I have often called her a “science experiment.” But my dog Tiramisu has been a partner, a teacher, a companion, and a confidant. When she came into our lives more than 14 years ago, she was an opportunity. After decades of dog training techniques that ultimately failed us, she was a chance for a new start. She was an experiment in a new way of training for us. We wanted to use what behavioural science had brought to animal training because it had succeeded with so many different species.
From those very first days when I was just teaching Tiramisu what a marker signal meant and experimented to see which food treats she liked best, this new kind of training felt different to me. The dominance style training we had done with our dogs always seemed like a challenge trying to outwit and almost “trick” our dogs into doing what we wanted. This new reward-based training seemed almost magical by comparison. It was easy! And Tiramisu learned FAST. In fact, she learned faster than I thought was possible.
The experiment that is Tiramisu is coming to an end. She is going to be 15 years old soon. She doesn’t see well and she is mostly deaf. Remarkably, her mind is still sharp. She watches our other two dogs and navigates our house and yard with care but confidence. She still trots on her walks and her appetite remains strong. There is very little left for us to do but enjoy each other’s company for as long as we have left together. She has helped me learn a great deal over the years. I thought this was as good a time as any to share with you some of the life lessons that Tiramisu has taught me.
Of all the things I have learned in my journey with Tiramisu it is the importance of trust. Early in our time together, I often referred to the Mark and Reward training I was doing with Tira as “The Contract.” A marker in reinforcement based training is a signal to the dog that says “That’s right!” All of my reading on this kind of training said that a marker is most effective if you provide a reward every time you used the marker. So I came to think of that as a contract; a commitment to my dog that it would be the same every time.
I didn’t know then what I know now. I thought I was just following good practice with my “contract” but it turns out that something far more important was happening. The consistency of that contract actually taught Tiramisu to TRUST me. Trust is not something I often hear when people talk about dogs but I have come to believe that it is the single most important thing we need to teach our dogs.
Trust in us as their caretakers and trainers is like a basic belief in us; a “faith” that we are true to our word. That “yes” is YES and “no” is NO. But it goes so much farther than that. In my agility work with Tiramisu, I consistently rewarded her for her effort whether we succeeded on course or not. In daily life she was not to pick up dropped food on the floor and was rewarded for “Leave it!” On outings, being too uncooperative or snarky with other dogs meant she had to wait in the car. Some might call this “setting boundaries” or “having rules” but in the end, for me, it boils down to Trust.
As Tira aged, the trust became incredibly important. When she developed hypothyroidism at age 8, she trusted me to not push her to do more than she could handle. She trusted me to help her feel safe and get her healthy. And now as she reaches advanced age and cannot hear or see well, she trusts me to be there to steer her to safe places and give her the care that she needs. Through it all, Tira has looked to me with confidence regardless of our activity or her needs. That trust is priceless. Without it, much of what we have done together in her life would not have been possible.
THE DOG ALWAYS CHOOSES
Training a dog is a funny thing. We think we are “teaching” the dog to do behaviours but, in reality, we are just asking them to do things they already know how to do when we cue them to do it. When Tira was just a puppy it became abundantly clear to me that training her was dependent on her choosing to do the behaviour I was asking for or choosing to respond to the cue I was giving her. That realization completely changed the way I work with my dogs.
Back in the days when we used more force-based methods, it was just accepted that sometimes you had to make your dog do a behaviour; they couldn’t be allowed to “get away with” not doing something when asked. I had always thought of training as teaching a dog to do a behaviour whether they wanted to or not. Looking back on it now I understand that my dog was still making a choice. It’s just that they were choosing to avoid whatever unpleasant response I might have to their not doing the behaviour. They would sit to avoid the leash tug or being yelled at. But it was still a choice.
Once I understood this, training became a matter of persuasion instead of a demand for behaviour. That opened up a whole new world to me. Recognizing that my dog was making choices led me to want to know more about what she liked and didn’t like. What I was learning was WHO my dog was! Every dog is different. Each has its own preferences. And life is so much richer when you know as much about your dog as you can learn. The important lesson for me is that the dog always has a choice and the choices they make will tell you a great deal about who they are.
LISTEN TO THE DOG
Tiramisu always loved playing agility. The day she stopped after the third jump on a course, lowered her head and walked slowly toward the exit looking over her shoulder at me was an important moment. This was unusual. I had to decide if this was my dog being stubborn and just being a pain in the butt when I wanted to play or if she really had a problem. I chose to listen to my dog. It turned out that she was indeed unwell. This wasn’t the first time I listened to my dog. Reinforcement training taught me that lesson many years before.
One of the great things about Mark and Reward training is that you have to very closely watch the dog in order to Mark the correct behaviour when it’s offered during training. When Tiramisu was just a puppy, sometimes things didn’t go the way I expected and she offered alternative behaviours or nothing at all. I learned to watch her closely and this helped me to see if she was bored or confused or frustrated in those moments where the training wasn’t going well. This was so much better than “making her do it” the way I used to train. Better for her and for me.
This translated to real life matters as well. Tira became sound sensitive and watching for subtle signs of discomfort allowed us to manage her so that she didn’t have to become terrified when things got to be too much for her. Learning to “listen” to her allowed us to help her. Oddly, in her later years, Tiramisu decided that she didn’t like the sound of woodpeckers in the trees. That meant that we had to choose new places to walk but it was worth it to see her happy. It seems that there is a lot our dogs want to tell us if only we take the time to “listen” to what they are saying.
One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years is that our dogs are always learning. It’s great that we create time to teach them certain behaviours and do certain activities but in those moments where we are cooking in the kitchen or reading a book, our dogs are still learning. They learn about our habits. They learn what signals dinner is happening soon. They learn what shoes we like to wear when it’s time to go for a walk. They learn what makes us smile and what makes us angry. There is no one on the planet that knows me better than Tiramisu. She sees it all and she learns.
That can be a scary proposition. What is my dog learning when I’m not paying attention? Tira learned more than a few bad habits because I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately, behaviour isn’t carved in stone and we worked through most of her annoying habits. But it’s a wonderful opportunity as well. When Tira started staring at us before dinner time in an effort to get us to get up and feed her, we instead waited her out. During that process, she decided to do a play-bow at our other dog Rizzo. We immediately got up and fed her. Over the course of weeks, we carefully shaped that single play-bow into an adorable session of Tira prancing about and playing to signal us she was ready for dinner. She still makes us smile with her antics to this day.
I have heard it said that “Everything Matters.” All of the little things we do every day add up. My life with Tiramisu has convinced me that you can make even the little things count. Saying “Wait” at the door and calling her back inside if she should run out matters. Looking in her eyes and giving her a smile and a scratch when she walks over to me matters. Asking for a few behaviours before feeding her dinner matters. Marking her behaviour and rewarding her when she does what she is asked matters. Every small thing we do together matters. Earning her trust by being consistent. Recognizing and accepting her choices. Listening to what she is telling me and giving her what she needs.
There are a thousand other lessons Tiramisu has taught me over the years and I can’t list them all in this one essay. I’m glad that I have had the opportunity to share many of those lessons in other essays. More than that, I am glad to have shared my life with such a wonderful, smart, sassy, and special dog such as Tiramisu. I am grateful for her life well lived and will treasure her for as long as we are together. I thank her for the lessons of her lifetime.
Until next time, appreciate your dogs!
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Photo credits –
Eric and Tira – copyright Kristiina Ovaska 2010
All other images copyright Petra Wingate 2004-2018