Old Habits Die Hard

I got a new car recently. It’s an automatic, the first one I’ve ever driven in 32 years of driving. For the first couple of days my left hand and leg would move almost unconsciously when my brain was telling me I should be changing gear but, despite 32 years of learning history, I adapted to the new conditions and stopped trying to manually change gear much more quickly than I thought I would. Learning can be fast!


That learning is fragile in the early stages. And in moments of stress it can fall apart. One day, not long after I got the car, I came back after a tough session (stress #1) to find someone had blocked me in (stress #2) then and I was running late for my next client (stress #3). While I was trying to quickly perform a 23 point turn to get out of my parking space it all fell apart. My left hand kept reaching out for the gearstick, my left leg kept hitting the brake…it was a mess! All that new learning left me in the moment and I reverted back to the behaviours which had worked well for me for 32 years. Only when I stopped, took a deep breath, collected myself and started again could I function effectively.

And when our dogs learn a new skill, especially one which replaces a long established behaviour which works for them, they go through exactly the same thing. When things are calm and they have time to think it’s all good. But when they become stressed or anxious or feel overwhelmed that new learning can desert them and they fall back on the old, habitual, reliable behaviours.

When we are trying to change long established behaviours there will be bumps in the road. That’s normal. It doesn’t mean that learning isn’t happening. There will be moments of regression. That doesn’t mean there’s no progression.

Just keep going. Keep practicing the new behaviours. Keep managing the environment to make those new behaviours easy to do. Keep reinforcing the new behaviours. And, if things go wrong and the old behaviours resurge, don’t let it knock you off track. Just learn from it, shake it off & move on. Until, one day, you’ll be able to do a fast 23 point turn while stressed out without once trying to change gear!