Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Making good choices

You know how people try to teach their kids to "make good choices"? My dog makes good choices naturally.

I've said many times, and I'm sure it will come up again, that you cannot approach dog training as "conditioning", because dogs aren't zombies. Whether you're using treats or clickers or ranting and screaming, the dog doesn't obey by reflex, but because of two things: understanding and choice. Just like anybody else.

Consider the following. I'm a construction worker. If someone tells me to go "rip some plywood", do I reflexively go rip some plywood because I'm conditioned? No. First of all I understand what "rip some plywood" means, which many people don't because they don't have the vocabulary. Second, I choose to do it because I've decided that cooperation is in my best interest. I could choose, and I have chosen in the past, to walk off the job screaming insults at the boss. That was also a conscious decision based on what was in my best interest.

Same with the dog. You can see it more in Canada because of the bilingual situation, actually. One time when we were in Yellowknife, some of the roommate's francophone friends came to visit, with their kids and their dog. The kids kept calling my dog "viens, Tinky-Winky, viens!" She had no idea what they wanted. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, their dog was asking me for food and I kept telling it "sit, Pepsi!" He had no idea what I wanted. Finally I thought long and hard and said "assis" and voila, he sat. Dogs need vocabulary, just like anybody else. If they don't know your words, they can't do what you're asking. What you're doing when you "train" your dog is teach vocabulary, not condition reflexes.

Once the dog knows your words, he can choose to comply or not. That's what most people fail to realize, really. Dogs have free will. And the reason I'm on about this today is because of what happened on our morning walk.

There is a big dog in our building named Otis. He's friendly, by which I actually mean that he's a dog that other dogs can be friends with, not some spastic weirdass jumping lunatic. And he's interested in making friends with Tinky-Winky. She, being the cranky old boot that she is, snaps at him. Otis has two people, a male and a female. The male will ride in the elevator with Otis, myself and Tinky-Winky. The female would rather not, because of the snapping, but I tell her it's good for them to learn to share the elevator. A lot of the dogs here are allowed to get territorial about the elevator and that causes fights, so I always make Tinky-Winky ride with others and behave herself.

Anyway. This morning, Tinky-Winky and I were on the road, off leash, and Otis was on the trail in the woods, off leash, with his female human. He saw me from a distance and came running through the woods, not to see me, but because he knows I'm Tinky-Winky's person. His human tried to call him back, but he wouldn't listen. When he emerged from the woods, he looked around and saw Tinky-Winky. Of course I was calling her, too, and she did in fact listen to me. She looked at Otis, looked at me, and then did not come. Otis approached her politely, presenting his side instead of head-on. She let him come up to her and sniff her butt like a polite dog. While he was sniffing her, she looked at me, and she was smiling and relaxed. After a while she did give a half-assed snap, mostly to maintain her image, I think. Otis hopped about three inches, then she mellowed out and he went back to sniffing her. She was still smiling and relaxed. Then his person caught up to him and led him away. Tinky-Winky laughed and ran "to" me and right past me, and kept on in the direction of our walk. After a few yards she looked over her shoulder to see if I was following, still smiling.

And that was that. A nice peaceful interaction between two off-leash dogs.

The important thing here is the difference between this morning and the Evil Giant Chihuahua incident. Otis is about six times the size of Evil Giant Chihuahua, yet Tinky-Winky chose to come to me to avoid Evil Giant Chihuahua, but let Otis come to her. Both times, she clearly understood the situation: there is another dog and I'm calling her to come to me. But she made up her mind what to do, according to which dog it was. She doesn't like Evil Giant Chihuahua, so she came to me so I could deal with it. But she's comfortable with Otis, so she interacted with him on her own terms. And she seems quite satisfied with the outcome of the interaction. In fact, in both cases, she was clearly happy to come to me. When she needed help with the chihuahua, she came TO me, and when she was done with Otis, she came BY me, but either way, she was happy to acknowledge that I had called her. So you can see that she clearly knows "come", she just makes decisions whether to come or not.

So that, essentially, is the difficulty in training dogs. Or employees. Or horses. Or anything else. First of all they have to understand what you're asking. This is the easy part. (Except with employees. Employees are f'ing dense.) The challenge is in getting them to choose to do as you say, and this depends on more or less three things: the trainee's personality, the trainer's leadership, and the trust between the two. When I had my horse, I could make her back up into a narrow, dark space, just by pointing. Most horses don't like to go into a dark narrow space even forward, let alone backward, but she always assumed that if I said so, it was safe to do it. Tinky-Winky trusts me to manage interactions with other dogs for her, so if she sees a dog she's not comfortable with, she comes to me. On the other hand she knows that when I call her, she's likely to get the leash, so she doesn't come TO me unless she needs my help. She comes by and stays out of reach, so I can't leash her up. And that also is a form of trust, in my opinion. Generally we think "trust" means we expect a positive outcome, but I think it just means we can predict with confidence what someone is going to do.

In summary, dogs are not zombies, you cannot "condition" them to obey orders. You teach them vocabulary, then they choose whether to do as you ask or not, depending on what they perceive as their best interest. Just like people.

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