Lessons in Habit Formation From a Stubborn Old Hound

Turns out, both of us are still learning new tricks.

After 11 years, I thought I had learned everything there was to learn from my dog.

Birdie is a lovable, scruffy, perpetually hungry mutt I adopted from the shelter as a puppy. She has many lessons to impart, some more beneficial than others: how to live in the moment, love without restraint, and drink from the toilet bowl.

But we recently moved, and my dog had an unexpected reaction. She used to be happy with a sniff and tail wag for passing dogs. In our new neighborhood, she started lunging and growling.

I suddenly found myself apologizing to other dog owners and getting my arm yanked by this unrecognizable beast.

I had to do something before she got into a real scrap, and before my arm became dislocated.

I dove into dog training books to see if I could fix my dog’s annoying new behavior. In the process, I discovered much more than that:

  • I learned how to make hard things feel easy.
  • I learned why punishments never work as well as rewards.
  • I learned how to make habit changes permanent.

Turns out, the old hound still has lessons for me.

When it’s fun, it doesn’t feel hard

My dog hates stairs. She hates them so much it’s comical. She takes a wide berth around the stairwell of my building and beelines for the elevator each and every time we go inside.

Totally understandable — I hate stairs too. But I know a little extra exercise is a good thing, unless it’s causing pain or injury.

Well, imagine my surprise when she bounded up two flights of stairs at the park.

What? She believes she can’t do stairs at home and refuses even to try. At the park, she doesn’t even think about it.

If there’s a squirrel up there, Birdie won’t stop and think, “Wait, I can’t climb stairs!”

Sometimes when I’m working on a big project, it feels like I can’t do the hard work of getting to the end. If there’s no spark of excitement, no joy in what I’m pursuing, it feels hard all the time.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could always be so excited about my work, that I never stop to think how hard it is? I would never have to rely on willpower or discipline.

Now I consider this when I’m deciding what big goals to pursue.

With this new outlook, I decide what is worth my time and effort by paying attention to which projects create that spark of excitement and passion for me.

More motivating than external rewards like success, money, or bragging rights, is the pure joy and excitement of doing.

But even so, passion isn’t always available. Sometimes we need to create new habits to get through those times and still get the hard work done.

Negative reinforcement doesn’t work

While I trained my dog to be calmer, I noticed how other people handled their problem dogs.

Here’s what I saw:

  • A man shove his enraged Rottweiler to the ground into submission
  • A lady scoop her snarling Pomeranian up and hold the mouth shut
  • A hundred different people jerking the leash back and scolding

These observations convinced me that using punishments and scolding is exactly how not to do it. Unless I wanted my dog to continue acting like a jackass, I had to learn a better way.

Instead of punishing bad behavior (negative reinforcement), I learned to reward good choices (positive reinforcement).

I trained my dog to look at me every time we pass another dog.

Focus on me, away from the distraction, get a delicious snack. It took no time at all for Birdie to start making the right choice.

Walks are fun again, instead of stressful, because Birdie chooses the rewarding behavior every time.

Scolding and pulling back never worked. Not even a bit. Instant rewards for good choices worked.

That’s the magic of positive reinforcement.

In our lives, we often use negative reinforcement without thinking. When kids leave their stuff on the floor, spouses leave dishes in the sink, and dogs pull on the leash, scolding and grumbling is my automatic reaction.

Now that I know negative reinforcement doesn’t work to change habits, in myself or others, I focus on rewarding the times I catch good behavior instead.

Training my dog to stop pulling the leash: When she looks at me and stays calm passing another dog, I give Birdie a treat. I don’t have to pull her back or scold when she messes up.

Training my kid to pick up her stuff: When she hangs up her coat instead of dumping it I say, “Thanks! Gold star for you!” I still point out when she forgets (can’t help it), but I don’t scold or punish.

Training myself to stop procrastinating important work: When I finish my most important tasks of the day early, I take a break. I get up, leave my office, and get outside. Staying in to work more would be unintentional negative reinforcement — punishing the behavior that I want.

Don’t give yourself an opportunity to fail

When my niece brought her young puppy over recently, I noticed that she was only partially housebroken. There was evidence.

My old dog never has accidents. She waits until we get outside every time. I don’t have to keep reinforcing it, because it’s a deeply ingrained habit.

The puppy knows she is supposed to do her business outside because she gets positive reinforcement when she does. But she also knows that if nobody is paying attention when she whines at the door, she can make a puddle inside, and that’s ok too.

Every time she messes up is a lost opportunity to reinforce the good habit and instead reinforces the bad one. It’s like starting all over again after each mistake.

The right way to do it is to remove any chance of failure. It doesn’t take long, but it takes being 100% consistent until the habit takes hold.

Whether you’re training animals or training yourself, 100% compliance is critical when establishing a new habit. When you’re consistent in the beginning, you create a hard-wired pattern that takes no effort to maintain.

I started a new exercise habit this way. For the first time in years, I’m working out consistently, five days per week.

In the beginning, I had many days that I didn’t feel like exercising, but I would at least do a few pushups instead of skipping it completely.

Now I don’t think about whether I’m going to exercise or not. If it’s a weekday, I just do it.

Love yourself as much as your dog loves you

When my sweet old dog became aggressive, my first reaction was anger. But when I looked into the reasons she was acting this way, I learned that fear and insecurity were the cause.

Birdie needed me to help her feel safe around other dogs again.

Along the way, I learned how to make hard work feel easy. I learned that punishing myself for messing up doesn’t help, but rewarding myself for doing the right thing does. And I learned that to make a new habit stick, I should be consistent until it becomes effortless.

When I’m not accomplishing my goals, it’s natural to feel angry at myself and get down. Instead of beating myself up, now I try to be compassionate and ask what is causing me to struggle. I help myself by taking a break to recharge.

Sometimes a walk with Birdie is all it takes.