Habits and the 100 Rep Theory

Have you ever heard the theory of 10 000 hours to mastery? The theory is if you spend 10 000 on anything you will reach a level of mastery in that subject. Though there’s some obvious flaws in that theory (such as what you’re studying, not just that you’re studying). I’m working on my 10 000 hours with dog training, but I think it’ll be a while before I reach it. I have a similar theory in dog training and it’s one I’ve been telling my clients about very frequently.

The 100 Rep Theory

The 100 Rep Theory is my theory that there’s a certain number of repetitions required to overwrite a bad behaviour with a good one. Obviously, we can’t be certain that the number is a nice round 100, but for arguments sake let’s roll with this and assume it is. I teach my clients about the concept of Habit formation—namely, I teach them that the hardest habits are not eliminated but instead overwritten. Since reading this in The Power Of Habit a few months back it has prompted me to start using food in the rehabilitation of a couple problem behaviours where it wasn’t used before… but I digress.

Functional MRI’s have revealed that when old habits are “let go of” in favor of new habits, the areas of the brain that used to fire the old habits still light up but are overpowered by the new habits—whatever they might be. For example, my old habit of wake up->go outside and light a cigarette has since been overwritten with wake up->splash water on face and wet my hair down. Both achieve the desired “reward” of having a focused task to help me ‘wake up’.

A habit is made up of 3 aspects

The first is the cue. What brings on the habit itself. For some of our dogs this can be the doorbell ringing or the sight of a dog in the distance.

The second is the routine. The routine is the action or actions that are triggered from the cue. It’s important to note that if the being in question (dog or human) is operating off a habit then the brain is on autopilot when this occurs. Simply put, we’re not thinking, we’re just reacting or floating on past experience. This is why we can have a complete conversation on a tough subject while tying our shoes but ask someone you suspect is telling you a lie to re-tell the story while pouring coffee… they’ll have a hard time doing so unless the story is well rehearsed (they are at a level of unconscious competence at telling it).

The third is the reward. This is the not-so-obvious part of this because the reward isn’t always easy to spot, especially in dogs. Dogs do some things for what appears to be nothing at all until we look closer. Let’s look at a basic example though.

A dog is walking down the street with his owner and spots a dog in the distance (cue). The dog, operating off a habit of behaviour, begins to puff his chest and hold his head high. His breathing increases and so does his breathe and sooner or later the dog erupts in aggressive barking and lunging (routine). Now, assuming the dog is leash reactive because he is scared or nervous of his own species (which is the case the vast majority of leash aggression cases I see), the reward is the other dog leaving but it could also be the spike in adrenaline the dog is looking for.

The key to altering a habit effectively is to keep the cue and the reward the same, but change the routine. Admittedly this is hard to do because we don’t always know what the reward is for the dog. I have found success in adding in something that is inherently rewarding for the dog such as a piece of food or play. So let’s look quickly at the reactive dog again and see why Grisha Stewart’s BAT protocol is effective in solving insecurity and nervousness-based leash aggression.

The cue is spotted (dog in the distance) but we change the routine… instead of continuing to move forward we convince the dog to move away providing the reward of space that the dog was getting anyways but showing the dog the reward is available without the old routine.

This is obviously a simplified version of both the habit formation system as well as BAT as a technique.

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When forming a new habit, consistency is important and confidence is gained by successful repetitions, but this is where the 100 rep theory comes in:

Let’s say for the sake of argument the dog requires 100 reps of a dog being present, not being able to get the reward from the old routine (in other words, erupting at the offending dog no longer brings the reward of space) with the reward of space being achieved instead when the dog DOESN’T react. In my training programs, dogs are taught to heel and keep more attention on the owner than the world (even if that means a 51/49 split). Food is used to reward good behaviour, engagement and successful passes where things like a pop on the leash or the use of a Pet Convincer is used to either snap the dog out of a frantic state of mind and something as minimal as snapping the fingers or using the dog’s name is used as a very low level interrupter. Note: food is rarely used as motivation to break eye contact as most of my clients have exhausted this option, though this does work for dogs earlier in training without such ingrained habits.

The 100 rep theory comes in when we talk about “putting in time in the process”. If your dog requires 100 reps, you can do 1 rep a day for 100 days and perhaps see results. You could also do 25 reps over the course of 4 days and get where you need go too. I think you’re seeing where I’m going with this. The idea is to practice the RIGHT THING 100 times to see permanent and “unthinking” behaviour change in your dog (a new habit is formed and the dog no longer must THINK to perform the right behaviour). If you’re doing things right, you might not see amazing things by rep 10 but by rep 100 you’ll have the result you want. The point is to put in the time in creating new habits.

The Importance of Training Scenarios

When you’re doing this type of work, it’s important to set these scenarios up as frequently as humanly possible instead of letting them happen organically. When things happen organically we are more likely to succumb to our own habits of behaviour or we’re likely to be nervous or anxious ourselves when we see the dog or hear the doorbell. Conversely, if we walk out the front door knowing our friend is around the corner with her laid back Lab it’ll be easier to bang out 10 reps of passing knowing you have a confederate that will let you RERUN the repetitions where most people just want to get as far away from the crazy dog on your leash as possible.

This is also powerful in changing your thoughts when it comes to the trigger. If you set up your training scenario, when the cue is heard or seen you have an advantage because you were expecting it and it didn’t take you by surprise. The doorbell isn’t a sign of panic when this occurs but instead a cue to kick into action, thus rewriting your own habits in the scenario. I tell my clients when they leave the house with their leash reactive dogs to go “on the hunt” for other dogs to practice on instead of hiding away from them. Know that you might fail but by rep 30 or 45 you’ll be making some serious progress and ever closer to your goal of 100 reps. The mentality of “I can’t wait to meet a dog even if we fail just to bang out the reps” is so much different than “please God, don’t let me meet a dog” that it reverberates through your being and changes how you behave.

How Do You Know If Your Reps Are Making Progress?

This is a question I find hard to answer unless I can see your dog. In most cases, dogs might fail the first few reps of a session but will stop the behaviour that is no longer yielding the expected reward (like space for a reactive dog). My rule of thumb is to make sure you’re giving fully functional feedback which is teaching the dog both the good and the bad, not just one or the other. This can be really subtle like just using social pressure (good boys and ah ah’s or no’s) to more intense versions like collar pops and food rewards. Sometimes dogs require more pressure at first but it’s important to test how little you can get away with and always try and go as soft as you can. So long as you’re giving fully functional feedback and your dog ‘starts to get it’ after a few reps, you’re on the right track.

Most importantly, even if your dog stops doing the behaviour after the 10th rep or even the 2nd it’s important to keep running the scenarios to make sure the RIGHT behaviour is fully understood. Trust the system, keep plugging away and sooner or later you’ll stop encountering the resistance you once did. Strive for those 100 reps and watch as the old bad behaviour starts to get overwritten by the new and improved.

Important note: there’s going to be some literal people who take the number 100 as a firm number. This is used as an example to illustrate two important concepts. One, behaviours will go away faster if you can do more reps rather than a rep a day. Two, have faith in the process and understand some behaviours don’t vanish after the first attempt at trying to teach something new.




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