Breaking a bad habit – for both you and your dog

Pulling on leash is a common bad habit.

Pulling on leash is a common bad habit.

There have been several books in the past few years about willpower, habits and the like. The one I most recently read was Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick by Jeremy Dean.

We really don’t realize how important habits are to our everyday life and just how many habits we really do have. Most of them are good. If you had to give serious thought to every single thing you did on a daily basis, you’d never accomplish much at all! Our habits allow us to go about our daily lives without so much effort so we can put that effort into other things.

However, when we’ve developed a bad habit, it can be very difficult to break it. Habits are, after all, done without conscious thought. It’s difficult to change them because we first need to become aware of them and then make a conscious effort to change them. If you read this book, you’ll understand just how hard that can be.

When it comes to dog training, this applies to both ends of the leash – the dog and the human. People want their dogs to change their bad habits or behaviors, but quite often the human has a bad habit that goes right along with the dog’s bad habit. Let’s say your dog has the habit of barking and lunging at every dog he passes by on your walks. But let’s also say that you’ve developed the bad habit of yanking back on his leash and yelling at him to stop, be quiet, knock it off, calm down, etc. Guess what? You both might have a bad habit of barking/yelling and putting pressure/pulling/yanking on the leash! But we tend to only see the bad habits our dogs have and don’t recognize our own bad habits.

Bad habits can be changed!

Bad habits can be changed!

In his book, Dean points out that the environment, including others around us, can be the triggers for many of our habits. So, when we go to try to change our dogs bad habits, we also need to be willing to put the same effort into changing our own habits that are often a part of our dog’s habits. Our dog’s can trigger our own bad habits, but our behavior also sometimes triggers our dog’s bad habits. Take a look and see if you’re contributing to the behaviors you want to put an end to!

In his book, Dean states: “There’s other evidence that trying to break habits by just suppressing thoughts may lead to exactly the opposite of the desired result. . . So sometimes inhibition can lead to habit binges rather than habit holidays. This may be why people sometimes find that when they first try to change a habit, perversely, they actually start doing it more. It’s handy to know that this is normal and likely just a phase in the process of breaking a habit. . . In order to break old habits, the attempt needs to be paired with making a new habit.”

Does that sound familiar? I tell my clients that when we are trying to break a bad habit – let’s say our dog has the habit of jumping on everyone he meets – the behavior can often get worse before it gets better. If we’re simply trying to stop a bad habit, it sometimes appears our efforts are not working because they seem to be getting worse! This is part of the reason I always discuss creating a new habit to replace the old one. We have to fill that void and get our dog (and us) thinking about some new behavior to fill that void. Otherwise, we might be doomed to fall back into old habits over and over again.

If you are trying to break any of your own bad habits, your dog’s bad habits, or some of both, you might want to check out Dean’s book. It just might help you in your quest.

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