Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Do Dogs Form Habits?

The response patterns and intellect of a dog is very different from that of humans, although we do share some common traits. Even though it may seem as though your dog is creating habitual responses, these are not habits as we know them.

Canine and human behavior should not be confused with each other.

Dogs live in the present moment. They interpret their reality according to the information given them, and their reactions are based on their understanding of what will keep them alive and safe. They do not plan for the future, and although their bodies can store memories of past experiences, particularly bad ones, that memory bank can often be overridden through good experiences.

Obedience training could be considered creating habits in your dog. You give it a word/command and it responds predictably based on what it was taught. However, you can teach a dog to sit next to your favorite chair in the living room, but that does not mean he will sit when you are standing next to the refrigerator. In the business, we call this proofing a dog. We teach a dog to "sit" in every conceivable situation so that they will reliably sit. At what point is responding predictably to a command considered a habit? Who is forming the habit, the dog or the human?

A habit is defined as:

  1. A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.
  2. customary practice or use: Daily bathing is an American habit.
  3. a particular practice, custom, or usage: the habit of shaking hands.
  4. a dominant or regular disposition or tendency; prevailing character or quality: She has a habit of looking at the bright side of things.
  5. addiction, esp. to narcotics

Left to themselves, the habits that dogs would probably acquire would be when to get up in the morning so that food gathering is advantageous or where to eliminate so as not to attract other predators. Habit generally applies to a behavior or practice so ingrained that it is often done without conscious thought.

Instincts are defined as:

  1. An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli.
  2. a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency.
  3. a natural aptitude or gift: an instinct for making money.
  4. natural intuitive power.

An instinct is behavior that is not learned but passed between generations by heredity.

Under which definition do behavior problems fall? Are they habits or misplaced instincts?

If you take a look at the most common behavior problems - biting, chewing, jumping, barking, chasing things and digging - you can find a canine instinct to explain each one. Biting of course is the natural defense and offense of a dog. Puppies practice this, often on your hands and toes. Puppies teethe just like human babies and chewing eases the pain and discomfort of new teeth coming in. Puppies jump up at the adult members of the pack for attention and as a means of telling the adult that he is hungry and please regurgitate some food. Barking is a form of communication. Chasing and digging are both forms of finding food.

If your adult dog is still doing most of these activities, then most likely it stems from no discipline as a puppy. Eventually, in the pack, puppies are deterred from biting the adults in play, jumping up and barking unnecessarily. As an adult in the pack, chasing and digging are only done to acquire food and digging is also for burying food for later use. These instinctual behaviors are regulated by the rest of the pack for the survival of the pack. In a human pack, it's the human's job to teach a puppy how to live in a human world. This means disciplining the puppy when he is exhibiting instinctive behaviors inappropriately. You can never fully get rid of instincts, but you can regulate them.

What behaviors are habits and not instincts and how do they become habits?

Let's look at obedience training again as a habit forming activity. The trainer, or owner, teaches the dog to respond in a certain way when he (the dog) hears a certain sound or sees specific body language from the human. Eventually, this creates a habit of putting the bottom on the ground for "sit". The human taught the dog the habit by having the dog sit every time, no matter what the circumstances or environment.

Behavior problems, that are not instincts, are created in EXACTLY the same way. Your dog doesn't bite the postman because it's the instinvtive thing to do, or because he hates the postman, or because the postman is wearing a uniform, or because he (the dog) is mad at you about something - you and the postman taught your dog to bite.

Here's how it works.

In the pack, it is the job of every single dog to protect the pack - t's especially the job of the pack leader. Under most circumstances in the wild, a soft growl and a hard look are enough to deter any strange animal from entering the pack's territory. In the human world, that soft growl and hard look don't always work. So the dog escalates to a louder growl and maybe showing a bit of teeth. If that doesn't work, the dog starts barking and snarling with a lot of teeth showing. Lastly, the dog will bite if all the previous methods did not keep the intruder from the premises.

In regards to the postman, he comes to the door every day and shoves paper thought the slot. The paper coming through the slot scares the dog and he knows that the presence of the human outside the door is causing it. Since it's a scary thing, the dog instinctively wants to protect the pack's territory from this scary thing. Eventually the protection behavior escalates until the dog is franctically trying to get through the door to do some damage on the perpetrator. If the door is every opened, the dog will be out in a split second and the postman bitten. The second part of this is the the dog has learned that eventually the postman does leave and the dog thinks it's because of his actions. What the dog doesn't understand is why the postman comes back to try again every single day. This creates the "habit" of reacting to the postman, and eventually to anyone that comes to the door. Like any human habit, especially those dealing with drugs, the habit escalates to dangerous proportions.

Why is it the human's fault

In the dog pack, the puppy is taught, through discipline, what is right and wrong - similar to raising human children. The puppies in the pack are also shown what to do in any circumstance and who is to do those things at any given time. Generally, the pack leader decides or does it himself. The rest of the pack is backup to the pack leaders actions. Somewhat like a football team. The quarter back makes the decisions about the plays the team will perform, but once the ball is in motion, the quarter back with either allow the other players to carry out the actions or will do it himself.

If in puppyhood, the human pack leader softly growled at the puppy when it jumped up looking for attention or food, the puppy would eventually stopped jumping up all together. If the human, after correcting the puppy for jumping, then showed it where the food bowl is kept or directed the puppy to a treat, the process of extinguishing the jumping behavior would speed up considerably.

This applies to our postman biting dog as well. Had the human pack leader corrected the dog the first time it growled at the postman, the bite would never happen and the habit would never be formed. Even the postman could have averted the bite by getting the human to introduce the dog to the postman when it was still a puppy. All three of my dogs look forward to greeting the UPS guys and the postman because I took the time to make the introductions.

How do I fix "habits"?

Any behavior that has escalated into a habit will resolve with the same correction and redirection process that you would use on a puppy. Even though the dog's habit is now to try to bite the postman, he still goes through all the warning signs first. It may happen very fast, but he still does them as that is the instinct part. Catch your dog at the start of the warnings with a quick touch to inform him that it is no longer his job to protect the door and to redirect his attention and you are on your way to "breaking" the habit. After you have his attention, send him 10 or so feet back from the door and the "claim" the door by standing in front of it with confidence. Stay calm and redirect the dog every time he tries to reclaim his "job" at the door.

It's too bad the human habit of smoking can't be cured as easily as a dog biting the postman !