Can Reality Match Your Great Expectations?

Categories: Animals & Pets
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Mindful interactions with your dog forge trust and respect, encouraging your dog to watch you for cues and approval before she acts. We love our dogs, but if we’re not mindful we may forget they’re thinking, feeling, autonomous agents with their own agendas. Without mindful connection, our expectations of our companions are bound to collide with reality.

Owners don’t necessarily think in terms of what they do want their dogs to do, but they’re very sure of what they don’t want. Frequently they’re the reason the dog does what it does. Owners inadvertently reinforce unwanted behavior- even when the feedback is negative. If oppositional interaction is all the dog knows, it’ll seek more. Mindfulness helps you recognize and extinguish the transitional stages leading to this conundrum before they escalate.

Unlearning established behaviors is tougher than learning new ones. Habits die hard because the association of pleasure/reward creates motivation for repetition. Your dog threw himself a party shredding those cushions. Belated scolding didn’t negate that memory of fun. Humans can choose to break a habit through determination and planning. Dogs live in the moment and need our intervention to create motivation for change. That motivation is established through various modification pathways and may include counter-conditioning, desensitization, habituation and sometimes punishment, depending upon the severity and potential outcome of the undesired behavior. One might introduce negative consequences for choosing the habitual behavior while simultaneously clarifying a positively reinforced preferred alternative.

For comparison, it’s easier to give up smoking when one’s friends take you dancing or teaches you racquetball … providing a distracting alternative to the destructive behavior until new habits are established. Same for dogs… habitual behaviors extinguish more readily with an alternative focus. Rather than “don’t sleep on the furniture,” teach the dog a specific place to sleep and consistently, without fail, enforce it.  Most people’s willpower is outmatched by the dog’s persistence. To achieve a particular outcome, you must be more determined than your dog to see it through. Giving in, even once, shows your dog that persistence wins… your dog has nothing better to do with its time than to play to win.

Most adopted adult dogs come “pre-formatted” with undesirable habits that resulted in their being relinquished. Next month we’ll follow Jack, a 2-year-old Beagle/Lab, as his new owner addresses some of his baggage in hopes of reforming this loveable scoundrel. –Beth Dillenbeck