The Only Rehabilitation Philosophy You’ll Ever Need

From the Pack To Basics Facebook page:

There is lot of talk about dog rehabilitation these days. We used to just call it dog training, but now we have a fancier word for it; makes it sound more important, difficult and complex I suppose. Nothing wrong with that. But in the end, no matter what methods you are using the approach is ultimately the same. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself positive based, or balanced. It doesn’t matter if you use clickers or ecollars. If you speak of “extinction” or “punishment” or even “dominance” if your rehab is to work in the long term you have to follow this process (whether you know that’s what you are doing or not). It’s simple (though not always easy) and if you succeed, your rehab will also succeed. If you fail, then ultimately, the rehab will too.

I call it The Golden Road to Rehabilitation and it goes like this: Let the old path become overgrown and difficult to navigate while making the new (preferred) path easier and more accessible.

This may sound trite at first, but this simple expression contains a complex and far-reaching truth. As you will see, we are not merely dealing with things on behavioral level. This approach actually approaches rehabilitation on a physiological level.

This Golden Road requires that we deal with two powerful motivating factors. Most behavior modification approaches focus on the fact that most beings will consistently seek out the path of least resistance. But there is one significant exception to that principle which can throw a serious wrench in that approach. That is when we are dealing with habitual behavior. We will often cling to habits that are inefficient and create more stress and chaos because, well, that’s the nature of habits. Habits become ingrained physiologically in a specific part of our brain and become somewhat involuntary. For example, people will often reach for a light switch in a room and flip it a few times even if they know that the bulb is burnt out. Or in another situation, stand outside an elevator and see how many people press the button when it is already lit. So we cannot rely on simply creating an easier path to the desired goal when the problem is habitual.

This is why the first component of the Golden Road is “Let the old path become overgrown.” You see, this “path” is not merely a metaphor. I am speaking of neurological pathways. As behaviors are reinforced and practiced they change the physical characteristics of the brain. So when we are changing habits we are re-organizing the brain. By denying the use of specific neural pathways we literally make it more difficult to perform the undesired behavior. When I say to let the path become overgrown this is what I mean. We stop traffic down those neural pathways (as much as we can) in order to diminish their usability.

There are a number of ways we can do this, but the consistent thread must be that the dog (at the very least) can no longer engage in the unwanted behavior. That may mean we anything from simply taking away the opportunity, to interrupting each attempt to the application of an appropriate aversive. Whatever the situation calls for and whatever you, as a trainer/handler are comfortable with.

Rarely are aversives necessary in this process, and strong aversives even less so. This is especially true if the first path you steer the dog away from is the path of adrenaline and instability. I point this out because it was solving the adrenaline paradigm that forced me to realize that the two-fold approach is the most effective way to get the job done. The adrenaline pattern isn’t strictly a behavior issue, nor is it an entirely voluntary process for the dog, and it is almost always habitual by the time the dog gets to see me. So we are dealing with a strong, largely involuntary habit that is not about a specific behavior but about a state of mind. To successfully and consistently deal with this issue, requires a good understanding of the Golden Road (if only an intuitive one). As I started to really get into this process the details became more clear and my intuitive understanding of the give and take of these two goals grew. But it wasn’t until I was reading a book about behavior on a neurological level that an intellectual understanding became more clear.

I used to say behavior modification was all about changing habits, “The first thing you have to do to stop smoking is to stop lighting cigarettes. Until you do that, you haven’t begun to quit. And the moment you start lighting them, you’ve stopped quitting.” This approach served me well for years. And I helped a number of dogs and dog owners by simply getting their dogs out of the old habit. The problem with that is that habits take time to break. It worked, but it required a lot of persistent management from my clients. A few moments of lapsed attention could set them back weeks because the dog had no internal motivation to change and plenty of motivation (habit) to revert to the old behavior.

So while the first step is to weaken the power of habitual behavior, making it easier for the dog to choose an easier path, simply weakening the habit will not finish the job in many cases. We need to add another process.

This is where”Do this instead” comes into play. We teach the dog an easier path to gain what he wants. This is a valuable tool, but on it’s own, it can’t always break a habit. Without the first part, it may not do anything at all.

Regardless of how hard we try to slow traffic down those neural pathways or deny the intended reward if we don’t build that new path, we may never get rid of the old habit. Consider the habit of looking at your watch to check the time. I haven’t worn a watch in years, but I still find myself looking at my wrist from time to time especially if I am wearing a wrist band of some sort. This is because habits are not always diminished when the reward is diminished or removed. However, I have a new habit that is more prevalent. I search my pockets for my phone. This is a much more complicated ritual than looking at my wrist, and if both produced equal results looking at my wrist would be superior by far. But the the former doesn’t produce the desired result so it has stopped being the default. However, if I didn’t have the phone, I would likely still be looking at my wrist every time I wanted to know the time.

In this case, we are adjusting the the neural pathways in the brain through consistent use. We are making the desired behavior not merely more desirable, but physiologically easier to perform.

As you can see, the combination of these two valuable principles creates a situation that will ultimately result in the dog choosing a different set of behaviors when faced with old triggers.

The dynamics of the process will vary from dog to dog, case to case, and trainer to trainer, but these two goals are at the heart of all successful rehabilitation regardless of the method or approach used, and regardless of whether the rehabilitator understands them on more than an intuitive level. With a full understanding of the principles of the Golden Road, and the resolve to succeed, there are few problems that are unsolvable.

One thought on “The Only Rehabilitation Philosophy You’ll Ever Need”

  1. ” Let the old path become overgrown and difficult to navigate while making the new (preferred) path easier and more accessible.”

    Also, if we give them positive incentive/motivation to follow the newer path, it will hopefully become the dog’s preferred path as well, which makes it easier to break the bad habit, right? (Almost like making the dog think it’s his idea to do what we want him to 😉 )

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