What if your dog offered you a behaviour you didn’t ask for? What if it was a good idea? Being smart enough to catch your dog doing something right is good for both of you. You get what you want and your dog gets to flex his creative muscles!
It was your average evening here at the homestead. My wife was in our sitting room enjoying a television program and the dogs were scattered through the house lounging in their preferred spots. The jingling of bells caught my wife’s attention and soon a pointy brown head with black ears peered around the corner at her expectantly. My wife smiled and said “Good boy!” and got up to let Jedi outside.
This would be a ho-hum kind of story except for one small fact. Jedi is not our dog and he has never been trained to ring bells to go outside! Jedi had been staying with us for a short while while his family was travelling. We have always kept bells on the door we use to let them out to the back yard to relieve themselves. We have had dogs in the past that used these bells frequently but we never expected Jedi to learn to use them in so short a time.
Genius or Accident?
Considering this was a one time occurrance, I have to allow for the fact that Jedi ringing the bells was accidental. But there are a few factors that lead me to belive that it was intentional. Jedi had been staying with us for 9 days and nights at the point this happened. Everytime the door was opened in his presence, Jedi heard the bells jingle. So he was exposed to them at least 4-6 times each day. And Jedi appeared to seek out my wife just after ringing the bells to see if she had noticed it.
There are a couple of non-situation specific things that I’m also considering here. Jedi was raised and trained by someone who uses a lot of operant conditioning in her training. This allows him the confidence to try things without worrying about a reprimand and he is used to getting something in return for his efforts. He knows that trying something is more likely to pay off than doing nothing.
We can’t know whether or not Jedi would repeat that behaviour because he went home with his owner the next day but we think it’s likely that he would have. Two of our other dogs developed the same habit in a matter of days also. So long as the bell-ringing produced reliable results that they wanted, the dogs used it as a means of communication.
When Opportunity Presents Itself
Here’s another example of this phenomenon. When our Rizzo very young, my wife began bringing him to agility practices. She would keep him in a soft crate but he was often very excited by the dogs that were out and running as he watched. As a way to focus Rizzo, my wife began asking Rizzo to lie down and dropped treats into the crate through the zipper in the top of the crate. It wasn’t long before my wife realized that trying to look into a dark crate, through mesh, to see a black dog was not an easy task. It’s dark in there!
And so she would ask Rizzo to down and then lean forward to try to see if he was in fact lying down before dropping the treat. Apparently of his own accord, Rizzo began to poke the mesh of the crate when my wife looked in. This was the perfect indicator. The height of the nose poke would tell her whether Rizzo was standing or lying down. She began only paying for nose pokes that came at a low enough level.
It’s important to realize that this was not a trained behaviour. My wife did not teach Rizzo to poke the mesh of the crate. But she did reward it! Before long, my wife had figured out that if she leaned forward to peer into the crate, Rizzo would immediately show her his nose poke in hopes of getting the reward. Like Jedi working out how to ring the bells to be let out, Rizzo had worked out how to give my wife the information she needed and was rewarded for that.
In both of these cases, Jedi and Rizzo were passive learners. They were not specifically being instructed to offer a particular behaviour. They were, however, both rewarded for their efforts. Jedi and our bell-ringing dogs were let out and Rizzo received his food treat from above after letting his mom know he was lying down with a nose poke. The important point here is that these dogs were not instructed to do a particular behaviour. They were allowed to offer something that worked for them and they were rewarded for it.
To us, this is an incredibly cooperative and empowering way to work with our dogs. By giving them the freedom to offer behaviours we have created a mechanism for them to express themselves. Rather than the dog needing to meet criteria that we set as trainers for a given behaviour, we are simply accepting something they contribute and build it into their repertoire of existing behaviours. Instead of requiring a specific behaviour, we are accepting something offered of the dog’s own accord. I suppose that, in a way, it could be that we are validating their efforts with our rewards.
The Diabolical Schemes of Tiramisu
A few years ago, it was standard practice for my wife to be sitting in her office only to look up and see the steely glare of two brown eyes attempting to bore a hole in her. Our Tiramisu would stare intently at my wife in what looked like an attempt to telepathically will her to get up and feed her dinner. Unfortunately for our little black dog, we are quite aware of how operant conditioning works and so my wife would never get up and prepare dinner when she saw Tira engaging in this behaviour.
It took a short while, but Tira learned that this “staring thing” was not really working. So she set about looking for alternatives. Before long, she was finding my wife and offering a soft smile and a light hearted wag of the tail. This approach proved much more successful as my wife would would often laugh and say “Ok Tira, let’s get you fed.” But it was not a reliable strategy. If my wife were engrossed in her work, Tira’s efforts at displaying her cuteness might go unnoticed.
Our young dog Rizzo was growing up fast and my wife often encouraged Tira to play with him. Tira is not really one to play with other dogs much. So it surprised my wife one day when Tira ran into the room with Rizzo in tow and began playfully bouncing and bowing at him. This made my wife laugh. She would watch them play for a few minutes and then my wife would get up and start preparing dinner. Tira was delighted! She had at last discovered a reliable way to get my wife to make dinner for her.
Who Is Training Who?
Of course Tiramisu probably thought she had finally worked out the secret method to get dinner when she wanted it. But what was really happening was that my wife had observed a behaviour she wanted to encourage in Tiramisu and decided to accept the play and reward it consistently. Now when Tira wants to be fed, she will engage Rizzo in some silly play. Rizzo gets a little fun, Tira gets fed, and my wife gets what she wanted too. It’s a win-win-win.
This kind of cooperative learning and training works for two primary reasons. First, the trainer is aware and observant enough to consistently reward the behaviour she wants once the dog offers it. And second these dogs are all used to being trained using positive reinforcement and mark & reward training. They have a long history of offering behaviours and being rewarded.
Perhaps more important is that these dogs are never corrected when they offer incorrect variations of what we are looking for. If they offer a behaviour other than what we are looking for or are willing to accept, we simply ignore it and let them try something else. In short, we teach our dogs that “there is no harm in trying.” Of course there are behaviours we discourage, but only infrequently. Jedi, Rizzo, and Tira are all products of positive reinforcement training and each has demonstrated their ability and willingness to engage us in their efforts to communicate.
It makes for a pretty interesting life for us as their owners and I have to believe that it must be fun for them too. After all, how many dogs get to feel like they are active partners in their training? We are very thankful for all of the gifts that modern training and operant conditioning have given us.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Photo credits -
All photos copyright Petra Wingate 2012
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