Get In The Habit To Help Your Dogs Learn

My poor poodles, creatures of habit like all dogs, they must find it hard to live with someone who rarely does anything the same way twice. They’ve got my husband‘s routines down pat. First coffee on the porch, then (yup, he’s getting our collars) we go out for a morning romp and next hooray-it’s-breakfast-time. And so the days go by.

It’s hilarious to watch them leap up as soon as Tim grabs the wine carafe for our dinner. It’s like a magic sceptre they follow because it means their own supper is just minutes away. I’m sure the mere sight of a wine carafe makes them salivate; our very own Pavlovian poodles indeed.

This kind of learned behaviour is an example of classical conditioning first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900’s. He showed that dogs can be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a “dinner bell”, even though dinner itself is not present. Learned associations like these are used all the time in training dogs. Most of the time, cats ignore this stuff, although few can resist the sound of a can opener…

So for dogs, habits help them figure out the day and guide their behaviours. At the sound of Tim leaving for work, they run off to their kennel without even being asked. Oftentimes, they lie in there for half an hour before I even shut the door because I’m not so good at the habit thing.

Not that I mess with their minds on purpose, but it was quite funny to see how perplexed they seemed last weekend when I fouled up their breakfast routine. A beautiful morning, I decided it would be fun to take the boys for a short jog around the neighbourhood. So they had their usual romp in the yard and…wait a minute, what’s she doing with our halters, doesn’t she know it’s breakfast time? Whoa! Where are we going in such a hurry? Hey, slow down, “breakfastses” are back there!

Poor guys, they tried to jump in the truck, thinking we were going for a ride. They kept tying the leashes in knots because only one of them could be in the proper “heel” position at one time. I know a fair amount about dog training theory, but it’s a good thing Cliff and Tate were pretty well trained when we got them. Habits and routine are really important to teaching behaviour and I just can’t seem to get in the habit.

Behaviour training for dogs is an incredibly complex field, populated by experts and quacks from all kinds of backgrounds. Watch future issues of Fuzzy Logic for advice on jogging with dogs.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist

Hillcrest Animal Hospital

July 2011