Heed the power of the involuntary response! What is an involuntary response? It is based on the wiring of our dogs, from the “way they come”. Dogs are compelled/can’t help but to behave “that way”. The involuntary response also tends to be the one that frustrates us, gets our dogs in trouble, seems impossible to fix, and has tenacious qualities.
We are reminded how deeply engrained these involuntary responses are in our dogs when we consider chasing behavior. The dog may chase an object (squirrel, car, etc) for its entire life without ever becoming successful at catching the object (no reward), yet never loses its intensity and purpose in chasing that object. ….to never lose intensity without ever being rewarded… that is a very compelling response, time over time over time! We use classical conditioning to modify this wiring, mindset, and attitude in the dog to make behaviors manageable over time.
In stark contrast, behaviors we teach to our dogs through operant conditioning, such as a Sit or Down, must be reinforced occasionally or the behavior will become less reliable, less intense, and eventually fade. Needless to say, a behavior based on the wiring of the dog always has the potential to override a behavior taught through operant conditioning.
An example of the power of the involuntary response: My dear Sydney, who since passed, was a car chaser. He was very good at it; up and down the fence line he went, all the time. I never modified this and chose to do damage control instead to keep him safe.
In the last few weeks of his life, lymphoma had grossly overtaken his body, and there was not much of Sydney’s signature moving going on. BUT, he still chased the cars. As a fan of dog training and psychology, I watched on with amazement and found new respect for this involuntary response business. Sydney’s mind told him, as it did for 11 years, “must….chase…..cars….”. He was compelled to chase the cars, you could see it in the very little movements his body attempted. His facial expression even revealed a sense of confusion as his body simply could not deliver what his wiring told him to do. Behaviors so deeply engrained that they disregard the broken and dying body must be very powerful and strong.
Involuntary responses can be modified. However, it takes time to mold something as strong as the involuntary response into something manageable to us and there are often limitations. We need to be gentle and patient with our dogs and ourselves when attempting to change the wiring of the dog through classical conditioning. Achieving proximity to cars without the dogs lunging after them may take an inch at a time through methodical and effective repetitions of successive approximations, but it can and does happen, and therein lies the rewarding journey.
Let’s celebrate our dogs no matter how they come, ourselves for recognizing our dogs’ wiring, and realizing that there are ways to groom all behaviors. Some are just a bit more tenacious in their modification.