I’ve been training so much. Why isn’t it working?
It’s really common that dog, cat, and parrot owners come to us having already done a lot of training with their pet, and they’re often frustrated that no matter what they try, it never seems to stick. When we hear this complaint, there is usually one common denominator: the rehearsal effect. Essentially, their pet is still practicing the very behavior that they’re trying to get rid of. Here’s an analogy to help you understand what’s going on.
Neuroplasticity and animal training
First, think of a forest full of trees and bushes. Each time you walk a path through that forest, it gets a little easier to get from point A to point B as you wear down the vegetation. If you walk that path enough, over the course of years, it becomes wide and clear and easy to travel – virtually the only way to get where you want to go!
The neural connections in your dog, cat, or bird’s brain are like that forest. Each time your pet performs a certain behavior, his brain is “walking a certain path.” If he walks that path often, the neurons in his brain literally re-wire themselves to be better at that behavior. This means that that behavior not only gets easier and easier, but it can also become virtually the only way of fulfilling a need – it gets him from point A to point B with the least amount of difficulty. Why take the back roads when you can take the freeway? This is called the Rehearsal Effect, and it’s what makes early intervention in dog, cat, and parrot training so important!
What we’re trying to do with our training is carve a new path through that forest. In rehearsing a new behavior, a new means to an end, your pet begins to walk a new path over and over – and the more opportunity to practice your pet has, the more this new pathway grows, until it becomes the new “freeway” – an easy and effective path to take.
Here’s where behavior management comes in.
Now, here’s the trick. If you don’t stop using the old freeway and give it a chance to disintegrate, it will still be there in the background, enticing your pet into relapsing! That is why so many do-it-yourself training programs fail. Behavior management is essential in training – you must be creative and proactive in preventing your pet from “practicing” the unwanted behavior. Each time your dog, cat, or bird has a “relapse,” he is maintaining that old pathway.
Don’t let them practice what you don’t want them to perfect.
This means that you may need to get creative. All of the best dog, cat, and parrot trainers are also excellent lateral thinkers. If you have a bird who bites, use protected contact to avoid allowing them to rehearse that behavior while you re-train more appropriate ones. If you have a dog who ignores your recall, put her on a long line when hiking so she can’t run off. If you have a cat who attacks you when you walk down a certain hallway, restrict her access to that hallway until you address the underlying problem. Try to avoid situations in which your pet is likely to fail, and actively seek out situations your pet can handle – stack the deck in your favor. Put some forethought into your plan, and contact us if you need help- some of us are used to implementing plans like this for a living!