It’s February, and by now nearly everyone has given up on his or her New Year resolutions. Four weeks or so into 2020, those tenacious few who haven’t succumbed to the force of old habits are not yet gloating or sailing smoothly into the sunset of “New Year, New Me.” They are too busy, still chipping away at their goals, making conscious decisions to persevere every day; they are backsliding occasionally, slipping into the soft and comfortable space of old routines even as they work daily to build new and better ones.
So it goes when it comes to changing behavior. It is not a straight shot. There are no miracle pills or devices that spare us the hard work and conscious decision-making it takes daily to overcome deeply rooted, often even unconscious, habits. Learning new skills or coping mechanisms takes time, hefty doses of self-awareness, and self-control. Building new neural pathways in the brain doesn’t happen overnight just because we’d like it to or because we understand that this new habit we’d like to replace the old one with is actually the healthier, smarter choice for us. It is quite possible to understand that eating a big old salad of leafy greens and fresh crunchy veggies for lunch is the wiser choice than a double-double burger, but that is no guarantee you won’t find yourself at the In-N-Out drive through “just this once.”
Habits are formed over time. They are influenced and fed by our emotions, our environment, and the way they make us feel inside. Many habits are coping mechanisms. Often they provide some sort of comfort. And some habits are performed completely unconsciously. All of these factors make it a challenge to change. The good news is behavior is fluid and mutable. Habits are hard and sharp, but our brains are like clay, and we can soften those hard edges or even make new shapes and pathways if we try really hard.
Yet anyone who has ever tried to stop a bad habit such as biting your fingernails or quitting smoking knows that it doesn’t happen overnight. Nor does adding a new routine, such as exercising every day before work. By it’s very definition, a habit must be performed repeatedly; days, weeks, months must be accrued to qualify.
The same is true for our dogs. Jumping up when greeting. Barking at other dogs on walks. Chasing skateboards. These are all doggy customs or coping mechanisms. They are habits. And just as with people, changing canine habits is a process. Additionally, when we are trying to change the habits of another sentient being, a different species no less, the challenges are even greater then trying to change oneself. This is what dog training is all about — changing behavior or adding new behaviors to replace old ones. But … it takes time.
I find it perplexing when my clients or students ask when training will be finished. “When will the puppy listen to the kids?” “How long do I have to keep rewarding Fido?” Questions such as this bother me for several reasons. For one, training your dog should be fun. Why would you want it to end? Good training is enjoyable at both ends of the leash. Good training is a conversation. A game. A ritual. A part of your relationship. Keeping desired behavior well-versed takes practice and regular tweaking, but it doesn’t have to be viewed as work.
Maintaining equilibrium in mammal minds is indeed a balancing act, and just as when a gymnast performs on a balance beam, there are dips, bobs, counter-balances, and even tumbles that occur until the performer reaches fluency. Even then, practice must be regular to maintain the skill — plenty of practice. Keeping good behavior fresh in the brain requires recitation, just like keeping a favorite song memorized does. And in cases where dog training is not only adding new, desired behavior but using this new routine to perhaps replace an old, less desirable one, there is no fast track. It took your dog perhaps three months or many years to learn to pull on leash or bark at the mail carrier; you’ll need a good amount of time and a fair amount of practice to reliably replace the “bad” with the “good.”
My advice to keep training fresh and fun is to learn to enjoy the ride. Forget about the end date. Sure, have goals, but when you meet them, perhaps move the goal posts just a little bit further, because learning is a part of life. Learning keeps our minds pliable and creative. Be playful in your training sessions. Make training together a daily habit, a ritual that enriches your relationship with your dog.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SIRIUSPup.com, the family business.
Main article photo by: Payamona / iStock