We live in an instant society. If you want a McDonald’s hamburger, it is easy to find a McDonald’s, go in, tell the person behind the counter exactly what you want (yes cheese, no pickles, yes fries, no shake). And you get it in a minute or two, and you’re eating it immediately. The same is true of a Starbuck’s latte — or my own personal nemesis, a chocolate meal replacement bar.
When we try to approach our dog as if he is a McDonald’s hamburger, we run into trouble. We want the new behavior NOW. We want the dog to STOP jumping now. We want the dog to COME when called now. We get frustrated when the @%#$! dog is NOT doing it. We have started training them — why are they being stubborn?!
The problem is we want the new behavior now, but training a dog is about changing habits. Changing habits takes practice — which requires time and repetition. Changing habits is hard for YOU, and it’s hard for YOUR DOG!
Whose habits must be changed?
The dog’s. The dog has been doing things the same way for months or years. Even a six-month old puppy may have the habit for five or six months, which is his whole life! The longer a dog has been doing the bad behavior, the longer it can take to change things. How do you do this? Practice (time and repetition).
Training a dog is about changing habits.
Whose habits must be changed?
Yours. Unless you just brought this puppy or dog home today, you have a shared history of habits. The longer the dog has been with you, the more challenging it is for you to learn to do things a new way. Maybe you have the habit of letting him out in the yard off-leash because that’s easier for you when you’re rushed, even though you know he will not come when you call. Or you know you should ask him to sit politely before you put his food bowl down, but you don’t want to have to spend the time to teach him to sit.
How do you learn to change habits? Practice: Time and Repetition
Have you ever changed a habit? It’s difficult, but it’s doable. It takes a lot of practice! Here are some of the habits I have changed over the years:
- Quitting smoking
- Not eating while I’m talking on the phone
- Eating less sugar
- Remembering to write my mileage down at the end of the day before I exit the car
- Going to the Y to swim at least twice a week
All of these habits have environmental cues associated with them. For example, when I used to smoke, some of the cues that triggered me to light up were being around other smokers, being at a party, drinking coffee or beer, or eating pizza. For me to stop smoking, it helped a LOT if I avoided these triggers, especially multiple triggers at once. I may be able to not smoke if it was just me and a non-smoking friend eating a pizza, but if I was at a party where people were drinking, smoking, and eating pizza, that would be MUCH harder.
You and your dog have environmental cues, too. If seeing dogs walk by out the window triggers your dog to bark out the window, you have to find a way to prevent your dog from seeing out that window. If your dog tries to bolt out the door when you’re leaving for work, you need to prevent your dog from being at the door when you leave for work.
Habits exist because they meet needs. Most of our dogs’ bad habits meet emotional needs. The dog is scared of something, so she barks at it. The dog is frustrated by the fence, so he gets angry and lunges at it. The dog destroys the couch because she’s bored, and chewing the couch relieves boredom.
A habit is a habit because it is the easier thing to do. When I was trying to eat less sugar, one of the habits I had to overcome was eating Zone (“meal replacement”) bars in the car while I drive from lesson to lesson. It was easy to eat Zone bars. They took no preparation, no refrigeration, contain chocolate, and gave me an instant sugar buzz. But in the long run, it was not the habit I wanted. I used to eat Zone bars almost every day, sometimes several a day.
To change this habit, I had to do three things:
- I had to make a commitment to change. I had to decide I didn’t want to eat Zone bars anymore. Your dog cannot make this commitment. You have to make the commitment for both of you. Making a commitment means doing what it takes to make the change. It usually means committing time or money or both. Sometimes it means bucking social convention. Successful behavioral change requires strong commitment.
- I had to make it harder for me to eat Zone bars. I took them out of my car. That way, to eat one, I had to decide to get one in the morning and bring it with me to eat later that day. I could not mindlessly reach for one if it wasn’t there. The equivalent in dog training is what we call “Management” or “Prevention,” and it’s just as important as training for new habits.
- Most important: I had to find other ways to meet the need that the Zone bars fulfilled. I ate Zone bars because I was hungry! I couldn’t wait several hours to eat till I got home. I needed nourishment: energy, satiation, relief from hunger and thirst. This allowed me to function well at work. So, I started to buy sandwich fixings, fruit, and nuts that I could bring in the car. I had to remember to buy these things days before I needed them and allot extra time in the mornings to pack a lunch. I needed to buy a little lunch bag with ice packs to keep it cold. This took work, and in the beginning, it was a real hassle. I wasn’t used to it yet, and it felt cumbersome, annoying, and it took too much time. But, after a year of doing that, it’s now a habit. Meeting a dog’s needs in good ways is often what trainers call “Enrichment.” A bored dog may need to work for his food. A dog who’s not getting enough exercise may need longer walks or an intense game of fetch.
Now I almost never eat a Zone bar. I don’t even want to eat them most of the time anymore because I have new habits that I like better, but that took a year of practice.
Look at the list of habits I’ve changed. Notice how many of these are about NOT doing something? Stopping smoking, stopping eating a lot of sugar, stopping eating when I’m on the phone, etc. This is how we often approach dog training: We want the dog to stop barking out the window or stop jumping. But we can’t really train and practice a “not.” Instead, we have to find other good things to do to replace those bad habits.
YOUR DOG’S BAD HABITS have several things in common with MY bad habits:
- The habits fulfill a need
- The dog has an opportunity to practice the bad habit
- To stop doing the old habit requires lots of practice with a good, new habit
If you want your dog to do things differently, you can train him to change:
- Figure out what need is being met with the old habit.
- Make the old habit harder to perform.
- Practice, practice, practice a new habit that fulfills the same need — using rewards that your dog works eagerly for.
With time and repetition, you’ll both have new habits.
P.S. Did you notice that this post was very repetitive, repetitive, repetitive? That was intentional. Because changing habits requires repetition.