E361: Irith Bloom - The Role of Choice and Habit in Dog Training

Choice and habit both play a role in our dog training - and if we want to change behavior, it's important to determine which that behavior falls into to create an effective plan. During this episode, Irith and I talk about how to know and what to do!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Irith Bloom here with me to talk about choice and habit. Hi Irith, welcome back to the podcast!

Irith Bloom: Hi Melissa. It is great to be here again. I'm super excited to chat about this.

Melissa Breau: It's a super interesting topic to start us out. Do you want to just remind folks a little bit about who you are? So I'm Irith Bloom, not spelled like it sounds. I run a company called The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles, California that offers some local dog training and a lot of dog training to people all over the world. Also cat training, horse training.

When I get lucky. I've not yet gotten lucky enough to have a parrot come in. I also work a great deal with fellow professionals and I have a team of trainers who do most of the pet training portion of the business. I'm also the co-author of a book called Your Puppy and a Step By Step Guide to Raising a Freaking Awesome Dog, which I recommend you check out because we really are very proud of it. I just have to say.

And I get great pleasure in learning and teaching because all teaching is learning and I spend a lot of time doing presentations and listening to other people present and just generally getting out there and trying to soak up knowledge.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So I wanted to have a conversation, like I mentioned in the intro, about choice and habit and kind of the role they play in training. But before we dive in, I feel like it's something where we need to kind of start with some definitions. So when you say choice or you say habit, and we're talking about training, what do you mean?

Okay, so first I just have to say that choice is hard to hem in to the training context because if you actually want to make a choice-rich life for the animals that you live with, you need to be thinking way outside the training context as well as inside it.

But choice in training can mean a lot of different things. Let me start with choice in training because that's the, you know, one we're on. So it can mean deciding to participate or not, which is the foundation of all choice. And training is choosing to participate. If the animal does not choose to participate, I'm never going to force an animal to participate. I'm never going to deprive the animal of food or social interaction or anything else in order to I'm making air quotes in the air that you can't all see.

But in order to motivate the animal to want to train, if they're not interested enough in training with me without me somehow depriving them, I need to re-examine what I am doing and how I'm doing it and figure out how to make training more fun for them. Other things you can do that are choice and training. You can have sessions where the animal decides which behavior they want to work on, which is actually a really super fun thing to do, where you basically just wait and see what they give you, and you're like, great, I'm gonna shape something out of this little movement you just made, and we're gonna play a little game together, we're gonna have a little conversation, and at the end, you know, maybe you'll be hopping around on one foot, whistling the Star Spangled Banner.

Who knows what we'll get, you know? So it's really fun to do that kind of thing as choice and training. I also like providing choice of reinforcers, which if you have an animal who's really into toys, which I know some dogs can really be, that would be like, I pull out two or three toys before the session starts, and I basically say to the dog, pick one, which one would you like to use?

And the animal picks one and then we use that. And in the beginning, when you do this and you say, I usually put a word in front of this, even though it's not exactly a behavior that I know is going to happen, usually I'm really strict, no cues until we know the behavior will happen. But in this case, I want the animal I'm working with to get used to.

At the start of a training session, I'm going to say which one and point at all the toys. And then when I, cat, dog, horse, whoever, pick up toy x, that's the toy we're going to use as my toy reinforcer for the rest of the session, or she's going to show me three bowls and say, which treat do you want? And that treat will be the one that we'll use for the rest of the session.

So there's like little easy ways to just drop a little bit of choice. I mean, I guess depends how you look at easy. To me, it seems easy to drop a little more choice into that training session. And the other thing is always let the dog walk away, or cat or parrot or ferret or whatever, always let them walk away. Because when they walk away, one of a few things is happening.

Either they're bored, which means your rate of reinforcement is probably too low. Not always, but that's the most common reason. They're anxious, they've gotten a little too stressed and they're no longer comfortable in the situation, in which case you definitely want to give them the opportunity to leave. They're puzzled about something, they need to figure it out, so they've gone off so that they can sort of process in their own space, or they're tired and they need to just take a break.

And any of those things that's going on forcing the animal to stay in the training session is not going to improve your training session, so you might as well let them go. So those are some of the fundamental choices I think about in training. And this is not to say that those are all the different things. There's a lot more things, but those are some of the ones that I'm always keeping in mind, with the most important ones being choosing to participate and choosing to stay in the session.

And I actually have a video that I show sometimes where a dog walks away from me in the middle of a training session. And it's because, like, his favorite human in the world has just walked in the door. And that's great. So he goes over to greet the human and I just sat there. I did nothing. I did not call him. I didn't do anything. He greets his human and then comes back to me, and that's the greatest gift in the world.

He's like, what I was doing with you, Irith, was super fun. And now that I've gotten to meet my social need to say hello to this human I love, I'm going to come back because what we were doing was such fun. So the other great thing I love about giving that choice of yes, you should participate if you want to only. And yes, you can leave whenever you want, is that the animal is then telling me very clearly, this is fun for me.

This is something I want to continue to engage in. I'm not here because it's an obligation. I'm here because this is motivating for me and I want to be involved. And that's where we're also going to get their best thinking, because they're focused and they're engaged and they're not like, oh, God, when do I get a break? You know, kind of like you were in school around 7th period.

If you were at my high school or the end of the day and you're starting to lose it, and your history teacher is saying something about the war of 1812 and you're like the war of what year? Again, we don't want our learners to be in that position, so that's choice. Sorry. Now habit. And so habit is another one. It's hard to hem it in just to the training context, but it is very easy for us to fall into training habits.

And I'm actually going to mention a really quick habit example here. So I often go to clients who have a dog that when the dog sits, the next thing the dog does is lift a paw. I don't know if anyone else has ever been there or if you have a dog who does this, you say sit. The dog sits and then raises a paw. And that is because the clients, not being behavior nerds, have this idea.

They want to teach the dog to shake or wave or something, but usually it's shake hands. I'm putting quotation marks in the air again. And so you'll see this in cats once in a while too, although cat people usually aren't this persistent. But they ask the dog to sit before they ask the dog to shake. It's like a prerequisite. The dog has to be seated in order to lift their paw, which, by the way, is not true.

I teach my dogs to shake from a standing position, but that's another side note. So what the dog learns is you say sit, and then you ask to get my paw. You say sit, and then you ask to get my paw. And the next thing you know, they're not waiting for you to say paw, because now it's become this habit for them. As soon as they hear sit, they're like, sit, raise my paw.

They're not thinking about it. It's not dependent on your signals, it's not dependent on a particular reinforcer. In many cases, they will often do this over and over and over without even getting any kind of reinforcement. They just sit, paw comes up. Sit, paw comes up. And that's a habit. The sit part of it is in response to a cue, but the paw coming up has habitually become linked to I hear sit from you, and this is the cluster that now goes with it.

So another way to look at that is that the cue has become something different for the dog. But there's a strong habitual element in that scenario. The animal's no longer thinking, they're just doing the thing that comes easy. So habits can show up in all kinds of places. A lot of dogs have habits of getting excited at the door. I actually think that habit can lead to emotional arousal as well as vice versa.

So when an animal is, in a certain scenario, they're quicker to get excited than they would be in some other scenario that is equally exciting or non exciting. And that's because they've gotten excited in this situation so many times that it has now become a habit. And then all of the other sort of unthinking behaviors of jumping up and down things that aren't earning them reinforcement, they're going to continue to do them.

So, fundamentally, a habit is a behavior that is triggered by something that comes before it and doesn't depend on what comes after it. Let me back up and say this in a geekier way that might still make it clearer, which is we often look at behavior as being between two things. We have an antecedent, what comes before the behavior. We have the behavior, and then we have the consequence.

What comes after the behavior that is relevant to the behavior. In training, we tend to focus on the behavior consequence pair. When you sit, I will give you a treat. When you sit, you earn a treat. That's behavior consequence. We also talk about the antecedent part, but we're sort of sticking in front of the behavior consequence. So then we say, if I ask you to sit and then you sit, I will give you a treat.

But in habit, what happens is that antecedent makes. Makes is a little bit of a strong word, but triggers the behavior regardless of whether the reinforcement comes. So the dogs who you say sit, and they sit, and they have no idea if you have a treat, and it doesn't seem to matter if you have a treat, they're still going to sit. And they'll sit a hundred times no matter what they get after that, even if you just ask them to sit and then you walk away, they're still going to sit.

That sit is habitual. It's being triggered by you saying sit instead of being reinforced by whatever consequence. And so that's kind of where the division is, this sort of antecedent behavior, and the consequences don't matter is habit, and the behavior consequence is more of that. It's actually called goal directed behavior, but it's more of that choice, thoughtful kind of behavior where the animal says, oh, you said sit, and the last time you said sit, and I plunked my butt on the ground, I got a treat.

Oh, maybe I should do that again. And obviously they're not thinking it in those words, and it all happens in milliseconds. But this is the crazy part. It goes through different structures in the brain. Now, the I actually went and looked up recent research in preparation for something that I'm doing right now before I got rolling on it. And the recent research has made which brain structures are involved even less well defined and even more confusing than it was to begin with.

But what we do know is that different parts of the brain are behaving in different ways when an animal is making a thoughtful choice versus when they're habitually falling into a behavior. So we're, like, literally in different parts, different functions, different types of function, I should say, of the brain.

Melissa Breau: So why is kind of thinking about all of this and knowing all of this important when we're looking at behavior, if a behavior is habitual?

And also, I have to say, I love this question. If a behavior is habitual, changing the consequences will do nothing to change the behavior. So remember, habitual behavior. We're in that antecedent behavior. Like, the antecedent happens. The behavior happens. Bowl of potato chips in front of you, you grab a potato chip. You did not think, I'm hungry. I'd like some salt. I'd like some carbs. I'd like some potato.

I really love sea salt and vinegar chips. None of that stuff went through your head. You didn't even have a moment's thought about what the potato chip will be like. It might taste awful, but you're still reaching out and grabbing a potato chip because the bowl is in front of you. That's that habit. The presence of the bowl makes you grab a chip, as opposed to, oh, I see, there is a bowl of potato chips.

I wonder if I want one. So, if I want to change your potato chip behavior, and you've got a habitual potato chip behavior, making the potato chips taste awful may not have any impact at all, because the consequence isn't what's driving the behavior. It's the antecedent that is driving the behavior. Once, long ago, the consequence of potato chips are yummy. Formed this habit. But we've moved past that, and we're now in this weird antecedent behavior cluster.

So, as a trainer, I have to look at the behavior and say, is there any thought? Even if it's, as I said, like, really, really quick, way below conscious level, is there any kind of goal directed thought going on around this behavior? Because if there isn't, then I'm in habit land, and changing my consequences won't make a difference. So I can't say, classic example. Dog who jumps on people at the door.

I mean, we all know this dog. We probably all had this dog in our life. If we've ever had a dog. So dog jumps on people at the door, and you say to them, oh, turn away, or, you know, ignore him. And yet the behavior persists. We're used to thinking of this as an extinction problem. I think traditionally we think of it as. And by extinction, sorry, I don't mean like dinosaurs disappearing from the earth, although arguably they're still here as birds, side note.

But what I mean by extinction is extinction of a behavior which in learning science, we talk about extinguishing. I'm making quote marks again. I really. I got to stop with the quote marks. So extinguishing a behavior or behavioral extinction is, can I get rid of the behavior? The idea has always been, I just need to make sure that there's no reinforcement for that behavior for a certain amount of time.

And eventually the behavior will extinguish, it will go into extinction. But in reality, I think in a lot of cases, the reason that extinction does not work is because the behavior is no longer goal directed. It is habitual, and the consequences don't matter. So what you get is the dog who people walk in the door, they ignore the dog, but he still jumps on everyone. And three months later, he's still jumping on everyone.

And we get in this mindset of, oh, well, that one person, the one time did pet him when he jumped, and that kept the behavior going. Maybe it helped keep the behavior going a little longer. I don't think it's even really that big of a factor. I think the bottom line is we need to change the antecedents because doorbell rings, person walks in, is now this huge trigger for this habitual behavior of get excited, bounce up and down.

So that's why it's important to know, because if I'm going to tackle the jumping and say, oh, I'll just remove the reinforcement, it's usually not going to work. And not that I would ever encourage anyone to use any kind of deliberate punishment and training. Punishment also doesn't extinguish habits. All you need to think about is drug addicts. No offense to anyone out there who's ever had any kind of issue.

I just mean people who are addicted to substances, you can, they get punished 50 ways from Sunday by the world for their addiction in a lot of cases, and it makes no difference in their behavior. So when we're in, I'm just gonna call it habit land, which now I feel like I should open an amusement park called habit land. So when we're in habit land, we need to tackle the situation a completely different way.

We need to put on a different hat, if you will. Then the hat that we use, if we're like, oh, my dog is sitting crooked, but I only taught him to sit, like, last week. I can fix that. You can still fix that with most dogs because they're still in goal directed mode. And you just say, I'm only gonna, I'm only gonna reinforce the sits that are nice and straight like the obedience judge is going to want.

I just won't reinforce the crooked sits. And the dog starts doing these nice up and down straight sits because they, you know, they're noticing the difference in the reinforcement because their brain is open to that learning through consequences. But if they've been sitting crooked for the last year and getting treats for it, you're going to have a really hard time changing that behavior without going back to the beginning, giving it a new name, starting over, and changing the context as much as possible.

Melissa Breau: So we've already partially done this, but my next question is going to be to have us, you know, have you to kind of talk us through an example of each. So maybe we can just kind of recap a little bit, you know, what kind of falls into habitual, what kind of falls into goal directed or choice trading?

Irith Bloom: Yes. Okay, so then let me, let me use an example of a behavior that can be both.

Okay, so one example that I see a lot that can be both things. And honestly, in some dogs, it stays goal directed. They are making a choice for their entire life. And remind me, by the way, to get back to adding choice and other ways we can add choice in life. But anyway, so one behavior that can be driven by the dog is looking around, assessing the situation, deciding what to do.

And I'm using dogs specifically because this is just such a common dog behavior is driving something away through barking and lunging. They want distance. It could be fear based aggression. It could be any. You know, there's all kinds of, I don't really care to label it too much stronger than that, but in my definitions, my personal definitions, I'm just going to tell you right now, there is no absolute definition for almost anything in the literature.

So my personal definition for aggression is behavior that increases distance between the animals and whatever it is they want to get away from. So I'm walking along. I see another dog, even me as a human, I'm very frightened of dogs in this imaginary scenario. And I say, hey, move that dog away from me. I have made a conscious decision. Hey, there's a person handling the dog. If I say to them, can you move the dog away, there's a good chance they'll move the dog away, and the dog moves away.

So now my goal directed behavior has worked because the dog moved away. But let's imagine that I spent five weeks living in a neighborhood where everyone's very respectful. And when you say, can you move the dog away? They move the dog away. But then I move to a new neighborhood and I spend five weeks in a neighborhood where when I say, can you move the dog away? People are like, oh, you are too much trouble.

And they just come walking towards me. Anyway, one of two things will happen. If I'm still in goal directed behavior, I'm still making a choice. I'm going to be like, well, that doesn't work anymore, and I'm going to change my strategy. But if despite it not working, I continue to say, hey, can you move your dog away? Hey, can you move your dog away? Hey, can you move your dog away?

I'm in habit mode and somebody needs to help. I need an intervention. Somebody please give me a behavioral intervention and help me. I'd love some counter conditioning, so I don't feel bad about the dogs anymore, really, I'm open to any assistance you can offer, but that's the difference. The difference is the dog who for the last two years barking and lunging has not affected the behavior of the other dog out there one bit.

But he's still barking and lunging. Even though there's been basically no reinforcement that's habitual. The dog who, when he barks and lunges, the thing consistently moves away. That dog is probably still, I mean, it can get habitual. I'm sure this is another thing we get to talk about in a minute. Yes, we'll get to that. It can get habitual over time, but as long as there's still a consequence that's reinforcing that behavior, I'm going to assume that there's a goal directed element.

It's when I start seeing over and over that the antecedent happens, the behavior happens, then the consequences irrelevant. I'm barking and lunging, but the dogs are still walking towards me. I don't think I'm in a goal directed mode anymore. Now I'm in a habitual mode.

Melissa Breau: So when it comes to kind of trying to decide if a behavior is being driven by the consequence versus if the learner, the animal, the dog is just performing a habit, is that really what it's about? Do we really just need to look at kind of the reward or the punishment at play?

Irith Bloom: That's one element. So a really good thing to look at is the consequence, whether it's reinforcing or punishing. And is that having an impact? By the way, important thing to remember is it may not have an impact on this moment in time, but does it have an impact the next time the situation happens?

So even if I'm going to continue being this, like, weird human dog hybrid thing, even if I'm barking and lunging at other dogs, and one time the dog doesn't respond and actually comes walking towards me, I will probably continue to bark and lunge as that dog walks towards me. The question is if after the fifth time that the dog walks behind me, excuse me, walks towards me. Anyway, let's say I'm picking the number five just as a random number.

So it's not just a fluke, it's not just this one dog who's not paying attention. Now five dogs are still walking towards me. Am I going to change my behavior? And that's what you really need to look at. So if the consequence changes a few times in a row and the behavior does not change one bit, then it's probably habitual. Other things that tend to distinguish habitual behavior are speed.

So there's actually a really good reason we form habits, evolutionarily speaking. They help keep us safe. Classic example of a goal directed behavior that becomes habitual in humans is people who learn how to drive. Well, I mean, I was going to say a car, but it could be a motorcycle. You learn how to drive in the beginning. You're like, okay, steering wheel's fairly intuitive compared to everything else in the car, but even the steering wheel is not completely intuitive.

You're like, okay, I turn this to the right, the car's gonna turn. I turn this to the left, the car turns left. I learned how to drive on a stick shift. That was my original driving experience, learning how to drive on a stick. If I did not put in that clutch, the car stalled. And, you know, if you push on the gas instead of the brake or the brake instead of the gas, things are not gonna go well.

And when you're learning, all of those things are influencing your behavior. But at some point, you get to that stage in your driving where somebody cuts in front of you and you slam on the brakes, and you did not give it one moment of real mental, focused, thoughtful energy. Your foot just went there. So habits can be life preserving, and they can be really, really, really useful. So just bear that in mind.

A lot of times when an animal has a habit, it's because at some point it was useful, and then it sort of ran off the rails. And now I have forgotten how I detoured onto driving. What were we talking about?

Melissa Breau: We were talking about, you know, what, how we can tell, right? Like if something is a behavior where the animal is making a choice or it's become something where it's a habit.

Irith Bloom: Yes. And so the reason I mentioned driving is the difference between me seeing the dangerous situation coming up and slamming on the brakes versus having to think about it like I did when I was a beginner driver could be the difference between a dangerous class traffic collision or no collision. And so speed is actually an element that separates habitual behavior from goal directed behavior. What you'll see is that often the latency, if you will, how long it takes before the signal happens and the behavior happens, the latency tends to be longer on goal directed behavior and shorter on habitual behavior.

And there's obviously going to be exceptional situations. But if you think about it, when you really, really train to fluency, in my opinion, fluency is pretty darn close to habit because you've got these quick latencies. You know, you ask the dog to sit in there or drop. I love dogs who have a really great drop into a down. You say drop, and they're on the ground practically before the 'D' has left your mouth.

I mean, that's great latency. So as soon as they hear that trigger word drop, they drop. That's pretty much habitual. I'm not saying don't reinforce it because we don't want to take chances, but we are pretty much looking at a habit. So habits can be good. By the way, that's the other important takeaway. That was the other takeaway there.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So is it possible for a behavior to be kind of a choice in one dog and for that same behavior to be a habit in another? Are there behaviors that are always habitual or always a choice? Like, how do we parse some of that?

Irith Bloom: Okay, so this is, I'm going to pull out my friend doctor Christina Spalding's phrase. It's complicated, it depends, and we need more data. But having said that, thanks, Christina. It's a great phrase. I will say there are absolutely behaviors that in one dog are goal directed sort of choice full behaviors, and in another dog are habitual.

For example, just, I don't know, leash reactivity is like my thing today. Apparently I'm on leash and I see another dog. There are going to be dogs who, when the other dog is being a real stick in the mud, a real pain in the butt. You know, that's when they're going to bark and lunge. Like, there's a specific reason I've thought about this. I'm telling you off because you're being real pain in my side.

Yep. As opposed to the dog who sees another dog who's not even looking at him and walking away and starts barking and lunging. So in the first dog that is probably goal directed, it is almost certainly, if they're not doing it on a regular basis, it's almost certainly a thoughtful choice. Where in the other dog it's, I see the dog, I'm triggered. It's a habit. So that would be one example.

Behaviors can switch back and forth, but they rarely switch. I say back and forth. It's really, they mostly switch from goal directed to habitual. It's very rare for a behavior to go the other direction that actually takes a lot more work.

Melissa Breau: And then are there behaviors that are always habitual or always a choice?

Irith Bloom: That one is a really, really tough question. I don't think that there is any behavior that could not become habitual.

I mean, I can't, I'm sure that there is someone, someone will probably come up with a great example for me after this podcast. But really, I assume something that would cause, like, great pain is unlikely to become habitual. But other than that sort of extreme example, I can't think of something that would never become habitual and always be a choice for always habitual. You'd have to go something, you'd have to go to something that is actually not technically habitual, but is actually a reflex.

Like if you blow a puff of air in my eye, this is a classic classical conditioning thing. I'm going to blink. I can't help it. That's a reflex that's not even, it's not getting to my brain. It is going back and forth between me and my spine in most cases, so. But to have a behavior like would sit always be habitual, any kind of learned behavior, to always be habitual, that just seems pretty far fetched, and most people don't train to that level of fluency.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. So you mentioned in there kind of going back and forth and the ability to kind of shift something, you know, from a choice based behavior to more of a habitual behavior. Um, you mentioned the word fluency in there too, so let's pull that all together. Is it just a matter of encouraging, you know, lots of practice, lots of fluency? Are there other factors we need to consider? Um, I know you mentioned it's, uh, usually going the one direction, but sometimes going the other direction. Let's just, you know, talk a little more about it.

Irith Bloom: Okay, so let's start with the fluency piece, because that's a really, like, juicy piece, I think. So. Fluency has a lot of elements. You know, distractions are a part of it. And how quickly will the behavior happen and how long will the behavior last?

There's all these different things we look for in fluency. But if we look at fluency strictly as signal, and I'm deliberately saying signal because it's a trigger if it's a habit and it's more of a cue if it's, if it's a choice, and I'm going to get rewarded. Because a cue implies that reinforcement matters. So the signal happening, leading to the behavior that sort of 99.99% of the time that we're looking for, that part of fluency is very much making the behavior a habit.

And if you have a dog who, when you say sit in the kitchen, will sit in the kitchen every single time, regardless of whether you give them a little piece of food afterwards or open the door for them or whatever else it is they might have wanted, then that's probably a habit. And the way you get that habit is by repeating it. And here's the it depends and it's complicated part, again, whatever the right number of times is for that dog, for that habit, basically.

So, you know, I'm going to go back to drug addiction. Some people can have a potentially addicting drug, take it once and never take it again. Other people, once they've had it once, it's almost impossible for them to get back out of that without working really hard, which is sort of the other half of this question is how do we get out of the habit? So in most cases, you're gonna need some number that's between one and 50,000, you know, repetitions of something.

And what that number is is gonna depend very much on the dog. It's also going to depend on the strength of the reinforcer. So this is why I'm a really huge fan of reinforcing every single repetition for a behavior that I want to make really strong. Because if I reinforce every single repetition that I'm getting in all that, it's not is that how many times do I sit to make it a habit?

It's how many times do I sit and get reinforced to make it a habit? So if every time the dog sits on cue, they get a reinforcer, they sit they get a reinforcer. They sit, they get a reinforcer. Most dogs, it's not going to take them more than probably a couple hundred times to get to the point where you can skip the reinforcer and they'll still sit. And it may not be fully habitual at that point.

You may need to make sure that the ratio of times when they get nothing to the ratio of times when they get something is, you know, slanted towards they're getting something most of the time. But then you get to the point where you've had this dog who knows how to sit on cue for a year, and you say sit. And you realize it's been three weeks since I gave this dog anything other than like maybe a very vague praise, which is not a strong reinforcer for most dogs.

So why is the behavior still happening? Because it became habitual. The number of times it takes depends on the dog, I think, that, or the learner, whatever animal you're working with. But I think that there are some animals who are going to tend to form habits faster. And then you'll also see clusters of behaviors where if it's a stationary behavior, the animal is really good at learning that quickly.

But if it's a moving behavior, it takes them more repetition, for example, or if it's a behavior involving one kind of environment, like being around people, they learn it really fast. But if it involves being around other animals, they learn it less fast. So there's a lot of factors that can go into it, but it really is about repetition. Repetition of behavior, reinforcer behavior, reinforcer behavior, reinforcer. And at some point you realize this is like, you know, when you're working with that really, really, really high level dog where you hand them the treat and they spit it out, they're like, I don't even need that anymore.

Sometimes you'll see that sometimes it's, the game itself has become such fun. Sometimes it's, I'm in habitual mode and I don't particularly care for food right now. So that's that direction. Now the other direction. The reason I said it's not impossible is because you can teach someone who's addicted to a chemical substance to change their behavior. But in that case, what we're usually doing is we're not actually overwriting the habit.

We're creating a different habit and driving the animal down that other path. So we basically say, yeah, this habit, we're going to have a really tough time completely eliminating this circuit that's in the animal's brain that makes it a habit. But what we can do is we can create another circuit and attach it to that same set of antecedents and then reinforce the heck out of that one and hope that the balance will shift.

It doesn't always work. There are some dogs that you will spend three years, like counter surfing. You don't need a lot of reinforcement to keep counter surfing going. The dog only needs to be reinforced a few times because it's such a big salient reinforcer for them to check the counter every time they walk into the kitchen. And they may not get anything for two years, but they will keep checking for two years.

So how do I eliminate that habit? I have to teach them something else to do in the kitchen. I have to come up with something else that is equally reinforcing, which can be a real challenge. Something else that is equally reinforcing that they can hang on to that. When that happens, instead of them having just one path, it's like, oh wait, this path is fresher now because it got reinforced so strongly.

But you pretty much do have to just build another habit or, sorry. The other option is to just change the scenario so they never go into the kitchen, which is actually what I do working with clients. I was a baby gate. A baby gate is your friend because they are not going to spend the 5000 hours over the course of a year teaching the other behavior to be a strong enough habit.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So just to throw kind of a monkey wrench into the whole conversation, what role does arousal play when we're talking about all of this?

Irith Bloom: So the fun part of this, and this will bring me back to choice and making life choice rich. Yay. This is such a great question. The fun part of this, if you will, and I'm sort of saying this tongue in cheek, is that the more arousal there is, the less likely an animal is to think in a choice based, goal directed, cognitively advanced way.

And the more likely they are to go down an emotional or habitual path, which are not necessarily exactly the same thing, but they're closely related. So as my arousal level goes up, the parts of the brain that are required for making choices in a goal oriented way, in that sort of goal directed behavior category, those parts of the brain don't function as well. The parts of the brain that function really well are the ones that push me into habitual mode.

So the more excited your dog, the more likely they are to fall into a habit. Which is why your agility dog, who has finally learned how to enter the weave poles the right way when you go to a trial and there's 50 dogs outside the ring barking, and everything's super excited, and you're a little emotionally charged. And all these things are adding to the dog's arousal. He enters the weave poles the wrong way because that was his habit way back when you finally managed to change.

But the new habit isn't as strong as the entering the weave poles the wrong way habit. So under that high arousal scenario, the habits come out. And that careful learning that you've layered on top of it often falls apart, which is super frustrating for us as humans. So, you know, that's. But it is what it is. And it's not that your dog is being bad, and it's not that he's not paying attention, it's that he's, his brain literally can't do what you want it to do because he's too excited.

So that brings me back to the choice part of this, which is arousal. No, let me back up. Yeah. I feel like I don't know if anyone's watched The Princess Bride? No, I sum up, it's too long. No, seriously, though, stress and control are like on a teeter totter. What I mean by control is complicated, but let's just use the word control for now, and then I'll go down the rabbit hole a little bit in a moment.

The more control I have, the less stress I feel. The less control I have. Generally, for most animals, the more stress I feel. Stress is a significant element of arousal. Arousal has a couple of other, like, which part of the brain is functioning things. Stress is more about the physiological response of which hormones are going. So arousal is like, in Venn diagram terms, arousal is inside stress or, eh, no, I'm doing.

I did that the reverse way. Sorry. Stress is inside arousal. Like, arousal and stress have a lot of overlap, but they don't overlap completely. You can have stress without high arousal because of which parts of the brain are turning on and off and which parts of the body are functioning in certain ways. But you can't have arousal without stress. So as an animal experiences more stress, if it's the kind of stress that tilts them into high arousal, then their behavior falls into that habitual mode.

So let's get back to that teeter totter, control and stress. Right. What that means is that control also sort of has arousal on the other side of the teeter totter. The more control the animal has, the less likely they are to get extremely aroused. The less control they have, the more likely they are to experience a great deal of stress, which then contributes to a high arousal level in many, many, many scenarios.

So essentially, if I can give an animal more control over its environment, I'm going to reduce the stress and then that over arousal, because arousal, arousal itself should have said this sooner is not a bad thing. Right now I have arousal or I would not be able to speak. If I had no arousal right now, I would either be sitting and staring at the wall or asleep. Like that's kind of what no arousal looks like.

So the overarousal is the problem, and lacking control, can push in that direction of overarousal, and then the animal's not thinking. And then we got the habitual behavior or the emotional responses, neither of which are usually what we're looking for. Control and choice are very related terms. Choice basically means not only do I have, in, in my mind, again, no strict definitions, choice means I have at least two good options in front of me.

Not, you can sit still or I can hit you. That's not two good options. That's one good option. You can sit still, but now I'm being forced to choose. You can sit still because it's the only option. But if the options are, and I hate that I'm using this hit you example, but, you know, if the options are you can sit still or you can stand still and nothing bad will happen to you, then I've got a little more choice.

In a perfect world, the choices are all going to lead to positive things. You can sit still or you can stand, and either way you're going to get to walk through the door and you get something that you want. There's a certain number of choices where the choices become overwhelming. There's actually a term for that. It's called choice paralysis. I personally have this in the shampoo aisle of drugstores.

I have to read all the labels. Oh, no, what am I going to do? But there is a certain number of choices for each animal. It's going to be a little bit different. That's like a manageable number of choices. And the animal says, hey, this is great. I could choose to lie down. I can choose to sit down. I can choose to stand here, I can choose to scratch.

All of these things are acceptable. Nothing bad is going to happen to me. I have control over maybe making the person give me a treat, whatever it is. Choice also means I can choose to lie down on that bed or that bed or that bed. I like having lots of different locations. For the animals I live with. Choice means I can go and engage with another animal. Maybe it's a specific one of my same species, maybe it isn't.

But I have the choice to go and engage or not most of the time. I mean, the other animal also has a choice, so they're not always going to want to engage back. All of those things are choice and therefore also control. What we really want to build is a sense of what's called agency in the animal. And agency means not only do I have choices, but I think I have choices.

So we can be thinking we're giving choices, but if the animal doesn't feel empowered or competent to use those choices, then they may as well not exist. And so you'll see this sometimes if you've ever worked with a dog, and I'm saying dogs specifically, but horses are a great example of this, if you've ever worked with an animal who comes from a background of a lot of punishment, and horses in general are trained using negative reinforcement, which means either the removal of or the threat of punishment, so that there's, there's either actual punishment and then it's removed, or there's a threat of punishment that is removed.

That's the negative reinforcement. So basically, horses are taught, you do what I say or I'm gonna hit you or pull on that bit in your mouth or jab you in the sides with spurs, or all of the other fairly nasty things that we do to horses without realizing how unpleasant they are. I think because horses take them so well, in most cases, when you ask a horse to think for themselves and do something, make a choice between things, they often won't, because what they've learned is when I make choices, the person on my back or the person on the ground with the whip tells me I made the wrong choice.

So making choices is dangerous. So I don't have a sense of empowerment to make my own choices. I don't have agency. That's what agency is. Agency is when I look at a scenario and I say, oh, there's path one, two, and three, odds are all of them are safe. I'm going to choose one for that horse who comes from a traditional horse background. They're going to look at choices one, two, and three, and look at the human and basically say, which one do you want me to take?

They don't have the agency to take those choices. So agency is really what we're aiming for. Now, the good news is most of the people listening to this podcast probably give their dog a lot of opportunities for agency already, and those opportunities reduce your dog's baseline stress. And the baseline stress obviously is going to have a big impact on their stress in other scenarios because as you're stacking on this thing and that thing and that thing, whether you started at a one or a five, makes a difference in whether you hit a ten in the arousal scale, so to speak.

So with that said, we can often be really context specific about where we give dogs agency. So, like, we let them out in the backyard and they can go do whatever they want, or in the house they can wander around and do whatever they want. But in other scenarios, we've got a really strict set of rules around what they can do and what they can't do. So one of the things I try to do is look for what little things can I do to give agency in the scenarios where often an animal won't have them.

So, for example, with a horse, I'm just going to stick to horses for a minute here. You can take your horse for a walk. This is like, just like you take a dog for a walk. You even hold a rope. It's pretty much the same, except the dog's really big and you don't want them stepping on you. So you can take your horse for a walk. And that walk could look like two things.

It could be we're walking from here to there and the human sets the pace and this is it, and you're going to follow me. Which horses? Many horses will very naturally follow humans quite well, and that's what the walk is going to look like. Or you can have a walk where you amble around and you encourage the horse to graze on the grass that probably tastes different than the grass in their pasture, or to eat some of the bushes, because it's actually important for horses to eat stuff that they can't digest.

I mean, as long as it's not poisonous, that is, it's roughage is part of their natural diet. So, you know, letting them nibble at a bush, that's not poisonous. Even though those twigs that they're eating are not actually going to provide any nutritive value, they still provide value to the way the horse's system works. All of these things. Now the horse suddenly is deciding, oh, I want to go over and taste what that one tastes like, or that one tastes like, or oh, I want to stop and smell the flowers, or I want to stop and look around, or I want to stare at that truck over there, which I'm pretty sure may be trying to kill me.

Because some horses have that mindset about trucks or whatever it is, but just letting them choose to walk forward, stay still. Turn to the right. Turn to the left. Put this in dog terms, it means no matter what length of leash you're on, it is your job as a human to keep the leash loose. It's not just their job as a dog, it's a partnership. And when they stop and sniff for 30 seconds or three minutes, and you're like, what in the world is so interesting?

You let them stop and sniff. You're starting to show them that they have choices that they can make. And if you wanted to take this to an extreme, which I realize many people probably won't go quite to this extreme, you could say, I've brought my dog into the agility ring and my dog's like, you know, I actually want to leave. And you would just exit and not do your run.

That would be providing one choice is do the run. Hopefully your dog loves agility and is really going to enjoy those obstacles. I don't know why I'm on agility today, but there we are. And the other choice would be, I don't feel like it today. Can we just cut out and leave? And if you're a really choice, rich trainer, you say, you know what? If you're not feeling it today, we're not going to do the run.

Because you know something that I don't? There's some stress, there's some situation. Maybe your muscles hurt. Who knows? I'm going to let. Maybe you're just too tired. Maybe you're sick of trialing every weekend. Whatever it is, fine, we'll take a break. That would be sort of really taking it to the extreme. But what we tend to do is we tend to say, you have a choice, except when we're training, you have a choice except when I want you to do something.

And another place where you can introduce choice very effectively is in handling. Like, sorry, what I mean by handling is. Let me rephrase that. Not handling husbandry, the kind of handling that involves, like your. I'm wiping. I have a client just yesterday went for a walk with client. When we came back in, she wanted to wipe the dog's feet. The dog was like, can I please get out of here?

I'm. I have not tackled the foot wiping element with her yet. We'll get there. She's not ready for that yet. She's getting better at a lot of things. She's not quite ready for that, which is fine. It's totally fine. But this dog did not want his feet wiped. And what she did is she basically just held onto his paw, wiped it, grabbed the other paw before he could move away, wiped it and went around the paws.

Couldn't we do that in a more choice rich way? Brushing, combing, veterinary procedures, all of those things. Can we add more choice and not make it a, "You gotta just sit still and take it and you have no say in the matter, no matter what's going on." And the great paradox of adding choice is that as you add choice, and I think this is partly because the animals stress decreases as they have more control and choice.

So I think that may be part of the secret. As you add more choice, the animal usually willingly participates in things that they would not have willingly participated in before. So, like, if you teach a dog to allow you to trim their toenails, you'll probably get much better toenail trimming volunteering than you would if you just grab their paw. Clip, clip, clip, clip. Or dremel, dremel, dremel, dremel.

And make it this forceful thing. So when we give them those choices, when we say, if you don't want to train right now, that's fine. All of a sudden what we're offering is more valuable because they don't have to do it. They're not constantly forced. It's like, oh, wait, you mean I don't have to do well, you know, now that you mention it, maybe I kind of do want to train with you.

The other place you'll see this happen, by the way, is that like, if you have two animals in your household and you get that FOMO thing where you go to animal a and you're like, let's do a training session. Animal a says, no, you go to animal b. Let's do a training session. All of a sudden, animal a is like, wait. Well, if animal b is getting one, I want one too.

So you can always take advantage of that. That's probably because we've changed the motivation. Now all of a sudden, animal b is having fun. And the motivation is more pronounced for both dogs. But anyway, look at everything in the lives of the animals you spend time with, including human animals, and think about where you can provide more agency. If you have an animal who comes from a background where they've never had agency, you have to introduce it very slowly, very carefully, and very gently.

Don't expect them to be making a million choices. Start with something that's a super easy choice for them to make and then build up from there.

Melissa Breau: All right, so I want to talk for just a minute. About why we're talking about this. Right. So you've got a new class this term called Harnessing the Powers of Choice and Habit. And for anybody listening who's been super interested about this conversation, I pulled a lot of our questions today from the first two weeks of the first two lessons of the class. So can you talk a little more about what you're going to cover in the class, kind of the direction it's going? Who might want to join you just a little bit about the course?

Irith Bloom: So I am, I have to say, we're in the first week of class, literally the first week of class. And what I found interesting is I had a plan. You know how that is, right?

You have a plan and then you have a different plan. And I've been watching what's actually happening in the class and the particular students I have, and so I'm making adjustments. So with that said, we started out talking about habits, and we're going to spend some time evaluating which behaviors are habitual, which ones would we like to replace with different habits? What are the best ways to go about that?

So we're going to delve very shortly into why choice matters and different ways to add choice, and then we're going to start playing with the like. So we've been talking about the is this goal directed or is it a habit? And we've been then focusing in on the habits, and then we're going to start playing a little bit with the goal directed part as well in the very near future.

So some of the things we'll be talking about. Hang on, I'm literally pulling up notes. We're going to talk about self control and how, which is a potentially dirty word, I'm just going to say some people are going to be like, I can't believe you're saying self control. So we can talk about self control. How do we teach an animal to deal with their arousal and think through it?

So we're going to be tackling arousal both from the point of view of let's reduce it, and when it happens, how can the animal deal with it? We're going to talk a lot about teaching goal directed behavior that may or may not become a habit over the course of the six weeks of the class that we will then use in situations where we're basically saying right now the dog is making this choice.

Let's give them a couple of other choices of goal directed behavior. We've taught them that they can do in this scenario instead. And let's also teach them how to work through their arousal so that they can think it through and not fall into the habit and make the right choice. And so all of the things we've been talking about today, like what do you do on a walk?

How do you handle visitors? All of those things, fence fighting, all of those things are potentially going to wind up falling into the bucket. But what we're going to be exploring the most is that sort of foundation of how can I, as a handler, teach the animal I'm with to slow down, think clearly, make those goal directed choices instead of falling into habit? And when they do fall into the habit, what can I, as a handler, do to help them.

So it's sort of those two things. So the title being the powers of choice and habit. Choice is incredibly powerful because it reduces an animal's stress, makes them better able to think, and habit is something we need to understand. And also, frankly, I teach habits. I'm very directed. I like all dogs to have a habit of settling. I like my dog to look around in the world and say, not sure what to do, I think I'll lie down.

I think it's a really great behavior for them to have. Not to say, I mean, if they want to do something else, great, go do something else. But if they're at a loss, let's lie down. So those are the kind of things we're going to be exploring. And like I said, it's a little in flux in my head right now. So it's a little harder to answer this question than it would have been just one week ago before I met all the gold spots.

And now I'm like, ooh, we've got a lot more. It's like I opened the can and all of the little gummy worms are wriggling out now. So I like the idea of a can of gummy worms, just for the record.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough, yeah. Oh, I wanted to make sure that you talked about and you didn't mention in there. So just the format that you're doing for your lectures.

Irith Bloom: Oh, yes. Okay. So I actually, I think it's just because I'm so used to doing presentations in front of people and using a PowerPoint. And for anyone who just went PowerPoint, I just want you to know that my PowerPoints usually have, like, zero words on them or not zero one to two words on them. We're not talking like, lines and lines and lines and lines and lines of text.

But I'm so used to presenting with a PowerPoint that what I do for my lectures is I actually record myself going through. You get the little PowerPoints to just help you focus in on what the point is. We talk about that point, and then I move on to the next slide. The summary slide does have words on it. I just summarize what you should be focusing on, and then I take that entire video and I upload it to the cloud with a transcript, and anyone who wants to can go watch the video instead of reading the lecture, I also provide a written version of the lecture, which is basically created from the transcript of the video.

But anyone who wants to just pop in and just watch and listen, and they don't feel like reading for however many minutes it would take, you're more than welcome to do that. I really because I know there are times when I just want to be able to listen and I don't want to have to read because my eyes are tired or whatever. And I'm someone who loves reading, and I know not everyone loves that, and I know not everyone's strength is staring at words on a screen.

So please, please, please come check out my sample. I think my sample lecture is still up right on the. Yeah, on the registration page you can see my sample lecture is a video, so you'll see that and the transcript next to it. So that's kind of where I've, like, gone a little different from what most of the instructors are doing.

Melissa Breau: Any final thoughts or key points you kind of want to leave folks with on this topic?

Irith Bloom: Just if you're having fun and the dog is having fun, you're probably in a good place. That applies whether you have a dog or a horse or a ferret or a parakeet, for that matter. And no matter what species you live with or are interacting with, think about where you can offer them more choice control agency, because all of those things are going to make their life and your life better.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Irith.

Irith Bloom: Thank you. It is always a pleasure, and I hope that the listeners get a lot out of it. I'd love to get like, questions, like, feel free to pop. For those of you who are alumni, feel free to pop into the alumni group with questions. Just tag me so I know to look for it, because otherwise, with like 50 posts a day, I might miss it because there's a lot of posts in that group.

Melissa Breau: It's a very active group. Yeah. So thank you again.

Irith Bloom: Thanks so much.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We will be back next week with Kelly Daniel to talk about fitness for the canine athlete. If you haven't already, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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