I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions— for some better routines I’d like to pick up. I’m inclined to draw on data to help me make plans and so I’ve looked to results from behavioral research which suggests that successful change can be made by setting positive and reasonable goals, encouraging repetition, rewarding positive change and letting go of past failures. But, data alone don’t always move us to action; sometimes, it takes something (or someone) warmer and fuzzier to provide inspiration.
Inca is an almost-14 year old Belgian shepherd dog who moved in with us when she was 8 years old. She’d spent her entire life, up until then, as a ‘breeder’. Her main occupation was to gestate and nurse puppies. Her puppies would be trained to be police dogs, assistance dogs and schutzhund competitors. But Inca didn’t get the same training. She was never even trained in the basic obedience of companion animals. When we met her, she didn’t know ‘sit’ or ‘stay’. Her lack of training, and meaningful human interaction, was so complete that she didn’t seem to understand that when we talked to her, we were trying to communicate. She had never lived in a house before, and she didn’t know how to deal with people as companions. We adopted her knowing that she was not a ‘well-trained dog’ and we were told that she ‘loves to be outside’. We learned that was a euphemism for ‘she’s never been house-trained’. It was obvious that Inca didn’t know it was wrong to go to the bathroom on the rug, or in the hall, or in her own bed. She did it right in front of us. One day, when my husband was on the toilet, Inca looked at him through the open door—seemed to think ‘that’s a good idea’— and squatted and did her business right there in the living room. My husband couldn’t do much to stop her at the time.
So, after 8 years of doing her own thing (when and where she wanted), Inca had to learn some new tricks. And—she did. She changed her habits—with the help of basic principles of behavioral science: reasonable expectations, repetition, rewards and letting go of past failures. We began with teaching her to sit—to get her used to the idea that we expected her to respond to us when we talked with her. We gave her lots of rewards, including praise and treats, when she did what we asked. When she failed, we didn’t scold her. We just moved the treat a bit further over her head, so the easiest way for her to see the treat (and to get it) was to sit. We repeated this over and over, dozens of time per day; then, after about a week, Inca was sitting on request. We also started working on her bathroom habits. We took her out according to a routine schedule— first thing in the morning, after eating and before bed. We timed the bathroom breaks so she was most likely to succeed; we praised her for going to the bathroom outside. We avoided setting her up for failure by making her wait indoors too long. When she made a mistake and peed on the rug (always the rug, never the tile floor), we interrupted her then took her outside and praised her for finishing her business outdoors. We never rubbed her nose in her mistakes—a strange and unproductive practice that’s given rise to a cliché and some very distressed dogs. It took many months, but Inca finally learned that going to the bathroom outside was a good idea, even though this new habit was obviously foreign—and inconvenient—to her. And she came up with her own way to tell us she needs to go out for a bathroom break.
After Inca had been living with us for about 6 months, we noticed something new—something we hadn’t realized was lacking—Inca wagged her tail when she looked at us.
If she could be so transformed, I can pick up a few good habits myself.
With Inca’s example in mind, I’ve resolved to make some changes in my own habits— by setting positive goals, repeating the new practices, rewarding successes and setting aside any lapses— to make a difference for me, our animal companions and the environment.
Here are my resolutions:
1. to get more out of our daily walks. Inca needs to take her walks slowly because she’s now having some trouble with arthritis. But she still needs to go out to do her business and she likes to see other dogs and investigate tracks. With Inca, I’ll take slow walks and take more time to observe the world at a gentle pace. With Keeper (our other dog), I’ll increase the distance and speed of our walks, so we both get the fun and exercise of jauntier walks and we’ll return to a healthier level activity.
And– like Inca, I’ll probably learn more along the way.