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How to Break Bad Habits In Dog Behaviour

What is a habit?

A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

Like humans, dogs can develop habits or behaviours over time, and their brains become accustomed to these routines. When dogs practice behaviours that make them happy, their brains release dopamine. This chemical reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to be repeated. Changing existing habits involves breaking down old neural pathways in the brain.

If you think about your dog’s behaviour, is there a particular behaviour that you want to change? One that is annoying or frustrating to you?

When we look at behaviour, we often class it as:
Is the behaviour a problem for your dog, you, or another person or animal? Or a combination?

Many annoying behaviours are actually very reinforcing and normal for dogs to do. For example, barking at the postman is a self-reinforcing behaviour as it works really well (dog barks, postman goes away). Grabbing crumbs or snacks off the kitchen bench is another example of a behaviour that is a problem for us, not so much for the dog!

There are some behaviours that are not ideal for dogs to practice long term. Constant, repetitive toy/ball chasing is a good example. It can increase the risk of injury, plus increase arousal levels so that your dog doesn’t have a chance to relax and think rationally. Chasing a ball can often become like a habit for a dog, they can become addicted to the rush.

For a behaviour to be repeated, it needs to be reinforcing. Reinforcement drives behaviour. Whatever the behaviour, to change it there is a process to go through.

  1. Understanding why a behaviour is occurring and the causes. Behaviour is made up genetics, previous experiences and learning history, the environment and physiology. Your dog may be genetically predisposed to barking, your dog may have previous learning history that kitchen benches may have tasty snacks on them, or the postman is scary as he wears a helmet and sunglasses.
  2. Eliminating or minimising the opportunity for your dog to rehearse the behaviour. This step focusses on changing the environment, so the dog doesn’t have a chance to practice the behaviour. It may include preventing access or changing the time you allow access to certain areas, blocking vision, using a lead, a crate, or a baby gate are just some examples.
  3. Training – building a toolbox of well known behaviours that are alternative to the ‘problem’ behaviour. For example, teaching place/mat training, hand target, eye contact, sit to greet, lay down, find it. Once these behaviours are well rehearsed, we are starting to build new neural pathways in the brain.
  4. Systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. This basically means that something that may trigger your dog to practice an old behaviour is introduced gradually at a distance or low intensity, then we pair it with good things and eventually more appropriate behaviours. This is a process and will look different for any behaviour you are wanting to change so it’s best to get a qualified trainer to help.

It’s absolutely normal to feel frustrated with your dog’s ‘bad habits’. Changing behaviour can take time and can vary with the individual. Contact us to help you make a tailored plan and guide you through the process.

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