Habits and Predictability in Dog Training

Two Australian Koolies running through a field

“Habits are simply reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment” -James Clear “Atomic Habits”

If you haven’t read the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, I strongly recommend it! James Clear, one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

Of course, being a dog trainer and being obsessed with canine behavior(and human behavior honestly!) I immediately started thinking about some of the book’s points in terms of dog training.

When we are teaching our dog’s new/alternate behaviors or patterns in cases such as a reactive dog, who lunges and barks at the end of the leash, our end goal is to make these behaviors and patterns “reliable solutions to recurring problems in the environment”. Replace “problems” with “triggers” such as other dogs or squirrels, excited greetings, and so on. These distractions/triggers/stimuli, whatever you would like to call them are generally recurring. By helping our dog develop habits, and utilizing predictability we can shape both how our dog reacts in these moments and ultimately how they feel during these moments.

What does predictability look like for a dog? Routine. We all have our daily routines, and our dogs are a part of it. The more predictable the routine is for the dog, especially in the case of fearful dogs, the better they can cope with change. This is not to say your dog should do the same thing every day, day in and day out (who wants to do that?), but the core routine being stable is certainly helpful. “To best prepare dogs for a range of situations and activities, gradual adaptation from initially predictable routines to less predictable and more variable schedules may best be done over time. In this way, dogs will “have an expectation of the unexpected” and may cope better with changing circumstances when they become necessary”.

Additionally, I’m of the opinion that speaking to our dogs throughout the day is a game changer. I like to narrate things to them throughout the day, I like to make big deals to be not big deals, and one of the ways I do this is through predictable speech patterns. All of these things over time are creating leverage I can use in a pivotal moment. 

Take for example, the Fedex guy arrives in the driveway. Like many dogs, one of mine particularly likes to let me know about this intruder, this clear threat to my safety and security. I go to the window where she’s looking and say “Oh yes, that is clearly a threat. Thanks for the heads up, I don’t know what I would have done had you not told me. You are so helpful. Hey do you want to play now?” and I pet her and start walking away to which she will 9 times out of 10 follow me.. With this particular dog, there is certainly a genetic component to this alert, but we went from our initial bigger feelings to little boofs here and there simply from repeating this habit over and over. Racing over to her and getting a cookie on her nose or asking for hand touches, or even waving the toy in her face would have all been seen as suspicious behavior from me. “What’s she think I’m going to do? Leave this threat!? It must REALLY be a problem since she’s so anxiously trying to get me away from it.”

Another example of where I use predictability and patterns with dogs is during downtime if one of them thinks we should actually go out to play, but I’m working. I will say “Sorry not now pal, I have to get some work done. We will play later. Not every minute of every day can be your favorite, sorry dude!” 

This might all sound quite ridiculous to read. “Dogs don’t understand what you say, they only understand the tone of it”. This concept is true to an extent. They don’t understand it in the same way we do, but they do understand the pattern and predictors of your speech. I’m sure we’ve all had or met the dog who understands the word walk or the word out. In fact, you may spell it now like I do because that word predicts awesome stuff! We can use words like this in our relationships with dogs to build trust, predictability, and understanding.

Building habits and predictability take time, effort, and energy. And without the most important piece, a solid relationship with your dog, they can be ineffective even when consistently done. Your relationship with your dog is crucial to successful training. Trust, understanding and cooperation are pivotal to your dog’s success at navigating stressful situations in the future. Think about the person you trust most in your life. I’m going to guess that you would be more likely to try something new or overcome minor stressors when you are with that person who supports and loves you versus on your own or with someone you do not fully trust.

If you remember my prior example of my dog letting me know about the UPS guy, if we had no predictable relationship through games and play, if we never had fun together….why in the world would she care about me saying “do you want to play now?”. Be predictably fun with your dog. Or as I like to say, be predictably unpredictable … .one of my favorite games to play with my dogs is to do a huge gasp(dogs love this, seriously) and then as soon as they orient to me, I run the other way. Sometimes with a toy, sometimes not. Most of the time my dogs get distracted, I can do that gasp and get their attention pretty instantaneously because it has historically predicted a game. Before games of tug, I cue “are you ready!?” and its in a very ridiculous sounding tone with ridiculous enunciations. But it works.

What habits do you already have with your dog? Are there opportunities where you can add predictability to your daily routine? Are there areas where you can improve your relationship with your dog?

Tell me about it in the comments!

Recent Posts

Two Australian Koolies running through a field

Habits and Predictability in Dog Training

“Habits are simply reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment” -James Clear “Atomic Habits” If you haven’t read the book “Atomic Habits” by James

Preparing Your Dog for Fireworks: Tips for a Safe and Calm Fourth of July

The Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve, and other festive occasions often bring dazzling firework displays that fill the night sky with bursts of color and sound. While humans may find them awe-inspiring, many dogs experience anxiety and fear during these explosive celebrations. As responsible pet owners, it’s crucial to prepare and support our canine companions during these events.

In this blog post, we delve into effective strategies to help you prepare your dog for fireworks. We’ll explore various steps you can take to ensure their well-being, comfort, and overall safety. By implementing these techniques, you can create a peaceful environment and minimize your dog’s stress levels when the skies light up.

A brown and white dog growls at the camera

Let’s Talk About Resource Guarding

Recently I saw in a dog trainer’s facebook group a discussion surrounding the causes of resource guarding. One poster stated in that discussion:“Resource guarding usually

Pro Tips to Potty Train Your New Puppy

Frequently I receive calls from clients, totally frustrated with potty training their new puppies. Here are a few pro tips for successful potty training. Manage

Leave a Reply

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