Originally published June 2013
I love training dogs. I am a pretty good dog trainer too. Dogs fascinate me. I could watch dogs interact over and over and over and over again for hours. I love horses just as much but have less experience with them, and I spend hours watching them, learning about them, observing them. Horses are just as cool as dogs and different. As a professional trainer, I get great amounts of joy from watching my dogs and interacting with them. Training them provides a framework and a platform for communication with them and that is extremely cool. I love the interplay of communication between me and the dog.
One of the most interesting things to observe in dogs is when they start turning the tables and training us. Almost every dog who has been through a training class does this. In its simplest forms, when the puppy starts to circle and look like he is going to toilet, then we rush to the door, he is training us to rush to the door and take him out. Training happens when behaviour changes dues to consequences. If you were sitting and reading a book, and the puppy’s behaviour causes you to jump up and open the door, then the puppy trained you to do something in response to what he is doing. How does this work? In short, in order to avoid an unpleasant outcome (cleaning up a bathroom mess), the person will jump up and let the puppy out to pee. Over time, the puppy will refine his cue. At first, in order to get the person to jump up and open the door the puppy has to actually toilet on the floor. Next, the puppy has to look like he is going to toilet. Then the puppy just has to look at the person in a particular way. Pretty soon, the puppy just has to glance at the owner and lickety split, the owner jumps up and lets the puppy out.
|The magic “fill up my bowl look” that this dog has used to train his people to fill his bowl. Image credit: logos / 123RF Stock Photo|
In the scenario above, who is training who? Is the person taking careful note and getting the puppy out to pee, or is the puppy teaching the person to jump up and open the door? Is the puppy’s toileting behaviour being maintained by the reinforcement of an empty bladder or is the person’s behaviour being maintained by the lack of messes on the floor? These questions reflect the more subtle nature of training. When you influence the behaviour of another being, your behaviour is changed in turn.
Most of us want to train our dogs to do things like sit or lie down, or come when called, and it is fascinating to learn about the two way street of communication that really makes up training. If the dog is motivated to teach you to give him treats it is pretty easy for him to get you to do that over and over again, by offering you a behaviour you like. So you choose the behaviour that you will get in order to make you give a treat. The dog chooses either to give you that behaviour or to not give you that behaviour, depending in part how much he wants the item you have on offer.
In a manner this is an economic relationship. You have something to offer. The dog has something to offer. You can choose to trade or not. If your dog offers you something you don’t want, you don’t have to play. If you don’t have something the dog wants, he may choose not to offer you anything you might be interested in.
That is the simplest of explanations of what might happen during a training event. When you do a lot of training, the dog starts to initiate more and more interactions. About five years ago, I went to do a training session with a client in a hotel room. I arrived with coffee and the client and I, who hadn’t seen one another in several months, sat down to chat. At first the dog hung out with us. Then she started to get jumpy. Then she vocalized a bit. I ignored the dog’s behaviour. The clients ignored the behaviour. And after about fifteen minutes, the dog I had come to work with walked away from us, entered her crate and faced the wall. She faced the wall for about five minutes and then she came out and sat in front of me and made eye contact and looked meaningfully at her crate. The dog was pretty clear that if I didn’t attend to her and start training right now, she would time me out a second time. This is a dog who understands the training game really well and she applied the rules she understood to try and get me into her game. What she did to me was absolutely the same as what I might do to a dog who was not attending to me; she took herself and her assets and removed them from me. When she felt she had timed me out for a long enough time, she offered me another chance to play.
I am fortunate enough to have lived with enough dogs who understand the training game that I have been trained to do a number of very complex behaviours. The other night, D’fer came up to bed with a hockey ball in his mouth. He lay down halfway across the room from me and dropped the ball in front of himself. He looked at me, and pushed the ball at me. The ball rolled to me, and I caught it. Deef looked at me and I rolled it back to him. He mouthed it a bit and then placed it in front of himself and rolled it to me. I picked it up and rolled it back at him. We repeated this seven or eight times and then he carefully placed the ball on his bed, curled up around it and went to sleep. I am pretty sure that D’fer feels that I need to be trained from time to time and he is diligent about training me. I got to play with the ball as long as I was willing to roll it back to him.
D’fer has taught me all sorts of behaviours and when he thinks I am misbehaving, he is prone to timing me out by taking his toys and removing himself from the situation. And he has a very sophisticated understanding of how training works. Today he spent some time training a young woman about training. He went to a leave it lab with a thirteen year old girl. He understands the leave it behaviour. He also understands young trainers. And he enjoys playing with the variables in order to see what happens. This amuses D’fer more than perhaps more than anything else in his life.
Knowing the rules of training makes D’fer an interesting dog to work with. When his learner starts to lose interest in the task at hand, he becomes more animated and interesting to the learner. When he is playing the training game with someone who is a novice at training, he may know the behaviour they are learning about, but he doesn’t always let the person know. He will make mistakes that he knows won’t result in a reinforcer. If the person isn’t getting the hang of things, he will give the person a “freebie” and do the behaviour perfectly to keep them in the game. Then he will go back to a subpar behaviour to teach the person about how to train the behaviour. An interesting dog to play with indeed.
|Cooper teaching shaping. He generally isn’t interested in treats. He is mostly interested in engaging people and changing their behaviour. His reinforcement seems to be the act of training itself. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander|
There is another dog I know who is interesting in a similar way. Cooper, the Welsh Terrier who stayed with us for about two months last fall. Cooper taught a number of veterinary students about shaping. He really enjoyed it. Seanna, his person, likes to Curl; that game of hurling rocks around, and sweeping ice for points. Curling is a very social activity and Cooper often gets to go to the Curling Club with Seanna. This past winter, Cooper figured out that the people who weren’t on the ice Curling, they could be engaged in the training game. He will approach a person and offer them a trick. If the person responds by giving him a treat, or engaging him in a game, he will stay with that person for quite awhile. If the person pats him or says Good Boy, he moves on. Over the course of the Curling season, Cooper taught most of the Curlers to give him treats when he did tricks. Here is the interesting part; he isn’t particularly interested in the food. He is interested in the game. In my own kitchen I have sat down to hand feed Cooper and he disengages. He isn’t interested in getting treats. He is interested in the game. By engaging in the game, you get the opportunity to engage with Cooper.
If you watch for this phenomenon, you will likely see this in your own dog. Most dogs who live with people do this to a certain extent. At its simplest form, the dog will teach you to open doors and fill water and food bowls. At its most complex, it is a beautiful interplay of exchange of information and opportunity between you and your dog. This level of engagement is a special gift, a connection and the possibility I hope for every day when I step into the classroom and help someone to teach their dog to sit. Sit is more than just a behaviour we want to develop for the price of a couple of treats. Sit is the opening move in a step by step journey of communication where behaviour changes in both directions.