How to break, and make, new habits in dog behaviour training

When it comes to habits, dogs are the same as us. When a behaviour is repeated frequently enough, it becomes instinctive. So how do we break, and make, new habits in dog behaviour training?

So, how does it work?

The more we practise a behaviour, the more habitual it will become until we hardly even know we are doing it. Habits start because the behaviour fulfils a need, and that is a powerful motivator for a new behaviour. For example, licking feet might relieve anxiety, or barking at another dog might relieve fear. Likewise, guarding food avoids hunger and chewing relieves frustration. These are strong examples of habits, but even shaking the lead or grabbing at coats can be habits. In fact, pretty much any behaviour can become a habit if it is repeated enough, and has a purpose.

Habits are different to other behaviours because they take no thought. Your dog will be able to repeat them whatever is happening. In fact, they are especially useful when your dog goes over threshold. When your dogs emotions overwhelm him (over threshold) the instinctive part of the brain is in charge and that part of the brain prioritises habitual behaviours.

Check out… Addressing needs in dogs… getting to the heart of the behaviour problem.

Habits are complex things

If you have ever tried to break a habit, you’ll know it isn’t a simple process. Dogs are no different. If anything, it is harder to change a dogs habits as unlike you, they didn’t choose the change. Your dog is probably very happy to bark at every postman that passes as it works very well at keeping him safe. When you decided to quite biting your nails, you at least made that choice yourself and wanted to commit to it.

In any case, it isn’t just a case of teaching a new behaviour and you’re done. When you quit biting your nails, you knew how to “not bite your nails”, that didn’t mean you were cured! Habits are much more complex than that. These automatic behaviours are hard to resist, so we need to be there to help our dogs choose a new behaviour instead.


If we think of a set of scales; on one side we have the old behaviour, and on the other side we have the new behaviour. Let’s say your dog has barked at a passer-by, twice a day, for 6 months. That means he has barked at a passer-by a total of 360 times. That is 360 times he has felt safer by scaring someone away – that’s powerful stuff. So we can see that it’s not going to take a 10 minute training session to undo that.

Take it step by step

So, we’ll start by teaching the new behaviour, this could be “look at me”, or “sit on your bed”, or lick a mat. The new behaviour will replace the old one, but must also fulfil the same need. If your dog is anxious and licks his feet, whatever you choose to do instead should also relieve anxiety. So in this case, licking a mat might be a good swap, but “look at me” wouldn’t. If the dog is guarding his food, he must still get a good meal as a result, so look at me might work here whereas “go to bed” will be ineffective. If he is trying to scare away the postman, it must make him feel safe so stand behind me might work – you get the idea!

Then, we fulfil the need in other ways. A dog that is worried about food might be helped by more frequent meals, or a tighter feeding routine. A dog that is reactive to other dogs might benefit from actively maintaining a safe distance from other dogs for a while, so they can build confidence slowly. This will reduce the need for the behaviour in the first place and make it easier for them to accept a replacement.

Once you’ve introduced both those things, you can stop them doing what they always did before, whilst redirecting to the new things you have taught them. This will feel clunky and awkward at the start. Don’t forget, you are asking your dog to take a leap of faith and do something different to what their instincts are compelling them to do. Stick with it though, repetition and consistency is key here.

He doesn’t know it yet, though

Just as he starts getting the idea, you will start to relax. This is the time when many people stop, after all he knows it, doesn’t he? But, as we can see, knowing how to do something is not the same as doing it instinctively. It is not a habit yet.

To make it a habit he needs you to help him keep it going many, many more times. Over time the scales will start to tip as the number of times you repeat the new behaviour will outweigh the old behaviour. Only when the scales have fully tipped have you made a new default behaviour. Only then will he instinctively choose the new behaviour over the old one.

As most people quit long before they reach that stage, the dog will simply revert to his old habits. They will think their training failed. When in reality, he just needed more time and practise. Just like a footballer, they don’t learn how to play and then just get on with it. They run set pieces over and over, and keep practising, even when it feels easy, and they are good at it. This is what you must do with your dog. When you practise, practise, practise, the new behaviour will soon take over as the default and only then will you have a new habit!


How can I help you with your dog’s behaviour training?

If you’d like help with your dogs behaviour, why not get in touch and find out how I could help you resolve your dog’s training and behavioural challenges. Consultations are available in-person in the Dundee area and beyond, or online if you’re further afield.

Caroline
Caroline

I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

Articles: 140

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *