Rituals: What They Are & How They Can Be Awesome


Rituals: What They Are & How They Can Be Awesome

Rituals: What They Are & How They Can Be Awesome

Most people have some sort of ritual behavior that they engage in daily with their dog.  For some people this is their morning walk along the same route, for others it might be a few minutes of cuddling in bed before starting the day.  Maybe you always greet your dog the same way when you get home. In general people and dogs fall into behavior patterns that can be either helpful or annoying depending on the behavior and the way it is carried out.  For example, your dog returning a ball to you by spitting it out at you during fetch may be both helpful and endearing, while a dog spitting a ball at you while you are napping on the couch or otherwise engaged may be annoying.  Either way the behavior pattern is the same: spit ball at owner and most often get to chase it, and it is rewarded often enough that it does not get extinguished.

Behavior patterns and rituals are important. They give your dog stability and routine that can help with confidence and relationship building.  Going for a morning stroll together or spending time cuddling can reinforce your bond as you explore your surroundings or find that really good itchy spot under your dog’s collar to scratch.  It is important, however, to keep in mind that rituals are not generalized specifically because they are ritualized.  A common misconception that people have is that by having their dog sit and wait before eating their bowl of food, they are reinforcing a sit-stay.  This is not precisely true and often people don’t figure that out until they are frustrated by their dog not staying in some other situation.  In this particular case you are highly reinforcing a sit-stay in the kitchen within sight of a bowl at certain times of the day. This is a very specific situation.

We have already discussed generalization (http://perfect-pooch.com/dogs-generalizing/) and the importance of varying your dog’s experiences. Generalization allows your dog to have enough fluency to perform the same behavior in various environments. Generalizing is awesome, but having some rituals is important, too.  Having a routine and ritual pattern with your dog allows you and your dog to feel comfortable knowing what is expected and when, it can also clue you in to when something is wrong.  If you play tug with your pooch every evening around the same time, and one night your dog has suddenly lost interest in the game, there might be something else going on that is worth looking into.  If your dog is used to paroling your yard every day just to make sure there have been no sudden intruders of the small and furry variety but seems lack luster or uninterested, there may be something else going on.  The first thing always to consider is health and pain. Dogs can’t really tell us when something hurts but a lot of owners report “something off” about their dog when there is a health concern. This is a dog “off” their ritual.

Rituals allow your dog the comfort of knowing what is expected and when.  Sometimes your dog even gets to be the trainer and determine the ritual for you. For example, my dog has decided that when I first come down the stairs in the morning, a belly rub is absolutely in order. Before anything else, her belly must be rubbed. This is a ritual she started on her own and I rewarded with the requisite massage. Now it is a habitual pattern: when I come downstairs and let one dog outside, my other dog immediately stretches, rolls over, and waits for her rub down before it’s her turn to go out. I especially love this morning routine because it allows me to check her over in the morning for any physical changes, lumps, or bumps that I need to be aware of.  It’s also just plain nice to have a few moments with her before my day starts.

Having rituals and routines is part of dog training that does necessarily lead to profound excellence in behavior or performance.  It does however help the human-dog bond and relationship that can be used to ensure confidence and comfort in times of stress or change.  When people move homes, for example, we often advise that you do not change your dog’s routine or schedule if possible to limit their stress. Even if you move from an apartment to a house with a yard and don’t necessarily need your morning walk anymore, it’s better to give your dog some sense of security by continuing this ritual, at least until your dog has fully settled in and you can phase it out slowly.  Rituals do not generalize well, but if you can accept that and still see the value in these routine and often mundane activities, you will be one step closer to understanding your dog and forging an awesome relationship with them.

Happy Training!


Tamar Paltin

Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch

BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator