Have You Heard of Pattern Games for Dogs?
Pattern games for dogs seem to be all the rage right now, at least from what I can tell. And there’s a good reason for it.
When you use pattern games in your dog training, you are teaching your dog how to engage in a certain—often complex—pattern of behavior, and then you tailor it for a specific situation.
For example, you can teach your dog to go to its bed, lay down, and stay there until you ask it to get up…as a result of someone ringing the doorbell. (I’m sure you can imagine the benefits that come with this.)
The purpose of pattern games for dogs is to solve a situational problem. Once the pattern is practiced enough, it becomes the default behavior in that situation.
Example: From Crazy-Bitey Puppy to Calm Puppy
Let me show you how this worked for one of my clients.
When Moxie, a Cane Corso, was a puppy, she struggled with some arousal issues (like most puppies). When she got super excited and wanted to play, she would jump on Mommy and Daddy and nip at them. Needless to say, Mommy and Daddy were not pleased with this behavior.
How Did We Solve the Problem?
To solve the problem, we taught Moxie a new pattern: lay down at Mommy or Daddy’s feet and wait to be released. We made it super fun and practiced it a lot. Moxie had a blast. She learned that whenever she did this, the fun and games began.
Through the pattern game, Moxie quickly learned how to slow herself down from a state of high arousal. She also learned an alternative way to get mommy and daddy’s attention when she was ready to play.
How Well Did It Work?
The day after I taught Mommy and Daddy how to work the pattern (yes, the very next day), I received a Facebook message.
Apparently, Moxie had gotten the zoomies a couple of minutes prior. After zipping around the room for a while, she ran up to Daddy full speed…and laid down in front of him to start her new game.
Normally she would have jumped all over him while nipping, but not this time.
Was she perfect from that point on? Nope, of course not. She still reverted to her old ways from time to time.
But, now Mommy and Daddy had a way to work with the struggles and transform them over time.
And, needless to say, Mommy and Daddy were very pleased with this new behavior.
Understanding How Pattern Games for Dogs Work
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It’s a common saying in neuroscience.
Basically, it means this: When the brain processes information and responds to situations, neurons in the brain are working together to make that happen.
The neurons that come into play connect and form neural pathways. As specific pathways get activated, they become stronger. Extremely strong pathways become default pathways, and we end up with behaviors that run on autopilot, like habits.
Think of neural pathways this way…
Imagine you have a wagon traveling from one town to another on a dirt road. If that wagon goes back and forth repeatedly on that road, it will create ruts in the dirt. The more it travels that same path, the deeper the ruts become, and the easier it is for the wagon to stay on the path. Eventually, the ruts will become so deep that it’s actually hard to get the wagon wheels out of them.
Building patterns in the brain is a lot like a wagon creating ruts on a dirt road. The stronger the pattern, the easier it is for the brain to engage it.
Since the brain prefers the path of least resistance, it loves having patterns to work with. Once it finds itself in a situation, it can activate a pattern with very little effort. So it has no problem defaulting to the patterns that have proven effective in the past.
Let's Look at Dog Behavior Through the Lens of Patterns
In Moxie’s case, she had already developed an unfortunate pattern of behavior. When she was energized and wanted to engage mommy and daddy, she would jump a nip. She didn’t have to think about it. She just defaulted to it.
In order to break that pattern, we offered her an alternative pattern, one that would prove to be a more effective option.
But, replacing one pattern with another is not something you “just do”. On the surface, it may seem like you’re working with an externalized behavior. But, what you’re really doing is actively reshaping your dog’s brain.
Wait, "Reshaping" the Dog's Brain?
Yes, reshaping the dog’s brain. Remember how I said earlier that activating networks strengthens them? What you’re really doing is treating the brain a lot like a muscle. The pathways that get exercised become bigger, stronger, and faster. The pathways that don’t get exercise get weaker. So, like building muscle, you are literally reshaping your dog’s brain through pattern games.
Kitty Chisholm (see the video) gave a great TED Talk about the importance of attention in changing the brain. Attention is the way the brain focuses its cognitive resources and guides behavior.
Something she mentioned in her TED Talk is that you need to work on attention alongside alongside a couple of other things for the full effect: passion and practice.
Here's How Pattern Games for Dogs Pulls it All Together
When building new patterns, you want to work with your dog when it is in the right mind space. You want to practice in an environment without significant distractions (the concept of “threshold” is vital here). You will typically use treats of significant value to keep your dog’s focus on you.
Another word for this would be “fun”. If your dog is having fun, your dog is going to fully engage. The more fully they engage, the better they learn. I suspect this is why dogs who are trained without the use of aversives tend to learn skills better than dogs who are trained with them.
Practice: Yes, practice, practice, practice, It’s about repetitive success. Remember, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. You want to work those pathways like you’re exercising a muscle. Start easy, and slowly build up the difficulty while building on successes.
Watch for Patterns in Your Dog's Behavior
Often, when clients come to me, they look at their dog’s behavior as isolated occurrences. Problems include things like “puppy biting” or “barking at other dogs”. “Good manners” means things like having the ability to “sit” or “don’t jump”.
This brings me to my challenge to you…
I would challenge you to start looking at your dog’s behavior as a set of contextual patterns rather than simple behaviors.
Let’s go back to Moxie for a moment. Her struggle was with a behavior pattern that worked within a certain context. She had practiced it enough that her brain could go on autopilot when she was highly aroused. That’s very different than saying “she has a problem with puppy biting”.
This is important because the better your assessment is of the situation, the better you will be able to deal with it. Once you identify the patterns and their contexts, then you can start playing pattern games to build up other, more desirable patterns, to take their place. Anytime you can incorporate pattern games for dogs, you are tapping into very powerful dog training.
Want to Think and Function Like a Dog Trainer?
What I’ve offered here is a more complex—and more powerful—understanding of how to transform your dog’s behavior. It’s not something you are going to get in most “basic obedience” dog-training classes.
If you want to dive deep into understanding your dog and facilitating a strong, mutually-responsive relationship, I would love to talk with you about how I can help with my Canine Coaching Course.
Through this program, I introduce you to the basic principles, concepts, and techniques of modern, science-based dog training.
My goal is to empower you to create your own dog training on the fly as you need it, rather than relying on a pro every time you run into a problem.
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So, if you want to find out whether my system is right for you, simply pick a time slot on my calendar for a free 30-minute phone appointment. That way we know we will both be available to talk. Make sure to fill in the form on the next page. Since you aren’t obligated to sign up and it’s on my dime, there’s no risk to you.
I hope to talk with you soon!
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Hi! I’m Bo McGuffee, owner of Puppy Tutor Dog Training. My mission is to make human dog training accessible and affordable. If you are looking for an alternative to the more aggressive training styles out there, then you’ve found the perfect dog trainer for you and your dog.