I recently watched an episode of “The Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Milan, featuring “Herbie” a lab mix. According to his owner, Herbie’s problem is that he is “animal aggressive,” meaning that he chases after dogs, horses, or other animals who come close, attacking them whenever possible.
A large part of what Cesar Milan did to “cure” Herbie of this tendency was to redirect Herbie’s behavior as soon as Herbie showed signs of aggression. Each time Herbie saw an animal and began to bark and lunge, Cesar changed the focus of Herbie’s attention and then positively reinforced the change with a biscuit or a pat or a “good boy.”
We parents are often coached by pediatricians to use a redirecting technique with toddlers and young children when they engage in dangerous behaviors. A parent is often taught not simply to scold a child who for example, puts a finger into an electrical outlet but rather to say “no” and then redirect the child to a different activity, so that the child’s attention is refocused.
Refocusing and redirecting our own bad habits is the surest way to cure them. If, for instance, our tendency is to raid the refrigerator before bedtime, we can substitute eating with taking a walk or a bath, or with anything convenient that changes our attention from eating to something constructive. With all due respect to Nancy Reagan, “just saying no” is not adequate to effect change. A “no” must be coupled with a “yes” to something that is equally pleasurable and convenient.