Changing behaviours that our dogs practice regularly but that cause them or us strife is an important task of all dog guardians. We love our dogs and we want them to be happy, we don’t want them to get into trouble and we certainly don’t want to damage their wellness or our relationship through practicing awkward or negative behaviours over and over again.
We can make things a little easier to understand by considering behaviour as choices. We can then consider a series of choices, habits. And we know that habit are difficult to break – particularly if there is emotion behind them.
An example might be that we live with a dog who lunges and barks at other dogs when on the lead on walks. That is a common choice for many of our beloved friends and a choice most often driven by emotion. The dog might be scared and chasing the other dog way. The dog might even be excited and desperate to say hello so barking from frustration. Each dog is different with their own unique mix of emotions. Each dog starts by making a choice of how to react and then repeats that choice regularly enough for it to be a habit.
It’s not good for any dog to be lunging and barking on the lead though (insert any other unhelpful behaviour here – for this information counts with all of them) so if we continue letting them do it we are in essence letting their natural wellness suffer. Their Sympathetic Nervous System kicks in, they get agitated and their natural homeostasis suffers – leaving them unbalanced for most of the day and sometimes into the next day. When any of us are out of natural balance, our entire body and mind suffer – a fact that includes our dogs. Even low level imbalance can lead to digestive issues and stress. So what can we do?
First we look at the choice our dog is making, then we consider the emotion behind it. We can’t disregard emotions, that’s not fair and can cause suppression of emotional responses and lead to further problems. We then work out how to minimise the emotional response for the dog whilst at the same time making a different, better and more motivating choice available to them. So in our example of the lunging barking dog we increase the distance between them and the other dog, then teach them to look at us for a reward. Or if our dog is over excited and jumping up we teach them that all four feet on the ground is so rewarding that they make that new choice every time.
So we work out the emotion, we teach a different and healthier choice by setting our dog up to make that choice then rewarding it, gradually shaping a new habit altogether.
If we just ignored the dog when they made the “bad” choice we are naturally setting them up to get it wrong and be ignored – neither are great for their self-esteem. Yet the beauty of teaching an alternative choice is that we naturally make it impossible for them to fail by making the best choice the easiest and most rewarding. This in turn is the start of a new healthier habit and avoids the void of despair that can occur when our dogs are expected to stop one behaviour but are given no hints of what to do with that snippet of time instead.
So that’s why we teach and alternative behaviour.