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Routine and consistency….The double edged sword:

By Matt Wiggins
06.26.22
man and a dog

One of the most common things you hear people say about dogs is that they need routine.
I disagree strongly. Routine causes almost all problems that owners encounter.

It’s also a great tool when used correctly.
When it’s used correctly, it’s also the devil in disguise.

Confused? That’s why you don’t hear other trainers talking about this stuff!
They haven’t even discovered the concepts yet!

There are levels to this sh*t and I’m about to take you to a whole new one entirely!

Ok, so what is a routine?

Routine is a sequence of actions regularly followed.

Now, when you follow a sequence of actions regularly, they become habits.

‘a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up’

Can you see where I’m going with this? Well, even if you think you can bear with me because there’s a twist at the end which I think you’ll find really interesting.

One thing that I commonly see is that trainers focus on what you should do to train things and yet, almost all owners I speak with are trying to untrain something.

When you’re training a dog, routine is a really useful tool. We can get our dogs doing things as regularly as clockwork.

We can sort their toilet routine, meal routine, bedtime and waking up routine, walking routine, and chilling out routine. The more consistent you are, the quicker you’re dog or puppy will get into the groove of things and life will be easy.

We can also use routine and habit to create desirable behaviours that make life easy.

For example, Pip, one of my puppies has worked out our morning routine. We wake up at 6 am, she gets fed and goes to the toilet, I get ready and grab my lunch and we go to work.
The fact that she has worked this out, because I’m consistent really helps me because she’s always one step ahead so I don’t have to think about asking her to do what I want. She’s already done it.

As regularly as I wake at the same time, brush my teeth, have a shower, and go to work Pip knows as soon as she’s out the crate, her next destination should be the back door (that’s where she gets fed), then she’s off to the toilet and when I’m ready to leave, she’s already waiting at the car for me to pick her up and put her in. I literally, from waking up to getting in my car don’t have to ask her to do anything. She’s already done it.

So that’s the upside that all trainers are referring to.

Here’s what they don’t tell you, there are two downsides.

Routine is also the reason that your dog does the things you don’t like.

If you aren’t careful, when you are training you will build undesirable habits through a routine that you don’t notice have developed until it’s too late.

When you aren’t actively training, your dog will be building habits of its own and the longer they go on, the harder they are to stop.

If you routinely walk the same route, end up at the park and then your dog gets off lead to have fun then your dog will start pulling you to get to the park. He/she knows where you are going.

If you get up at the same day throughout the week but have a lie-in at the weekend, your dog is still going to be in the 6am routine. Unfortunately, dogs don’t understand time or enjoy lazy mornings like we do.

If your dog gets into the routine of being really excited to see you in the morning because you speak in baby talk and lavish lots of fun. Guess what? That excited bouncy behaviour is going to become a habit too.

Remember I promised you a twist? Well as I’ve been writing, I’ve thought of another I’d completely forgotten about from a few Years ago.

Twist Number 1 – You can speed up the habit building of good routines and slow down the habit building of undesirable routines if you know what you are doing.

To speed up a routine, you make it easier for the dog to notice it.

Dogs are really good at picking up on subtle changes to behaviour. That’s why they make great companions for people who suffer from fits. Basically, over time, the dog starts to pick up on the subtle behaviours that precede a fit and then is able to notify the handler that a fit is about to happen.

Dogs also do this in everyday life. My dogs know they are going for a walk if I put my boots on but not to get excited if I put my posh shoes on.

Imagine what would be possible if we made a deliberate effort to make those subtle differences that we don’t even think about stand out more to our dogs to aid their learning?

What if we kept our boots at the back door and trainers at the front door? There are loads of examples of this, but, forgive me, I need to get on with the next revelation.

What if when we were training a new exercise we did it in specific places. Just like we get excited or have good feelings in certain environments because of the experiences we have had there dogs can do the same.

There are way too many examples of this to put down here but get thinking about how you can use your behaviour to create a routine for your dog.

Twist Number 2 is that you can use a routine that you’ve created and then subsequently deliberately broken to deepen your dog’s understanding of what is expected.

Here’s an example that I do with all my dogs. It’s really important to me that my dogs don’t seek attention and that, on the rare occasion I get a lie in, they don’t wake me up.

In fact, I basically have a rule of ‘don’t bark in the house’.

It’s a problem for me because I may go 20 odd days without a lie in then, one day, I get an opportunity to sleep in. The issue here is that for 20 days my dogs have woken up at 6 am so, on the morning of my lie-in that’s what they expect and when I don’t turn up, they start barking to get my attention. Lie in ruined!?

Not in my house.

Because I understand how routine and habits work, I make sure I create certain expectations and then, when the opportunity presents itself, I correct my dogs for displaying the undesirable resulting behaviour.

The key here though is to break the routine and be in a position to correct it before you actually want the lie in. So, I get them into the 6 am routine for many days on the trot, then, I work from home for a morning. I still wake up at 6 but I don’t leave the bedroom. When the dogs start barking, I correct them and stay in the room until the time I’d actually like to wake up when I get the chance for a lie in.

Routine and habit are both very useful and very dangerous when it comes to living a successful life with your dog.

Build good routines and habits for things you definitely want, don’t let your dog build routines and habits that you don’t like and for the behaviours you sometimes want but not always? Build the habit and then break it to deepen your dog’s level of understanding of your rules.

As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read my posts, I hope you found this one an interesting read. Maybe it is becoming clear to you why you have certain issues? I hope so.

Have a great day and happy training 🙂

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