New Year, New Patterns

New Year, New Patterns

Weaving New Habits into Life

Merriam-Webster defines “habit” as:    

  1. settled tendency or usual manner of behavior.
  2. an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary
  3. addiction
  4. a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance
The topic of “habit” is applicable this time of year when we turn the metaphorical pages of the calendar to a new year. Saying goodbye to the year behind can prompt us to give at least a cursory glance towards improving or changing our ways. The idea of making and keeping a “New Year’s Resolution” is attractive; this personal commitment could lead to a better life, improved fitness… you name it.

But... it’s not so easy, is it?

Patterns Build Habits
When I walk into my house, I typically head straight to the kitchen for a snack. I’m not usually hungry; it’s just what has become a habit for me.

Enter house.
Go to kitchen.
Scavenge for food.

It’s one pattern among many others, practiced and perfected over the course of many years. I do it without thinking. I am not proud of it.

Why is it that “bad” habits are so much easier to make but much harder to break than “good” habits?

What about our dogs?
It works the same way for dogs: patterns build habits and “bad” habits grow quickly. Of course, from the dog’s perspective, it’s all good if it works for them. “Good” habits take thought, time. and understanding from us to help them flourish in our dogs.

Weave Helpful Patterns into Everyday Life
I have some good news, though. There are very simple ways we can establish useful patterns by practicing them regularly as a normal course of the day, with very little additional time or effort on our part. The following are some of the patterns I have established with my dogs over the years. After sufficient repetitions and good timing, the patterns start to gel and I get the responses and results I am looking for. Best of all, the dogs are happy participants.
  • “Collar” means the collar is going to be put on. Because collar on means a treat and potential for adventure, my dogs learn to come enthusiastically when I say “collar.”
  • “Leash”: same as above. I say “leash,” hook it to the collar and give my dog a treat.
  • Leash off. When I take the leash off my dog, I give him a treat or two or three. Why? Have you ever struggled to remove your dog's leash because he's pulling so hard? This is because he anticipates freedom once the leash comes off, and the antecedent to the leash coming off is you fiddling with and unclipping it. The pattern is pull, pull… freedom! I like the leash being detached to mean “treat!” The result is I have an attentive dog the moment the leash comes off.
  • Say your dog’s name just before something awesome is going to happen for him. This adds value to his name, to you, and improves recall in general. “Awesome” depends on your dog and what he values at that moment.
  • Pat on head. Ugh… humans are so rude. We think it’s nice to pat a dog on top of his head. Most dogs loathe this, but humans will do it anyway. Help your dog form a more positive opinion of it by preparing him through the pattern of pat-treat…. repeat. It should build up his tolerance for it even when he doesn’t get a treat from others.
  • “Head’s up” warning cues. Dogs can get startled by sudden noises. If I’m about to create a noise that could be startling, I simply declare “noise!” then do what I need to do.
  • Labeling spaces. “Inside, “outside,” “upstairs” ... any space that’s relevant to your dog and to which you are headed.
  • “Excuse me, please.” I say this just before I need to walk through my dog’s space. I become a gentle snowplow if he doesn’t move. Pretty soon, a dog learns to yield his space when you say, “excuse me.” It’s a very polite and cooperative way too.
  • The Apology Reward. Let’s face it, we occasionally hurt our dogs. Perhaps we accidentally step on a tail or a toe, or perhaps we cause pain while treating a wound. It happens. I say, “I’m so sorry!” and then immediately follow up with something my dog values at that moment. The Apology Reward builds trust, resilience, and forgiveness.
I’m sure you can come up with simple patterns that you can implement in your day-to-day life with your dogs. I’d love to hear about your ideas. These simple strategies build understanding, vocabulary, and relationships and take very little time and effort to achieve.

Happy Training!

Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine., (207)252-9352
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