It’s hard to change old habits. Just ask my dog, Charlotte. She’s 55 lbs of pure muscle and has a long standing and dangerous habit of lunging with a deep growl when we meet another dog who is also on-leash during our daily walks. The thing is that Charlotte’s a sweetheart in all other situations (she’s a star playing with dogs off leash). But this brings out her worst and she’s mastered the art of resisting this behavior change. I’ve read the books and sadly know that there’s not hope unless I change. The good news is that after growing increasingly frustrated trying numerous training techniques over the years, I’m getting different results.
What’s the magic? A few things. Instinctively I was able to identify what the overall purpose is for this technique. It helped keep my eye on the prize. The purpose is to keep her attention on me rather than the other dog. And the technique is relatively simple with few steps. When I see another dog coming toward us, I do this ‘dog attention getting dance’ (me backing up looking like a crazy person) followed with commands and rewards (treats work!). I’m no dog whisperer and I struggle to do repetitive training. But once I found that this works better than what I was doing, I was hooked. I’ve also learned that this only works if I do it. I need to keep up with my new behavior or she reverts to her old habits. But knowing the purpose and using a simple design makes slipping back into the change easy.
I thought about this when a client described her deep frustration with herself when she slipped back into old work habits. We’d created a plan that she’d tried out and had success. Yes, the new behavior helped her take charge and have more energy during her day but as time goes on, it’s easy to slide back into what she’d always done. It seemed to me that her frustration overwhelms her attempts to return to her new habits. That’s when I thought about my behavior with Charlotte.
I thought about the two things that helped me to continue to practice:
- I revised my goal so it’s achievable. I no longer hoped that my behavior change will produce a calm, ‘sane’ animal when facing another dog on leash. Now my more modest hope now is that when I use my new behavior, she will respond as I expect.
- I found a technique that’s easy to implement. Even when my vigilance slips, she lunges and I became frustrated , it’s relatively easy to return to the technique.
Practice rarely makes perfect but it can create the small changes necessary to motivate us to keep trying.
I also would add that I think a few things need to be in place when we want to change our behavior. First we need the motivating hope that change is possible. Dr. Jerome Groopman describes it in his book, Anatomy of Hope. But hope won’t carry this alone. You need achievable and realistic expectations. We can’t expect that old habits evaporate quickly. Changing long standing habits requires time, practice and ease in picking it up again when you regress. You might consider this. How many years did you spend developing and using those habits that no longer work? Change shouldn’t take as long but it’s not a quick fix.
You could try saying, “watch me” (make sure to point with your finger to your chest) and see how that goes.