Every New Year's Day I go for a run. It blows away the cobwebs, clears the fog of one too many Proseccos, and puts me in the right frame of mind to start as I mean to go on.
Hands up, success does vary from year to year and I'm not alone. According to research by Strava (the exercise app popular with runners and cyclists), the second Friday of the month is the most likely day that people will give up on their New Year's resolutions.
Resolutions for dog training and behaviour challenges often suffer a similar fate.
Why are New Year's resolutions so hard to stick to?
When you think about it, a lot of resolutions revolve around stopping something. Stop drinking, stop smoking, stop eating chocolate, stop driving to work or the shops and cycle/walk instead. Stop doing something you like doing!
The challenge is that the desire to do so many of these activities is triggered by something else which is much harder to avoid than the act itself. The glass of wine with a nice meal, a cigarette or chocolate with a coffee, the convenience of driving.
Habits are the result of a process. Something acts as a prompt, you make a choice, and that choice is then rewarded. The reward helps your brain remember that choice and with repetition it becomes instinctive. The more we practice something the more instinctive it becomes and the harder it is to change.
Whether you're a human or a dog, habits that take time to form need time to change...
The habits of your dog are also a result of a process. A doorbell rings, prompting barking, and the postman disappears. The appearance of the lead triggers excitement, immediately followed by a walk. A perceived threat to your dog's safety prompts growling, and the threat retreats.
Habits that have formed over months and years can't be changed overnight. It takes time for those impulses to fade and they have to be replaced with an alternative.
So how do I change my dog training goals into new habits?
When we want to change our habits we avoid triggers, find replacements and change routines - we avoid the pub, choose healthier snacks, get up earlier to allow time to walk instead of drive etc. We don't stop doing something just because someone told us to.
The best way to help your dog change their habits is to adopt a similar approach. Barking at the window? Restrict viewing opportunities while rewarding settling on a bed. Barking at other dogs? Go to quieter places where your dog is under less pressure, and take some of their food to drop onto the grass to encourage them to sniff instead of scan.
The key is to be consistent and persistent in avoiding or reducing exposure to triggers and building a new habit to replace them. Try to judge success by progress, rather than whether your dog made a mistake or not, we all have good days and bad days and the reasons for those are not always in your control.
Habits are often tied up with emotions and these can be hard to unravel so if you need some help please get in touch.
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