I’ve written before about the concept of “resistance to extinction” and how it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be when we want strong, fluent behaviors from our dogs.
Unfortunately, the situation where we are likely to notice resistance to extinction is often with behaviors we never wanted in the first place.
Most of the behaviors we teach our dogs to perform on cue are not natural to them. Stay still in one place for minutes at a time? Resist their built-in scavenging software? Walk at a b o r i n g l y slow pace next to a human and don’t pull ahead? Replace their species-specific greeting behaviors of jumping and licking mouths with something more acceptable to humans?
Any good trainer will advise you that when dealing with a problem behavior, you need to prevent it from being reinforced, wherever that reinforcement comes from. These built-in dog behaviors are terribly hard to get rid of, even with the best training plans. You have to cut off that reinforcement. Any little scrap of reinforcement will keep the behavior alive (and if it’s an innate behavior, it’ll stay alive even without your help). In other words, they become resistant to extinction.
I do a fairly decent job of not reinforcing annoying behaviors from my dogs. I put some thought into my setups, so I don’t reinforce a lot of annoying normal doggie stuff. However, in Zani’s case, that just means that the persistent little devil figures out other ways to get my attention.
Like staring at me.
Duration Eye Contact
As it happens, staring at a human is probably not a built-in dog behavior, but it’s a cheap behavior. It’s easy to do. Doesn’t take much effort. And one dog has taught me a possible downside.
Wait—teaching reorientation is crucial and eye contact is a great way to do it. I’m just showing what can happen if you are sloppy.
When I first worked on duration eye contact as part of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, it was tough going with Zani. She is a sensitive little dog, and I think looking me in the eye felt scary/rude/anxiety-inducing for her. We were stuck at six seconds for like, forever. But we worked at it a lot. I even have a short post about it.
I can’t remember if we got up to the goal of 30 seconds. I’m thinking it was more like 15-20 for the behavior of looking into each other’s eyes. But another exercise in the Levels specifies that the dog looks at your face while you don’t look at them. Because of the lack of pressure (Eileen looking back) Zani excelled at that one. But I never put it on cue or methodically worked up duration. Zani took it on herself to do that. Uh-oh.
Getting the Human’s Attention
I’m lucky, right? My dogs don’t bark, paw me, or do naughty things to get my attention. They only wake me up at night to go outside if they are sick. But other things can be annoying. Just try being stared at by a motionless dog who can focus so hard it feels like she’s boring holes in you. And think about how you might get her to stop. There are very few behaviors that are incompatible with the dog looking at you.
The focused staring is particularly ironic because I am crap at teaching duration. I hate it, even though I know it’s essential to good training. My teacher says that without duration you don’t have much at all, and I have to agree.
So in real-life training, as I mentioned, I worked Zani’s verbally cued eye contact up to 20 seconds or so. I worked her cued sit-stay only up to a minute or two.
But in the “the dog learns what works when living with you” department, I actually don’t know the limits of Zani’s “Sit and Stare” behavior. We have never reached it. That’s right. She outlasts me. Hear that sound? It’s all the pro trainers and behavior science people giggling. I’ve muddled into the classic resistance-to-extinction setup. I have taught her duration by accident. It’s a dead easy behavior. She can do it while lying in her bed, or sitting, or anything else. It has a varied reinforcement history. And the longer I try to hold out, if I do cave, then I have taught her that persistence pays off. AAAAAGHH!
Resistance to Extinction Captured
The other night Zani was frisky and wanting my attention. We had already played a little and trained a little. She started hassling Clara, which is adorable, but not to Clara, who is nice about it anyway. I’ve been trying to video this hassling of Zani’s for quite a while, but for years now, Zani stops and “poses” when I aim the phone a certain way. Why does she do that? Because I give her a treat after I finish taking the photo or video. I don’t recommend this practice. You will rarely get a truly candid shot if you do it. But it is the reason I get all those adorable head-tilt photos of Zani.
And yet more reinforced staring.
So the other night I had the volume down on my phone, so she wouldn’t hear the telltale beep when I started to video. But she noticed anyway.
She wheeled around (you can see that at the beginning of the video) and sat and stared at me. I, foolishly, decided to keep the camera on her in hopes of her turning back around to what she was doing to Clara. I was looking the other way, hoping that what I was doing would not count as “attention” and that she would go back to trying to interact with Clara.
In your dreams, Eileen. I had forgotten what a potent cue the camera is, and how much reinforcement history she has for staring at it. I also forgot that my not looking back makes her more comfortable with staring. Zani sat and stared for 3 minutes and 15 seconds, and I have no idea how long she would have gone. The longer she kept on, the more I knew I was in trouble. She was going to outlast me. And I also felt very guilty that she saw it as working for a treat. When I stopped, I didn’t give her a “Yes!”. I gave her a release cue with no treat. Then, feeling bad, I cued a hand touch and reinforced that. I was playing in my mind like I didn’t reinforce the whole chain, but that was probably just a little fantasy.
Bob Bailey reminds us that animals learn all sorts of cues, not just the ones we want them to. Case in point. It turns out that my aiming the camera at Zani tells her that duration staring will be reinforced. She has also learned that staring works without the camera. Like I said: it’s a cheap, easy behavior. She stares if she wants to play or wants outside. What I couldn’t accomplish on purpose, training duration eye contact and sit-stays on cue, got trained by accident precisely in situations where my dog was bugging me.
The behavior on the video is also unusual because she’s on a mat and not lying down. Mats are ultra-strong environmental cues for that. Zani almost never sits when she’s on a mat, even when I cue it. She lies down. Except in the one situation where I didn’t train it.
The video isn’t the whole three solid minutes of staring, just excerpts so you can get the idea.
This is what resistance to extinction looks like. That staring behavior has been gathering bits of intermittent reinforcement here and there for years. And look what happened!
I bet I’m not the only one who does stuff like this. Who else has reinforced a nuisance behavior intermittently and gotten the predictable result?
- Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?
- 16 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real)
- Other Posts on Extinction
Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson