Many years ago, we had a beautiful collie we called Skybear. In retrospect, I believe Sky was a training genius. Oh, he could “sit” and “down” and “heel” and “come” when called. If he felt like it. But Sky’s particular gift, I think, was his ability to train people.
Back in those days, we had a habit of taking our dogs out for an evening walk around 10 p.m. and then giving them their cookies. When we moved to a new house, the new routine was to let the dogs out into the backyard during the evening and then give them a cookie around 10 o’clock regardless of when they had been out. Apparently, this wasn’t the best schedule for Skybear.
He cleverly started slowly. He would begin appearing in the living room around 9:45 and would gaze at us adoringly with his beautiful blue eyes, trying to look as cute as possible. He would try those “Mom, you are so wonderful!” performances every few minutes to get my wife to give him his evening cookie. Looking back, he was pretty relentless.
To make a long story short, Sky began systematically moving the time up, earlier and earlier, and making his displays of affection more and more pronounced. Then one day, at 8:30 p.m. Sky was sitting right in front of us, between us and the TV set, with his blue eyes fixed on us and his mouth open in a big “aren’t I cute?” smile. Yes, he got his cookie — a training genius.
Consequence Dictates Behaviour
Whether he knew it or not, Sky was using Operant Conditioning on my wife and me. And he got really good at it. If Sky ever got around to writing that book on training humans, I’m pretty sure he would have included a chapter on how persistence pays off. In the story above, he used Negative Reinforcement to get what he wanted. Once we gave him the cookie, the nagging stopped and we could go back to our TV program.
Humans like the affection of dogs. We find it reinforcing when they come to us for petting and attention. Once they find something that annoys us, they can be masters at using it to get us to do things in order get them to stop doing it. It’s cause and effect, consequences dictating behaviour. And they know it. As Jean Donaldson put it in her book Culture Clash, “Dogs do what works.”
Many times, it’s hard for us to recognize when our dogs are trying to train us. It seems they take advantage of our big complicated brains and complex thought patterns. Being the scavenger species they are, they are simple thinkers and very focused on getting what they want. We humans can be very clever, so clever that we sometimes can’t see their very simple motivations for doing the things they do. So it’s not always easy for us to see what they are after.
Let me give you an example. Our dog Vince could always seem to tell when it was time to leave the park and go home. We would take the dogs to our local park and Vince liked to chase his ball. When we were ready to go, Vince would refuse to bring the ball back to us. He would bring it back dozens of times, but when we wanted to leave, somehow he knew it and would stand a few yards away looking at us.
We would try to tempt him with food treats, we would attempt to walk over and clip a leash on him. We would even try to outflank him, both my wife and I moving strategically to get Vince between us. All to no avail. And no wonder! We weren’t doing what we thought we were doing.
You see, where we saw this scenario as a frustrating attempt to get Vince back to the car, Vince saw it differently. After chasing his ball, he found a challenging game of “Keep Away” was just the thing to finish off a trip to the park. What we saw Vince annoyingly avoiding us was really Vince extending his play time and having a great time playing keep away.
Turning the Tables
It took us a while to figure things out with Vince. In the end, we discovered he just didn’t want to give up his ball. We had a habit of taking his ball, clipping on the leash, and going back to the car. Once we changed that process and let him keep the ball in his mouth, everything was fine. As long as we didn’t ask him to drop the ball, he was perfectly happy to come when called.
What changed things was our awareness of what was REALLY going on. Just as we try to make things happen when we train our dogs, they try to make things happen the way they would like too! And this is the point in the discussion where we have to be careful. This is NOT about who’s “dominating” who or who is the “alpha” in the relationship. That’s just nonsense. This is just a relationship like any other where both parties are trying to get the things they want out of it.
Before we begin analyzing every thing our dogs do for some diabolical plot to turn us into their slaves, we need to remember that they are just being dogs. They are a scavenger species and so they will behave whatever way will produce the best results for them. And we can see that two ways; the most amount of “good” stuff for them or the least amount of “bad” stuff. Remember, “dogs do what works.”
Seeing It Through Their Eyes
Every so often, I have a peek at Cesar Millan on his TV program “The Dog Whisperer”, and I am just stunned at the ability of some people to be trained by their dogs and then complain about it. The same is true for some other TV shows I’ve seen — and even for people I’ve met at dog parks and agility trials!
In many cases, if you just turn the situation around and see what the dog is getting out of the behaviour, it’s easy to see what needs to be done. Some people get frustrated with their dog jumping up on people, and yet when they come home, the first thing they do is bend down so their dog can jump up to give them a nice greeting. From the dog’s perspective, jumping up is how you get people to pay attention to you and offer affection.
You can look at your own situations to discover what your dog is doing and what he or she gets out of it if you only set aside your intentions and perspectives. Perhaps, in your intentions to be a good dog owner, you pay too much attention to the wrong behaviours or reward them in a way you didn’t think of as a reward. If your dog is continuing a behaviour, the laws of behavioural science say that there must be something he gets out of doing that behaviour. Our job is to figure out what it is and decide if we want it to continue or not.
Take some time and look at your interactions with your dog. I’m sure you’ll find at least a few instances where they have you doing their bidding. And you may even like it that way. My dog Tiramisu is adorable and I don’t mind doing a few things at her request. After all, our relationship is a two-way partnership and we like it that way. Being a mindful trainer is a pretty rewarding thing. At least it is for me.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Skybear – Petra Wingate 2001
Greetings! – TheGiantVermin 2008 from Flickr
Oops – Leighblackall 2007 from Flickr