It’s helpful to understand a little bit about the physiology of learning when trying to understand why our dogs can take so long to “rehabilitate” in the case of a behavior problem.
Learning creates physical changes in the brain. These changes are semi-permanent, but new learning can “override” previous learning.
One good analagy is to think of the brain as a rainforest (thanks to Dr. Karen Overall for this idea).
When you learn something, you are creating a path through the rainforest, beating back all the brush as you go. The more you practice the new skill or behavior you’ve learned, the more times you travel down that same path. At first, the path is very overgrown and it takes real effort to walk along it. This is the acquisition part of a new behavior. Once you’ve practiced that behavior over and over again (traveled down that path over and over again), it becomes easier. You don’t have to expend as much energy to reach your destination (perform that behavior).
This is why learning new skills tires our dogs out so much. Thinking is hard work! It can be very difficult to form a new path and usually requires multiple repetitions.
Why does this matter for our dogs? Once you’ve learned a behavior, that neural pathway becomes very strong. That path is very easy to go down.
The problem with replacing a well-established behavior with a new behavior is that you’re providing the dog with a choice of two paths. On the one hand, they can go down that familiar path that’s so easy to travel (the old behavior). On the other, they can try to whack their way through the rainforest and form a new pathway.
If you were given a choice of going somewhere quickly on either the interstate or on a deer trail through the forest, which would you choose? Your dog’s behavior problem, whether it’s barking, marking, digging, lunging at other dogs, guarding his food, fear of strangers, or anything else, is like the interstate – it’s a wide, easy to travel path that’s familiar and easy to travel down.
At some point in learning, our behaviors even become somewhat automatic and are no longer under conscious control (think about the first time you learned to drive a stick shift VS doing it after you’ve driven one for years – many of those behaviors have become automatic). If your dog has been practicing the problem behavior for months or even years, he may no longer even be conscious of doing it.
So, how can we change behavior if the old neural pathways are so firmly established?
We need to make it worth the dog’s while to invest in opening a new path, and we need to prevent the dog from going down that old path.
In the case of a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety, we may also need to treat the underlying cause (usually by altering the brain chemistry with medication, which can only be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian). Just like a path through the rainforest, over time the old pathway is going to become a little overgrown and harder to travel down as the dog stops using it. At the same time, the new pathway will become easier and easier to go down until it’s become the path of choice, and the one the dog travels down automatically. That’s not to say the dog might not ever wander down the old path again – it will always be there (this is where spontaneous recovery of previous behaviors can come in to play). We just need to make it the less accessible option.
Later this week we’ll talk more about behavior modification. In the meantime, we want to hear from you! What questions do you have about behavior mod? Have you ever dealt with a serious behavior problem? How did you resolve it? Please share your experiences in the comments below!