Every year at this time, people worldwide make New Year’s resolutions: returning to the gym, beginning a meditation practice, saving money, eating healthier, and many others. Unfortunately, 80% of these resolutions fail by mid-February. So, why not make a resolution this year for your dog?
It’s easy to become complacent with our dogs’ behavior over time. Maybe their recall isn’t as sharp as it used to be, or perhaps new, unproductive behaviors like counter surfing or sock stealing have gradually increased. Maybe their “drop it” isn’t as reliable as when they were younger, and you practiced it frequently.
Here are five small changes that can significantly impact your dog’s behavior:
- Commit to carrying some treats with you in public.
Periodically reinforcing your dog for good decisions outdoors (choosing to walk on a loose leash, voluntarily checking in, recalling to you) with treats can significantly encourage the reemergence of previously taught behaviors. Behavior is like a moving object—without occasional reinforcement, the momentum disappears, and it stops. Intermittent food reinforcement keeps the behavior active.
- Feed less from bowls—more for reinforcement (SMART x 50). Behaviourist Kathy Sdao coined SMART x 50 to See, Mark, and Reinforce your dog 50 times a day for any “good” behavior. Consider diverting 50 pieces of your dog’s daily meal into a special SMART x 50 container and commit to reinforcing your dog with it whenever you see them resting quietly by your feet, laying down, settling on their bed, sitting (not jumping) when visitors return, or keeping all four paws on the floor when there’s food on the counter.
- Add enrichment through food dispensing toys. Use the rest of the food by placing it inside food dispensing toys or a snuffle mat, requiring your dog to engage their brain to retrieve it. This mental stimulation is effortless—it’s as easy to put food in a toy as it is in a bowl.
- Practice old tricks once per day. Lifelong learning is crucial for mental health, and the same goes for dogs. If it’s been a while, revisit the skills you taught them in foundational skills. This could be a few repetitions indoors before mealtime or a few basic cues outdoors before releasing them off-leash to run or before throwing their favorite toy. This builds up reinforcement history for their basic behaviors.
- Enroll in a class for new tricks (and accountability). Many New Year’s resolutions fail due to a lack of accountability. Make it easier by signing up for a class at When Hounds Fly. If you just finished Puppy Start Right, Foundation Skills are next. If you’re a Foundation Skills graduate, consider advanced classes starting in January for additional coaching and accountability.
Implementing one or all of these strategies can benefit both you and your dog. Unlike starting an exercise routine or cutting out alcohol or comfort food, you’ll sacrifice nothing and enjoy more fun with your dog!