The Best Dog Training I Ever Did Do.
Replacement habits are a core concept in habit coaching.
When I found our dog Eloise, she was a stray wandering through an Arkansas RV park.
She’s now 110lbs, but even back then, malnourished and abandoned, she was still a big dog. At her first vet appointment, she weighted in at 76lbs.
What I liked about her was how much she liked people. Our previous dog liked us, but didn’t like visitors to our house, and so he made socializing more work than we wanted. Eloise was the opposite, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.
In Eloise’s journey from camp to camp at the RV park, she insisted on saying hello to every single person. She didn’t seem to want food, just attention.
The way she asked for attention was with her paw. At first people would think she had the world’s best shake command.
But she’d keep pawing at you and pawing until you’d given her all the attention she needed. One guy in that RV park came away with a deep, bloody gouge down his forearm. She’s a big dog with big paws and even bigger claws.
Eloise was a dangerously friendly dog and that’s the habit I wanted to train her out of. It’s classic habit breaking and really isn’t all that different than from when you and I want to break one of our own bad habits.
Habit breaking has two big challenges.
One is that even though we call them bad habits, they almost always serve a need. In this case, Eloise pawed at people because it brought her human attention, which she wanted.
Two is that the neurological pathways in our brain are reinforced by usage, but there isn’t an equivalent way to destroy those pathways. They basically sit there ready for use long after you’ve decided you don’t want to use them anymore.
So, that’s how replacement habits have become a core strategy for breaking bad habits. It reframes the problem into habit building, which is still hard, but generally much easier.
With a replacement habit you don’t have to break the underlying need. You just serve that need with a new behavior. And then you need to build up that new behavior to be the stronger of the two habits.
What I did with Eloise wasn’t particularly hard, I just really like the result.
I encouraged her to use a different behavior to ask for attention. So instead of pawing at you, I wanted her to lean her head on you.
She’s got a giant head that’s so soft. Amazing ears too. Very tuggable.
That’s the replacement habit. If she leans her head on you, you can’t help but give her attention. It serves the same need as pawing at you, and it’s much less dangerous.
Everyone’s always curious about how the actual training sessions go. But it’s hard to give universal advice because every dog’s motivation and learning curve is a little different.
But the basics is that dog training works through reinforcement and shaping. Eloise doesn’t like treats but she does like attention. And so training her was simply about giving her attention for reinforcement and withdrawing that attention for things we didn’t want to reinforce.
Then to shape the head lean, we divided her behaviors in half. In one half, she was pawing at us and so we’d turn our body away. That’s the withdrawal of attention. And in the other half she wasn’t pawing at us, and that’s when she got a lot of attention.
Over time, we took that midpoint and move it closer and closer to the head lean. That head lean was a behavior that she’d occasionally do spontaneously and the more we reinforced it the more she’d do it. That’s what shaping is.
It’s not the most difficult dog training I’ve ever done. But it has my favorite result, which is now we have a giant dog that goes around leaning her head up against people.
This general strategy comes up all the time. If you don’t like one of your habits, find a way to build up a replacement habit instead.