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The Unearthing of Mental Models in Applying Positive Reinforcement for Persistent Behaviour Issues

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Systems thinking is a way of looking of things with methods and tools to create a universal approach. This blog post delves into the implications of systems thinking and the role of mental models in positive reinforcement for dog behaviour modification.

An influencer connecting the dots on a graph
Systems Thinking is like an influencer in its adaptive, yet profound impact on complex problems.

Systems Thinking is like an influencer on social media, touching followers and fans across a spectrum of sectors, like fixing environments, running a business and even, training and shifting behaviours in dogs. Just as influencers can shape our attitudes towards trends, products, or lifestyles, systems thinking shapes our understanding of complex issues. It encourages us to look beyond individual components and focus on how they interact within a larger system, thus reshaping our perspective on how we approach and solve problems. Influencers often spread awareness about various topics, promoting conversations around specific issues. Similarly, systems thinking spreads awareness about the interconnectedness of systems, fostering understanding of the complexity within different spheres such as the family adopters, the shelter where the dog came from, the preferences of the dog, through to the mental development of the dog. Where Influencers often inspire their followers to change their behaviors, whether it's adopting a new fashion trend, making healthier food choices, or getting involved in a social cause, likewise, systems thinking inspires profound changes by highlighting the impact of individual actions on the larger system, such as dog behaviour.

Key Take-aways:

Systems thinking encourages us to adopt more holistic and sustainable behaviors when adopting and caring for a dog, focusing on different interconnected contributors to the current behaviours, and how they must change for a sustainable eruption-proof future.

We can learn a lot about dog behaviour using Systems Thinking, especially about 'mental models.' You may wonder what mental models are? Simply stated, mental models are ideas and beliefs that change how we approach teaching dogs to cope better, feel safe and calm and end the things we don't want them to do.

What are mental models? Simply stated, mental models are the ideas and beliefs that change how we approach teaching dogs to cope better, feel safe and calm and end the things we don't want them to do

Mental models help illustrate how individuals apply positive reinforcement techniques to address persistent problematic behaviours in dogs, but let's first understand what makes a behaviour issue a "persistent" problem.

The Complexity of "Persistence" in Dog's Behaviour

Do you find your dog's behaviour never seems to be 'fixed'? Sure, there may be temporary times where your dog's melt-down is less severe, is shorter than normal, or hasn't happened lately, but overall has it really gotten significantly better? 'Persistent' behaviour is the most complex in a spectrum of behaviour types and is typically categorized based on the high severity of the behaviour, the frequency of the behaviour being common, and a long duration period. Think about a dog who guards the door all day, listening for noises outside, he erupts suddenly, foaming at the mouth, barking ferociously, and attempting to dig his way through the door by scratching at it, or attempting to go through the windows by lunging at them. This happens at the slightest of noises, from neighbors calling out to delivery drivers and landscapers mowing lawns. The behaviour is ongoing from morning to bedtime and all through the week.

A tiered diagram showing Behaviour Categorisation at the top, connected to three subsets; duration, severity and frequency. This is further drilled down to three levels from high to low. This diagram helps to depict "persistent' behaviours
Behaviour Categorisation

Consider this as a long duration of a behaviour with high severity, that happens commonly. Care must be taken to understand persistent behaviours are often woven into several other complex issues and this simplified categorisation is only a guideline. For example, one could add in the number of attempts to resolve as another factor to determine persistency.

Persistent problems are recurring, stubborn, and seem to resist basic skill-based training methods or environmental modifications. They could be deeply rooted in the dog's past experiences, genetic predispositions, or longstanding habits. Examples may include chronic anxiety (as in the example above), trauma, aggression, CPTSD (Canine Post-Trauma Stress Disorder), CSPS (Canine Sensory Processing Sensitivity), depression, obsessive-compulsive-like disorders, and separation anxiety.

Behavioral problems that keep happening can be hard to deal with because they become a habit, like a way of life for the dog. To fix these problems, you need to understand them really well and come up with a detailed plan to achieve success. This will help manage the problems in a way that lasts.

Key Take-aways:

"Persistent Behaviour" is a categorisation of behaviour, representing recurring, complex emotional activation and requires special planning to resolve.

I've got good news. You are not solely to blame for your dog's behaviour! Systems thinking comes in handy here, so we can look at the big picture. There is a mix of different things that are contributing to the behaviour. Persistent problems may be a result of various intertwined factors, such as the dog's physical health, emotional state, diet, exercise routine, training approaches, past traumas, and its relationship with you and other family members. Even things like the neighbourhood, society and environment can play a part.


I've got good news. You are not solely to blame for your dog's behaviour!

Addressing these persistent behaviours often involves a combination of strategies, such as:

  • Positive reinforcement behavioural modification program

  • Expand your own dog parenting capabilities

  • Building trust and consistency within family members' approaches

There may be changes in the environment, routines, structure, relationships, communication, and in some cases, medical intervention. This process involves working with professionals who specialise in human-dog relationship-based psychology and dog behaviour. Professionals who are your coaches, advocates, and teachers. They take into account your lifestyle and beliefs, and your dog's unique needs. The end goal is to change behaviours once and for all, but they begin by helping you in providing a supportive, stress-free environment, crucial to learning, managing, building new skills, and eventually overcoming these persistent issues.

Back to Mental Models

Systems thinking is a holistic approach. A way of understanding things that focuses on how all the parts work together, not just looking at each part by itself, meaning not just one behaviour but all the behaviours. Imagine that your chest hurts suddenly. Do you want the doctor to look down at your chest and say, "Well it looks alright?" or do we want a full body work-up? I am guessing the latter. We have to consider all the other body functions to determine why your chest hurts - that is a holistic approach. And looking at just where it hurts is not going to fix the problem. Makes sense? A holistic approach helps us see how different parts of something can affect each other in complicated ways. It helps us comprehend how different parts of a system interact and influence one another, often in complex and non-linear ways. For example, when we were developing into adults, and finally turned 18 (or 21, depending on where you live) and you could go to a bar legally. The law is a system that ensured we would be punished if we went into a bar underage. Our parents were another system that interacted and influenced us when they sat us down and gave us a lecture on the dangers of driving under the influence. So as we consider a dog with persistent behaviour issues, we have to look at all the systems that surround, interact, influence and affect him in different ways.

Key Take-aways:

Mental models are like the ideas and beliefs you have in your head that help you understand the world and decide what to do.

When you're taking care of your dog, these ideas can include things like:

  • What you think dogs are like,

  • How you and your dog will learn together,

  • What your dog might be thinking; and,

  • What methods work best to help your dog learn new things?

These beliefs can really affect how well the dog does, how it develops, the level of confidence it has, and its ability to be a cooperative family member. Think of mental models as your deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, and interpretations that shape your actions when making decisions and caring for your dog.

Mental Models and Positive Reinforcement

As an example of a mental model, consider a popular one: the “dominance” paradigm. It posits that dogs are pack animals and that problematic behaviours stem from dogs' attempts to assert dominance over humans. Now this has been debunked widely by the scientific community worldwide. This paradigm often promotes punishment-based training methods to establish human dominance. It remains, unfortunately, an option for some. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it works because we see it has a quick effect, like a kid stopping a tantrum after getting scolded, but immediate effect is not the same as a lasting effect. Sometimes punishment can stop bad behavior, but only for a little while, so don't believe that immediate change is a fix - it is not. The methods don't really teach what behavior is good. nor creates an understanding with the dog of what makes us happy and it doesn't establish that they are capable of making us happy. In fact, punishment can make a dog feel scared, anxious, or angry.

Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, means rewarding good behavior to make it happen more often. This helps the dog learn what behavior is good, makes the bond between the dog and their human stronger, and creates a more positive place for the dog to learn. Rewarding desired behavior to increase its frequency is scientifically approved and notable as being more effective and humane strategy for behavior modification, both in humans and animals.

Positive reinforcement methods view dogs as "learning beings" that respond well to rewards for good behaviour, rather than punishments for undesirable actions. This method is grounded in the principles of operant conditioning and emphasizes the importance of a positive relationship between the dog and its human caregiver. It asserts that dogs are sentient beings capable of emotions and learning from experiences.

Key Take-aways:

"Positive Reinforcement" is the most effective way to deal with complex and persistent behaviour issues, viewing dogs as learning beings.

Implications of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking, when applied to dog behaviour modification, urges us to look beyond individual behaviours and explore the intricate factors contributing to these behaviours. It helps us understand that a dog's behaviour isn't an isolated event, but a response to the overall environment – including diet, physical surroundings, emotional climate, relationships, past experiences, and more.

With systems thinking, we can see that mental models are not just theories but influential components of a larger system. They shape our actions as dog behaviourists, psychologists or dog parents and, in turn, influence the dog's behaviour.

The Power of Unearthing Mental Models

Recognizing our mental models is crucial to changing them. Often, many of us are unaware of our mental models and how they impact our actions. In the context of dog training, revealing these models can significantly enhance the effectiveness of positive reinforcement techniques.

A picture of a brain, with lots of computer like imagery to depict mental models, meaning, how we perceive something to be.

Developing New Mental Models

Understanding mental models isn't just about identifying what they are, but also about learning how to reshape and evolve them. Below are four tips to unearthing your mental models. After you identify your perceptions and thoughts, the next step is to question their validity and effectiveness to the future you want with your dog. Start by considering these tips:

  1. Stay Open: Engage in a learner's mindset and be ready to absorb new information and different perspectives, like engaging in the latest research in dog psychology. In this year alone fascinating studies have challenged what we understand about behaviour. Also, consider signing up for courses to expand your dog parenting capabilities that use the most current breakthroughs, at Dog Parentology.

  2. Observe and Reflect: Watch your dog and notice their unique behaviour patterns and signals. Reflect on your responses to their behaviours and the effect of your reactions have on the dog. You may find that some of the most surprising reactions link back to how you were cared for, and how your parents reacted to your behaviours when they didn't align with expectations.

  3. Seek Expertise: Gain professional opinions to gain insights into scientifically backed techniques and best practices in teaching your dogs what you would like them to do. For traumatised and rescued dogs, the benefits will outway the investment. You can learn how to have a dialogue with your dog, build trust and guide them to calmer mindsets.

  4. Practice Empathy: Putting yourself in a dog's shoes can help you better understand their needs, fears, and motivations better, leading to a more compassionate and effective training approach. You may not know but many times our expectations are more than a dog is biologically able to do. You wouldn't ask an elephant to bury their head, yet we often ask our dogs to control their emotions when they are working on instinct. Another interesting fact is that dogs can learn to be more empathetic by your own actions. So, be gentle, compassionate and a good role model for your dog.

By embracing these tips, we can gradually shift from outdated or ineffective mental models to ones that are more aligned with our future goals and the wellbeing of our dogs.


Systems Thinking offers a valuable tool to understand the complex dynamics at play when applying positive reinforcement techniques to persistent problematic dog behaviours. Recognizing, challenging, and reshaping our mental models allow us to adapt our techniques and build more meaningful and effective relationships with our dogs. As we continue to harness a systems thinking approach, we open the doors to better understanding, compassionate interactions, successful outcomes and we can say good riddance to persistent dog behaviours.

About the Author: Sparky Smith is a certified Strategy & Systems Thinker, with decades of experience in understanding complex problems and solutions to the world's toughest problems. She is a Canine Psychologist (MCMA), a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant (IAABC - CDBC), a Dog Behaviour Practitioner (ISCP.Dip.Canine.Prac.), a human change expert and thought-leader with hundreds of thousands of successful behaviour changes over her career. She is the founder of and creator of Dog Parentology.

Do you believe that you are primarily responsible for shaping your dog's behavior, or do you think it's mostly based on their breed or nature?

  • I'm primarily responsible.

  • It's mostly about the breed/nature.

  • It's a mix of both.

Disclaimer: Original Content

All insights, ideas, and content presented in our materials are the result of original thought, extensive expertise, and dedicated research in the field of canine psychology and behaviour. The methodologies and approaches are developed from a unique Human-Centric perspective, tailored by Sparky, an award-winning Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist, specialising in the care and rehabilitation of traumatised and rescued dogs.

Our content is crafted with the utmost integrity and a commitment to the welfare of dogs and their human caregivers. We pride ourselves on authenticity and innovation in our field, and we assert the originality of our work in all its forms. Any resemblance to other published works is coincidental and not intended, as we uphold the highest standards of professional ethics and originality in our contributions to the field of canine psychology.

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