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Hold On Tight: When Behaviours Get Worse Before They Get Better

If you've ever tried to change a well-established behaviour in your dog or cat, you may have encountered the phenomenon known as an extinction burst. This is where a behaviour that you're trying to eliminate gets worse before it gets better. Many of my clients express concern that they've followed my advice but feel a bit stuck when this happens, usually within the first 2 months of treatment. They might initially see good progress, but then experience a slowdown or even regression. Let's break down why it happens and how to navigate it.

Think about a broken vending machine. You put your money in, press the button, and expect your snack. When the machine malfunctions, your natural instinct is to press the button repeatedly, maybe even a bit more frantically. Similarly, imagine your dog jumps excitedly on visitors. You start working on "on your bed" behaviour instead. (If you are experiencing this issue, read our other article about jumping in dogs) At first, there's improvement, but suddenly your dog starts jumping even more wildly.

Perhaps your cat meows loudly for food first thing in the morning until you relent and fill the bowl. This creates the expectation that meowing equals breakfast. When you decide to wait and feed them at a different set time, expect a meow-filled morning – an extinction burst in action. These are all examples of extinction bursts. Let's break down why they happen and how to navigate them.

Why Does This Happen?

Extinction bursts happen because habits are deeply ingrained. Your pet has learned, possibly over a long period, that a certain action gets them a desired outcome. When that reward suddenly disappears, they get confused and frustrated, resulting in their initial behaviour intensifying.

How to Handle an Extinction Burst

The most important thing is consistency. If you want to change a behaviour:

  • Decide on your new approach: Take this opportunity to communicate and reinforce the replacement behaviour that we discussed in the treatment plan.

  • Stick to it, even when things get tougher: The extinction burst is a temporary stage. If you give in, you'll only reinforce the old behaviour.

  • Patience is very important - Changes in behaviour never occur when you want them to. Continue to reinforce novel replacement behaviours as the right reaction that should be exhibited for the pet to get what they want.

How long does an extinction burst last?

The duration of an extinction burst varies based on how strongly the behaviour was reinforced and how long it has been established. Some may be short-lived, lasting only a few days, while others might persist for longer periods.

It Gets Better

Extinction bursts are challenging, but ultimately, they're a sign that the process of changing a behaviour is working. With patience and understanding, you can help your pet through this phase and establish healthier, more desirable habits.

Remember: Don't be afraid to ask us for further guidance if you're struggling to manage an extinction burst in your pet.

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