Understanding training regressions
Your Portuguese Water Dog gets overexcited at the beach and eats sand by the mouthful. Your bulldog mix goes haywire every time the mailman arrives. Your mouthy doodle puppy more likely resembles an squirmy velociraptor when you try to brush her.
You get started on a training program to address the problem, probably including a few lifestyle changes, and yet it can be surprising when the dog has a setback or regression, falling off the bandwagon momentarily. It's disappointing and frustrating. But we often forget that the dog has been practicing this unpleasant behavior long enough that the behavior is nice and strong, has a good history of being rewarding (from the dogs point of view) and has probably been going on or brewing under the surface for majority of the dogs entire life. (Six months is a long time for a 1 year old dog) Sometimes, bad habits are just darn hard to break.
Often times dogs and humans fall off the bandwagon without ever making conscious decisions to do so.
Much of it has to do with muscle memory, unconscious reactions, and general impulse control. We tend to give ourselves much more leeway than we do our dogs, even though we suffer from the same challenges when trying to change old habits.
I recently bought a new car with windshield wiper controls that are the exact opposite of my old car, which I drove for 10 years. Two years later and I still sometimes hit the windshield wiper the wrong direction even though intellectually I know the correct direction. Its hard to break 10 years of an old muscle memory habit. When a sudden deluge starts on a super busy New York throughway packed with cars and semi's going 65 mph, my muscle memory slams the windshield wiper controls up, yet the controls for my new car don't turn on unless I hit the windshield wiper controls downwards.
Am I a bad human? Am I just being stubborn? Am I testing someone's authority? No, I'm not even consciously hitting the windshield wipers the wrong direction. In fact, I would love to get it right every single time, as it's actually quite annoying! I want and try to do it correctly, but old habits are hard to break even when we consciously think about them (and dogs aren't even consciously aware that they should change their habit).
Anyone who has tried to stick to a diet or exercise program will tell you how hard it is to stay on the new path and integrate it into their life forever.
And yet this is exactly what we expect our dogs to do: Quit that bad habit cold-turkey, and don't ever fall off the bandwagon.
Oh, and do it all without constant practice or rewards for making new better decisions.
Remember this when your dog's "bad habit" rears its ugly head, and he can't help himself when faced with a don't-pick-this-up sock, a don't-chase-that squirrel, or a don't-bark-at-that human/dog/car etc. He is probably not even making a conscious choice, it's just an old muscle memory habit. Make sure to give him some polite coaching and instructions, and reward him immediately and generously for making a better choice. He's only falling off the bandwagon momentarily, and with your help, he will be back on track in no time.
Jenn Michaelis, SassyT Canine Academy