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Mysterious Dog Behaviors Worsening Before Improving

Dog behavior can sometimes be prone to certain phenomena that can leave us wondering what may be going on. Let's see if for today's trivia you can help solve the mystery behind this case of a dog's behavior that gets worse before getting better...

Becky owns a smart, five year old border collie mix who goes by the name of Sammy. Sammy has been going through a period of finickiness, not wanting to eat her kibble as usual. Becky, concerned about the behavior, started giving in and feeding her at the table some table scraps. Her vet though said that her dog just had a bout of stomach problems causing her to be finicky, but now that she is doing better, he recommends stop feeding the table scraps as she has already started gaining some pounds and has a sensitive tummy. He therefore tells her to start ignoring her begging behaviors and feed her exclusively a special prescription diet food.

The process of weaning off the table scraps isn't one of the easiest tasks. With a history of getting table scraps for quite some time, Sammy's behavior of begging at the table is quite established, but Becky is very determined in not giving in to her dog's pleading eyes. The first day, Sammy stared at her with intent as usual, but Becky was determined and didn't give anything. Now, Sammy's begging behaviors seems like they are getting worse, and Becky is starting to feel discouraged even doubt about her vet's advice to ignore the begging. So today's trivia question is:

What's the name of the phenomenon that's likely behind the worsening of this behavior?

A Incidental Training

B Determinism

C Extinction Burst

D Potentiation Effect

The correct answer is: drum roll please...


The correct answer is: C, an extinction burst.


A Lesson in Etymology 

The word "extinction burst" may sound like an odd term that can bring to mind animals that no longer exist or some sort of explosion, but it's quite an effective term in depicting what is going on once we take a closer look at what it entails. Chances are high that if you own a dog, at some time or another, you may have witnessed this phenomenon.

The word "extinction" comes from the ancient Latin word extinctus, which is the past participle of extinguere ‎which means “to put out, destroy, abolish, extinguish." The word burst, on the other hand, comes from the Old English word berstan which means to "break suddenly, shatter under pressure."

Extinguishing Dog Behavior

When it comes to dogs, undesirable behaviors are often what people ask for help with. Dog owners may wish to "stop" certain attention-seeking behaviors from occurring such as begging at the table, jumping, pawing or barking at their owners when bored. Before discovering extinction bursts, let's first see what happens when a behavior is in the process of extinguishing.

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In psychology, the term extinction is used to depict the phenomenon where a behavior with a history of reinforcement no longer yields the reinforcing consequences. We know that certain dog behaviors are fueled by attention, so if your bored dog barks at you when you are sitting on the couch, and you get up and play with him, your attention will have fueled (the correct term would be reinforced) the barking behavior. The attention given quite often thus allows the barking behavior to stay alive, fueling it like oxygen does to a fire and preventing it from extinguishing.

Introducing the Extinction Burst


In the midst of the process of the behavior extinguishing, one may stumble on an extinction burst. What exactly is an extinction burst? According to the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals, an extinction burst consists of "an initial increase in the rate of responding following the instatement of extinction."

In the case of the dog's begging behavior getting worse, it's therefore undergoing an extinction burst as the owner is no longer, "feeding" the behavior. In the case of the dog barking for attention, the barking gets more persistent and louder.

We can see the same phenomenon in humans. Here's a practical, real life example. A mom always gives in and buys candy for her child when she cries when visiting the grocery store. Then one day the child's dentist notices the candy is ruining the child's teeth. So from the next day, no more candy. The child cries, and cries and cries throwing a temper tantrum but mom is determined not to give in.

What happens though after several days in a row of not buying candy? The behavior of crying gets temporarily worse, but then eventually extinguishes just like a fire that is deprived from oxygen.

Extinction Burst: "A characteristic of extinction. If a previously reinforced behavior is not reinforced, the animal will increase the intensity or frequency of the behavior in an attempt to earn the reinforcement again. If the behavior is not reinforced it will diminish again after an extinction burst."~ Karen Pryor Academy Glossary

dog extinction

What's Likely Happening

What's behind an extinction burst? The worsening of the behavior is likely a build-up of frustration/motivation due to the lack of reinforcement. It's as if the dog is saying "Hey, what's up? Usually when I look at you eating you slip me a slice of turkey, what's going on today? I am here, see me?"

Or in the case of the dog barking for attention, "Yo! Bark, bark, bark, what part of my bark you don't understand? You always play with me when I bark! I'll bark louder so you pay attention to me!" Or in the case of the child "Mom, I want candy! You always got me candy, I want candy! Get me candy! Nooooowwww!"

Interestingly, during an extinction burst the behavior may not only increase and become more insistent, but variability may also set in under the form of new behaviors added into the mix. The dog who has always begged at the table by looking at the owner with pleading eyes, may now start also pawing or barking.

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The dog who has always barked to get the owner to play may now start jumping on the owner as he ignores him. The child who has always cried to get candy, may now stomp her feet on the ground and scream. According to Pierce & Cheney, 2004 , this change in behavior is called "resurgence."

"Resurgence: The increase in topographic variability during extinction after a period of reinforcement…”~ (Pierce & Cheney, 2004). "

Tip: When the extinction burst happens, it might feel frustrating for dog owners to witness and it may be tempting to get mad at the animal and correct him. Instead, it's very important to understand what is going on and be appreciative for the animal trying hard to overcome "their mental road blocks."

idea tip

Persistence is Key


When dog owners stumble on the extinction burst they may start doubting and wondering if their behavior modification program is truly working. "The vet told me to ignore the behavior, but the begging is getting worse, maybe it's time to change protocol?"

Changing protocol though could be a big mistake. The fact an extinction burst takes place is a sign that what is being done is actually working! A little more persistence in further ignoring the behavior will therefore likely yield to extinction.

The worst thing one can do during an extinction burst is giving in such as buying the child candy when he's throwing the temper tantrum just to shut him up. This would fuel the behavior even more than before, turning it into a bigger fire that is always more and more difficult to extinguish! Next time, you can bet when the child doesn't get candy, he'll be turning into a scaled down version of the Incredible Hulk!


Not Always a Bad Thing!

Extinction bursts are not always a bad thing! First and foremost, as we have seen, if you are trying to extinguish an unwanted behavior, the extinction burst is a good sign, meaning that things are progressing, and that after the hill, if you persist in not reinforcing it, you'll likely have a smooth road ahead.

Terry Ryan, dog trainer and author of the book "Coaching people to train their dogs" likes to tell her clients when they stumble on their first extinction bursts and get discouraged: "Great! He got worst! That means extinction is working!"

So if you continue withholding reinforcement, the behavior will eventually weaken and eventually vanish.

Adding Motivation/Intensity

On top of this, extinction bursts can also be used to your advantage in training your dog. So let's say you are trying to train a behavior, but you want to see more motivation or variability. In the case of increasing motivation, let's imagine we are training our dog to do attention heeling, where the dog looks up at you while walking.

We reward the dog for looking up at us quite often while walking, we have been doing this for some time, but at some point, we want our dog to look to be a bit more motivated so to create a flashier looking heeling. So we stop rewarding as often.

The dog at some point may look at us with more motivation. This is when we want to lavishly praise and reward! We can see an example of this increase in motivation in the video below.

Adding Variability


As mentioned, extinction bursts can also be helpful to add variability. So let's say, you want to train your dog to play the piano using his paws, but your dog is using his nose all the time.

After rewarding nose touches every single time for a while, you stop rewarding them. Your dog at this point may get a tad bit frustrated, and wonder what's up since he's no longer being rewarded. "Hey! Don't you see me? I am using my nose to play! Look at me, see me? I'll do it again, and press even more!"

At some point though your dog may think of trying something else to gain reinforcement, perhaps something he has done in the past that has gained it. So he might at some point decide to use his paws. Bingo! You click and reward the behavior.

In the meanwhile, your dog may think something along the terms of "Aha! so this is the behavior that now gains a reward!" and soon your dog is on his way to playing with his paws more and more.

Warning: removing reinforcement too early in training or with dogs who are inhibited and tentative in offering variable behaviors may discourage them and cause them to give up rather than trying harder!

warning caution

Here's an Example of Extinction Burst, where during the second half of the video, the dog being reinforced less often than before, starts working harder when pulling the laundry out and pushing it into the owner's hand!


  • Association of Animal Behavior Professionals, Glossary, retrieved from the web on May 24th, 2016
  • Karen Pryor, Click Training Terms, retrieved from the web on May 24th, 2016
  • Legacy Canine; 2 edition (January 1, 2008) Coaching People to Train Their DogsPaperback– January 1, 2008

    by Terry Ryan (Author)

Photo Credits:

Madison Scott-Clary, Begging, Zephyr wants whatever that is! (CC BY 4.0)

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