Thursday, July 9, 2009
Allowing the Dog to Produce Something Good
The dog saw the bird fly into the greenhouse. He followed. The bird flew against the top and the sides of the glass and then back and forth. She was unable to find her way back out; she appeared to panic. Her wings beat wildly and feathers floated down as the dog watched. He was vibrating with excitement. Eventually exhausted, the bird fell to the ground and the dog grabbed her just as the man entered the greenhouse. The man was disturbed at the sight; he didn't want the dog to kill the bird. He asked the dog to “drop it.” He did not. With every muscle fiber tight and twitching, the dog stood clutching the bird in his mouth. The man asked him to “give it.” He did not. He asked him to “leave it” and he did not. Finally, the man spotted a colander sitting on the potting bench. He grabbed it and thrust it forward. He asked the dog to “put.” The dog took a couple steps toward the man and with his tail wagging furiously, he placed the bird into the colander.
The dog in the story is my canine partner Jack. He gave up the bird for the opportunity to do his most favorite activity – "put." Jack created the “put” behavior in a single education session and because of the way that it was reinforced he came to put any object he could handle “inside,” “up,” “down” and wherever directed.
This is how it all happened. Jack was shown a box and was encouraged to play a game in which any new behavior he created with it earned him a mark (click) and a reinforcer. Jack looked inside the box, he touched it with his nose and then with his paw, he jumped over it, went around it and created several more novel interactions with the box. Eventually, he spotted his favorite toy a distance away and went to get it. In the spirit of the game, I marked and reinforced that. He immediately picked up the toy again and moved toward me; he was marked and reinforced. At this point, I realized the opportunity that lay before us. I threw the toy off a short distance and put the box between Jack and I. He picked up the toy and made a few steps toward me and the box. I got so excited that I nearly threw the whole bag of treats. On the next toss, Jack had figured out that the game involved the box. He took careful steps closer and closer to the box and I marked and reinforced him with an excited celebration. On the next toss, he walked right up to the box with the toy in his mouth. As I hoped, when he was marked, the toy fell into the box. A bonanza of chicken liver pieces rained into Jack's experience. My normally squeally voice went into hyper mimi-mouse mode. We played and tugged and jumped around like clowns. On the next trial, Jack walked right up to the box with the toy and I simply waited. All time stood still. Jack stood there. I could almost see him thinking, and then he dropped the toy into the box. The “put” game was on and before the day was over, he had put everything he could find and everything I gave him into that box.
For a dog whose education revolves around learning opportunity, learning becomes a skill that is practiced and perfected. When he is given the opportunity to create behavior in an atmosphere where there are no wrong answers, he will. And when he does create a behavior that earns him the equivalent of a big-money jackpot, he’ll not only remember it, he’ll repeat it with happy excitement.
French philosopher Rene’ Descartes (1596-1650) reasoned that dogs did not think, that all the things which dogs are taught to perform are only expressions of their fear, hope and joy and as such, could be performed without any thought. The reliance upon prompting and cueing to solicit behavior produces a dog who is an agreeable model for Descartes unthinking machine. By attempting to put learning into the dog, we limit her potential for intellectual accomplishment. We deny her the opportunity to think and to produce something good on her own. Do we do this because at some level, we believe that she really can’t think and that she can’t create worthwhile behaviors or responses to our interactions and our shared experience? When we really examine what's at the root of some of our patterns of thought, action and reaction, we often find concepts that are so opposed to our true nature and intent that we are shocked to find that we harbor them.
When we prompt a dog and she doesn’t immediately respond, we feel compelled to take action. We literally give her no opportunity to create a response before we have prompted again, intervened physically or changed course. The need to do something is so strong and so impulsive that the only aspect of canine education most people find challenging is that of suspending themselves and just observing the dog. Why can’t she be given the time she needs to think things through and come up with a response? She may be just ready to offer an inclination toward action that we squash with our own reaction.
I ask my dog-partnered students to make an agreement with themselves that they will follow each cue or prompt with the purposeful suspension of their thoughts and actions, placing their full and complete attention on the dog. I ask them to notice everything they can about the dog’s mental and emotional state, as expressed through the body. Notice if she displays hesitancy or excitement. Watch for even the slightest movement and be ready to immediately let her know if that movement is going in the direction you want it to go. If it isn’t, happily move on to another exercise. Most of all, I ask them to intend to learn from these raw and genuine experiences. Learn how to improve the dog’s chances of success. Learn how to turn the education game into an opportunity to have unrestrained fun and excitement. Learn how to allow the dog to think and create on her own.