7 Things We Know About Dogs Pt. 6 – Dogs Form Habits

7 Things We Know About Dogs Pt. 6 – Dogs Form Habits

Dogs form habits much like humans do. A habit is something your dog does without thinking about it. It can be a behavior that your dog has always done, or it can be a behavior that your dog has been doing longer than 30 days.

“We’ve been told (and I’ve repeated in my books ) that it takes about 21 to 28 days to learn a new habit. That doesn’t sound like too long a time, but the research also found that people tend to drop out a new behavior after about 2 weeks if they don’t go out of their way to keep going. But a new study from psychologist Phillippa Lally of University College London found it took an average of 9.5 weeks to get students to incorporate a new habit into their daily lives. Two and a half months — oh my, that’s a serious chunk of time. Good for us to remember when we are working with our dogs. There’s little question in my mind that one of the most common mistakes we make with our dogs is to get a good behavior started, and then stop reinforcing it too soon.

Of course, we have to be careful to about making assumptions from human research to canine behavior. Indeed, we have to be careful about generalizing the results of one study on college students (96 of them, asking them to form a new healthy habit like drinking a glass of water before eating lunch) to the rest of human behavior at all.”**

Most of my clients come for training to deal with habitual behaviors that their dog displays. Common ones are house training issues, jumping up, pulling on the leash, barking excitedly at dogs on leash, playing keep away in the backyard, even staying in an adrenalized state can be habitual.

Habits form by-way-of consistency, and association. Dogs learn habits through association. Association cannot be achieved without consistency. We all know the story of Pavlov’s dog.

Pavlov rang a bell and gave a dog food. The dog started to drool.

Pavlov did this for a while then rang a bell and the dog started to drool. Without food being present.

When we look at this story we start to see the beginning of habit formation. Pavlov rings a bell and gives the dog food. Every time he rings the bell he gives the dog food and the dog drools. The food triggers the drooling behavior.  He does this consistently for a period of time. Then he rings the bell with no food present and the dog starts to drool. This is called Classical Conditioning. Now if Pavlov continued to ring the bell and getting the dog to drool for over a month that behavior would be habitual. Meaning that even without food present that dog would continue to drool upon hearing the bell indefinitely.

How to break a dog’s habit:

Step 1: Know exactly what you would like to see change.

Step 2: Know when the habitual behavior is most likely to happen.

Step 3: Notice what your dog does before (the sign) committing the habitual behavior.

Step 4: Do not allow the behavior to happen, stop it when your dog gives the sign.

Step 5: Continues to stop the behavior from happening for a month or more.

When a month or more has passed and your dog has not done that behavior under those conditions a new habit is formed.

It takes time and effort to overcome habitual behaviors. Once there is a new habitual behavior it takes little effort to maintain it.

One of my biggest goals and challenges as a trainer of dogs and a teacher of canine communication for people is recognizing and changing habitual behavior in both species.

Our dog’s habit is to show shy behaviors; often our habit becomes coddling and petting the dog while she is showing shy behavior. We may not even notice that we are petting the dog for or while that behavior is happening.  When we stop petting the dog while showing shy behaviors and start asking the dog to do things for us when she is showing shy behaviors and petting her for those great things that she does, that is when we start to change her habit of being shy, and we start to teach her that as long as she is paying attention to us there is nothing to fear. We start to send the message there is nothing to fear, we are in charge. In other word our dog’s habits will change after our habits change.

Shyness is not always an habitual behavior, but sometimes it is. I am using shyness as one example. There are many other examples.

** Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, CAAB

How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Habit?