When interacting with your pets, it’s a good idea to think about your role in reinforcing behaviors. Many pets have their owners well trained. For example, suppose Rover scratches at the back door. You, as his dutiful human, then let him out. Ten minutes later, Rover scratches at the door to be let back inside. You as the well-trained human, open the door, and Rover returns inside.
In this case, Rover’s action is met with his desired response, so by opening the door you just "reinforced" the scratching behavior. Of course, letting Rover inside and outside about 79 times a day gets annoying, and now you have scratch marks all over the door too. But what many people fail to realize in this situation is that the human, not the dog actually created the problem.
In training, any behavior that results in something pleasant is reinforced. Because Rover likes the human attention he gets going outside, and then coming back in, he’s going to repeat the scratching behavior. Because he is rewarded every time he scratches at the door, he receives "continuous reinforcement."
Reinforcement has to happen at the time of the event or it won’t be associated with the event. For example, if you tell your dog to sit, but then give him a treat after he stands up, what are you reinforcing? If the dog is standing, you just reinforced the stand, not the sit, which is what you were trying to reward. Just as with Rover at the door, when training, you have to reward the correct action every time (continuous reinforcement).
Along the same lines, if you decide you’re not going to play doorman anymore for Rover, the key is to never again reward Rover by opening the door when he scratches. Again, consistency is the key. If you decide that you aren’t going to reward the behavior anymore, you have to stop completely. Everyone else in the household needs to stop as well. If Rover ever is rewarded for scratching at the door, he’ll keep doing it (this situation is known as intermittent or variable reinforcement).
The only way to extinguish a behavior is to never reinforce it again. As long as Rover thinks there might be some prayer of being let in, he’s going to keep scratching at the door. Only when he realizes that his action doesn’t work anymore will he stop. (Some dogs have long memories for this type of thing, so it can take a while.) Plus, if Rover subsequently finds a new way to get outside like chewing up the door, he just reinforced the behavior himself.
Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful thing, so extinguishing behaviors can be extremely difficult, especially if you can’t get the whole family to buy into ignoring something they don’t like, such as door scratching. It requires a tremendous amount of patience and often a lot of time. But if you’re wondering why your cat or dog does something that annoys you, consider the power of positive reinforcement. You probably rewarded that annoying habit at some point, so it’s your own fault.