Old Habits Die Hard

Changing habits or building new behaviour is something that comes up every day working with clients. Whether it has to do with counter-surfing, getting overly excited when outside or jumping on people, almost every dog parent has a point in their dog’s life when they want to change or ‘work on something. 

When trying to change behaviour, parents often get frustrated because they don’t understand why the dog keeps going back to the old behaviour. Why, when they have made it clear they don’t want the dog doing that anymore? Why, when they are teaching and rewarding a new behaviour?

A Different Perspective

Let’s consider how things would be if we were the ones needing to change a habit. Say, you decided one day, enough is enough. It’s time to make a change. Maybe it’s a habit that you know isn’t good for you and needs to stop. You make a deliberate choice, have a plan that you WANT to shift your behaviour or build a new habit.  You KNOW what is happening. Even so, with the best intentions, often there are problems. Have a great week and then Friday eat that big piece of Deep & Delicious. Even though you are motivated and have chosen to make the change, it’s not always smooth and easy.

So now, let’s look at it from the dog’s perspective. No one consulted them about making a change. They aren’t thinking “I never really wanted to jump up on people anyways. Count me in!’ They are not involved in any way until we make that decision for them and now have a new expectation for them.

 It makes it a bit easier to understand why they might not be buying in, doesn’t it? And what if we also factor in emotions or arousal? When our dogs are excited or stressed the thinking brain gets put on the back burner. Even if you have started making the shift in behaviour with them, in times of arousal their ability to think about what to do will be diminished. They will fall into auto mode. The behaviour that is easy and natural for them will be what they revert to.

Think about it this way. Something commonplace for us to do is like a 4-lane highway. It’s easy to get on and navigate. When you are creating a new behaviour, on the other hand, there’s not even a footpath to go on. You have to bushwhack to make it passable. That narrow, hard-to-follow path won’t easily be picked over that big paved highway. And in times of arousal will you be more likely to pick the obvious, well-travelled route that you are used to going on or that little footpath? 

Two factors that have a big influence are how long-standing the behaviour is and how reinforcing the behaviour is to the dog. It makes sense that the longer the behaviour has been happening and the more practice the dog has had with it, the more durable that behaviour will be. The reinforcement value will also heavily influence how easy it is to shift away from the existing behaviour to a new one.

How to Help Your Dog

Fortunately, we can influence things from our end too. Before we start any actual training, we need to think about why the dog is doing the behaviour. If there is an emotional factor that is causing the behaviour, that needs to be addressed first. Ignoring this would not only impact training, but it would be unfair to the dog. Although we won’t go into more detail here, you can read more about this here.

We also need to consider how we are presenting the new habit or skill. Are we teaching it in a way that’s not confusing or frustrating? Are we making it easy to understand? To help the dog buy in, and feel good about the process, it needs to be enjoyable. Keeping the training fun and making the steps small and clear will really help.

And thinking about motivation again, is the new behaviour motivating? If its value is lower than the existing habit or behaviour, the dog won’t be too interested in switching over. We need to make the new behaviour at least as motivating as the existing one! Being aware of this and actively building value in the new behaviour or habit will increase the dog’s willingness and enthusiasm.

So if you are thinking about changing a habit or behaviour, remember to think about it from your dog’s view. It’s not always an easy thing to do. Making the process fun and the new behaviour valuable to your dog will help the transition go more smoothly and make it enjoyable for everyone!

Do you have a question or need help with a habit your dog has? You can ask me at lisa@hippup.ca