Does your dog have bad habits?

My dogs (Tres and Rosie), my husband (Matt), and I moved to a new home just a little over one year ago.  Our new neighborhood is tiny.  To walk our entire neighborhood requires one lap around an oval, less than 1 mile all the way around.  Very small.  No side streets to detour.  No dumpsters to hide behind when another dog is coming.  And it seems like everyone has a dog and nearly all the dogs are leash reactive.

Before we moved, Rosie (my reactive dog) was seeing big improvements in her noise sensitivity, impulsivity, and staying calm around people.  We were seeing progress on her leash reactivity, but it had been slow.  I was worried about how the move was going to impact the little progress we had made. 

To my surprise, her leash reactivity lessened in intensity after our move.  

The dog trainer in me knows better than to take good behavior for granted, so I rewarded her calmness heavily and we continued on our leash reactivity behavior modification plan.   Fast forward to the present day, and she has significantly less reactions than before, and when she does react, it is less intense and she recovers much quicker.

Rosie taking a break on a neighborhood walk

So, what, if anything, did moving have to do with Rosie’s progress?

The Habit Discontinuity Hypothesis could be at play here.  

What the Habit Discontinuity Hypothesis tells us is that behavior change is more effective in the context of major life changes, like moving to a new home. Shortly after the life change, people showed an increase in behavior flexibility, were more likely to make changes, and form new habits than people who had not moved.  This window lasts about 3 months. 

Most of what we know about habit is in context to humans.  But we may be able to apply this to our dogs through the lens of reactive behavior.  

But first, we need to understand the ways in which dogs learn.

Intentional or Habit?

To understand how habits relate to your dog’s reactive behavior, let’s first look at 2 ways dogs learn: Goal directed vs. habit.  It is not just semantics.  Goal-directed and habit behavior are processed in different areas of the brain. 

Goal directed behavior is action-outcome.  For example, you ask your dog to “sit” and then you give your dog a piece of cheese.  The dog’s behavior is driven by the value of the reinforcer (cheese, in this case).  The behavior is under conscious control and is flexible. 

Habit driven behavior is automatic, with no intentionality.  If the action-outcome contingency changes, the behavior does NOT change.  The behavior is NOT under conscious control and is rigid and inflexible.

What does habit have to do with reactivity?

Let’s say your dog is leash reactive.  When you are out on a walk and if your dog sees another dog, he reacts by barking and lunging at the other dog.  And likely, that other dog goes away.

What can happen is after MANY repetitions of that sequence, the behavior is now triggered by simply the context of seeing another dog.  There is no intentionality, the reactive behavior is NOT driven by the outcome of the other dog moving away.  

Wondering if this could be your dog?  A sign of habit-driven behavior (instead of goal-directed behavior) is your dog continues to react even after the other dog has gone away. 

Worried your dog has formed some bad habits?  

There is a study that says changing context alone may be enough to change habits to goal-directed behavior.  While going to a different neighborhood or location can be helpful, you still need to be thoughtful in your approach.  Here’s some tips:

  • Be intentional in selecting a new location.  Make sure that spot is minimally distracting.  Scope it out ahead of time without your dog to plan exit routes, and how you want to conduct your training session.
  • Old habits can emerge when the dog is tired, stressed, challenged, frustrated.  That reactivity is more likely to come out again. 
  • I know a lot of you are in busy city settings.  If at all possible, go to a different location with less distractions, less stimulation to get in those good practice repetitions.   If that isn’t possible, going to a different neighborhood can be helpful as well. 
  • The longer the reactive behavior has been going on, the longer you may have to spend doing practice repetitions – with no trigger present. The more good practice you do when no trigger is present, the easier it will be for your dog to do the behavior when a trigger IS present.  
  • Return to the original context (when applicable) only when the new behavior is fluent in the new context. 

Have you moved with your dog? How did the move impact your dog’s behavior?

Until next time,


2 responses to “Does your dog have bad habits?”

    1. One dog was affected by a move and one dog was not, is that what you mean?


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