What is the definition of extinction bursts as it relates to clicker training?

When a learned behavior is not reinforced, it goes through a process of extinction. One of the predictable steps in that process is a “burst.” The animal increases the frequency and the urgency of the behavior that had garnered a reward in an attempt to force a response. When that response is not forthcoming, the behavior is then abandoned.

As a very simplistic example, suppose you began to target train a cat and rewarded him every time he touched the target stick with his paw. For whatever reason, you discontinue the reward sequence. His response might be to strike the target stick with a series of rapid, hard blows in an effort to “make” it give him a treat.

If that “burst” fails to get him a treat, he will then come to ignore the stick all over again. Cats are return on investment animals. They will not engage in any behavior that is not to their benefit, but they are also stubborn. Sometimes, this manifests in ways owners don’t intend, through negative reinforcement.

If, for instance, your cat rattles the blinds every morning at 5 a.m. and you get up and feed him, he’s going to continue to rattle the blinds even though it annoys you because it gets him what he wants. If you don’t get up, it may sound like he’s tearing the house down. This, frankly, begs the question, in a human / cat relationship, exactly who is doing the training and who is being trained?

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