Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Things that go on in my dog’s head

I think a major reason why people fail to train their dogs is because they over-simplify what goes on in the dog’s head. Like “it’s all operant conditioning” or “I’m gonna train my dog only with positive reinforcement” or even “it’s all about being calm-submissive.” The reality of training a dog, or an employee, or a child, or a tropical fish, is that you need two things: first they need to understand what you want, and second they need to care (and this is where dominance comes in, but it still doesn’t constitute “training” unless the animal also understands what you want). And in order for you to understand this and exploit it, you need to understand how your dog thinks.

The key is this: dogs think. They’re not brainless little larvae that simply react to stimuli. (Ok, some are. And those ones are the least trainable of all.) They have trains of thoughts. They have plans and ideas and problem-solving. If you’re trying to train your dog through conditioning, the dog is vastly outsmarting you.

Also, it’s really cute watching the little wheels turn in their heads. So what this post is actually about, is some examples of Tinky-Winky’s trains of thoughts.

Example one. Tinky-Winky gets two kinds of food: free-choice kibbles, and a home-cooked dinner of rice, peas, carrots, eggs and beef after her evening walk. The home-cooked food isn’t made fresh daily, however; I make a big batch, keep three in the fridge, and put the rest in the freezer. So the first one is perfectly fresh, the next two are at least never frozen, and after that, it’s all previously frozen food. And apparently, this dog has a fine palate, and she much prefers fresh food to previously-frozen food. So the day that I cook a new batch, she gets super excited. First of all she knows I have the ingredients, because it’s pretty much the only time I ever bring meat into the house. So all day, she watches what I’m doing. It takes some time, because you have to boil the eggs, cook the rice, let everything cool for hours, then mix all the ingredients and pack them. Then we have to have our evening walk, then we can have the first dinner of the new batch.

So, Tinky-Winky keeps checking on the progress of her dinner. She can’t see the top of the counters, and her breeder trained her not to stand up to try and look, but she’ll walk into the kitchen and look up, or look at the fridge door, frequently during the day. Then, she’ll ask for her walk early. See, like most dogs, she can tell time. Supposedly, they do this just by responding to their internal body rhythms, i.e. “every day when I feel like X, Y happens; therefore when I start feeling like X, I know Y is about to happen.”

Hmmmm… I doubt it, really, but whatever. Tinky-Winky knows what time her walk is, and if I’m late, she reminds me that it’s walking time. But on days that there is a new batch of food, she reminds me of her walk more than an hour early. So clearly she’s not just responding to how she feels at that time of day: she’s able to predict that “soon” it’s walking time, and after walking time is eating time. So she has much more of a concept of time than she’s given credit for, and what’s more, she can predict things several hours in advance.

Then we go for our walk, and instead of walking energetically for 45 minutes to an hour and not wanting to come home, she’ll take three steps, pee, and then ask to go back in. And as soon as we’re inside, she sprints for her food dish. So, clearly, she’s able to recognize a situation that has implications several hours away, and take steps to modify the world to get to the outcome faster. She’s not just reacting to stimuli: she’s connecting events for several hours and understanding how they connect together, and how to manipulate them.

Another food-related example has to do with pigs’ ears. The first time I bought her pigs’ ears, she wouldn’t touch them, so I put the bag next to the garbage for later disposal. But then she was acting up through the day, and we were cross with each other, and in the evening, she decided to steal the bag of pigs’ ears from the garbage, tear it open, and eat some pigs’ ears. And she was acting very stealthy, even though I can see her plainly, and giving me these dirty looks like “well if that’s how it is, I’m eating your precious pigs’ ears that you’re storing carefully next to the garbage.” So now I always store the pigs’ ears next to the garbage, and whenever she’s feeling ornery and cross with me, she goes and steals some. But if I offer her one, she still doesn’t want it. She really seems to feel that stealing and eating pigs’ ears from the garbage is an awesome way to get back at me. Try explaining that one with conditioned reflexes.

Then, there is the matter of urinating on things. Some people who consider themselves real pundits on dog training are also convinced that human urine is of no interest to dogs, because “how would they even know what that is?” or something specious like that.

Please. Even we humans with our useless noses can tell the smell of urine. Urine is urine and we know it when we smell it, no matter what species it is. What’s more, we can even tell which species it is. I can most certainly tell cat urine, human urine and horse urine apart by smell, and what’s more, I can tell mare urine from horse urine, and whether the mare is in heat. So if I can, certainly dogs can too. Except because they have much finer noses, they can tell much more subtle differences; for example, they can tell two dogs apart by their urine. Which is why whenever my dog sees another dog on the trail, she likes to let it go past and then smell its tracks and have a look at it from a safe distance. She’s connecting the visual of the dog to the scent; I suppose it’s much like meeting someone in real life that you’ve only known online. You’re putting a face to the username. Likewise the dog is putting a face to a specific urine smell.

Do they care about the urine of other species? Absolutely. When Tinky-Winky and I first went to Yellowknife in 2009, she was fascinated by the smell of fox urine in the bushes where we took our walks. Until one day she saw some foxes on the trail. She stared at the foxes. The foxes stared at her. Everyone twitched their noses at each other. She had never seen a fox and was mesmerized, and the foxes were finally getting to see who made the new smell in their territory. Then the foxes advanced on us, and Tinky-Winky got a good scare; ever after, she avoided fox smell. (How do I know where there is fox smell? Because I can see the foxes with my eyes, so I know where they’re leaving their smell. And I can see how Tinky-Winky reacts to those places.)

Speaking of territory, by the way, I think we overstate the concept of territorial pissing. Yes, animals piss on things and this marks a territory, but I don’t think they’re thinking “this is mine, I mark it. This is mine, I mark it. This is mine, I mark it.” Well, cats do. I don’t think dogs do. Dogs piss on things because they’re there. It’s more like a graffiti. “I was here. And here. And here.” Then another dog comes along and sees “I was here” and has to overwrite it with “I was here too.” And everyone who’s been there leaves a mark to show they’ve been there. It’s not exactly a statement of ownership, just a sign that they were there. Now one creature might smell another one’s urine and think “So-and-So was here, I better stay the heck out of here.” That’s possible. But I don’t think the concept of “territory” is as prominent in an animal’s mind as we think.

Anyway, one thing I find amusing with Tinky-Winky and territorial markings is, she always tries to piss higher than the other dogs. This is challenging when you’re only a foot tall, so whenever she’s marking a tree, post or hydrant where height is relevant, she’ll do a handstand and piss as high up the tree as she can. My theory is that she’s trying to convince other dogs that she’s much bigger than they are. Because dogs do care about size. It’s been very noticeable in working on Tinky-Winky’s aggression problem, that it progressed according to the size of the other dog. At first she’d attack anything, until she met a malamute and thought twice about it. Then she started thinking twice about smaller and smaller dogs. Now she mostly attacks very small dogs, especially foofy little ones. That’s not an admirable quality, but it does show she understands how size relates to ass-kickings. Hence the need to make others think she’s a really big dog when she marks. It’s a form of dominance behaviour.

But that’s not really where I was going with all this. What’s more interesting is how they react to human urine. Some people, who call themselves smart, think that a dog would never interpret human urine as having any meaning, much less as having the same meanings as dog urine. I think they’re much less smart than they think, because you just have to watch dogs to see how they understand urine, and human behaviour in general.

One day, Tinky-Winky and I were walking in Nose Hill Park, and we found a little pile of stones that someone had made on the vast empty prairie at the crossing of two trails.

Tinky-Winky peed on it.

At first I was amazed that she would recognize a human marker as a marker at all, then I thought to myself, surely, the guy who built this must have pissed on it himself. Guys, like dogs, like to piss on everything. So I decided that her interest in this little marker stone must have to do with the kind of markers dogs use, and not with understanding what humans use for markers.

However, another day we were walking in the woods, and among the undergrowth, Tinky-Winky found a buried utility flag. So she pissed on it. Hmmmmmm… Surely the workers who put it there didn’t piss on it, yet clearly she recognized that this was a marker, and if someone marked there, so must she. A friend of mine translated her train of thought thusly: “this looks important, I better piss on it.” And this is interesting because clearly, she does have a certain understanding of how humans mark things as “I was here”, and she participates in the marking game right along with us. When you think about it, it’s not really surprising. Dogs have lived with humans for 10,000 years and more, and unlike us, they’ve learned from it. Humans still don’t have a clue how to cooperate with dogs, for the most part, but dogs are very adept at obtaining cooperation from humans. They know how to get food from us, how to be taken into our houses and kept warm, they certainly know how our urine smells, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t have noticed, some time in the last 10,000 years, how we mark things of importance.

I think the “smart” people who are so sure that dogs don’t understand human urine are missing the fact that animals don’t care about species. To a dog, all animals are equal, and if some are more equal than others, it’s mostly because they can kick more ass. All animals smell, all animals piss on things, and all animals kick more or less ass. That’s how the world works; it is not narrowly divided into species and such things.

In any case, it’s much easier to explain all these behaviours with “my dog is capable of thinking” than with conditioned reflexes. Dogs think. They look at the world, analyze the data, and come up with solutions. If you show them that you’d like something done, they think about it, and decide to do it or not. Smarter dog understand faster; dumbass inbred dogs never understand. That still leaves the problem of whether the dog cares about the things you want, which in shibas, tend to be “heck no.” But there’s certainly no point having a dog who wants to please if he doesn’t understand what you want. So if you’re having trouble training your dog, one of three things is happening: either your dog doesn’t care, or he’s too dumb, or you’re too dumb. You have to be capable of a certain degree of scientific thinking to figure out how to train your dog.


Pam said...

I really enjoy your tinky Winky stories. I have a shiba whose dad wsa from Tinky Winky's breeder. My Shiba, Penny, could be TW's soul sister. They even look very similar!

Please keep the TW stories coming.

(If it's any consolation, Penny has mellowed in hr old age in her attitude toward other dogs. She's 14 now, and I can finally take her to offleash parks!)

TeamDog said...

I got a food-related story similar to Tinky-Winky's. Whenever me and my Doberman would return from our walks, Tat would run over to the food container, stare at it for a few seconds, then look down at her bowl, then over at me, and keep doing that for several minutes. It was so cute.