We all have behavioral patterns and habits, both healthy and arguably unhealthy that we rehearse and repeat on a regular basis, whether it be drinking that morning coffee, dinner with a glass of wine, smoking, taking out the trash at the same every week, your workout regime, checking for likes on your social media, biting your nails or spying on that noisy neighbor. Some of these choices and routines could be changed or adapted if encouraged and many of them we may become borderline obsessive over. When we think of how challenging it can be to change our own behavior, we can then understand that the same is often true of our dogs.
Now we won’t delve into any major psychology here, but let’s think about why we repeat so many of the choices we make:
It feels good or gives us some sense of relief. It may even have become a coping mechanism.
There’s something or someone that regularly triggers an emotional response that results in us defaulting to certain behaviors. These behaviors can either improve or worsen over time with repeated exposure to the situation.
We feel like our access to multiple choices is limited and so we pick the only things that are available to us.
There has been a previously successful outcome or reward of some sort.
There is an underlying medical condition present (itchiness, upset tummy, pain, infection).
We have learned through trial and error, or through some type of guidance which choices are actually most appropriate.
So now again, take a moment to think about what behaviors your dog rehearses on a regular basis and which one or more of the points above may be contributing to that repetition from their point of view.
Why is talking about rehearsal important?
When a behavior is practiced over and over again it becomes stronger, more ingrained and more quickly accessible than something less familiar or available. In a dog, if this is sitting for their food, lying down quietly on their bed when you are having your dinner, or checking in with you frequently on walks that’s great! But what if it’s barking, jumping uncontrollably, running through the front door into the street or even biting?
Believe it or not the first step to improving a dog’s behavior or eliminating a problem is not the technicality of the training itself, it is preventing the dog from being able to choose the undesirable behavior in the first place, preventing the rehearsal!
Hopefully, this is a little bit of a lightbulb moment for you right now and your understanding of what’s going on with your dog’s behavior. Let’s look at some really common examples of things that we often don’t like very much and the possible solutions for preventing… what’s that word again?
“We have a large property. 10-month-old Lily will often wander off out of sight when outdoors and won’t come back to me or come inside.”
Insight and Prevention:
The outdoor environment and all its sights and smells is a huge distraction for a dog and often a whole lot more dynamic and interesting than us humans have learned to be in order to compete. Daily uncontrolled access to the entire property may be too much freedom for such a young, new or inexperienced dog and the sheer number of choices available may be overwhelming.
Keep Lily on leash or on a line tethered to you when she is outside to prevent her access to the entirety of the outdoor space and the possibility of her ‘getting into trouble’.
Don’t leave Lily outside unsupervised anymore.
Cordon off a much smaller area for you to hang out in with Lily so that you are more in control of how far she goes from you or the house.
Go for walks around the property together so you, the human can be part of the fun and remain in the picture for now. This will also help you notice more of your dog’s choices!
“6-year-old Toby stands on top of the couch and barks out of the front window at people and dogs.”
Insight and Prevention:
Watching multiple stimuli approaching the home can be very stressful for a dog, especially over and over again all day long. It reminds me of the cranky old man who wishes the kids next door would just stay off his front lawn. And let’s not even get started on the mail carrier right? But what a great job Toby thinks he’s done though when all that barking causes the carrier to go away. Ah… environmental reinforcement at its best!
Keep Toby out of the front room when you are not there to manage things and when people/dog traffic may be at its highest.
Close the curtains or blinds, stick up some removable gel frosting on the windows, keep some low volume music, the tv or some white noise playing to drown out the sounds of jingling collars and a rattling mail box, move your mail box to the end of the driveway instead of having it right at the front door…. So many opportunities to get creative here!
What else does Toby have to do with his day? It sounds like this little guy is in need of a huge increase in physical and mental stimulation and for his time to be better spent on other things.
*One additional thing to say here is that Toby may have been practicing this behavior for a long time. The longer the behavior has been rehearsed, the longer it can take to change the habit and the more consistent guidance your dog will need.
“2-year-old Misty jumps all over people when they enter the home.”
Insight and Prevention:
Oh Misty, she’s just a big lover right? But no matter the poundage, allowing demanding behavior and a lack of self-control is inappropriate and sometimes unsafe for many reasons. It is not however an attempt at ‘dominance’ so do not fear, this is not Misty’s impression of Animaniacs Pinky and the Brain!
Keep Misty on leash when guests arrive.
Have Misty spend her time in another space with something fun and rewarding to occupy her instead of you both having to struggle with the over-excitement in this context.
Exercise her before your guest’s arrival so she has less energy available for the jumping.
Don’t pet and cuddle Misty when she is putting her front feet all over you upon your own arrival home from work. (Oops, you forgot that YOU might be accidentally rewarding behaviors you don’t want didn’t you!)
We could go on and on with these examples of where preventing that rehearsal of undesirable behavior is not only key to changing your dog’s habits and patterns, but is also a very achievable part of the training process.
So, don’t wait for these behaviors to present themselves so that you can correct them. Corrections only serve to withdraw from your relationship with your dog and perpetuate the negative emotions that you are both feeling. And what do corrections NOT do? Yes, I’m saying it again… PREVENT REHEARSAL.
Instead, where can rehearsal actually benefit you and your dog? Now that you have this all-important key to success, its time to begin thinking about what you CAN encourage your dog to rehearse – the good behaviors, the things you would like to see repeated. Don’t just ignore that calm behavior, or the choice to grab and chew on a toy instead of your table leg, reward it!
Remember, you are what you rehearse every day and even just being aware of this is a huge step in the right direction!
Jessica Powell, CPDT-KA
Proud Paws Dog Training