It Takes Two to Change Behavior

But that's not what your eyes said!

One of the most effective tools we can use to change our dog’s behavior has nothing to do with leashes or liver treats ¬†or collars or corrections. It has to do with the difficult task of changing our own behavior.

While this may seem an oversimplification, in practice it’s often anything but simple. It requires us to change behaviors we may have spent a lifetime cultivating and challenges us to extinguish behaviors, (our own,) that have become extremely rewarding to us on some level.

Often, many of the nuisance behaviors we are trying to change in our dogs, started out as cutesy behaviors on their part that were emotionally rewarding to us. The dog is being rewarded and reinforced via attention and other life rewards, and we are being emotionally rewarded in kind; an emotional circle that feeds on itself.

But as those cutesy behaviors start to amplify, they can became nuisance behaviors to us and others, and may even go beyond into dangerous ones. We start to focus on “the dogs” misbehavior and lose site of the fact that we are the ones perpetuating them. We look for a quick fix and expect the dog to change their behavior while we continue our prompting and rewarding; we expect the dog to figure out our mixed messages.

A perfect example of this relationship is playing out at my house right now between my wife, Jackie, and my terrier, Elbee. What started off as a cute pre walk ritual, has now morphed into an out of control dog that becomes so hyper the other dogs nip and bark at him to get him to settle down.

The attention seeking, jumping, and yapping were very endearing to Jackie and she encouraged it by bending over and petting and playing with him. However, as time went on his antics began to increase in intensity and duration. Instead of changing her own behavior and placing simple rules on the pre walk ritual, my wife’s reaction was as many people’s might be; she either speed up the process to get out the door quicker, or she would say “Elbee, stop.” or Elbee, leave it.”, neither of which are very effective.

The solution to this quagmire is a strikingly simple one but one that takes discipline and repetition on our part. We simply need to change “our” pre walk behavior.

When we first brought Elbee in off the corners, I established a very simple rule in many of my interactions with him; good things happen in my time. He was emaciated and VERY excited about food. Out of sympathy for his plight, I allowed him to act out a bit at feeding time. But as soon as he was out of danger I changed my behavior. I simply waited until he was quiet before I put his food down. If he made a move for his food before I was ready, I simply waited until he settled and would let me put the food down without any harassment. It took all of about 10 minutes over a couple days feeding to get this down pat. I believe one reason he picked it up so quickly is that dogs in a new environment like that are on constant lookout to pick up the new rules of their environment.

Although changing this behavior will take longer, the same principal will (and does for me) work. With no treats, corrections, or physical devices of any kind, we will simply wait for Elbee to calm down before advancing any further out the door for a walk. A process that needs to be taken step by step and performed by every person every time it’s time for walkies.

Over the next month or so I will be putting together some videos of the process starting from the full blown three ring circus, and hopefully progressing to an orderly walk out the door. By changing our behavior our dog will learn on his own that changing his behavior is the best way to go walkies.

So how do you think it will go? Will consistency and changing our behavior alone be enough to get Elbee to be reasonably calm during the pre walk process? I hope you’ll check back with us to see how it goes and we encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas with us.