Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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Using a Competing Response to Break a Habit

By Lynne Gots, posted on March 18th, 2014.

Entertaining can be stressful for me—not because I worry about cooking an excellent meal or making the house look spotless but because our Australian Shepherd Freddie is a handful when strangers are on his turf. And to him, everyone except the very immediate family is a stranger with dubious intentions.

Recently our neighbors were over for dinner. As usual, Freddie barked. A lot. I gave him a bone to chew and sent him to his crate to quiet him. After awhile, he’d settled enough for me to let him out to lie by my feet at the table.

Dogs are very put off by direct eye contact. They find it threatening, especially if they’re fearful, like Freddie. So I always instruct visitors not to look at him.

But telling someone not to do something often has a paradoxical effect. Just think about the last time you told yourself not to eat dessert, or not to check your email, or not to send a text to someone you desperately want to hear from.

So of course as soon as I told my neighbor, “Don’t look at him!” he immediately turned and locked eyes with Freddie.

After the frenzied barking had subsided and Freddie had gone back to his bone, I was able to think clearly enough to realize my approach had been all wrong. Instead of saying, “Don’t look at Freddie” I should have said, “Look out the window” or even, “Close your eyes!”

The idea of replacing one action with another is a behaviorial strategy used to break habits. Substituting an undesired behavior (such as nail-biting, smoking, hair-pulling, or skin-picking) with a benign one is using a competing response to short-circuit the habit.

An effective competing response should be: 1) readily available, 2) inconspicuous, and 3) incompatible with the undesired behavior. For example, someone with trichotillomania (hair-pulling) might keep a fidget toy on the desk to use while working at the computer at home but might prefer to clench her fists to ride out the urge to pull at work. Or a smoker trying to quit might chew gum instead.

Trainers use competing behaviors all the time to stop dogs from barking and jumping up. When Freddie and I are out for a walk and see another dog across the street, I tell him to “Heel” and “Watch me” to divert his attention and keep him from going into overdrive. When he and Baxter greet me on my return from a day at the office, I throw toys for them to fetch so they won’t get muddy paw prints on my work clothes.

Come to think of it, I should try the “Watch me” command the next time we have company for dinner. Unaware I’m talking to the dog, the guests will look at me instead of making eye contact with Freddie. Problem solved.

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Posted in Dogs, Techniques |

Lessons from a Dog: Accepting What You Can’t Change

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 4th, 2012.

My Australian Shepherd Freddie has much to commend him. He’s loyal and loving to his family. He doesn’t chew up underwear, move pillows from room to room, or snatch sandwiches from the kitchen counter like my Golden Retriever Calvin used to do. He’ll turn on a dime and come when he’s called, even off-leash. He walks jauntily by my side without pulling. And he’s incredibly smart—bilingual, in fact. The repertoire of commands he understands both verbally and by hand signals alone includes not only the useful basics (sit, stay, heel, come, leave it, down) but also many tricks I’ve taught him to keep us both busy. He can spin (clockwise), twirl (counterclockwise), sashay sideways, shake, salute, wave, march in step with me, backup, roll over, play dead, speak, play peek-a-boo, balance a treat on his nose and catch it, grasp an umbrella between his paws, weave through my legs, jump over and crawl under a bar, fetch a toy from another room by name, and take a bow.

But Freddie’s intelligence (along with an acute hypervigilence, endemic to herding breeds like his, to every sound and sudden movement) also makes him hard to live with at times. He barks. At everything. Incessantly.

Most annoying is his reaction to the TV. It’s impossible to watch a show when he’s in the room because he runs up to the screen and, in his most menacing big dog voice, tries to scare off the intruders. He gets really worked up when he sees fighting or hears raised voices. And since my husband and I favor shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Homeland, with plenty of violence and bad guys, Freddie is always on his guard.

You’d think I’d be able to train him to lie at our feet for the duration of an episode. Believe me, I’ve tried. I tell him to “chill” (which he’s been taught means “stretch out and rest your head on your paws”) and toss him treats for being quiet. It works, for a while. But as soon as the plot heats up, so does Freddie.

The problem has gotten much worse since our Black Friday purchase of a 55” TV. It’s twice as big with a far sharper picture than our previous model. If the escalation of his barking is any indication, Freddie feels even more threatened by the outsized images on the new screen.

I wish he would curl up and sleep peacefully next to me on the couch like our other dog Baxter. Wouldn’t it nice to be able to kick back and relax with two warm, furry, quiet canines at my side? But since exciteablility is part of Freddie’s temperament, I doubt I’ll ever be completely successful in training him not to bark at the TV. So I’m coming to terms with not having the dog of my fantasies and learning to live with the real one in my house.

When you’re stuck dealing with a situation or person you’re not entirely happy with, the best option is to find a way to accept it. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this as “the challenge of mindfulness.”  Rather than trying to force your experience (or a difficult spouse, coworker, or pet) to be different, “be present for your experience as it is.”

I can’t quite muster the equanimity to tolerate Freddie’s barking throughout a TV show. It’s just too hard to hear the dialogue over the noise. So I’ve come up with a way to accept him and also enjoy my TV viewing.

I put him in his crate with a bone to occupy him. It works for both of us.






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Posted in Acceptance and Mindfulness, Dogs |

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 |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

Contact Dr. Gots


2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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© 2008-2018 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.