Building Good Habits
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
One of the things I love most about my job is working with new puppy owners. There's so much we can accomplish training-wise because the pups are just wee sponges. They're ready to absorb the lessons we provide, especially because we can make learning fun with positive reinforcement training.
A huge part of puppy raising is about establishing good habits and preventing bad habits.
This is a message I repeat -- habitually! -- when working with clients.
Wikipedia defines "habit" as follows:
Essentially, a habit is a behavior that's been so thoroughly rehearsed it happens with ease and without much thought. It begins with a cue which prompts the behavior and then is followed by a reward.
The beauty of working with young pups is they're relatively clean slates, with barely enough time on earth to have established bad habits. As such, I do my best to motivate clients to steer their puppies in the direction of behaviors they'd like to see long-term, while preventing rehearsal of behaviors they'll regret long-term.
Some normal puppy behaviors that can cause us grief long-term, if we allow regular rehearsal of the behaviors, are: chewing, jumping up, excessive vocalization, and stealing taboo items.
Let's focus on chewing to illuminate this concept of good vs bad habits.
The reality is puppies NEED to chew on stuff. The desire to chew is internally driven and the cue is the presence of an interesting item. (And, FYI, almost everything is interesting to an inquisitive pup.) The behavior is gnawing. The reward is the relief it provides (if teething-motivated) or simply the pleasure of it.
When addressing this behavior, our task is two-fold. We need to:
Make safe and interesting objects readily available, including a variety of textures, shapes, materials, and tastes so the pup is happy and satisfied to gnaw on these approved items
Make access to taboo items difficult so the pup can't rehearse chewing on the wrong things
When puppies practice the behavior of targeting and chewing on approved items every day, they are developing a correctly-directed chewing habit for life. To make this happen, the person needs to develop some simple but important habits, too. These include:
Supervision, and prompt redirection if pup is considering the wrong choice
Puppy-proofing (consistently storing taboo items out of puppy's reach)
Smart management (using gates and/or penned areas) to create puppy-safe zones that are strewn with approved chewing items, thus setting up the pup for errorless learning
Plenty of dogs continue to have strong chewing needs well beyond puppyhood, so it behooves us to steer them in the direction of approved chew items early on. It's truly shocking how much damage a pup can do in just a short period of time, and even if you don't really value a particular chewed-on chair or rug, your puppy can't discern a thrift store chair from a Stickley. Or a rag rug from a Ziegler Mahal. So it's best not to let him ever learn how satisfying it is to gnaw on one.
Of course, this message applies to all dogs, no matter their age. Perhaps you've just adopted an adult dog who arrives with a bit of behavioral baggage. When VagaBond joined my home last fall at 2 years of age, I quickly saw that he had a pretty strong need to gnaw on and play with toys, and also had the habit of surfing for taboo items, even when the room was littered with approved toys and chews. I believe the purpose of surfing for taboo items was to grab my attention and, hopefully, get a game going.
To help VagaBond develop better habits while eliminating the unwanted behaviors, I tackle it in the following ways:
I provide interesting chews and toys, with new items rotated in regularly
I reward him with attention/praise, and sometimes with play, when he makes good choices. (See example below)
I do my best to keep taboo temptations out of reach
I promptly remove any taboo items he does find, with as little attention as possible
After having WildeBean for a couple years alone, I was lulled into easy living because she's relatively low energy and has almost no interest in toys or chewing of any sort. But Bond is younger and more playful, so I can't expect him to behave the same as WildeBean. Instead, when I'm working at my desk and he politely walks up with a tug toy in his mouth, I'll often engage in some play with him. If I don't, he'll occasionally still revert back to targeting something taboo, if available, to get my attention. I strongly prefer the tug-toy invitation! I also have the option of teaching him that targeting a dog bed near my desk will score yummy treats, and that's on my list of things to do.
It's never too late to instill good habits. And we can certainly modify well-established habits that are problematic. But we need to appreciate how much rehearsal is behind that habit. It'll take some time and effort to eliminate the unwanted habit while simultaneously building up appropriate, alternative behaviors. If you need assistance undoing some doggie bad habits, either remotely or in person, I'm happy to help!
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120