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Using Your Dog Training Skills For Personal Change

We all spend too much time beating ourselves up about things we’d like to change, whether it’s a bad habit or not executing important business tasks. Any number of things can weigh heavy on our shoulders. And as we get busier, the burden of the bad habit, or the workload of being behind on important tasks, just gets heavier. Sometimes we rationalize with ‘when this, then…’ thoughts. When I get caught up I’m going to … [fill in the blank: start doing this, stop doing that, etc.]. But that magic moment in time – ‘then’ – never seems to arrive, and before we know it we find ourselves entrenched in a bad habit or so far behind we can’t imagine a way out.

change your habitsWhat if you could utilize skills and knowledge you already have from animal training to change your ways? Whether it’s a habit you wish to break or one you’d like to build, you can apply what you know about learning theory to change your own behavior. Just like an animal training plan, we can determine a goal behavior, create a plan to achieve it, and reinforce our successes with a reward of our choice.

Here are two examples of dogbiz clients who have used training plans to change their behavior:

Lisa felt guilty that she was always late to appointments. Not only was it uncomfortable knocking on a client’s door 15 minutes after their scheduled time, but she knew that getting off schedule meant she would probably run late for all of her other appointments that day. Either that or she would have to rush through her next session to catch up. When we talked about why she runs late, she realized that it was the time at home in the morning that she used to catch up on personal chores. So in order to change her habit of running late, Lisa would need to change her morning routine. Getting up earlier could help, but not being a morning person, she preferred to brainstorm other options. She considered scheduling her first appointment each day a little later, but ultimately chose to set a schedule for her personal to-do list to ensure she didn’t lose track of time. Next, she chose her reward for showing up on time. Since time at home is important to Lisa, and she rarely feels like she has enough, she decided that for every eight appointments to which she arrived on time she would give herself an afternoon off to spend at home doing whatever she wanted. A nice collateral benefit Lisa shared later is that since scheduling her household duties, rather than rushing around each morning without a plan, she’s more focused and spending less time overall keeping up around the house, and more time relaxing at home – just not in the mornings!

John wanted to get in the habit of having clients sign his training contract at their first appointment. That moment always felt so awkward to him that he often just skipped it, thinking he would follow up later. But of course following up later to get it signed was even more awkward, which meant working without a contract. We explored ways John could change his process leading up to the first meeting with a client, with the aim of making getting the contract signed at the first session comfortable and achievable. He decided to mention the document in his consult confirmation email, so his clients would be prepared when he presented the document at the first session. A coffee lover, John chose to reward himself with a caramel latte for every contract signed at the first session.

Ready for your turn? Put your dog training skills to good use with these 4 steps to end a bad habit or create a desirable new one:

Step 1: Choose your goal
What would you like to do differently? Maybe it’s a habit you would like to change, or a task you’d like to make routine. We ask our consulting clients to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and many clients share struggles with organizational skills and follow through. Maybe this is an area of challenge for you, too. Just as you do with animals, start by identifying the undesirable behavior you’d like to change, then determine what you want to do instead – this is your goal behavior.

Think about something you’d like to change and determine your goal behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Showing up late to appointments. Goal behavior: Arrive on time.
  • Not getting contracts or waivers signed. Goal behavior: Ask client to sign a contract at the first session.
  • Letting clients choose their appointment times. Goal behavior: Offering clients appointment times that fit into your schedule.
  • Not scheduling clients’ next sessions. Goal behavior: Set the next appointment (or two) before you leave the current session.

Step 2: Set yourself up to succeed
With your goal behavior determined, the next step is creating a plan. The key is to not focus only on an outcome, but rather on the processes, or changes, necessary to reach your goal behavior.

What needs to change to make your goal behavior more likely to happen? Think about the antecedent arrangement and make adjustments – creating new processes or behaviors to replace the one you’d like to change.

Remember to make it achievable. For instance, if you chronically run late, start with a goal of being on time for a specific number of appointments in one week. Be a splitter, not a lumper – the behavior you’re working to change probably didn’t form overnight, so be sure to break your plan down into small enough steps that your successful repetitions outnumber any occasional setbacks. (By the way, if you do have any setbacks, let them go and move forward.)

Step 3: Choose your reinforcer
We know that reinforced behavior will increase, and we want our goal behavior to increase. So the next step is to decide on an appropriate reward for your successes. Maybe an afternoon off to go the park with your dogs or see a matinee movie sounds positively dreamy. Or maybe you would love a sweet reward (in moderation!) like a double chocolate milkshake.

Consider the value of the reinforcer, too. If you have so many successful repetitions that you’re earning a milkshake every day, soon you’ll have a new habit to change! In the case of many successful repetitions toward a goal behavior, consider a tiered schedule where you ‘bank’ multiple successes and choose a higher value reward when you’ve achieved X number of successes.

What do you find reinforcing? You’re the learner– you get to choose!

Step 4: Assess your progress
Like any good training plan, you need a way to track successful repetitions.

If your reward schedule is a fixed-ratio like Lisa’s, you need a way to keep track of every successful repetition until you reach your established goal. You might also choose a continuous reinforcement schedule, like John’s. Though you will get your reward after each repetition, you should still keep track of individual repetitions so that over time you can assess how your behavior has changed. And don’t be stingy with higher value rewards as you gain steam. For example, John might give himself a bigger reward when he gets 15 clients to sign contracts during their first sessions.

Choose a way to track that’s easy for you to do, and to remember to do – you don’t want to miss out on your R+! An easy old-school technique is a bead counter, like those golfers use to keep track of their strokes. If you prefer a more techy approach, there’s an app for that! Search “tally counters” in the app store for your device and you’ll find many great options.

Think about it
Have any of these examples gotten you thinking about something you’d like to change? Start by just thinking about it. Many times, when working with dogbiz clients, just the process of analyzing the task solves the problem. One client shared that she was feeling guilty about not filing her training records for almost a year. They were currently just jammed in a box that was close to overflowing, the sight of which taunted her whenever she worked in her home office. I asked her how many times she’s had to go into the box to retrieve one of the records. Her answer surprised her: None! So she decided this was a suitable filing system. Sure, the downside is that should she need one of the records, she’ll have to dig through the box, but she decided she could live with that.

Another simple and highly satisfying new habit to form is the concept of touching it once and being done. We often put a task aside for later rather than just finishing it. A great time-saving example we’ve encouraged dogbiz clients to adopt is sending their clients brief session notes before they leave the session. Imagine the freedom of knowing you don’t have to go home at the end of a long day and email your client notes from your training sessions.

Celebrate your success
Changing habits or creating new ones can be challenging. So in addition to the reinforcers you use in your training plan, be sure to stop and give yourself a high-five or pat on the back when you realize you’ve settled into your new routine. And then congratulate yourself again for choosing a career that not only allows you to spend time with dogs, but also comes with skills that can be put to such good personal use!