“Life’s great mysteries tend to become clearer once you’ve seen them through” – Ivan Doroschuk
My experiment is complete. It began in frustration, with the admission that I had been wrong about how to train and live with dogs. The methods and ideas that seemed to work well enough for my wife and me for decades had turned a wonderful puppy into an aggressive and fearful dog. Something needed to change. We needed to change. Not just how we trained our dogs but how we thought about them and how we related with them. When we got our dog Tiramisu as a puppy almost 16 years ago, we resolved to make that change. And the experiment began.
It began with learning. We discovered Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash in 2002 and it opened up a whole new world of animal training based on behavioural science and modern approaches to animal learning. It was the first of many books. There were great books by Karen Pryor, Pam Reid, Patricia McConnell, and many others. We attended seminars and conferences like ClickerExpo with talks by professional animal trainers and behaviour researchers. We learned a great deal in a short time and when Tiramisu came to us in February of 2004 as an 11 week old puppy, we were excited to try out this new way of training to see what it would produce.
But my enthusiasm for this new kind of training was tempered with skepticism. In the past there were books and classes. What we had learned back then had gone terribly wrong. I decided to take a practical approach with this new puppy. The new books and seminars made some pretty bold promises. So I committed to not falling into the same trap and failing another one of my dogs. I would use this new training exactly as the experts described it. No shortcuts or compromises. And the moment it did not deliver on the promises made by the experts, we would move on to something else.
“Clicker Training”, as described in the books, was remarkably simple. Watch your dog and when they do the behaviour you want, mark it with the clicker (a small noise maker), and reward with food. The only real skills needed were the ability to notice when my dog did what I was looking for and having the coordination and timing to mark that moment accurately with the clicker. I got pretty good at observing and clicking in a very short time. I followed the directions provided in the books and got to work teaching Tira.
To say that I was astonished at the progress I made with my puppy would be an understatement. Tira learned to do a “Sit” in only two short 5-minute training sessions in the same day. Over the next few months we added new behaviours to her repertoire every few days. By the time she was 6 months old, Tira had learned at least 30 different behaviours. This new kind of training certainly made teaching my dog easier and she was learning fast. But that wasn’t the most remarkable aspect of this new kind of training for me.
Mark and Reward Training (“Clicker” Training uses a clicker as a marker) is to be done in short, fun sessions with the dog. Training is set up to make the dog successful at least 70% of the time and you should end before the dog becomes bored or fatigued. In a matter of a few short weeks I noticed Tiramisu actively seeking me out to do more work. She liked this training game! She would enter a room I was in and begin to spontaneously start offering behaviours. When she would see a clicker, she would poke it with her nose or pull it onto the floor with a clatter.
Training my dog was no longer about “getting my dog under control” so much as it was a game of “what do you want to learn next?” And Tiramisu was definitely enthusiastic about playing the training game!
As the years went by, Tira and I worked together every day. Most often we just practiced well known behaviours. We competed in dog agility. But Tira was eager to work. She would look at me with that “What are we doing now, dad?” look in her eyes. I realized that we had developed an easy, clear communication between us. It wasn’t something that had been spelled out in the books and it wasn’t something I expected. But I had a rapport with Tira that allowed me to manage her with ease in even the most challenging situations.
To be sure, we had our challenges on occasion with recalls or barking, but we had developed a wonderfully cooperative relationship. She would easily move where I directed her. She happily rode in the car for long journeys. We had even worked out a way for me to ask her to “do her business” on cue when time was an issue. For my part, I learned to read Tira’s body language very well. Tira could tell me she was uncomfortable or eager to play with just a glance.
That ability to read Tira was never more important than when, at the age of 8 years, she developed hypothyroidism. The changes in her behaviour were subtle but, because of the observation habits I had built as part of Mark and Reward training, I could see the changes clearly. It allowed us to get her into veterinary treatment quickly. Our vet was surprised when she saw the blood work that showed Tira’s condition because, the vet said, she was not presenting any of the “classic symptoms” of hypothyroidism.
I knew Tiramisu better than I had ever known any of our other dogs. Mark and Reward training and behavioural science had taught me to be aware of my dog and to understand her in ways I had never realized were possible. We enjoyed a remarkable relationship.
By the time she was 13 years old, Tira was retired from agility and we settled in to joys of her later years. Tira told me through her body language and our relationship that it was time to be less active. Instead of agility trials and lots of travel, it was long walks in the woods and cuddle time on the bed. It was in her 13th year that I discovered the most surprising aspect of this behavioural experiment.
Tira woke us up in the middle of the night. She was unable to stand up. She was having a vestibular episode that caused her to feel like she was spinning. Tira was understandably terrified. She was trembling and struggled to understand why she couldn’t find her balance. Fortunately, that episode passed in just over an hour but it was not the last one we would see. Over the next 8 months, Tira would have 5 more of these vestibular episodes, each one lasting longer than the previous and taking longer to recover from. The last of these occurred on her 14th birthday and lasted 4 days.
Amazingly, Tiramisu adjusted very quickly to these episodes. By the third episode, Tira knew to just find a comfortable spot and lie down until it passed. She managed to find a way to balance herself well enough to walk around during these episodes, eat, go outside to do her business, and just try to carry on as normal. We didn’t ask her to do these things. We just helped her when she needed it.
This was the remarkable thing. Here was a dog who had every right to be terrified by a health problem beyond her understanding but she was smart enough and confident enough in herself to learn to cope. As time went on and her physical health declined, we could see her continuing to adjust and deal with life as best she could. Her eyesight and hearing deteriorated but she still knew her way around the house and found her way to us for cuddles. She remained an engaging and wonderful personality even through that last difficult day when we took her to the vet to be released from this life.
A Life Long Experiment
It would be foolish to think I could sum up Tiramisu’s life with us in this one short article. What I can do is tell you what the experiment that was her life with us has taught me. Modern dog training methods based on behavioural science and animal learning theory can produce incredible and profound results even when practiced by a beginner. I started this experiment knowing nothing and I didn’t have expert skills when Tira was a puppy. The direct results of this kind of training produced a dog that knew dozens of behaviours and would respond enthusiastically to my requests. But there were lots of unexpected and wonderful indirect benefits as well.
This kind of training allowed me to get some insight into the emotional life of my dog. Dogs communicate primarily with body language and Mark and Reward Training taught me to really see my dog and what she was telling me. In turn, that created a cooperative relationship between Tiramisu and me. By responding to my dog, she became a partner in our training and our relationship. I allowed her to have a say in what we were doing and how much we did. I’d like to think that giving her that ability contributed to her quality of life and her sense of well-being.
It was an interesting thing to learn about dogs, behaviour, and modern training and to watch how it played out over the lifetime of a dog raised with it from the first day she arrived with us. That moment when this kind of training did not live up to expectations never came. In fact, I would say that it succeeded in ways that I could never have imagined when I first began all those years ago. Everything we learned about training and working with our dogs touched so many different aspects of our lives together. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how we could have done things so differently in the past.
Psychology professor Dr. Susan Friedman has talked about “a data set of one” when referring to animal training. Tiramisu’s life is certainly that; one life, one set of experiences, one experiment in trying something new. Her life taught me things I will use for the rest of my life. I will be forever grateful for the time we spent together and for all the wonderful books and ideas and people that journey brought into our lives.
Thanks for reading.