... it depends...
My friend Donna is overjoyed about getting a puppy this fall. “I have food and water dishes all ready for her. I’ll feed the puppy her meals in the exact same place I’ve always fed my dogs,” she said, with much warmth and love in her voice.
Donna’s habit equals feed dog in the same place, at the same time of day, from the same dishes. Easy, simple. Though there may be a practical component to this habit, it’s primarily founded on sentiment; Donna will derive much pleasure from seeing her new puppy eat from the same dish as her previous and very beloved dogs.
However… is it good practice to cultivate these same habits in a dog? What might be the advantages and disadvantages?
Habits are Automatic
“Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.”*
We share pretty much the same brain hardware with dogs. They have similar basal ganglia to us though their frontal cortex is significantly smaller relative to ours. Even so, habit-forming in dogs works in much the same way as it does with humans.
“But she sits for me at home when I ask her.”
Have you ever taken your dog somewhere new, asked for something really simple that you know your dog knows… but she doesn’t respond like she does every time at home? There’s a good reason for this, and don’t blame your dog!
Habit Theory “…proposes that behavior is tied to the context in which it occurs due to a learned stimulus-response association. When we are faced with the situational cues related to the context, we execute the associated behavior.**
This, translated, means that if your dog is only getting practice doing the behavior in a very specific place, she won’t necessarily have any idea how to do it anywhere else because the place itself is part of the cue. Yes, the living room in which you do most of your training becomes an essential component to the cue “sit.” Without the living room, the cue is not complete. The bottom line: take your training everywhere.
A certain situation may cue a corresponding behavior.
The approach of a human might cue a dog to jump or to sit. It depends on the pattern that has been established. We can control many patterns.
Life Equals 40-90% Habit
As I was researching the psychology of habits in humans, I found a wide range of suggestions as to the percentage of our daily behaviors which can be attributed to habits. They ranged from 40-90%! Though these figures are far apart, the implication is impressive. We all fall prey to the habits we have cultivated over the course of our lives. The difference with dogs is that they have no reason to change their undesirable (to us) habits unless we help them learn something different. Likewise, their good habits will only be reliable in very specific settings unless we have them practice the habits in a variety of situations.
Change the Picture. Often.
Donna’s new puppy will benefit from eating her meals in many different settings from many different objects at varying times of the day. In fact, she shouldn’t be eating a “meal” from a bowl, period, because we want to capitalize on the power of food by putting it to use in strategic ways. For example, the puppy can learn to offer a stay with attention when she’s in the house, in the yard, at the park, and in the presence of distractions, etc. if Donna has her practice this simple behavior in different locations, increasing the difficulty as her new puppy is ready.
A few simple habits to work on and some others to break
• When you give your dog a treat, offer it at heel position rather than in front of you. This will add value to heel position and make leash walking easier.
• Right after you take your dog’s leash off, give her a few treats. This will help prevent the dash-away behavior that many dogs learn and with repetition may alleviate the pull-to-get-unleashed tendency.
• Avoid teaching your dog to sit for every treat. You don’t want to only pay your dog to sit - there are many other skills to reward.
*npr.org, “Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them”
**https://social-change.co.uk, “An Introduction to Habit Theory”