Creatures of Habit
I heard Dan Gottlieb discuss habits last week on his radio show Voices in the Family and it struck me that there are many similarities between breaking down and understanding our own behaviors and understanding how to train a dog. Both dogs and humans seem to have similar patterns of “cue (trigger for the behavior to start), automatic behavior and reward (how your brain learns to encode that behavior in the future).” If you want a change in the behavior, identifying what the cues and the rewards are is critical for affecting that transformation, in both dogs and humans.
The program is worth listening to in its entirety here, but below is an excerpt that I found most compelling.
“….Because of the human capacity to imagine our world and imagine our self, we can actually change the response to those neurotransmitters, simply by deciding to do so.”
“Once we move into advanced societies, why do we form habits around working hard or exercising? With exercising there are neurotransmitters, endorphins that give us sense of pleasure. But why do a lot of people automatically get into the habit of working hard? Here, the reward is a sense of esteem, a sense of satisfaction of getting something done, that your life has purpose. We as humans have an amazing ability to make something rewarding by deciding that it is rewarding. And that is a really powerful capacity, because it gives us the ability to shape what behaviors will become automatic through choice as opposed to being victims of chemistry.”
We differ from dogs in this way. This is why it becomes our responsibility to train them. If we are asking canines to live with us in our society, we must do the work of shaping their behavior so that they may enjoy greater freedoms and not ever be deemed a nuisance. I recently was informed of a surgical procedure called devocalization where the animal’s vocal chords are removed. You can read more about it here. Now I suppose there at some point might be a reason for this kind of surgery, perhaps a cancer spreading? But as a way to deal with an animal that is being too noisy??? Incredible what methods we humans will choose over working with the animal.
By recognizing cues and rewards in whatever form that they might take, we can change behavior. In this way and with this effort, we will begin to provide the compassion we all seek.