In psychology, the word extinction is defined as “the disappearance of a behavior through the lack of reinforcement.” Without knowing it, many pet owners inadvertently reinforce and reward the same bad behavior they’re trying to end.

For example, if your dog begs at the table and you feed him so that you can eat your meal in peace, you’ve actually reinforced and rewarded the bad behavior, ensuring it will continue.

Identifying the Reinforcer

The actions that are reinforcing your dog’s bad behavior aren’t always as obvious. For example, when your dog jumps on people, it’s because he wants attention. But some dogs (like some people,) don’t care if the attention they get is negative or positive. Whether it’s ear scratchies or angry shouting, it’s all attention and to him, a win and a reinforcement of the behavior. In this case, to eradicate the bad behavior, you must ignore your dog completely. Be silent. Do not touch or look at your dog. Purposefully look away or turn around and fold your arms.

Keep in mind that the bad behavior won’t immediately stop the day after you stop reinforcing it. But after repeated and consistent denial of the reward, eventually your dog will give up and the targeted bad behavior will be extinct.

The key word in the previous sentence is eventually. As anyone who’s parented a toddler or a teenager will tell you, bad habits aren’t broken overnight. One of the behaviors you can expect during the training process is called an extinction burst.

Extinction Burst

When you first stop reinforcing the bad behavior of your dog, instead of getting the message immediately, it’s more likely your dog will turn it up a notch. He’s thinking that maybe you didn’t get the message; he’d like some table food RIGHT NOW! He may increase his barking or start pawing at you, hoping you finally get the message. This is what’s known as an extinction burst. Think of it as a doggie tantrum. It’s unpleasant, but it’s temporary. Eventually, just like a toddler, your pooch will wear himself out. If you give in to the dog or the toddler, all you’re doing it reinforcing the message that tantrums are an effective means of negotiation.

Spontaneous Recovery

It’s also possible that during behavioral extinction therapy, you will notice marked improvement in a single training session, but at the next session, the bad behavior is back and it’s as if your dog didn’t learn anything at all. This is called spontaneous recovery. It’s normal.

Spontaneous recovery is usually due to partial training or inconsistency in your training. Changing the trainer, location or even the time of day of your training can cause your dog to backslide temporarily.


Behavioral extinction is a training technique that goes right to the root of the problem by identifying the factors that reinforce and reward your dog’s bad behavior and eliminating them, eventually eliminating the bad behavior itself.