I have a big, introverted dog. He has the disposition of a pile of dirty laundry, content to lie on the floor all day long, smelling life as it unfolds around him. Lately, he hasn’t been feeling well, and when that happens he becomes even more inert.
Yesterday I put him through his training paces, just to force him to move a bit, get him jogging through the house. Because, you see, despite his preference for remaining still, this dog is brilliant at companion dog work. This dog will heel, sit, stay, stand, lie down, shake, lie on his back, come to the front, by-heel brilliantly, crisply. He is doggy poetry in motion when he’s working. He smiles. He enjoys himself. He is delighted to obey.
Just as long as there is cheese in my hand and the supply does not run out.
Without the cheese, there is no deal. Without the cheese, he is stone-deaf. Without the cheese, I may talk to the paw, but the dog isn’t in.
And that brings me to the subject of Rewards. Getting ahold of our health — losing weight, getting more fit, eating better foods – these are all new behaviors for many of us. It’s hard to pick up a new behavior and make it our own. But it’s not impossible. There is an art to it. It’s a simple, old formula we use to raise our kids and train our dogs: Repetition and reward.
Repetition, repetition, repetition and reward.
As adults, we seem to think we can cut out that last part. We feel as if the new behavior should be its own reward.
In many cases it is. If you find a new vegetable dish that is delicious, you add vegetables to your diet in a way that rewards you immediately. If you are able to achieve that warm, languid, self-satisfied blood rush that exercise often brings, then you have instant gratification for moving more. Win-win.
But these new behaviors may feel very uncomfortable at first. You may need serious encouragement. If eating and moving in new ways present a hardship for you, then you need to find ways to encourage and reward your efforts. You need to become your own pet puppy, and commence a rewards-based training program.
*When you drink all your water today, say inwardly “Good Boy!”
*When you resist the chips somebody automatically put on your plate, scratch yourself behind the ears, give your tummy a rub, and wiggle all over. Or perhaps indulge in a nice hot cup of tea.
*When you lose 10 pounds, give yourself a gift, something that celebrates your accomplishment without food. A piece of jewelry, a new pedometer, a massage, a pedicure.
*When your blood pressure reaches a healthy range, take a weekend to head some place great.
*When you make your goal weight, throw yourself a big party. Invite your friends. Have a day at a day spa.
*If you entered and finished that first 5K race, you’re entitled to a new pair of running shoes. Or maybe you should get those when you sign up for the race. Trust me, crossing your first road race finish line is its own reward.
*Between the big events, give yourself small gifts for good behavior. Have you given up ice cream to lose weight? Is it too hard? Then let yourself have it once a month. Did you cut back on red meat? Schedule a filet mignon at a steak house every three months or so.
*Set up a schedule of things you know you want, and will probably buy anyway, but tie your acquisitions to meeting specific goals. Complete 6 consecutive weeks of working out 5 times per week, and that gets you a new CD? A new car?
Plan immediate rewards for exhibiting good behaviors and avoiding bad ones, and anticipatory rewards for goal attainment and/or sustained good behavior over time.
But a word of caution: Do not make the same mistake I have made with my dog and become so reliant upon rewards that you need them to maintain your new habits. You could go broke that way, or run out of cheese, and then where would you be?