Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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It’s Just Behavior: You Don’t Need to Figure Out “Why” to Change Habits

By Lynne Gots, posted on May 7th, 2012.

On Saturday mornings I volunteer to assist my friend in the dog training classes she teaches. When the alarm goes off at 5:30 am, I always grumble and vow not to sign on for the next session. But in the end, I reenlist time and again, always forgetting how much I hate forgoing the luxury of sleeping in after a workweek of early risings.

Why do I opt for another commitment over sleep? Because it’s so much fun! Especially when we have a class full of puppies like the one we’re currently teaching.

Aside from the obvious too-cute-for-words factor, the puppies are great to work with because they haven’t yet built up a repertoire of annoying bad habits. They’re still very malleable. For the most part, their owners are, too (having already demonstrated their motivation with their willingness to bring their dogs to a 7:30 am class on a Saturday).

Training dogs is a lot like training people, except much simpler. Dogs don’t tend to analyze their actions. If a behavior, such as sitting on command, yields a good payoff, such as a piece of chicken, the dog will repeat it again and again.

Their owners, however, sometimes have trouble buying into this concept despite its scientific grounding in learning theory. We know positive reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior. But the students in our dog training classes tend to be stingy with food rewards, often arguing that a “Good dog!” or a pat on the head (which animal behaviorists say dogs tolerate, but don’t enjoy) should be sufficient. Come to think of it, the parents of the teenagers I work with often feel the same way about giving their kids tangible rewards for behaviors they’re trying to cultivate.

I also like my dog classes because they give me a forum where I can freely express my opinions about hot-button issues. In my professional life, I try to remain neutral about treatment philosophies I find lacking. But on Saturdays I have free reign to voice my disapproval about theories of canine behavior I deem inappropriate or just plain wrong.

Take the outdated but still wildly popular concept of dominance. Despite its having been discredited by veterinary behaviorists, dominance theory is often invoked by traditional, compulsion-oriented dog trainers like Cesar Millan to justify unnecessarily harsh training methods designed to establish the owner as “alpha.” Even if punishments don’t physically harm a dog (as with the classic “leash pop” for disobedience), they don’t promote optimal conditions for learning. And interpreting an animal’s failure to respond to a command as a sign of insubordination often detracts from the thorough analysis of the problem needed for an effective solution.

If you believe the ultimate goal is to control your dog rather than teach it how to behave, you’ll get frustrated, maybe even angry, if a training exercise isn’t going your way. I saw this happen one day with a neighbor, who was trying to train her recently rescued Golden Retriever to sit squarely at her side when she stopped on their walk. (This position for the “automatic sit” is a requirement in the competitive obedience ring, and old school obedience classes still make it seem like a necessity for pet dogs, too.) Every time they came to a halt, the dog sat a foot in front of her owner, looking back expectantly.

Great, I thought. The Golden had bonded and was checking in, waiting to see what was expected next. But my neighbor was getting increasingly irritated. She kept jerking the leash to “correct” her dog for sitting in the wrong place. Eventually the animal stopped glancing back at her, probably having concluded that turning around was causing the unpleasant tugging sensation on her neck.

By way of explanation, the owner said to me, “She’s dominant. That’s why she’s sitting in front of me.”

Well, no. The dog sat in front because she’d never been taught the rules of the obedience ring. She didn’t know she was supposed to park herself next to her handler’s left leg with her nose in line with the knee. And with the training method my neighbor was using, the hapless dog wouldn’t be figuring out any time soon what she was supposed to be doing.

People often attribute their difficulties to hidden motivations when they’re trying to modify their own habits, too. In my experience, this tendency to search for supposedly unconscious obstacles to change (“I’m lazy,” or “I must really want to fail, deep down”) makes it harder to come up with effective solutions.

So if you’re trying to change your dog’s behavior, or your kid’s, or your own, remember, you’ll make much more progress if you ask “how?” instead of “why?” And, as I constantly remind the puppy owners: Don’t skimp on the rewards!

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Posted in Behavior Change, Dogs, Techniques |

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© 2008-2021 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.