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Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
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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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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

202-331-1566

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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