Change doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t matter if the change is something insignificant like changing the TV channel or if it’s something life-altering such as changing careers or moving. Change is the result of a motivating force that causes us to seek something better, a force that makes us pursue a different path for a more preferable result. Change is the result of motivation, where there is no motivation, change won’t survive.

A few years ago, I chose to change my diet in a limiting way.  The initial motivation came from a concern about my health, however it took a long time for that motivation to build. What started as a two-week trial ended up being a permanent solution as I realized that my health had improved dramatically.  The change itself wasn’t easy, I agonized for months whether the stress and problematic nature of the diet would be worth the result. It was inconvenient, scary, annoying. However, I was rewarded in the end and that reward has continued to reinforce the change despite it’s difficulties.

Wait a second. This isn’t a blog about diets and human health. How does this tie into dog training? Well! Let me tell you…

Change in our dogs is difficult. Habits, whether they are good or bad, develop because they are the natural desire of our dogs in a particular situation. The behaviors that go along with those habits feel good, they’re easy, and they’re difficult to change.

Recently, I questioned whether I should give up drinking alcohol. I assessed my consumption and analyzed the pros and cons. Currently, going to breweries and trying different ciders and wines is a fun social interaction for me. I am not motivated to make that change, I am quite happy with my current habits.  My current habit of social drinking is far more reinforcing to me than my perceived idea of what my experiences would be like without alcohol consumption.

We’re lucky, we are able to predict what our lives would be like after a change in habits. Our dogs don’t have that ability.  Instead, we have to find different ways to motivate the change in their habits, to replace undesirable behaviors with ones that we (their handlers) would prefer.

The typical way of discouraging bad behaviors in dogs includes replacing that bad behavior with a more acceptable one. For instance, if a dog jumps on guests at the front door, we can train that dog to lay on a mat when they hear the doorbell ring. It is impossible for that dog to jump on a guest and lay on the mat at the same time.  Sounds great, right? Well, we know that a change in habits requires motivation, so in this scenario, we have to find a way to make laying on a mat a more desirable behavior for our dog.  Some dogs, the promise of a food reward is good enough. Others, need a high rate of reinforcement or perhaps some creative thinking in terms of what we are actually reinforcing the dogs with.

A couple of years ago, I made another big change in my life. A group of friends and I gave up pop (soda, for you non-northern people). I was a three-can a day, avid Dr. Pepper supporter. This was not an easy change for me, but I knew the health benefits would be worth it.  I replaced my cans of pop with bottles of water and made it successfully a month without lapsing. It still wasn’t easy, it was a constant daily battle. I had to find an alternative behavior, something else to drink to replace pop.  Luckily, for me, I found joy in testing new beverages and quickly found new, healthier favorites.  My friend wasn’t as lucky. She wasn’t able to find a replacement that helped her maintain the new behavior and she ultimately went back to drinking pop.

Change is hard and that change needs maintenance if it’s to survive.  At some point, that maintenance gets easier and less demanding. Somewhere along the line, that new habit that had been created merely to prevent an old habit, solidifies and takes hold. But it’s hard work. Even harder when we can’t explain the pros and cons to our dogs, or tell them that they will be better off waiting at an open door instead of charging into the street.  It’s up to us to motivate the change for our dogs.

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