Each day I wake up, go into the kitchen to feed the dogs, head to my computer where I clear my email and do a few routine tasks, take a shower, etc. The first hour or two of my day I think very little because my behaviors are largely driven by habit.
Habits make life easy. I can feed the dogs when I’m half asleep. Indeed, an hour later I can look back and have no conscious memory of the event at all, yet the dogs are fed, the bowls are in the dishwasher and any supplies needed to make the dog’s meals are back where they belong.
Habits free up my mind for other things. When I drive my son to school, taking the same route each day, I can concentrate on our conversation, or whatever random thoughts are in my head.
Habits give me comfort. Each member of my family sits in the same chair at the dinner table every night. There’s no particular reason for this, and we could certainly change it around at each meal, but we don’t! We’re creatures of habit and routine.
Habits make life easy and unless I take some time to consider them, they are unlikely to change without significant effort.
Indeed, habits are so powerful that they tend to be maintained even when they are somewhat dysfunctional for the individual. For example, if I changed my shower to the afternoon instead of the morning, I’d stay clean a whole lot longer, because the thing I do after my shower is take a walk. And while my choice of shower time is not logical, my habit creates an inertia in me that makes me unwilling to change. I like my habits, even when they are not particularly rational.
Habits are a huge motivator because they make life easy, predictable and emotionally comfortable, even when they are not optimally functional for my current situation.
Our dogs appear to operate on habit as well. It’s not hard for us to see habits form in our dogs. For example, in my house, big dogs are not allowed on the furniture. So when my dog enters the room where I am sitting? It doesn’t occur to them to get on the couch; they head directly to their dog bed. They do not weigh out their options because habit directs their behavior. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I find it extremely unlikely that they think about it at all beyond the first weeks in my home when I consciously directed them off the couch and onto their dog beds. It’s part of their habit of living with me; it’s unconscious. Indeed, I suspect that “sleep on the couch” isn’t even a possibility within their mental repertoire because it’s never happened.
My dogs are not allowed on my kitchen table. They are not allowed on my counters. They are not allowed on kitchen chairs. It doesn’t matter if there is food up there or not, if I see a dog heading to the chair to get on the table, I’m going to stop that behavior. Instantly. And soon that habit is formed as well, now a significant pathway in the brain, so that no matter what might be on the table or counter, it doesn’t occur to them to try and take it.
How does this relate to dogs and dog training?
When a new dog shows up in my home, I am going to choose the three or four habits that I want from my dogs. The unconscious behavior patterns that are most important to me over the long run. You may want to do the same. Before you even bring your dog into your house, whether a puppy or an adult, decide which habits matter to you; which ones you want to form immediately and maintain for life, and then be 100% predictable about training and enforcing those habits. Discuss it at length with your entire family! Because if your dog has an occasional long snooze on your couch or manages to get on your countertop and eat a plate of food then that will haunt you for a very long time – It will occur to them that they have a choice in the matter and it will keep alternative behaviors in the realm of conscious thought rather than moving them quickly to the realm of habits. The good kind; the kind we want to see!
If there is something you never want to see, then go to some trouble to never see it. I never want to see my dogs comfortably settled on the couch or cruising around on my counters, so I go to some trouble never to allow it to happen. Instead, I consider what I DO want to see and I make it the easier path (to be discussed in a later blog).
My dogs don’t think about where they are going to sleep or who gets the food on the counters; no mental effort is required at all. And if dogs are anything like humans then this predictability of life provides the dogs with comfort. It’s easy. And that’s the end of it.
The goal is to form habits such that the alternative never crosses the dog’s mind; it is outside their mental repertoire. For example, if you allow your dog on your furniture sometimes, maybe for the first few weeks of life, and then you decide that for the rest of your dog’s life you don’t want them to do that, I can almost guarantee you it’s going to be a whole lot harder to change their behavior. That’s why you need to decide before the puppy arrives – what’s important to you? How will you teach it? How will you respond if you discover that an error is taking place?
And…is everyone in your family on board? If some of you are and others are not, it is absolutely possible that your dog will learn one set of rules for you and another set for others, but that effort – keeping the behavior within the realm of conscious decision making, is exactly what we want to avoid, and will block the formation of a solid and predictable unconscious habit that will likely last well into old age. Pick a few things that really matter to you and then focus on developing the habits that you want to see.