone want to tell any embarrassing stories about behaviors they tried to eradicate by ignoring? Or any successes wherein ignoring was part of a well-planned, humane, and effective training plan?
- But Isn’t It Punishment to Withhold the Treat?
- How to Make Extinction Not Stink
- Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog
- Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe
- My Dog’s Safe Place
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016
Photo copyright Marge Rogers 2016. Thank you to Marge, Alanna Lowry, and Flynn for the photo!