By Chris Bach and The Third Way – The Next Generation in Reinforcement Training
Last month we began a series on “The Four Keys to Problem Solving”. The first key to remember is THE DOG IS ALWAYS BLAMELESS. This month Chris Bach shares her second key to problem solving.
A DOG MUST BE MANAGED SO THE PROBLEM RESPONSE WILL NEVER OCCUR AGAIN. Habits are formed when a response is learned and rehearsed on a VOLUNTARY basis. “Problem responses” are almost never responses that a person took an active role in teaching or developing! Therefore it can be safe to assume that a “problem” response is one that the dog learned and rehearsed VOLUNTARILY and is now a habit.
Understanding this fact and also knowing about the many properties of habits will aid in developing sound, effective management or problem solving programs.
An important aspect of habitual behavior is that it is PERMANENT. It can be made dormant, but never totally eliminated.
Habitual behaviors become dormant only through total lack of rehearsal and reinforcement. In other words, unless human intervention prevents it from ever happening again, a problem behavior will always continue to escalate and will never become dormant. Habits will not, or more accurately, cannot, just fade away when they are reinforced repeatedly. Especially when the reinforcement is on a random basis.
For instance, Tiny is in the habit of defending his food dish. He developed this practice by voluntarily experimenting with defensive behavior. He found that it satisfied him to have people far away when he ate. So he continued to experiment and rehearse defending his dish. His owner, Kit, was not aware of the defensive habit that Tiny was developing. Because Tiny was able to continue experimenting, this habit intensified to include guarding the dish even when it was empty. Next his defensive habit included guarding it when people were walking by, yards away from him and his prize. Soon he would become aroused and defensive when the doorbell rang because it predicted that people had arrived who would come near his dish.
Unless Kit becomes aware of the mounting problem, Tiny’s disagreeable dish-guarding response will continue to escalate. His problem will continue to grow and spill into other scenarios if unchecked; because there are four insidious features of habitual behavior that cause them to continuously expand and become worse.
First, habits happen without conscious consideration or choice, just because there is opportunity to do it. So once Tiny is in the habit of defending his dish, defending his bed would be a logical progression. Next, once a response becomes habitual, even if it requires more effort, it will continue. When Tiny is defending his favorite sleeping spot he gets less sleep and is more aroused and uncomfortable. In spite of this, he will still continue to stay awake and defend his bed instead of relaxing and taking a nice snooze. Also, habits will be repeated in spite of consequences that turn from pleasant to unpleasant. While playing ball with Kit, Tiny hurt his shoulder. Now when he moves to defend his dish or his bed, his shoulder hurts. But his defensive habit is so strong; the pain does not sway him from his mission.
To make matters worse, habitual behaviors also continue to acquire new triggers. When Tiny learned to defend his bed he started out responding only when Kit walked into the room. Now he gets aroused and defensive when he hears someone at the door.
All of these features make habitual behavior deliciously delightful when the habit is desirable, such as coming when called. But they are devastatingly disastrous when the habit is a disagreeable one such as defending resources.
The longer Tiny’s behavior goes unmanaged, the more devastatingly disastrous it is becoming.
In order for the problem-solving program to be successful in teaching Tiny to habitually defer instead of habitually defend; the problematic defense response must be totally and consistently prevented through proper management.
Kit needs to begin by getting rid of Tiny’s dish and feeding him his daily ration when she is teaching and proofing new skills. Tiny’s dish must NEVER AGAIN BE AVAILABLE FOR HIM TO DEFEND. Kit must also remove his bed. Anything that Tiny is habitually defending will have to be removed or controlled completely by Kit so that Tiny’s habitual defensiveness can become dormant so she can eventually replace it with the good habit of habitual deference.
(c) THE THIRD WAY ~ Chris Bach ~ 2002. All rights reserved.