Happy New Year, Dogsters! I hope for all of you that 2012 brings us all great joy and success, both personally and as dog owners.
Last year, I resolved to take more winter walks with the dogs. Yeah, its easy to do that on a beautiful 70-degree day with a soft breeze, sunshine warming your shoulders, but it will be another thing entirely this week, when local temperatures are predicted to plummet to a disgusting 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Experience living in the arctic climate of upstate New York for many winters tells me that probably means our wind chill will hover around minus 10, if Im lucky. Blech.
Sometimes I feel like Alice in Wonderland â€” giving myself very good advice but very seldom following it. Most New Year’s resolutions are more fantasy than they are self-fulfilling prophecies, anyway. Why are they so destined to fail?
My winter walking resolution, like many others, was set for failure from the start. Why? Because the alternative (sitting warm in front of the fireplace; not taking a walk and worrying about coming back with fewer phalanges than I started out with, thanks to frostbite) was more attractive.
Thankfully, my career as a trainer has taught me a bit about changing behavior in a positive and reliable way, and my resolutions for 2012 reflect that. Heres how my resolution will change this year.
1. Split vs. lump, or Every walk begins with a boot or sneaker.
This is trainer jargon for breaking behaviors down into small, achievable goals. This allows you to create a high Rate of Reinforcement, which is fundamental in building reliable behaviors. Veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin examines these issues in her blog entry, Dog Training Tip: Why Cigarettes Are More Addicting than Heroin and How It Applies to Dog Training. The whole concept of New Years Resolutions sets learners up for failure â€” its flawed. We need more frequent reinforcement! You may earn an annual salary of $50,000, but would you prefer to receive that income split into weekly paychecks or to receive a lump sum once a year?
Instead of resolving to take a walk this Tuesday, Im resolving to take off my slippers and put on my sneakers. Once my sneakers are on, Ill resolve to prepare my treat bag, leash the dogs, and then go outside together. Resolve to put one foot in front of the other â€” then every step reinforces the previous one.
2. Set yourself up for success.
Oh, to be a dog living with a dog trainer. Certainly, many are the canine equivalent of the cobblers children, wearing tattered behavioral shoes. Sometimes I think, Yikes, youve really been slacking lately on the dogs’ training. I think they need some quality time to brush up on some skills or to learn something new. When I catch myself thinking this, I never resolve to spend an hour and a half a day training the dogs. I resolve to keep a few pieces of kibble in my pocket.
If its easy or convenient to fit into your day, youre more likely to do it. I know Im much more likely to fit a ten-treat training session into my day than I am a ten-minute training session. The funny thing is, when your resolutions are easy to achieve (after all, a ten-treat training session may take less than a minute), youll find yourself doing them more often, and without even realizing, you may end up doing ten or more minutes a day over the course of many brief sessions.
Making it easy to be successful also means controlling the environment to the best of your ability. While I cant change the weather, I can stock up on appropriate winter gear: scarves, hats, gloves, fleece tights under my jeans, wool socks, warm boots, and some YakTrax all help to make an unpleasant experience significantly less unpleasant.
3. Removing distractions, aka Damn you, Facebook!
Check out this article by classroom management expert Dr. Fred Jones to learn about “bootleg reinforcement,” which is basically the opportunity to self-reward for poor or undesirable behavior. I can reinforce my failure to go for a walk by engaging in a different behavior that is incompatible and self-rewarding, like Facebook.
It’s a lot easier to accomplish something when you remove distractions. I decided to be proactive so I couldnt self-reinforce for undesirable behaviors (walking leads to freezing, so staying in means avoiding frostbite), so I installed the LeechBlock add-on to my Firefox browser â€” and now I cant access Facebook at all between noon and five p.m.
4. Reinforce the desirable behavior.
When I wake up on winter mornings, I like to get out of bed, turn on the heat so that the bathroom warms up, and hop into a nice hot shower. This is another opportunity for bootlegging reinforcement! In 2012, Im changing the picture â€” warm showers come after winter walks. Once Im warm from a shower, I don’t want to go out into the cold. But Im much more likely to go outside if I know when I get home, I can immediately take a long, hot shower.
Well see what happens this week. But I will say that my resolutions for 2012 have a greater chance of being successful simply because they are more reasonable. Saying “Every walk begins with a sneaker and ends with a shower” is a much more tangible way to change my behavior permanently than setting a lofty, decidedly ambiguous goal of Take more winter walks.
How might these tips change your resolutions this year, Dogsters? Remember, quitting smoking doesnt begin with a year â€” it begins with a minute. Living a healthier life doesnt begin with losing thirty pounds; it begins with replacing a single chip with a carrot dipped in hummus. Feeling better about yourself is not an achievable goal, but doing a single nice thing for yourself, like having a cup of coffee with someone who brings out the best in you, is the first step on that journey.
Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
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