How to Extinguish Unwanted Behaviors – or Why Dog Training is Like Riding a Bike

I originally heard this quote applied to dog training in reference to using high quality treats. In a world where there are a million interesting smells, but you want to control a dog’s attention, it pays to use high quality rewards. But that same advice can be applied well beyond the context of dog training!

I have always enjoyed training dogs. Dog training is about reinforcing good habits, both for the dogs and ourselves. And I’ve found that we have a lot to learn about habits, and ourselves, from the process.

I was working with a dog recently; he is 100 pounds, and a complete love. Unfortunately, he had some traumatic experiences as a puppy and can be reactive. But this was the first time he was reactive with me: teeth bared, snapping. He alternately wanted my attention and was scared that I might hurt him. 

In all fairness, he had just been to the vet and had to be sedated. The next day – still recovering – he snapped at me and wouldn’t let me pet him, as usual. I had a moment of despair: I sure as hell don’t want to interact with a reactive dog! But also, up until this incident, I’d thought of this dog as a friend. And I began thinking about how likely it is that a dog can ever be completely trained out of unwanted behaviors. 

How completely, how thoroughly, can behavior really change? As I was considering this dog, I realized that changing behavior is like riding a bicycle.

When I first learned to ride a bike, I fell off hundreds of times. But in the thousands of hours I’ve logged since, I can count the number of tumbles I’ve taken, including barreling down city streets at 45 miles an hour.

And accidents do happen. We do sometimes make mistakes or revert to unwanted behaviors. It can be tempting to avoid making mistakes by removing the conditions that led to them or ceasing the activity altogether. A way to ensure I never fall off my bike again would be to never get on it in the first place. I could take the same approach with this dog. He and I could never interact, or he could stay locked in his house alone. But these aren’t viable solutions. All are based on fear, perfectionism, and a fixed mindset.

We all have unwanted behaviors and habits we want to change. But, that’s not really how learning works. Put anyone in a stressful enough situation and they can revert back to earlier patterns. I eat a lot of mint ice cream, and would like to change this behavior. Offer me mint ice cream when I’m hungry and I’ll probably eat it. Put me on my bike, on a bad road, amidst distracted drivers, and I might get into an accident.

Even if we never, for the rest of our lives, repeat a habit we’re trying to extinguish, we always have the capacity to do so.

What this means is that, instead of looking for perfection, the solution is to look for learning. When I repeat a habit I want to avoid – when this dog snaps at me when he’s scared, when I eat too much ice cream, or when I fall off my bicycle – there’s only one option: get back up and try again.

Build from where you are

Building from where you are is usually the best option, since it adds on to what we already do and increases the range of what’s possible. With this dog, that means first acknowledging that he’s reactive today, and not letting my ego get in the way. Staying frustrated, or even feeling betrayed (“We were friends yesterday!”) clouds judgment. Working with where he is today means not denying the reactive state he’s in, which in turn allows me to avoid repeating interactions that will reinforce the undesirable behaviors.

Don’t try to remove unwanted behaviors.

I have some counterintuitive advice: don’t try to remove unwanted behaviors. You may want to remove unwanted behaviors, but it is rarely that simple. Habits and behaviors can’t simply be turned off; that’s not how neuroplasticity works. Change comes by rewiring the brain and building upon what is currently possible. We crowd out undesirable behaviors by positively reinforcing desirable ones. Focus on the behaviors you want to encourage and the habits you want to cultivate. 

Reinforce what you want

In interacting with a reactive dog, I want calm and gentle behavior towards me, other people, and other animals. My goal, then, is to positively reinforce the dog every time he offers me, or anyone else, the slightest bit of gentleness. Getting him to focus on treats and positive interactions is a much stronger incentive than yelling at him (and thus scaring him further).

Work around the edges

Instead of trying to repress unwanted behaviors, work around the edges of what is currently available. Take what is currently easy and try small variations. With the dog, that might mean that petting is off the table at first, and I have to begin training with a bit more distance than I’m used to. With my current addiction to mint ice cream that might be:

  • Trying a different flavor of ice cream (to get me out of my habitual rut)
  • Eating out of a bowl  (because then I’ll demolish the whole pint)
  • Drinking water before I have ice cream (I’ve learned that I sometimes reach for ice cream when I’m thirsty)
  • Making a fruit smoothie instead of ice cream (it comes close to the temperature and texture that I’m seeking)

Failure isn’t failure

Progress isn’t linear. One moment of reactivity isn’t indicative of how an interaction is going to go tomorrow. When I eat too much ice cream, it often feels like I’m repeating a “bad” habit and failing to practice a “good” one. But a moment of failure is just that: one moment. 

The real mistake is to consider one misstep a mark of complete failure. In times of stress we revert back to more primitive versions of ourselves. For me, that might be stress eating ice cream as a form of self-soothing. For a dog, that can mean protecting himself the best way he knows how.

Learning happens like a ball repeatedly rolling down a hill of sand. With every iteration, the grooves of the ball’s path become deeper and deeper and increase the ball’s tendency to follow a similar pattern. That doesn’t mean that the ball will sometimes roll along a different route, but the more a pattern is reinforced, the more consistent that habit will be.

My consumption of mint ice cream is something I’m working on. I eat more ice cream when I’m stressed, hungry, and it is readily available. But I’ve begun iterating on habits to change my relationship and these habits.

I’ve never trained a reactive dog before and I’m nervous! But I know that change is not only possible, but  – given the right prompts, patterning, and reinforcement – it is almost inevitable. 

Behavior change, however minor or significant, is the culmination of millions of small influences, moments, and habits. Regression isn’t necessarily going backwards. I’ve got nothing but excitement for all of the behavior change ahead.

Until next time,

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Share This Post