We have a wonderful Poodle-Lab mix puppy named Gracee. She is sweet, soulful and still has the playful nature of a puppy even though she recently turned 2 in November. For those of you who have dogs with Poodle genetics, you know how intelligent they can be which can be amazing and also frustrating at times.
Case in point: We are fortunate to have a second home on a river in Central Minnesota where we love to go and decompress on weekends and vacations. Our two dogs love it up there because they have a couple of acres where they can run freely and play to their hearts content. Unfortunately, the river place is a trigger for Gracee that she can change her behavior and she becomes a bit obstinate, not coming into the house when we call her to come in. She thinks it is a game when we call her to come in…she will sit and stare at us and when we go out to get her, she crouches down with her butt up in the air, wagging her tail furiously. She barks at us and her doggy smile is as big as can be because “it’s play time!” in her mind.
When we are back at our regular home, she goes back into the behavior we want after a day or two but every time we go to the river, we are smack dab back into the “catch me if you can” game. Why? Because one time she played the “I am not coming in” game and we lost. We did everything we probably should not have done like cajoling her, calling her over and over to come, attempting to entice her with treats, going out after her, trying to catch her and ultimately scolding her. We definitely were not using any effective structure(s), discipline and positive reinforcement that would lead her to change her behavior. In fact, I am sure we were confusing the heck out of her because we had no consistent tone or message! So she became the Alpha in this pack and we lost our standing…
Yesterday, Gracee did it again…the little stinker played hide and seek behind trees with me, barking up a storm wanting me to get in the game with her. What did I do? I got mad and stormed back in the house, knowing full well that she had the upper hand right now and I was not one bit happy about that. I was
- worried that she would get hurt (her paws would get frozen by being out in the snow too long)
- frustrated because I was not in control, she was
- just plain mad that she wasn’t listening to me.
All real positive and powerful thoughts and feelings – right?
So I turned on the TV to distract myself from being angry and you will never guess who is on TV…the Dog Whisperer! Okay, so now I am thinking this has to be divine intervention because you cannot make this stuff up! As I listened to him explain the dogs’ thought process and heard him say a few times that dogs need discipline (structure), I realized that what my husband and I had been doing with Gracee was not giving her what she needed (discipline) or what we needed (discipline) and what we needed to do was re-train her behavior and our behavior so that she would come to us when called. I also needed to commit to taking the time and effort to properly train her to come when called, because halfhearted efforts were not going to make the desired changes.
The pattern of what I saw happening with Gracee is also a pattern I have seen within myself when certain behaviors re-emerge after I have tried to change them in the past. I think there are some good lessons to be learned in not just how to create positive behavior changes in my Gracee, but also within myself:
- When our positive behavior is showing up consistently, I think we forget or get a bit lazy in reinforcing the positive behavior because things are going so well. Ongoing acknowledgement is important to keep the positive behaviors going in our day to day actions.
- Sometimes we lose our structure over time. We start out with good intentions and a strong structure (i.e. writing down my daily intake of food in my journal every day to keep track of types and amounts of calories I am consuming), and then over time our foundation begins to crack and our structures crumble little by little until nothing is left standing. For Gracee, my structure was to say “Gracee, Come!” and when she did as she was told, she would get a little treat and a pat on the head. As time went on, we took for granted that she was coming on command and we lost the structure of giving her a small treat or a pat on the head to acknowledge her for continuing her good behavior.
- Even solidly imbedded changed behaviors can get lost at times. Many times there are triggers that will create the unwanted behavior to re-emerge. For Gracee, it is the river property. It is important to identify the triggers that cause us to want to go back to our old behaviors so we can create actions/thoughts to assist us in reverting back.
- Reverting back to old behaviors does not mean I am a failure. Sometimes we just need a wake up call again to get back on track. Muscle Memory is a term used for the fact that conditioned/strengthened muscles will take a shorter amount of time to regain strength after a period of time of inactivity. Our positive behaviors are very much within us and will quickly return once we get back on track!
So, Gracee is back on a long leash when she goes outside and we are training a few times a day with positive reinforcement when she comes immediately when I crouch down with wide open arms calling her to come. Ms. Smarty Pants is doing exactly as she is told right now (I told you, Poodles are extremely intelligent…) but I am not going to let down my guard for a few days and she will remain on the long lead until I feel we have both put forth a strong and consistent effort to re-engage the positive behaviors.
What inner dogs are you going to train this year?
I would love to hear ideas of structures that have worked well for you in the past to maintain positive behavioral changes!