Originally posted April 2013
Once upon a time, D’fer was a puppy. He was a very happy go lucky, plucky, out of the box kind of puppy. And he is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. D’fer’s breeder told me that she felt that chessies are more playful than many other retrievers and in the absence of legal “stuff to do” they will make up their own games. This has proven true over Deef’s whole life.
|D’fer was a very plucky puppy!|
At about nine months, my beloved dog came with me on a walk with about a dozen of my clients. I had just started to do some serious retrieves with him, and he was working hard on “bring to hand”. We had been working mostly with retrieving bumpers, those black and white plastic things that float, but I had given him a duck to fetch and he was doing really, really well with it. I was a very happy dog trainer on that fateful spring day.
I remember the weather well, and how I was dressed. I was wearing my spring windbreaker, along with a pair of leather gloves. It was a very lucky thing that I had gloves on because D’fer chose that day to try something brand spanking new related to retrieving. He brought me a dead skunk, at the state of decomposition where it is still recognizably a skunk, but it was past bloated and gross. Partially dehydrated, and in one piece, Deef recognized this as “a valuable item to bring to your person”. Which he did. The $5000 question is…”What do you do when your dog brings you a dead skunk?”
If you are wearing gloves, you take it, and then cue your dog to your left side and you throw it and send him for the skunk again. My students were to say the least, gobsmacked. This was NOT what they had thought I would do! I am not sure what they were expecting, but throwing the skunk was not on the list of things they had in mind. D’fer on the other hand was VERY impressed. Great game. We played fetch about six times, and then I put the skunk and my gloves in a thorn tree and carried on my walk.
There are layers of lessons in this particular five thousand dollar question. The first layer is “if you want your dog to be a working duck retriever, when he brings you dead stuff, find a way to make it worth his while.” I didn’t want D’fer to decide that next time, he should hide his find and maybe roll in it. Yes, the skunk smelt bad and yes, so did D’fer, but frankly I was going to have to bathe him anyhow, so why not capitalize on his “I brought you dead stuff” behaviour? For the cost of one pair of leather gloves, I solidified in Deef’s mind that fetching dead stuff was just exactly what I wanted.
|An activity that D’fer found interesting. I didn’t need to get in with him to share his joy in the activity.|
In fact the next time he brought me something dead, a ground hog, I used it as a heel while carrying exercise and had him drop it and do seek backs with it. After twenty minutes or so of THAT game, we heeled out to the deadstock pit that we kept for chickens, and I had him drop it in and then do a sit stay while we buried the groundhog. After the ground hog burial, I got out a Frisbee and threw it in the swamp for him for another ten minutes.
The next layer to learn is that retrieving and in fact most of the things I teach my dogs to do are not behaviours in isolation. They are behaviours that are part of activities that we do jointly that have meaning for both of us. D’fer is my service dog. Airports, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and city buses are not in general fun for the dog. In fact, there is a whole lot of boring involved with the work that Deef does as a service dog, and there is not a whole lot of inherent reinforcement for doing what I need him to do. Hours and hours and hours of heeling just isn’t fun and heeling makes up the lion’s share of what D’fer does as a service dog. In order to make this something that he is willing to do, that he offers on a regular basis even when he doesn’t have to,
I think of the work we do together as needing meaning to both of us. Deef has activities that he loves to do, and I integrate them into my day on a regular basis. Deef loves meeting people he knows. When we meet, I always make sure he gets a chance to say hi. As a result, D’fer recognizes airports we land at, and he knows exactly who he is looking for. When we land in New York he is looking for Cissy and Woody. When we land in Cleveland, he is looking for Linda and Brent. When we land at home in Toronto, he is looking for John. The day we landed in New York and were picked up by Dennis, he was pleased to see his friend Dennis, but he was disgusted that Cissy and Woody were not there and he didn’t straighten up until we got to their house. He travels to New York to visit Cissy and Woody, not Dennis, even though he really likes Dennis.
Making my work meaningful to my service dog has shifted my perspective on training a lot. I recognize that D’fer’s motive for doing what we do is different than mine, but he isn’t just doing it because I reinforced him for doing it. It has meaning in and of itself for him. Like fetching the skunk, my motive was to get a reliable retrieve of anything, anytime and anywhere. Deef’s motive was to play a game he likes. Distilling this down to I reinforce behaviours I like is valuable in terms of understanding the training cycle and the process of developing behaviours, but it is simplistic in its evaluation of the overall life that D’fer and I share. Recognizing that my dog has a different motivation than I do allows me to look for things that he might be interested in and sharing those activities with him.
|This is an activity that both D’fer and I enjoy! Looking for activities that are meaningful to both you and your dog is really important!|
Having a relationship with a dog can be impersonal, like the kind of relationship you have with the guy who pumps your gas, or it can be deeply meaningful like the kind of relationship that you have with your spouse or it can be anything in between. When all of your interactions are transactions the way that you have financial connection with the guy who pumps your gas, then you are missing the possibilities and potential for so much more. When you recognize that your dog may have different motivations than you do and may have something of value to share with you, you deepen the meaning of your relationship with your dog, and you gain so much more.
Sharing in your dog’s interests, freely and with an open heart means accepting and understand something about the core of dogginess. It means accepting that a skunk may be a great prize even if you don’t like it yourself. It means that some of the time, you may have a dog who smells bad or who has done things that you find disgusting. But it also means that when your dog shares things with you, you have a chance to expand your experiences, and often in a very good way.
There was the time for instance when I was staying at a friend’s house with D’fer. I was packing to leave the next morning and Deef was at loose ends. We have done recreational SAR with D’fer and it is perhaps the game he loves best. At home, if I am working around the yard and he is loose, he will often come with a stick or a toy and sit beside me and “ask” me to throw it. If I am able I often do. If I am not able to do that, then I will just tell him not now, maybe later. In the yard, when he is told not now, he will often go and carefully place the item some distance away from me. Then he will come back and get back into heel position; the position that he starts in during SAR. One day when he did this, I cued him to search, and search he did. He had placed the item, but he likes games, and I observed him racing all over the farm. He looked in the woodpile and he looked around the flower beds and he looked in the trash pile and he looked in the horse paddocks. He checked both under and on top of the lawn chairs and the bar-b-que. And then he finally after about five minutes went to where he had put the item and “found”.
The night I was packing to leave, D’fer came and brought me a toy and I told him that I couldn’t play then, but may be later. He took his toy and disappeared into the hallway. A moment later, he came back and sat in heel position. I cued him to search. He looked in my eyes with complete disgust. He really was appalled. He went to his bed and lay down and sighed. A minute later, he came back and asked again. Not taking the hint the first time, I sent him to search again. He made a leap forward like he normally does on a search and then sat back down and looked at me. Curious, I stepped forward and looked out of my room. The toy was on the floor. I went to the toy, and picked it up and Deef joined me doing a chessie joy dance. Then he took the toy and shook it and bounded up and down the hall for a moment. I went back to my packing.
A few minutes later, he came back without the toy and sat again beside me and made eye contact. This time, I thought I knew the game, so I went out my door and looked in the hallway. No toy. I looked in the adjacent bedroom. No toy. I looked in the bathroom; there it was. This time, Deef didn’t join me in my find. He sat in the hall and watched me search. He did what I normally do on a search. I watch what he does. When I found the toy I made a big deal out of it and brought it to him and THEN he did the chessie happy dance.
The third time he hid the toy, he hid it in the adjacent bedroom and he tightened up his criteria for what he wanted me to do. The third time I found the toy and he looked disappointed. By tuning in to him, and sharing in his game I got more out of the whole experience. I learned that he wanted me to do something more, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I put down the toy and he sat. We stayed that way for perhaps a minute and then Deef did something I find quite remarkable. He showed me what he wanted. He sniffed the book shelf. He looked under the bed. He looked under the night table. He sniffed the dresser. And then he looked at the toy and sat back down. So I followed suit. I looked carefully at the bookshelf. I looked under the bed. I opened the closet. I looked up high and I looked down low. And then I “found” the toy.
We played this game seven or eight times. Being willing to follow D’fer’s lead and play his game was an incredibly rewarding experience. Deef has offered this game from time to time since, but not often. I never would have had this opportunity if I had distilled the sum of our relationship down to behaviours I had reinforced and made stronger. If I had not always looked for the deeper meaning in the work that we did together, I would have missed this experience altogether. I would have short changed myself and I believe I would have short changed D’fer too.
|Traveling by public transit is pretty borng for a service dog, but sometimes it takes you to places that are really interesting for both you and your dog!|
The story of the skunk in many ways epitomizes what I try and share with my students. Yes, by all means, understand reinforcement theory and understand how learning works and teach your dog lots and lots and lots of behaviours. More than that though seek opportunities to include your dog in your life, and share with him what you do, and then be willing to let him share with you what is important to him. If you do this, if you are diligent in this, then when you ask your dog to do things that are difficult or boring, that may not have meaning to him, your dog will begin to look for the meaning in what you are doing together. Not everything that your dog wants to do is yucky or disgusting; often it is the mundane. When I was touring Wall Street, D’fer caught a scent and tracked someone on concrete for over ten blocks. By being willing to follow him, I was taken into a deli I never would have visited, I went into and immediately left a very seedy bar, and I stopped at a mailbox that would not have caught my interest. When we got to the park on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, I was treated to the sight of boats and ferries and birds and all sorts of magic that I would have failed to notice in my effort to get the most out of visiting the financial district of New York. By being willing to share what D’fer felt was important, when he asked for a swim in the ocean, he was willing to accept not now as a legitimate answer to his question and he was willing to continue on our journey together. All in all there is no greater gift than a partner who will share his skunk, and all of the Atlantic Ocean with you. My relationship with my dog is truly magic.