Why does my dog’s behaviour get worse when I train them?
It’s a legitimate question and one which many people ask. The reality is that it doesn’t actually get worse – it’s just your dog’s last-ditch attempt to achieve what they have achieved all along by barking and they try even harder before they give up. For example, if your dog has barked for attention for as long as they can remember, and the attention has always been delivered when they barked, barking has worked for them. And if they do anything – our dogs do what works.
If a puppy gets into the habit of jumping up and is given attention when they do, they will likely jump up much more often because generally, puppies love attention.
Let’s take a look at the learning theory… The term given to a choice that becomes a habit is a reinforced choice. The habit is a reinforced behaviour and the thing that the dog likes which occurs as a result of that choice is the reinforcer. So, in the case of our jumping up puppy, the attention is the reinforcer. In the case of a dog who is being taught to sit for a treat, the treat is usually the reinforcer. In the case of a dog who is carrying out some sort of unhelpful and habitual behaviour that we would like to change, the first thing we need to do is identify what is maintaining that behaviour (which is of course the reinforcer).
When we have identified the reinforcer, we can begin to reinforce something else instead. A different choice and therefore a replacement habit, something a bit more useful. So, we could reinforce the puppy’s four feet on the ground.
Sometimes though the dog’s behaviour can get worse before it gets better and this is called an extinction burst. An extinction burst occurs because the dog is determined that their behaviour has worked thus far, so if they just try a tiny bit harder this time it will work again. Shortly after the extinction burst the dog will usually stop trying and the behaviour will become successfully extinct. Even more so if the dog is taught an alternative choice at the same time.
Later on – sometimes a long time later, if a choice is rewarded again that had previously become extinct, the dog will remember it and the behaviour will often be back. It’s like the dog’s memory of an old habit has been jogged and the habit is reignited.
So that’s why it can feel like your attempts at teaching something new are not working or even that they are making the behaviour worse.
(It’s also a great reason to teach an alternative choice when trying to rid your dog of a bad habit, because it fills the dog’s mind space, which normally the bad habit would take up, making the whole process a lot easier)
And that’s why it can feel like your dog’s behaviour gets worse before it gets better.