3 good behavior lessons from Gustav

by | Nov 17, 2015 | Blog | 2 comments

2015-03-10 14.02.52Back in 2012, when I first started studying behavior design in earnest and including it in my consulting and coaching practice, I didn’t realize the influence canines have contributed to the field.

The first sign was the pre-reading for the behavior design boot camp, created and led by Dr. BJ Fogg.

BJ, considered the father of behavior design, assigned chapters from Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. Her teaching and training methods, based on reinforcement theory and practices, apply to dogs as well as other animals, including humans.

Pryor and others who follow her methods provide a reinforcement to the learner ideally at the very instant the learner does the desired behavior. The learner immediately knows that this is the right behavior at the right time.

The reinforcement—a la a prize, such as a treat or verbal praise (“Good job!”)—increases the likelihood the learner will repeat the behavior again.

The prize, from a neuroscience perspective, activates the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses.

As a result, when we’re experiencing our prize/reward, we’re motivated to repeat our actions to get more prizes, even if it’s just another hit of dopamine. This combination embeds the action in our brain faster, which helps us develop habits.

(By the way, this is one of the many reasons why BJ’s invention Tiny Habits® is so successful. All the dopamine you’re feeling encourages you to rapidly build new habits. See Success! Adopting 3 “tiny habits.”)

At the boot camp, BJ introduced us to his dog Millie. Together, they illustrated the reinforcement techniques that support behavior change. BJ also pointed out other behavior design elements, using Millie as a model.

Throughout the intensive two-day boot camp training, we students learned many more useful models, methods and techniques that applied more to humans than dogs. The knowledge and experiences—especially combined with my applied neuroscience studies—have been incredibly useful in my consulting and coaching work.

Until last month, our beloved dog Gustav daily reinforced Millie’s behavior design training.

Now after his unexpected illness and sudden passing due to SIRS (systemic inflammatory response syndrome) on Oct. 13, I’m on my own. I miss him dearly, both as a companion and a teacher, not just for behavior design but other things too.

As I reflect on our time together, three of Gustav’s many lessons stand out:

1. You can teach old dogs new tricks. Old dogs and adults of any age can change their established patterns of behavior. Thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brains, we can do new things, especially when we pay attention, focus and follow simple steps.

For instance, when we moved six blocks at the end of May, Gustav seemed to have a better sense of our new place than I did. When we were walking, he guided me home. When I was driving, I sometimes missed the new turn off, especially when I was thinking about my to-do list.

2. Face-to-face communication continues to be the most powerful type. Gustav frequently communicated in nuanced ways with the turn of his head, the glance of his eyes, and his posture. He was a walking advertisement for another classic book, the 1989 You Are the Message by Roger Ailes. According to the now Chairman and CEO of Fox News and the Fox Television Stations Group, words are just a small part of what we communicate.

For example, if Gustav wanted to take a different route than the one we were walking, he’d plant his feet, catch my eye, and then nod his head in his preferred direction. He wouldn’t budge until he got his way or I persuaded him of a benefit to him if we stayed on our current path. (We usually changed directions.)

Or, if he saw a treat jar on a counter at a store or at his veterinarian’s office, he’d look at someone he thought could help him, catch the individual’s eye, and then turn his head toward the treat jar. If he couldn’t get anyone of “authority” to serve him, he’d then turn to me to help. For whatever reason, he figured it was good manners to ask the individuals in charge first.

(Gustav agreed to stand next to the cardboard Pope in return for a treat he identified at the store—a stuffed rooster to add to this stuffed bird collection.)

3. Be empathetic to others, especially those who have been kind to you. Gustav could act like a bully to other dogs sometimes by barking unexpectedly in their faces. However, he was very kind toward adults and children and even empathetic—considering he was a dog.

From my perspective, Gustav’s most amazing gesture was toward one of my clients who had given him a stuffed hedgehog. Once Gustav unwrapped the toy, he ignored it. (He preferred stuffed birds.)

Months later, this client came to our house to collect Gustav and me for a walk we were going to take together.

Gustav welcomed her at the door with a bark—which is how he greeted everyone—and then retreated.

While I got his leash, he went to get the hedgehog, which he brought to her in his mouth. She was elated.

Meanwhile, I was dumbfounded. My brain went into overdrive to regulate my emotions and practice self-control, including keeping my mouth shut. I so wanted to ask Gustav how he even remembered he had that toy, much less recalled that she had given it to him. But I didn’t want to reduce my client’s joy.

Was it her scent on the toy? Something else? And how did he know how much pleasure he would bring her by showing her the hedgehog?

I’ll never know the answers to these questions. However, his actions that day continue to resonate with me and I try very hard to be kind and empathetic.

Now though I honor Gustav. As Roger Caras said, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

Thank you, Gustav!


  1. Jennifer cannon

    Love what you wrote! The story about the hedgehog was incredible. Dogs are so much smarter than we think. We learn every day from them as they do from us. You are such an amazing person. Gustov was so lucky to have you as his mom. I am always so eager to read whatever you share. Your wise wisdom is so captivating to read! Sorry we missed his memorial but you were in our thoughts! Can’t wait to spend Thanksgiving with you and Dave and Brooke and Alan and the girls.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Jen. The loss is still so raw, but I take comfort in knowing how lucky we were to find one another. We took him into our home as a foster when he was almost 2 years old and then adopted him. We had six-and-a-half wonderful years together.

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