The Neuroscience of Behavior Change: Why It Takes Time

Renee Rhoades, MSc

We expect a lot from our dogs, especially regarding their behavior, but true and healthy behavior change is a gradual process. The internet is ripe with quick fixes, tips, and tricks that seemingly make modifying our dog's behavior as simple as flipping a few switches, and hey presto, your dog is fixed!

That is just not the way that the brain works - and if you have ever tried to change your own habits, you will know that gimmicks just don't cut it when it comes to change that lasts for more than a few minutes/hours/days/weeks. The answer lies in the intricate neural workings of the brain. In this blog post, we'll delve into the neuroscience of behavior change and explore the similarities between the canine and human brains.

Understanding the Brain's Role

To grasp why behavior change is a process, not an event, we need to consider the role of the mammalian brain. The brain is a complex organ composed of billions of neurons, or nerve cells, and their connections, known as synapses. Neurons communicate through these synapses, forming the basis of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When we attempt to modify behavior, we are essentially rewiring these neural connections.

In essence, behavior change is all about the brain's ability to adapt and reorganize itself, in a process known as synaptic plasticity.

When we are changing our dog's behavior the brain is "under construction".

Creating New Canine Habits

Dogs are capable of learning and adapting, much like humans. When you teach your dog to adopt a new behavior, you're essentially helping them create new neural pathways. These pathways start off as faint trails in the woods, barely noticeable and easily lost. However, with repetition and consistency, they become more pronounced and well-trodden.

For example, let's say you're teaching your dog to sit on cue. This seems simple, but laying the foundation for this behavior requires a lot of work from your dog's brain and body. Initially, it can take many repetitions and the right environment, as well as reinforcement, to get the response you are looking for. But over time, the neural connections related to this behavior strengthen. The more frequently your dog practices this cue, the more automatic and ingrained it becomes in their repertoire.

Breaking Old Habits

On the flip side, changing existing habits involves breaking down old neural connections. Dogs, like humans, can develop deep-seated habits or behaviors over time, and their brains become accustomed to these routines. Changing these habits is akin to diverting a river from flowing on the same track for years.

Consider a common dog habit: jumping on people in greeting. The neural connections associated with this behavior are well-established because they have been reinforced through interactions (often both positive and negative in nature). To change this habit, you need to weaken these connections while strengthening new ones related to an alternative, desirable behavior, such as keeping all four paws on the floor.

This process of dismantling old habits can sometimes be lengthy and challenging, as brains resist giving up the established neural pathways in favor of new ones. So your dog isn’t “disobeying” or being “stubborn”. Their brain is doing what brains do - repeating what has worked so many times before.

The brain is energy-efficient and prioritizes repeating actions that are effective for survival. With repetition, the brain becomes more efficient in executing these actions, using fewer resources.

The Role of Canine Dopamine

Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, plays a pivotal role in the neuroscience of behavior change, not only for humans but also for dogs. When dogs engage in activities that make them happy, like receiving treats or praise, their brains release dopamine. This chemical reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to be repeated.

For dog guardians, understanding the concept of dopamine can help in behavior change efforts. When you reward your dog for following a cue or exhibiting a desirable behavior, you trigger a dopamine release in their brain. This reinforcement mechanism, managed by the mesolimbic pathway, strengthens behaviors linked to favorable outcomes (and because behavior is complex that “favorable outcome” may even be you shouting or pushing your dog).

Learning new skills takes time - and the right teacher.

Individual Differences in Canine Behavior Change

Like humans, the speed and success of behavior change can vary among dogs. Each dog is unique, with their own personality, past experiences, and genetics. Some dogs may readily adapt to new habits, while others may require more time and patience. The use of punishment or a mixed reinforcement history can complicate matters even more.

It's crucial to recognize and respect these individual differences in your dog’s behavior change journey - not only for their success but always for their mental health (and yours!). Comparing any progress that you make with your dog (or lack of it) to that of others can be counterproductive, leading to frustration and a higher reliance on punishment.

The Importance of Patience and Consistency

In conclusion, whether it's humans or dogs, behavior change is a process that involves rewiring the brain through synaptic plasticity. It's a gradual process of creating new neural connections and weakening old ones, all influenced by the brain's reward system, particularly the release of dopamine.

Understanding the neuroscience of behavior change encourages patience and consistency in your efforts. Just like us, our dogs need time to adapt, and setbacks are part of the learning process. Embracing the time it takes and staying committed to your goals is key to successfully changing your dog's behavior, one neural pathway at a time!

Dog Guardian Tip: Feeling frustrated with your dog's behavior? Hey, its absolutely normal! Here is one way you can reduce the tension you are feeling: Take 5-10 minutes away from your dog. Go lay or sit down somewhere comfortable and just focus on your breathing. That's it. If you need more than 10 minutes - take it.

Have you been struggling to make sustainable changes with your dog’s behavior? Let me guide you through!
Join R+Guardians, my exclusive membership service where we work together to help you understand and resolve your dog’s concerning behavior. Sign up today and start today!