Sirius Training, Serious Fun!
Sirius Training, Serious Fun!

Habits are hard to break…

I admit it… I have been biting my nails for as long as I can remember.  Not to the point of Elijah Wood in Lord of the Rings…but bitten nonetheless.  There was about three years in college and grad school when I was really good and had the habit largely kicked.  But, between the stresses of finding a job post graduation and then the stress of losing said job, I have fallen off the wagon.  Now that my world seems to be coming together again, I feel a little less stressed and am going to try and kick the habit again.

“What the heck does this have to do with dog training!?!?” you  might be asking yourself right now (probably along with “that’s way too much information”).  Well, it’s been about a week since I bit any of my nails, yesterday while watching a movie I didn’t even notice that I started biting a nail on my right hand until it was too late.  It is such an ingrained habit that I didn’t even think about it before I did it (I did not choose to do it) and the sensation of biting my nail didn’t even register with my brain for some time.  This served as a big reminder to me that when dogs have bad habits they are not always making a choice before they act out the habit.

Now this can be both a good thing and a bad thing… if the habit is a good habit, YAYY–if the habit is a bad habit, BOOO!  If your dog is a big jumper and has been allowed to jump and worse, rewarded for jumping, for some time, chances are that the dog is often jumping more because it’s a habit and less because they say to themselves “hmm, I think I’ll jump up.”  It’s really no different from trying to turn the lights on when you enter a room even though you know the power is out… it’s the muscle memory part of the habit.

What we want to do, as trainers, is to turn desirable behaviors into habits so the dogs don’t even have to think about it while also breaking the bad habits.  Now I can absolutely attest to the difficulty of breaking a life-long habit … and the frustration of falling back into the habit even after an extended length of time when the behavior wasn’t rehearsed.  But I can also attest to the good prognosis as long as there is a consistent routine that prevents the habit from being rehearsed (like wearing mittens!) while also focusing on alternative behaviors (like typing while watching movies).

Before a dog can make a choice about whether or not to jump (for example), we have to address the muscle memory or habitual behavior.  For humans, after the 10th or so time of flicking the light switch during a power outage, we finally start to think before flipping the switch (sometimes).  The reason we stop is that we aren’t reinforced for the behavior and we know there is no chance for reinforcement for the behavior.  Unfortunately for dogs, many of their habitual behaviors are self-reinforcing so just allowing them to practice the behavior makes it stronger (if hitting the light switch was, in and of itself fun, we’d continue to flip the switch even if the primary reinforcer of the lights coming on didn’t work).  Since this is the case for many behaviors (they are self-reinforcing), I set up situations where they would normally perform the behavior, only this time they are prevented from doing so with a leash or tether or baby gate.  Once the dog gets the picture that they can’t follow the ritualized behavior, then I ask for some other behavior.  This is just the initial step of breaking a bad habit… after quite a few trials where they cannot practice the habituated behavior and instead asking for a new behavior after the initial burs of energy (to complete the ritualized behavior), I will start cuing the incompatible behavior before they try the undesirable behavior. Until you have broken the initial muscle memory of the behavior (when they don’t think, just react), it’s incredibly difficult to change the behavior because the dogs aren’t thinking enough to ask for an alternate behavior nor can they really make a choice.  So the practice in totally preventing the habit from happening just takes the edge off–which allows the handler to teach the dog a new habit of sitting instead of jumping.

I am regularly telling my students that many of the behaviors, particularly loose leash walking, are all about creating a habit.  The dogs don’t have to think about a behavior, they just do it.  When I’m walking Shayne and Rio at the park on a casual walk both dogs have free range of the 6ft leash (unless passing people etc).  There is rarely any tension on the leash because walking on a loose leash has simply become a habit.  I don’t have to cue them to walk nicely… they just do it right away and automatically.  The other day I took Rio to Petsmart, which is inside a mall, as we were walking out the exterior doors, Rio stopped and sat waiting to be released through the door… apparently it’s become a habit for him to sit at doors before leaving… awesome.  I knew it was a default behavior in the house but didn’t quite know it had turned into a habit… at the mall door, he sat, looked at me and then looked surprised that he just did that (it was wicked cute!).  He didn’t think about sitting, he just sat because he has to sit at most doors before they open.

Moral of the story… CONDITION GOOD HABITS!

4 Comments
  1. Great explanation.

  2. Nice job with the leash walking. Pulling is that one thing that one really bad habit that I just can’t seem to break with my Lab. No matter what method I’ve tried. Sometimes, it appears to resolve for a bit, but like your nail biting – it always crops up again.

    • Yeah.. it’s not always an easy one to work on or fix… but keep at it (if it’s important to you), you’ll get it at some point!! If i keep working on kicking my habit, I’ll get there eventually!

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