Resistance to Extinction Can Be Incredibly Annoying

black and brown hound dog mix sitting and staring in an example of behavioral resistance to extinction
Zani is too cute to be annoying, isn’t she?

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?

Trash picking is a doggie favorite

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

This is Zani’s frequent response to having a camera pointed at her

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?

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Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

20 thoughts on “Resistance to Extinction Can Be Incredibly Annoying

  1. I realized several dogs too late that I had “taught” every single one of them to emit a high pitched whistling noise…only discernible by bats and…me. So irritating that I always reacted…sigh (also LOL)

  2. LOL Yay, Zani!!

    You wouldn’t mind the staring so much if instead you had a border collie foot stabbing the kitchen chair right next to you where she’s dropped her toy, eventually poking it so hard it tips over and crashes to the floor! And that finally gets my attention – I lose!

    1. You are correct! There are lots worse things than staring. That’s a good one! Most effective!

  3. Her head tilt pose is too cute! Also I totally feel this with my dog. He’s got insane retention skills, which is mostly extremely cool, but sometimes very annoying, and makes extinction a true exercise in patience/ingenuity. For instance, months ago (like, in June) he almost caught a baby rabbit in a neighbor’s bushes near my parent’s house. Now whenever we visit, he tries to insist we only walk that direction, to check out the bunny bush. Nothing I have on offer is good enough to beat that one moment of almost-bunny reinforcement, and he still hasn’t forgotten!

    I also accidentally taught him a good way to get my attention is to methodically open all of my cupboards. One day I might get around to putting baby locks on, but it falls right in that annoying enough to get attention but not annoying enough to actually inspire me to deal with it zone.

    1. “Annoying enough to get attention but not annoying enough to actually inspire me to deal with it zone”!! Hah! That’s perfect. I’ve got that zone, too. And yeah, he may **never** stop wanting to check the rabbit bush….

  4. Licking her bed… for some reason that is about the only thing Tiffany does that REALLY grates on my nerves. If I put a towel over the area she is licking, that will mostly stop it, but it also means that she is getting attention (and a treat in order for her to move her head so I can place the towel) most times when she is licking – sigh…

    1. Oh, that’s gotta be a hard one. Just a thought–have you seen a vet about it? I think there’s a study that concluded that excessive licking can indicate nausea. But yeah, I used to have a licker too. That can grate on one’s nerves for sure!

  5. I get it in double-stereo. Come the hour (earlier every day it seems) when the animals decide it is supper time they start staring from all four corners of the room. Eventually Pippin-cat, after prowling for a while, will sit right in front of my chair and Look. Every way I turn there are hopeful eyes fixed on me. And that is why supper time has gradually slipped from 6pm to 4pm…

      1. Sophy (Papillon) managed to move bedtime from around midnight to 9.30pm, with an absolutely classic training technique involving hugely rewarding excitement and smiles when I stood up and moved towards the stairs and sad sighs and dejection if I sat down again. I didn’t really notice, just found myself going to bed earlier and earlier, until she tried for 8.30pm and I rebelled! She is much better at training than I am…

        1. Smart little cookie! That’s like the story about the students in the classroom who did something like shape the professor to write only on one side of the board! I think they used more attentiveness and responsiveness on one side and would act bored and distracted when he was on the other. Maybe someone else remembers the story better.

  6. I have an Australian shepherd who, for attention, goes outside through the doggie door and barks his brains out. I find it maddening – I can only imagine what the neighbors think… Closing the dog door with him inside stops the behavior, but it doesn’t extinguish it.

  7. I mat trained the CRAP out of my dog. He LOVES mats. When I do yoga, he hops on the mat and flops down. It’s adorable, except when I actually need to stretch my hip flexors. But half the time, I love it and pet him, etc. Oh well…

  8. I have apparently taught my Vizsla Luke to lie on his bed as a “trick” – so he dutifully lies down on his bed and stares at me waiting for a treat. while I watch TV. If I don’t notice or give him a treat, he will eventually get up and walk over to where I’m sitting and stare at me there! Then will pretty reliably get a treat when he goes to bed when I cue him. And so the cycle begins…sometimes I can outlast him and he’ll curl up on the bed and sleep, but usually not! Poor guy…

  9. But Zani’s head-tilted stare is so cute!
    And, as someone else mentioned, it could be a lot worse.
    We have a rescue Papillon whose previous owner obviously taught her (deliberately or not) to paw her person’s hand or leg for attention–increasingly more insistently, harder, and eventually using claws if a simple paw didn’t work. We’ve gratefully transitioned her to staring for attention (Zani-like). Yes, it can be unnerving, but believe me, it’s much less annoying than being clawed!

  10. My dog taught me to let him go outside by making little whimpering noises. He did this as a puppy and I was so proud of him telling me he had to go potty (instead of using the floor inside) at a really young age! When it dawned on me that he began using it as a trick to run around in the garden whenever he felt like it I started to ignore his whimpering. An adult (and healthy) dog that had been for an extensive walk surely can hold it for a few hours.
    All was fine – until the day he peed on the floor just half an hour after a long walk (that included swimming and drinking lots of water). I had been absolutely sure he couldn’t possibly have to go outside just after that short period. Unfortunately it wasn’t my floor, but the carpet of some friends we had visited. And it felt like mopping up a lake because of the intake of obviously lots of water. Made me feel really bad and I was so sorry for him (and the carpet). So I decided to take him seriously, just in case… – and we were back to the routine. Better be safe than sorry 😉

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