Happy New Year! And how to make your resolutions stick.

Happy New Year!  How’s the head?  Don’t worry, I’ll talk quietly for those of you feeling delicate. 

This time of year is marked by how often you get asked about your new year’s resolutions and how many you have broken by day 2.  There is any amount of human psychology articles on why we feel motivated to make changes and why so many fail.  Not least that the excesses of the festive period feel a need to be expunged and the failure happens because we then ask too much for ourselves too quickly.  Here’s a little summary of the way I look at it… 

Firstly, changes are tiring, we must mentally work much harder as new behaviours usually use our conscious mind rather than our unconscious mind.  Our brains will always try and save energy where we can and this can cause us to feel like we are on auto pilot – ever noticed driving in the car and not remembering much of the journey?  Stuff that doesn’t require much thinking is usually preferable and often bad choices are the lazy ones.

Secondly, we need to create new habits and these can take many weeks and months to embed, particularly those that aren’t as naturally self-reinforcing as downing a chocolate bar.  Most people have given up by then but, to help motivate, it is worth remembering that good habits can be as hard to break as bad ones.  So, unless you are trying to instil something that you find truly horrible, give it enough time and it should become second nature. 

Thirdly, new behaviours need to be reinforcing.  Our rewards system is mainly driven by internal chemicals such as dopamine and this drives what we enjoy and what we will keep doing.  For most people this system is easily triggered by food, the unhealthier the better, and therefore it can be hard to break the bad eating habit.  When dieting, some people advise having a little of what you like to keep on track however this can maintain the almost addictive nature of these trigger foods - complete avoidance would suit other people better until the urges have subsided. 

Avoiding unhelpful habits also helps improve the reinforcing nature of those new behaviours that may not be as naturally reinforcing (repetition of the word reinforcing, apologies).  We can then look at how we can make those new behaviours more reinforcing.  For example, I may not wish to get up and go for a walk but if it’s a chance to join a friend for a chat then it is immediately more appealing.  Or maybe my brisk walk becomes a time when I listen to my favourite radio show.  I also keep the aversive nature of the walk to a minimum by making sure I’m warm, comfortable and it’s not too strenuous at first.  It could also be the thing that kicks off my day and gets followed by a guilt free breckie of healthy but comforting foods.

I mention all this, not only to help me kick my own bad habits, but for me this time of year is noticeable by a marked increase in enquiries for dog training, often for issues that the family have lived with for a long time.  What’s lovely is that people aren’t just thinking about their own personal goals but about the happiness of their friends and family and their pets are included in that.

So how do we go about helping families help their pets make changes that may have become practiced over a long time?  We do it through small manageable goals that become part of everyday life for owner and pet.  For example, maybe we are dealing with an anxious pet that for whatever reason, has become alert to noises in the garden and prone to barking.  One small change we can make is that rather than feed their dinner in a bowl in the house, they get it scattered in the garden.  This gives them something fun to do in a previously worrying space, removes the opportunity to bark (so reducing the habit) and gives them an opportunity to relax while they sniff and search for their food.  For owners, it is probably no extra effort on their part so can quickly become a changed feeding habit.

Habits are particularly important to break and create in dog training, both in terms of the arousal of the dog, but also because they quickly become generalised in different situations.  So, if we consider a dog that is barking in the car at various things, the first thing to note is how over aroused they are before they have even got to their destination.  You will notice that as soon as they get into the car they are alert waiting for triggers - this creates an internal chemistry of stress.  This then sets them up for failure and by the time they arrive where they are going, they are going to be in a less helpful state of mind for training and less responsive.  We will obviously be dealing with why they need to bark at these triggers but the first step is simply to remove the opportunity in the car, often done by using a covered crate.  Then when we arrive at the walk, the vets, or wherever you are taking them, they are already in a better, calmer frame of mind and more responsive to training. 

The final element that carries over to our training is that how do we make new behaviours more reinforcing?  Firstly, a reinforcer is simply something given to the animal that makes them increase the frequency of the behaviour before it.  Dog sits, dog gets dinner, dog will quickly sit for dinner.  Secondly remember that what is reinforcing is defined by the student not us.  We might think that that a big excited bit of praise is reinforcing (and it may be at home or under low distraction), but if the animal’s desired behaviour preceding it doesn’t increase then it isn’t.  If we want our pet to be motivated to do a new behaviour then we need to pay for it, and pay appropriately.  And reinforcers can be many things, food, games, toys, a chase - often we reinforce behaviours without realising (eg the toy throw after a retrieve which then increases the retrieve). 

So, in summary, avoid practising bad habits and reinforce new behaviours until they become habitual and in time they will become unconscious too.  And if you would like to make one training resolution this year then we suggest resolving to always use positive, science based methods that work with your pet and not fight against them.

Good luck with all your goals, I look forward to catching up with you and Widget’s Farm wish everyone a very happy and successful 2017!