Teaching a Young Dog New Tricks

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

This past week, my husband and I welcomed a new member into our family: Rocky. He is a sweet, smart, and handsome rescue dog that stole the hearts of many as he was transported from Arkansas to Colorado to Wyoming and eventually into our home. And, while we were prepared for the challenges of adopting a rescue, I never imagined how quickly I would be thrown back into Psychology 101. Our first walk with Rocky quickly reminded me of the principles of classical and operant conditioning.

(In case these behavioral psychology basics slipped your mind: Classical conditioning is most often associated with Ivan Pavlov and salivating dogs. Operant conditioning is linked to B.F. Skinner and principles of reinforcement and punishment to elicit behavior modification.)

As we walked Rocky, every step was met by commands whether they were “Leave it,” “Wait,” a halt with the leash, or “Sit.” Of course, positive reinforcement such as “Good boy” and treats were also woven in. Rocky quickly advanced to running on the leash, which proved to be easier as running seems to match his natural pace; however, those basic commands continue to dictate the success of each outing we take.

While running with Rocky, I reflected on how much time and energy I expend to train him and facilitate the development of appropriate leash behavior. Literally, every step of our outings are met with some type of command or reinforcement. As I thought about this, my mind wandered to individuals attempting to modify or change a behavior. I do not want to simplify the human mind; however, working with Rocky reminded me just how difficult behavioral modification can be.

Certainly, I empathize with my clients and understand their struggles. However, being in the thick of changing behavior, reflecting on the impact of my rational mind on Rocky’s performance, reminded about the true struggle of change. Rocky is wired to hunt and, being a stray, hunting was a key to his survival for a period of life. Here we are trying to unwire his brain for hunting and teach him to let the food go, promising that there will be plenty to eat when he gets home. Principles of conditioning and neuroplasticity at their best.

Thinking about the struggle and energy required for Rocky’s training, my mind wandered to the amount of energy others put into behavioral change. Not only is it taxing but it can be scary and, often times, not all that rewarding to begin with. Not to mention, many individuals do not have somebody every step of the way praising progress and supporting difficult moments. Most would find that condescending or frustrating. Interestingly, it is a key aspect of Rocky’s work.

What would change be like if you were able to meet your efforts with the same compassion, empathy, and patience as you share with others? How would your process change if you were able to identify positive sources of reinforcement? What types of messages would you repeat to yourself not only to stay on track but also to reward progress?

Day by day, Rocky continues to improve and behaves himself more appropriately on the leash with each outing. Step by step, we continue to provide commands and reinforcement to support Rocky’s progress. We understand and accept that behavioral change takes time and we intentionally set out to create opportunities for success, knowing that each positive outing will eventually support Rocky’s ability to self-regulate and behave appropriately on his own.

How do you set yourself up for success?