Any “issues” that we encounter with our animals are due to habits. Hopefully by understanding how habits are formed and how we can begin to change them, these unwanted issues will lessen.
In all of our relationships, when a problem arises, it’s more effective to look at what some of our habits are that have developed unseen. I mention this, because animals are our behavioral, sometimes physical, mirrors, meaning that if you have an aggressive side your animal will most likely be the same. Even subtle things can be observed in both animal and human. So take a look at yourself before judging your animal.
Very basically, a habit is formed, governed by your basal ganglia cells, in a region completely separate from the primary cognitive areas of your brain. Habits let us accomplish basic, frequent maneuvers without much thought: brushing our teeth, walking, riding a bike, eating… Thank goodness we don’t have to think hard about all of those activities! For our animals, a habit could be something like barking at a passerby or pulling on a leash.
“The process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as ‘chunking,’ and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens – if not hundreds – of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. ” – Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit
When we start the routine that a habit has formed our basal ganglia kicks in. It identifies the habit we’ve stored in our brain and simply continues the string of activities that will follow. How convenient!
“Once that habit starts unfolding, our [primary] gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunchbox inside. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, [and] … also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors so we can devote mental energy to inventing … video games.” – Charles Duhigg
Our brain has a whole three-step loop set up for habits it encounters often. First, it identifies a cue, then there’s the established routine, and at the end there’s some form of reward that tells the brain that this habit is worth remembering for the future.
For your dog, this reward could be anything from walking nicely beside you and receiving a happy pat from you, to barking and jumping up at the door when a stranger is on the other side. The reward for that one is 1) being allowed to do it and 2) finally having the door opened and seeing, smelling, and jumping all over the guest. So the dog repeats the habit.
The loop of cue, routine, reward becomes more and more automatic in our brains.
Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.
I wanted to share this with you because “… When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically. However, simply understanding how habits work – learning the structure of the habit loop – makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears.” – Charles Duhigg
Start to notice the habits that you and your animal have developed and see if you can shed some light on them. Ask your dog to sit or stand away from the door when you have a visitor. If they jump for food, don’t give them food until they are calm.
I hope this has perhaps helped reveal some of the mysteries of why we and our animals continue to do the things we do.