Changing a habit often takes longer than we think. Habits, AKA reinforced behaviors, die hard.
Here’s what happened when I changed the location of my dogs’ eating areas for the first time in about five years.
Background: Mat Training
Like lots of trainers, I teach my dogs to station on mats. I have rubber-backed bathmats at strategic places around my house. When a new dog comes in, I immediately reinforce her for getting on a mat, and then for staying there. Puppy Clara was already getting on mats in her first hour at my house. The photo below is from her second day.
But I have written before that I am not great about training stimulus control and I am lazy about criteria. I forget whether I have cued things or not. For instance, if I verbally cue my dogs to get on their mats, they are supposed to stay there until released. I pay them well for this behavior. But they also “offer” mat behavior frequently. One will get on a mat, and since this is virtually always a desirable behavior, I will toss her something. Five minutes after a dog gets on a mat I can’t always tell you whether I cued it or not. So if she wanders off, there is no consequence. Ahem.
Our usual mealtime procedure is that my dogs get on their mats in the kitchen and wait while I prepare their meals.
Then when the meals are ready (food toys loaded), I release the dogs and take the meals to three different places in the house so everyone can eat without interruption or worry. When Summer was still in this world, she ate in the front room. Clara has always eaten in the den. And Zani has always eaten right there in the kitchen a few feet from her mat.
So, given my sloppy training, what happened over the years was perfectly predictable to a professional trainer or behaviorist, but it took me a long time to figure out what was happening. In fact, I wrote a post in 2014 complaining about it before I grasped the whole situation.
What happened first is that Zani started leaving her mat before I was finished with the process of loading food toys and would start wandering around the kitchen. This drove me nuts, though I did grasp that it was likely my fault. In the earlier post, I attributed it to the attractiveness of sniffing in the kitchen, and that I hadn’t reinforced her strongly enough for staying put. True, but that was only part of the story.
I didn’t figure the whole thing out until Clara started releasing herself as well. Did Clara wander farther into the kitchen? No! She trotted away from me, into the den. This bothered me a bit, but I didn’t intervene. My thinking was that at least she wasn’t coming farther into the kitchen, so I didn’t mind if she went into another room. (Sloppy trainer!)
Are you getting the picture? I kid you not: after that, Summer started breaking her mat stay as well. But she headed for the front room.
I finally got it. Zani wasn’t leaving her mat just to sniff for crumbs. She was leaving her mat in anticipation of where the big reinforcement was going to happen. She ate her meals in the kitchen, so she was going to that location. Likewise, Clara and Summer were going to wait where their meals would appear.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this. We tend not to think of meals as reinforcement for a behavior. (At our peril!) I was thinking solely of the treats I gave the dogs on the mats as reinforcing mat behavior. And kind of vaguely thinking of their meal as a final reinforcer for that behavior. However, what was the meal reinforcing even more strongly? Leaving the mat to go to the usual eating area. (If that isn’t a good argument for treating richly in position, I don’t know what is!)
Changing Locations and Reinforcement History
But then I changed things up on Zani and Clara. In mid-October of this year, Zani had a spell of intervertebral disc disease. As she was recovering from her painful condition, it was not appropriate for her to be eating out of her usual food toys (either a Kong Wobbler or the saucer-shaped Nina Ottosson dog treat maze). Too much movement. But I didn’t want to switch to a plain bowl because my dogs don’t think they have eaten when they have a meal out of a bowl. I settled for the snuffle mat. I wanted to make it easy and comfortable by elevating it. The perfect place was the den, where there are some steps. So I switched Zani to the den. And to prevent traffic jams, I moved Clara all the way to the front room.
So here is the question: How long did it take Clara and Zani to learn their new meal locations? When did they start running to the new spots (after breaking their stays)?
After 30 meals (15 days) of eating in the new location, Clara was still going to her old location while I finished preparing her meal. But she was going more slowly and tentatively. And when I walked into the other room with her food toy I didn’t have to call her as I had for the first week or so. She was watching and would come running as soon as she saw me head that way.
So her behavior was in the process of changing, but she had not adapted to the new location. That sounds like a lot—30 meals in the new room and she was still going to the old room! But compare it to the number of times she had eaten in there. My rough estimate is that she had eaten more than 3,650 meals in the den. So she had had less than 1% of that number in her new location. Thirty meals don’t sound like so many anymore.
Zani’s behavior was similar. She had not yet switched to her new location, although she followed me there more readily than she had when we first started.
This behavior on both of their parts reminded me for the hundredth time that behaviors with a reinforcement history stick around. If your power goes out, how many times do you still flip the light switch when you go into another room? Lots, right? I think the longest my power has ever been out was four days, and my habit of flipping switches was still strong on Day 4. I would be slightly surprised when nothing happened. “Oh yeah! That doesn’t work anymore!”
So when your dog has had a behavior that worked for him for his whole life, keep habits and reinforcement history in mind. If the dog continues to perform the old behavior now and then, even though you have trained something new, he is not “blowing you off.” He likely has a long-term habit to change. Remember Clara and how she continued an unreinforced behavior twice a day for two weeks.
There was another joke on me. After starting this post, I decided to film Clara still running to her “old” eating location so I could do a before and after video when she finally changed over. However, when I put up a camera, dammit if she didn’t stay on the mat and wait for a cue. For the first time in a couple of years, she stayed on her mat without releasing herself. I knew putting up a camera tended to change my dogs’ behavior, but I hadn’t realized how much!
In the movie, you can hear me release her with “OK!” or a comment about supper EIGHT times. She doesn’t budge until she sees which way I’m headed with her food. (Speaking of stimulus control: my dogs are not required to move when I give a release cue. Some people teach it that way but I haven’t yet in my training life. So although Clara’s behavior was extremely unusual under the circumstances, she wasn’t technically failing to respond to a cue.) She stayed stock still every time I had the camera out and was filming. When I stopped bringing out the camera, she reverted to running to her old eating area. Stinker.
- Three Behaviors I’m Tempted To Punish and Why I Don’t
- Dogs Notice Everything
- 16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real)
- Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson