One popular form of advice I often see bandied about on social media relating to those unwanted behaviours is, “Oh, just ignore it. They’ll stop eventually.”
I’m sure there are times that must be true. After all, if it didn’t work, we’d have stopped recommending ignoring behaviour a long time ago. I’m sure, somewhere in the world, ignoring jumping up, pawing, barking, nipping and humping has worked at some point. Perhaps.
But what’s the reasoning behind this?
Sometimes it comes from well-meaning people who aren’t experts in dog behaviour who think that ignoring behaviour is better than rewarding it or punishing it. That it’ll sort of go away on its own. Right now, I’ve got a dog looking under my arm as I type because he thinks it’s dinner time and in lieu of dinner, he wants petting. The nudging is pretty irritating. Should I just ignore it? Tell him off? Give in?
Well, we all know that what gets rewarded gets repeated. Behaviour is a function of its consequences. Somewhere along the line, something has worked to reinforce that behaviour, something fuelling its flames. We definitely don’t want to do that, do we? Do something that keeps that bad behaviour going. Yet we – or the environment – have been. If we hadn’t, the behaviour would have died out long ago. For instance, I was thinking today about my ability to type on a QWERTY keyboard; I use a French AZERTY one which meant relearning touch typing. But my need to type in French was strong. It fanned the flames and my touch typing on a US or UK keyboard has gone extinct. The QWERTY is dead. Reinforced by my need to type in French and do this é and this ç at a drop of a hat, â, I found that behaviour growing. It’s just the same for dogs. When one thing isn’t serving them, it’ll die off. And when it works, they’ll keep doing it.
We know that, right? We know we don’t want that naughty dog behaviour to keep going, so something inside of us is saying “well, stop rewarding it then!”
I think that’s one reason we say to people to ignore bad behaviour.
And we know that punishment is pointless. It just suppresses behaviour temporarily, and it doesn’t get rid of the need that’s driving it in the first place. I’m pretty sure Heston’s stomach is driving his nudging behaviour right now – he’s telling me he’s hungry. Me yelling at him, telling him “No!” or spraying him with compressed air or a water spray won’t remove that need. He’ll still be hungry – he just might not tell me in the future. That might be fine with you if that’s your bag, but we also know that punishment decreases a dog’s trust in us and can result in aggression. I’m very sure if I sprayed him in the face with compressed air for nuzzling my elbow, he might stop doing it temporarily, but my care of him depends on our good relationship and I won’t jeopardise his trust in me. Also, I have another dog who, if she got punished, will just tell me where I can stick my compressed air canister. It wouldn’t be a polite place, either.
Punishment only suppresses behaviour temporarily, increases distance, doesn’t respect a dog’s need and costs us in the long term. Punishment also doesn’t teach us what to do – only what not to. Thus, you could spray me in the face with cold water to stop me from using a QWERTY keyboard but it wouldn’t make me be better at using an AZERTY one.
So we don’t want to punish the behaviour either.
Which brings us back to ignoring it again.
So you can see why some people might recommend ignoring it. And here, with the nudging, it’s worked. He’s gone to lie down, although his needs have not been met. But that has costs too. I’ve ignored what he was telling me (yes, he’s bored – it’s been raining all day – and, like guardian, like dog, he’s turning to boredom eating to fill the day. I promise it will be bountiful with food enrichment toys and some play later to make up for it.) One of the costs is that I’ve not listened to what he needs. That’s not really a great way to build a trusting relationship, is it?
Ignoring behaviour has a scientific name that trainers might use. It’s called an extinction protocol. Unlike suppressing behaviour, when the reinforcers that fuel it stop (like me stroking him or feeding him), behaviour can die off. If you’re good at ignoring things – and you’re consistently good at it – then it can work. I ignored Heston’s early jumping up as a puppy and I did so 100% by reinforcing other behaviours, like stroking him and greeting him on all fours, it really works. It works best when you meet their needs, just in another way. But you’ve got to have nerves of steel.
Why you’ve got to have nerves of steel is because a behaviour that was once reinforced – so there’s something out there that has once worked – it may go through what is known as an extinction burst. What that means in real terms, I’m going to explain.
It takes me back to my days as a school advisor. I once watched a boy who kept misbehaving. I made a little running tally of all the times he tried to disrupt the learning in a 50 minute lesson. He made 150 interruptions, from silly things like noises, right through to repeated coughing, messing with his gloves, trying to melt his gloves (don’t ask!) and it worked out at 3 per minute. An interruption every 20 seconds. Sure, he’d have a burst, like shouting “Miss! Miss! Miss! Miss! Miss!” and then be quiet for a couple of minutes, but that was his average – of the ones I was quick enough to count.
That boy’s behaviour is an extinction burst that comes through trying to ignore it. And do you you know why he kept doing it? Because sometimes it worked. Sometimes he got the teacher’s attention. Sure, that was usually when he did something extreme, nuisance-like or violent – like kicking the boy’s chair in front. The teacher yelled at him. The student got attention. Teachers are in the same boat, not wanting to punish poor behaviour (especially not in front of an inspector, where ordinarily they might have blown a fuse) but also not wanting to reward it with the one thing they know the student wants – attention. We’re stubbornly resistant to giving in. Though we do it. The teacher told him off four times. It was enough to fuel the repeated behaviours. She gave in even though she wanted to ignore it. See what I said? You need nerves of steel. It’s really hard to ignore annoying or unwanted behaviour.
Ignoring behaviour also has other side effects.
Let’s break down the fallout from extinction schedules (a.k.a. ignoring stuff).
- It may cause behaviour to increase temporarily.
Heston’s nudging got more insistent before he gave up. The boy in the example never gave up. A client had a foster dog who barked pretty consistently all night for almost two weeks and never gave up – I think they did well to last two weeks before contacting me.
Sure, the behaviour may die off. But if you respond in the way the dog needs you to, you’ve reinforced it and boom – the behaviour is that much harder to remove. You’ve just made your job even tougher. Oh, it gets worse. You’ve also just taught your dog that they need to exhibit much bigger behaviours to get a response. And that doing so will work. You’ve not just made the behaviour less resistant to being erased but you’ve also made it bigger, louder, noiser, last longer or be more dramatic. What that teacher taught that boy was to kick the student’s chair in front, to set fire to his gloves, to punch the boy next to him. Why bother with the small stuff like coughing or putting your hand up when bigger, noisier, louder and more dramatic behaviours get you what you want?
Trying to ignore it has just made it worse. Wonderful.
2. Behaviour may change shape to get the same response.
Just like the student experimenting with different ways to get his needs met, animals do the same. So my example here was a dog called Nesquik. Sometimes, in kennels, I’ve got to get quick and dirty photos of dogs for the shelter records. There’s not always anyone to hand and often I’m trying to manage a camera as well as manage two off-lead excited dogs. So very occasionally I ignore jumping up if I’m just there for business. After I get a photo, I do give dogs plenty of attention, I promise. But I know the risks. Nesquik moved from jumping up to barking. And when I ignored the barking, he then started dismantling me. Quite literally. Luckily I was wearing clothes, and quite a lot of them. Lesson learned. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision of, “oh, that didn’t work – will try something else!” but for instance if a vending machine is broken, I may give it a bit of a punch and if that doesn’t work, I’m going to give it a wobble. Or if my car doesn’t start, I’ll keep trying to turn it over and then if that doesn’t work, I’ll get out, pop the bonnet and make sure the battery is attached. We try different things when we don’t get the response we want… until we get the response we want. Setting fire to your gloves is just one example of how creative we can be in order to get what we need. Thankfully dogs are lots less complex or inventive.
3. Behaviour may turn aggressive.
When we don’t get what we want or need, it’s frustrating. And if we’re perpetually frustrated, we need an outlet. I’ve seen redirected aggression (the boy in the class turned on his classmate and started punching his arm) and I’ve seen targeted aggression. We tend to think that aggression is only fallout from punishers, but it can be fallout from extinction protocols too.
4. Ignoring behaviour is frustrating
What happened to the teacher? She got frustrated and angry and she caved. What happened to the lady with the foster dog who barked all night? She caved. It makes us angry that we’ve abandoned our plan. It’s frustrating for us as dog guardians, as parents, as teachers. It turns us quickly to using punishers instead because we don’t understand the consequences of extinction protocols. I could quite easily have told Nesquik off or left (negative punishment) to put him in a “Time Out” in the hopes his manners would be better next time. It makes us think less of the dog or the person we’re trying to ignore. I know you can understand how hard that teacher felt she’d tried and how little warmth she felt to that very irritating student without understanding that ignoring his needs was causing it. It makes us lose sight of what we like about the person or animal exhibiting this extinction burst. Heston nudging me is irritating. Me ignoring him is frustrating. He does it more and I get more cross that it’s not dinner time yet… you can see where this goes.
5. Extinction also increases the likelihood of stress responses such as increased drinking or the performance of repetitive or compulsive behaviours.
Ignoring behaviour is supposed to weaken it. It’s supposed to break the cycle. It’s supposed to nip it in the bud.
And it might, in the right circumstances, if we provide an alternative way for them to get the same rewards and if we have nerves of steel.
But mostly, it doesn’t work like that.
Ignoring behaviour runs the risk of causing more of it, of changing to a more persistent and pernicious behaviour to get what is wanted or of causing aggression. Congratulations! You just ordered more of the same, an escalation to much worse behaviours or even aggression. By ignoring that behaviour, the teacher just got more and more and more of it. By ignoring Nesquik, I turned that little spaniely jumping up to say hi into a very frustrated coat-grabbing session. And it without a doubt makes us feel worse about the person or animal exbiting this “stubborn” failure to stop being so bloody annoying.
Basil Fawlty showing us an extinction protocol at work:
a) Usual behaviour (key turning) which usually works (to start the car) stops working.
b) Target behaviour (key turning) increases, becomes more frequent and becomes more exaggerated in an “extinction burst”.
c) Lack of reward from formerly reinforced behaviour (key turning) causes aggression when it doesn’t work any longer
d) change of behaviour designed to evoke the normal response – in this case, counting to three. Not particularly effective at starting cars, I know. To be fair, that short break might have allowed a flooded engine to clear but even I know it was far too short a wait time!
e) frustration and aggression that is not designed to evoke a response but is a bloody good way of handling it for some people (and animals). And yes, if the car was sentient, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t like Basil Fawlty right now.
f) pretty sure Basil Fawlty will be heading to the bar for a quick drink to cope with the stress of being put on an extinction schedule. All those compulsive tics and ingrained behaviours just pop right out.
So next time you think of ignoring a behaviour, just remember that this can be some of the fairly predictable fallout of doing so. And you are causing it by ignoring it…
Now as I’ve said, sometimes it can work, although you should always consider the underlying reason that is driving the behaviour. It’s not something I’d ever do, though, with certain types of behaviour, and I’ll explain why. There are certain behaviours that I think we should take a hard pass on ignoring.
The first kind of behaviour where I think we should err on the side of caution is aggression. Now, it’s always complicated and nuanced. Sometimes my dogs will have a little snark at one another. Flika sometimes barks at Heston or growls if he’s in her space because he’s over-excited. I’m not going to be calling out behaviour police for that. I might, however, realise that she is doing this because she is old and he is bouncing Tigger-like in her general vicinity. I could make sure that doesn’t happen. For instance, mealtimes, going out on walks or getting in the car. I’m not ignoring the behaviour, here, I’m consciously making a decision that this is two really sensible dogs who have a good rapport sorting it out peacefully among themselves. I’m not the kind of person to expect dogs to keep it polite and happy all the time. But if her behaviour changes or becomes more frequent, I’ll definitely think of arranging her world better (ie taking bouncing Tigger dogs out of it) so that she doesn’t feel the need to remind him she’s old and doesn’t want bouncing.
Other dog-dog aggression, I don’t ignore. Probably the majority of aggression, to be honest, even low level stuff. You remember how that student started with low level coughing and putting his hand up? That’s the time to intervene. One example with dog-dog aggression where I’d intervene with low level stuff would be that Lidy can be very hard in play and whilst she’s a bit OTT with her very loud play behaviours, there can be moments where it needs an intervention. But to intervene then – at the moment it becomes noteworthy – is too late. She’ll have barreled into Heston, sent him flying, decided that felt really fun to harass another dog and be ready for round 2. I see this so often in young dogs – either puppies or adolescents – who are learning that hassling others can be incredible fun. Prevention, just as it would be with Flika and her old bones, means not letting her get to that point where she’s overaroused. There are two times this happens: at the beginning of their daily hellos, and when Heston is tired. That means noticing when Heston is tired and finding something for Lidy to do instead. It means managing their greetings too.
Always get a trainer or behaviourist in if you can’t cope with it yourself, or if aggression escalates. It is not a time to tinker or try out solutions when you aren’t sure of the consequences, just as most people are not sure of the consequences of ignoring behaviour. I’m sure if we knew it was likely to make it worse, to harden it and make it less likely to fade, or to evoke anger or frustration from both parties, we’d not bother.
So yes, there are nuances and subtleties. There are times when I’ll choose to leave it. In general, though, other than the fairly typical grrs between dogs, I think ignoring aggression is a really, really bad policy. Putting it on an extinction schedule can have real fallout.
For human-directed aggression, it’s absolutely vital it’s not ignored. If that’s owner-directed, that’s especially important. I don’t mean you should stop giving your dog space to eat and rest in peace. I mean that you should address the causes of that growling, barking, snapping or biting and that you should do so the very first time it happens.
For instance, the love of my life, Amigo, got all senior at the end of his life. He’d wander around from bed to bed, half-blind, deaf and disoriented. Once, and only once, I grabbed his collar as he couldn’t see or hear he was about to get into bed with another dog who was growling at him. He nipped me. No harm, no foul. I did wrong and I know it – though I saved him from what might have been a bit of a mauling. But I didn’t ignore what happened and just let it happen again. The next day, I got nightlights in the sockets, I put up x-pens and I limited his ability to get into other dogs’ beds in the middle of the night. Aggression is a message. If we ignore it, we do so at our peril. It will escalate or be used again.
Other times, you might use counterconditioning or desensitisation to help a dog realise it’s actually okay and you are no threat. I do this so often that it’s practically a daily occurrence on my client list. I do it with my own dogs. I did it with Tilly, my guardy little cocker, when she arrived. She would growl if people accidentally got too close to her, and I needed her to know that sometimes that might happen. The first thing I did again was arrange that environment: give her a space where she could be, hers alone. Problem mostly solved. And then every time I got close, I gave her a biscuit and went away. It wasn’t long before my approach wasn’t a threat.
With dogs who are aggressive towards other humans, counterconditioning works there too. If you’ve got a dog who is aggressive towards people – joggers, passers-by, cyclists – then don’t ignore that either. I don’t just hold my breath any more and hope my embarrassment will soon be over. Just this morning, an unexpected jogger came running down the hill as we were on a walk and we all stopped, had a biscuit picnic and carried on once the jogger went away. It’s so familiar a behaviour to my dogs now that they’re actively looking for people and turning back like, “Hey… where’s the picnic?”
We even survive those times when there isn’t a picnic.
But one thing is true – ignoring aggression just means your dog is more likely to use it again if it worked. And that is not something you want, I promise. Don’t ever just hope it will go away.
Since extinction protocols also engender aggression, I also would never use one on its own with an aggressive dog. One example would be that if a dog barks and snaps, it gets the human to go away. If the human stops going away and just stands there, eventually the dog will give up. That’s the theory. Have enough occasions where aggressive behaviour is not reinforced by going away, and I truly mean never, then you could, potentially, theoretically, get rid of it completely. Some training programmes use this method. It’s not one I ever use. One reason for that is the fallout of ignoring behaviour: barking, growling and snarling will get bigger, more frequent or more dramatic before it drops off and the dog gives up; it also runs the risk of escalating to bites. Finally, it also runs the risk of worsening aggression towards anyone near – be they guardian, human or dog. Plus, I’ve got to let the dog run through their whole repertoire of aggression repeatedly in order to move to extinction, facing all those bursts of behaviour until it’s well and truly dead. That can be bloody hard. It’s also tough on the dog – and, since there are other, effective, ethical ways of working – it’s also unethical.
Another reason I don’t ignore aggression is that behaviours that have been ignored on an extinction protocol like this can be easily recovered. It’s a behaviour that has worked for the dog in the past. If they’re in the same circumstances again, even if you think you ignored the living daylights out of it for two years, once it comes back, it finds smooth neural pathways to ease its resurrection. Boom. Two years without aggression and you’ve suddenly got a spontaneous resurgence of the behaviour.
So I don’t ignore aggression. Even if, like Flika and Heston, I choose to acknowledge it, understand it and leave it alone. Leaving it alone for the meanwhile is a decision, but ignoring it is not a decision that I think most of us should make. In fact, I know she hates it when he is excited so I’ve been managing the pair and splitting them up when I’m putting harnesses on and getting bowls out, or putting them in the car. So even that, I’ve not left alone.
Adult aggression is not the only behaviour I never ignore. I also don’t ignore puppy biting. I’ve seen some very, very injurious behaviour recently. All from dogs that you’d expect to be great family dogs – pointers, labradors, golden retrievers. I also know fellow dog trainers who won’t work with malinois who don’t have bite control if they’re older than 8 weeks. Shutting that door after that particular horse has bolted can be really hard. Like it or not, we have to accept that puppies can learn aggression works – that is not a lesson you want them to learn with you, I promise. And we also have puppies who enjoy biting. Maybe it’s a breed thing, but those pointers, labs and goldens are not your usual suspects. As Dr. Ian Dunbar says, your dog will not grow out of those behaviours, they will grow into them. It very quickly becomes a habit.
Whilst there is well-meaning advice like “Be a tree” or “Be a statue” for puppies who nip or bite, I think this can really fail. And when it does, it’s spectacular. Yes, children and certain nervous flappy adults set off a frenzy in young dogs and reminding them to be calm around dogs can help. That’s a time that being a statue can help.
But there are a number of things that need to happen with young bitey dogs. One is they need more rest, more enrichment, more mental entertainment and shorter bursts of physical activity. One main reason puppies bite is that they lose bite inhibition when they’re overaroused and boom, they realise they LOVE biting. You’re a great squeaky toy. A live one. And you keep coming back. And you give biscuits. How Wonderful!
You can read my full guidance on puppy biting here. I stand by this. I really don’t think ignoring it works. I think using negative punishment and putting them in Time Out or removing ourselves is not an efficient or humane thing to do with a young dog. Again, though, ignoring the behaviour will evoke more of it, will make it bigger, faster, more frequent or more dramatic and it may cause a lot of frustration that a young dog is not able to cope with. So yes, if your flapping or your children’s nervous energy is causing your Aussie Heeler to break out into herding them like cattle, by all means encourage your children to be less exaggerated. But it’s really hard for kids to ignore dogs, and it’s hard for puppies to be ignored.
Other, slightly less injurious behaviours like jumping up, humping and barking at you benefit also from you working with a trainer or behaviourist to identify what’s keeping that behaviour alive and to help you overcome them. Ignoring it may or may not work and what they’re designed to do is less likely to spill over into aggression in my opinion. If barking at you is to get your attention (rather than to warn you not to get any closer) then barking and jumping up are less likely to spill over into biting because they’re attention-seeking behaviours or contact behaviours. But some dogs do like to get contact in that way… so it’s still a potential fallout. Jumping up is also not good when you’re a 50kg person and you’ve got a 50kg dog. The same with pulling or humping. In all honesty, I’m hard pushed to think of a circumstance in which I’d honestly prescribe ignoring behaviour as a training approach…
So what can you do? First, seek out a qualified behaviourist or trainer who can perform a functional analysis. If they can’t, give them a wide berth. Ask them what intermittent reinforcement is and what differential reinforcement is, too. If they can’t explain in ways you understand, give them a wide berth too. When you’ve got trainers who know how best to change behaviour in a technical way, then they’ll go forward in predictable ways: making sure the dog’s underlying motivation is well met, making sure the dog is healthy through vet referral if necessary (see how Flika’s growling and Heston’s lack of tolerance of Lidy’s large play behaviour are both caused by pain? Just saying…. ), making sure that you can arrange the world differently to help you stop behaviour before it starts or other approaches like teaching the dog a different behaviour or making them feel better about the world at large.
Of course, ultimately, we do put aggressive behaviour on an extinction schedule. The first thing I said to Miss Bitey Lidy was “this is the last time you’re ever going to need to use these behaviours” – that is an extinction schedule of a sort. But through arranging her world more carefully, through counterconditioning, through careful work and through teaching her what to do instead to get the same result (like come touch my hand to tell me you’re not going to be coping in two minutes) then you can use an extinction protocol. It’s different because I’m not ignoring behaviours. They just don’t occur. She has other stuff to do instead of biting or stealing people’s handbags. But I’m not ignoring it. I don’t walk her past fields of cows and ignore her attempts to attack them. She is never going to grow out of those behaviours without other stuff going on. In fact, she just gets better at trying to attack things and more sensitised to doing it.
There are of course lots of ifs and buts. On the whole, though, you hopefully can see now why I don’t ignore puppy biting and I don’t ignore aggression. I also don’t ignore attention getting behaviours. A good behaviourist will certainly be able to work with you on a replacement behaviour. Amigo was a very soulful attention seeker – nudger of arms and pawing with his big old feet. Teaching a chin rest is just one example of how I taught him how to get his own needs met in a much less disruptive way. Replacement behaviours that get the same reinforcers are just excellent.
Having dogs who know how to ask nicely for attention, for food, for love, for touch, for play, for safety or for you to go away… well those are dogs who live with us harmoniously and get their own needs met. I think that’s my final line on why I don’t ignore behaviours: clearly there is something the dog needs or wants and to just ignore it as if they’re an irritation, well, that’s just unkind in my view. Yes, there are velcro dogs who need to learn how to cope without being stuck to you. No, you don’t have to give in to their every need. No, it’s not about being at the dog’s beck and call or “giving in”. I didn’t give in to Heston and his arm nudging (which stopped half way through this post when I got up to sort out dinner and made sure he had his favourite sausage-stuffed snake to keep him busy on a boring day) because that way madness lies. Tomorrow, he’d be up at 5am needing breakfast, then hungry by 3.30pm and so it would continue.
So next time you feel tempted to ignore a behaviour in the hopes that it will go away, I hope you reflect on what the behaviour is designed to do. I hope too you realise the down sides of ignoring it – especially frustration and aggression – and those extinction bursts. If you’ve got a thorny problem with an unwanted behaviour and you’ve tried all sorts, including ignoring it, but to no avail, make sure you find a professional who can help.