One of the most interesting things I have come to learn in my pursuit to understand behaviour and learning is that the brain can be rewired. When we (or our dogs, seals or goldfish) constantly behave a certain way, or indeed feel a certain way, it turns out we build the equivalent of highways along these neural pathways in their brains. Neural pathways are really long, insulated nerve fibers that communicate electrically or by a chemical neurotransmitter. The more they get used, the better they get at being used.

You know when the traffic gets too much for a certain road and they do road work to improve the road so we can all wiz along smoothly? Same in the brain. They become strong and allow the imposes of electricity to wiz along. I think of this sometimes when on the freeway. This is why when we first begin to learn something it’s really tough going. There is no pathway there yet. The road has to be built. The area has to be stripped of any vegetation, we have to move rocks and boulders. Levelling needs to happen. New tiny little pathways forge. It’s slow. It’s frustrating. Sometimes scary! It also takes a lot of energy and effort. Soon though, if we keep it up, we get the gist of it. We feel more confident, we become quicker. On a physical level our tiny pathways are growing and the electrical impulses travel more easily. We also begin to use much less conscious thought on it. It becomes a habit. So as we become practiced our mental activity decreases. Studies in rats, for example, show that the brain’s basal ganglia stored habits while the rest of the brain took a nap. Getting to this point though, is tough. Those freeway are so easy for the impulses to travel down. It’s hard to break habits cause it’s so hard to build new pathways. Can’t I just have one more chocolate?

I’m thinking about habits for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s the beginning of the year when we all feel the calling to better ourselves for the coming year, which normally involves changing habits. I am on week three of giving up sugar. Armed with The Sweet Poison Quit Plan it helps me a lot to think of my new little neural pathways being built. I obviously am also dealing with the addiction of it all (which some scientists say is pretty much the same as a strong addiction). But I also have dear little Quinn recovering from his patella popping out the other night when he and his brother were tearing around the backyard in their habitual post show hoon. Recovery means honing is out for a while, so I am conscious of the difficulty they are going through as behavioural patterns are forced to change. Blocking the behaviour is the only way out and going cold turkey on brotherly midnight hooning has not been an easy process.

The basics of a changing your behaviour or helping our animals change their behaviour and of course our physical brain can be summed up easily: Cells that fire together, wire together. Can you believe we all have hundreds of millions of neurons behind our eyes AND billions of pathways between our neurons? And, when it all comes down to it, it is the way these pathways are organised that determines how we behave and how we feel.

So how can I help myself and my animals when habits need changing? Psychologists call it the “Habit Loop” Every habit has three components: a cue (or a trigger), many of my trainer friends will know this as an antecedent. Next is the behaviour or routine itself – the actual habit, and lastly there will a reward, or what is often called a reinforcer (which is how our brain learns to remember this pattern for the future.)

 1)  Become aware of the cue. Habits are triggered by the environement. Sometimes you have to pay a lot of attention to find what triggers your craving, but it will be there. It might be a time of day, a certain feeling, the presence of a friend…
 2)  Choose a competing response. You identify your trigger and feel the urge but force yourself to engage in some other behaviour. But there is a catch here and it is important…
 3)  You need to find a competing response that provides the same reward. So for me, I replaced having a chocolate biscuit with my cup of tea with a handful of nuts. I know. Tea and nuts. Gross, right? Sure you feel that way, because tea and a biscuit for us is a habit… For Quinn and Sparrow, hooning time has been replaced with a walk on lead and a wrestle play on the bed with Quinn on a lead for now to ensure I block the hooning habit from appearing. I will have no problem with them running and chasing each other once he has the all clear again from the vet, but it will be nice to not have it at midnight. That’s one habit we will not see again!

There is a lot more to ponder about here in regards to training. I think of things like the established jumper. Dogs that have a habit of jumping on people learned it through the reward of attention and social facilitation. Not cookie getting. Giving the dog a food treat for not jumping is a much slower road to changing the habit than establishing attention giving as only coming when their butt is on the floor. Like I said, lots for us to ponder…