Thursday, March 5, 2009
From the first moment that puppies or dogs enter our lives, they are learning. They learn how to get the things they want and need and how to avoid unpleasant or dangerous circumstances. They learn the nature of things and beings. Regrettably, few of us are purposefully directing that learning in ways that will result in a harmonious alignment between the dog’s characteristics and activities and our own.
Many of us bring a dog into our lives without any real information about how they learn and the best ways to teach them. We try to educate them as we would a child who speaks our language. We issue a verbal directive, wait a millisecond then issue it again and again, sometimes louder. When that doesn’t work, we use our hands to manipulate the dog’s body into the desired posture. We believe that the dog has failed or that she is disobedient or unable to learn through some fault. We can quickly become disappointed, impatient, frustrated and even angry at her inability to translate the meaning of our words and intent into the outcome we desire. Whether or not we overtly punish the failure we perceive, this approach to education causes the dog to experience stress. And her stress is compounded by being in the presence of ours.
The establishment of stable memories and long-term synaptic efficacy are impaired by stress. Its hormones activate primitive responses in areas of the brain that are primarily engaged to meet survival needs, diminishing activity in areas that are involved in learning and memory development. Instead of helping the dog to achieve education accomplishment, we end up diminishing her ability and her desire to learn.
Uneducated dogs will almost constantly run afoul of our desires and expectations. They may spend their lives getting little more from us than corrective interventions and punishments. They will not enjoy many freedoms and may never enter the outdoors off of a tether. I meet so many dogs who have passed their first birthday and have been purposefully taught little more than to sit when cued. And most of them do it to avoid the inevitable rump push. They are wildly impulsive and hyperactive. They greet humans and other dogs with almost dangerous enthusiasm while their partners shout and pull their leashes. They and their people are stuck in cycles of error and castigation.
We lack skill as educators and we give verbal lessons to students who don’t understand the language. This can’t possibly work. But it’s not the real reason that we fail to teach dogs. Ultimately, we fail through our own inattentiveness. Thinking that we are looking at the dog, we are actually looking at the insides of our minds. If we were genuinely seeing the dog, we would be able to take in her immediate living reality. She would standing there, staring up at us, just as she was the moment before we “told” her what to do. If we were present enough, we would have noticed that our words didn’t register. And after we had laughed out loud at the absurdity of thinking that they would, we’d have the wherewithal to try something else.