The Wastebasket Challenge (or “Changing a Habit is Hard!”)

Guest post by Joey Iversen, BAT seminar presenter

Original location - under the sink
Original location – under the sink

I recently moved to a new house because it is much better for my senior dog, Pirate. In setting up the kitchen, I started with the garbage in a cardboard box under the sink. It’s a logical spot. In my search for a permanent waste bin for the spot, I couldn’t find one that fit.

So I found a wastebasket that fit in one of the pantries in the kitchen, instead of having the trash under the sink.

Even though I have only been in my new house for a couple weeks, after moving the wastebasket I quickly realized I was locked into a habit that was so powerful, the only prompt I had to take a piece of trash to the pantry to dispose of was opening the cupboard under the sink to see the empty space. That is, I couldn’t remember to take the trash to the pantry until I had run through the old behavior of taking the trash to the kitchen and opening the cupboard under the sink. Only then could I change my behavior.

The Pantry

This went on for the next 5 days. I was experiencing increased frustration with each “duh” moment of trying an outdated behavior that didn’t work. My behavior challenges and frustration in the wastebasket location did not involve any fear or lack of safety as most of the client dogs I work with on behavior change. I thought a lot about how significantly increased my distress would be if it did involve fear.

That week, as I worked with clients and their dog with reactive responses to situations, I was keenly reminded of my personal experience with creating a new response and the intense challenge I am having with a simple relocation of a wastebasket.

The more I thought about my challenge in changing behavior I considered the immense challenge our dogs who have resorted to rehearsed aggressive behavior responses to situations that they find scary, stressful or confusing.

I had occasionally made a bit of progress that week, where I would catch myself before opening the cupboard but only if I was thinking about throwing something away. If I were thinking of what I would be doing next or pondering something else I would immediately go back to my old habit. I kept having to open the cupboard before I realized I was at the wrong spot. I was surprised at how irritating this cycle was becoming.

I decided to use TAGteach to get out of the sequence of going to the cupboard under the sink to recall the wastebasket is in the panty. The process of deciding what behavior to tag gave me some interesting insights. Recalling a session in a tennis lesson where my coach and I worked through finding the best tag point with the help of Theresa Mckeon.

In my kitchen, I used the same strategy Theresa helped us work through with tennis to find a reinforcable tag point for the wastebasket dilemma.

A tag point is the answer the question “what move/action causes the desired position, choice, or muscle movement”? I had to change an action before I started in the direction of the cupboard under the sink.

I tried a couple different tag points until I realized I needed to get much further back in the sequence. I ended up with the tag point of “say pantry.”

In TAGteach language:

  • The instructions are: When you pick up an item to throw away (trigger), before moving “say pantry”
  • The tag point is: Say Pantry

Each time I successfully do the tag point, I pull down a bead using the “tagulator” shown here. I can measure success by the number of beads I have pulled in a day. Adding a tag point has sped up my behavior change in efficient trash dispensing. (Ok, I didn’t collect data so I don’t really know the degree of change). As well there is less frustration every time I don’t go through the extra steps of going first to the sink.

What does this have to do with dogs and behavior and BAT?” you might wonder. It has broadened my observation of where might I need to begin to focus in setting up a situation to promote a new behavior response to a rehearsed behavior response to a trigger. Experiencing at what point I needed new thinking in order to make a change in my pattern was enlightening as it was much further back in the sequence than I would have thought.

In BAT, especially BAT 2.0, we emphasize setting up the environment with adequate distance from the trigger and interesting landscape for exploring (and much more). That distance is often much more than people would expect. But closer in, the dog is already headed to the cabinet under the sink, so to speak, and we need to be working at a distance where the dog is really comfortable and not locked into his old habitual behavior.

As I evaluate current and future client dogs and where I start in the sequence, I will be assessing and then looking further back. From my personal experience, I am amazed at how many steps back I needed to go to actually set up for the desired response.

Tagulator the pantry

Follow-Up. Here’s an interesting insight that I’ve noted over these last two days since first writing my experience. My frustration is even more reduced since adding the tag point. My success rate, i.e., the number of times I go to the panty without first heading to the sink has greatly improved.

Yeah! The most interesting is that my emotional response to a “duh wrong spot” event is to giggle. Really! Its now easy to find humor in that ‘oops’ empowered by the plan I have in place for change, the success I have been experiencing and I feel in control of the outcome. This empowerment, success and control are what I deeply desire to bring to both the clients and their dogs with whom I have the honor to work.

I’m well on my way to unconscious competence. Cheers!

We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.