Much of dog or puppy training is helping them set good habits. To a dog, squirrel chasing is a fun activity, but in the human world this can be an annoying and dangerous habit.
Barking at the mail delivery person, running off to visit other dogs, counter surfing – these are all habits many dogs find super fun.
A Dangerous Habit
At about 6 months old, my sweet adorable puppy decided that running away from me and herding horses was the most fun thing in the world. This was extremely dangerous. At about her age, one of our other dogs was run over by a horse and ended up with a very badly broken leg. *We did not own Maxi when her accident happened.
Reinforcement Drives Behaviour
In order to stop this dangerous habit, I needed to prevent Jubilee from herding horses and receiving the thrill and adrenaline rush she now associated with it.
Step 1. Management
Jubilee had zero free access to the yard while I worked on this issue. Her exercise was elsewhere or on a long line. Near the horses, she was always leashed.
Step 2. New Habits and Incompatible Behaviours
Every day while I cleaned the paddocks and the horses were busy eating at a distance, Jubilee came with me (on leash). She practiced simply lying down while I shoveled. I set up the horses at a feeding station far enough away for Jubilee to be successful. Because they were eating, the horses mostly stood still which made the challenge easier.
Next we played fetch on a long line in the paddock. This is a fun game that is incompatible with chasing horses. In addition, we practiced playing fetch as we walked past or near the paddocks.
A New History of Reinforcement
With time and patience, Jubilee now expects to play fetch or settle beside me when near horses. Her new habit is to look to me for an opportunity to play.
Dogs usually look for pathways to reinforcement. By using boundaries and incompatible alternate behaviours, Jubilee’s anticipated pathway to reinforcement became looking to me.
“To make anything a habit, do it; to not make it a habit, do not do it; to unmake a habit, do something else in place of it.” ~Epictetus