Every time we work with our dog, the history of all of our experiences with this dog follow us. For better or for worse, our dog remembers. Your dog’s expectations of you and your time together will depend on how you have shaped those memories.
History is a powerful thing. Anyone who has fostered or adopted a rescued dog can tell you the very real fear in a dog’s eyes at the sight of some unexpected and seemingly benign object. There is history there and it has a deep effect on that dog. In very much the same way, our van becomes a chorus of excited squeaks, yips, and whines when we drive down certain roads toward favorite parks. History is again working its magic through our dogs memories.
Our dogs’ short and long term memory works in ways very similar to our human memory. But they do not have the capacity that we have for memory. Nor do they show our ability to reflect upon our memories in detail and make detailed predictions and plans into the future. That said, our dogs do remember our voices, our smells, their favorite toys, that grumpy dog at the park that it’s better to stay away from. Clearly they retain some idea of history.
Think of it this way – Your dog takes in a tremendous amount of sensory input from vision, hearing, and that incredible sense of smell. All of their senses really. In much the same way we do, dogs learn to selectively ignore those things that aren’t immediately relevant. But they use a more dog-centered logic. They pick out the things most important to them; food, attention, fun, safety, stress, etc. At the end of the day, our dogs are left with general impressions of the world and the things they find important in it. They know where the food is kept, they know who feeds them, they know what things to leave alone if we are watching, and they know the best places to sniff on a walk.
History is important because it helps us understand what to expect. To a great degree, our dogs’ experience of their world will shape the way they learn to operate in it. And this goes beyond simply knowing where things are and learning how to get what you need. It can also shape attitudes and emotion.
Consider how a dog will react to someone who offers him a cookie when they first meet. Most dogs will eagerly take the treat. If that person offers the dog a treat the next 3 or 4 times they meet, the dog will come to expect that from this person. If presented with a stranger and the person who has offered him the cookie in the past, which is the dog more likely to investigate first? History tells the dog that “cookie man” is a much more attractive option because she’s likely to get a treat.
History can have both operant and classical conditioning elements. Sometimes the dog learns from experience that when it does a certain thing, it can get predictable results. That’s the operant conditioning. And they can also note environmental things and form associations such as being frightened by a loud man yelling at him. Classical conditioning can happen if the dog forms an association between men and the fear he once felt and is then apprehensive around men. It seems history affects everything.
History and the Flask
Our dogs’ perception of history and its effect on behaviour is a two-edged sword. Managed well, we can shape our dog’s attitudes toward certain activities and even build up their desire to perform with us in certain places or in certain ways. If we’re not thinking about our dog’s view of things, we may inadvertently create bad experiences that they might want to avoid in future.
Many trainers use an analogy of a bank account. For every reinforcing experience, we pay into a savings account with our dog; call it a “good will” account. And every time we push too hard or they have a bad experience, we are making withdrawals from that account. It’s not a bad analogy but it does have it’s limits.
A better analogy I read recently involves a triangular flask (Erlenmeyer Flask) like those we used in science classes at school. When reinforcing experiences happen, we add water to the flask. But over time, if we don’t add any more reinforcement, evaporation will decrease the level of the water.
The rate at which it evaporates is dependent on the surface area exposed to the open air. So the more we fill that triangular flask, the smaller the surface area exposed to the air as the flask fills up. The rate of evaporation will slow down as that surface area decreases. The same is true of dog’s behaviour and our history with them. As we fill our dogs experience up with reinforcing things, the longer it will take for that behaviour or that attitude to fade over time.
Flasks Within Flasks
Just as history works on a variety of levels, so to does our analogy of the flask. We can extend the metaphor to our relationship with our dog as well as individual behaviours. For example, my dog has one big flask for her history with me as her guardian and trainer. It involves the sum of her experiences with me over the past 7 years in different places and from different activities; training, play time, reprimands, relaxing together, adventures, etc. And the individual behaviours I train with her will also each have their own flask as will individual activities like riding in the car or playing ball or going to the veterinarian.
When it comes to trained behaviours, the amount of reinforcement my dog has received for correct performance will be a direct indicator of how well she performs. This can be more complicated than it looks. Of course I can use food or play as reinforcement and both of those are big ticket items for my dog. But there are some things that can degrade the experience as well. If we work too long or my dog begins go get confused, frustrated, or stressed, this will have a negative effect on her performance. Think of it as heating up the flask; you increase the rate of evaporation!
And I should mention a different kind of reinforcement. Many trainers like to use “corrections” in their training. Successfully avoiding those unpleasant corrections also fills up the flask! The more unpleasant the result of being incorrect, the more reinforcing it is to avoid. But does this approach have a negative effect on that larger overall flask that represents my relationship with my dog? I think so. At a minimum, it begins to drain away the trust and security your dog has with you. You’ve demonstrated a willingness to threaten or cause them discomfort. Be careful you aren’t pouring out the hard earned contents of that flask.
Keeping It Filled Up
From a training perspective, it’s not as tricky as it may sound. Each behaviour has it’s own flask to fill with good experience. But some of that experience spills over into other flasks. For example, when I taught my girl Tira her first few behaviours, she was not only getting good experience with “Sit” and “Touch” behaviours, she was also getting good experience with me and a positive association was forming. She was learning that working with me paid off frequently and it was fun. Something important was also happening, she was getting experience at learning. And so positive associations were also forming about trying new things, paying attention and trying to learn. Even the learning process itself was taking on value of it’s own.
I guess in a way, it’s kind of a ripple effect. As you fill the flasks for specific behaviours, those larger flasks representing your relationship with your dog, her willingness to work, or interest in new things are filling up too. Teaching your dog new behaviours doesn’t just teach them something new, it strengthens their positive experiences with other things as well, even new environments.
The key to all of this history and learning stuff is really quite simple. Lots of positive experiences will lead to more durable behaviours and attitudes as your dog gets more experience. And like the water in the flask in our example, it’s important to add a little bit to all of our flasks as often as you can to prevent the good behaviours and attitudes from “evaporating.” Remember, your dog is always observing whether you are paying attention or not. It’s much more to our benefit to stay aware of that and to use the power of history benefit our dogs and our relationship with them. Think of it this way: the more you put in, the more you will get out of it…and so will your dog.
Until next time, have fun with your dog!
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