Cali barked at someone walking past our back gate. I shushed her. When she did it again, I ordered her inside.
Koala looked at me quizzically, then walked to the door and asked to go in. Deni told her that no, she had to stay outside. Her next look clearly asked why Cali got rewarded for barking — and why she was being punished.
For Cali, going inside is punishment. But spending time outside is often, for Koala, punishment.
The dog decides what’s a reward — and what’s not.
In our relationships with our dogs, and especially in training ,the dog decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. If a dog doesn’t care much about food, most food treats won’t be rewarding enough to motivate her to learn or to do something she really doesn’t want to do. If a dog hates having her ears rubbed or dislikes pats on the head, some types of physical “affection” can be unpleasant — not the bonding experience the human might be aiming for.
Cali knows that getting her ears done is worth more — both in number and in value — in treat-payment than getting the newspaper or putting a toy away. She knows that some great things, like coconut ice popsicles and opportunities to play snuffle-mat, are free — while others, like her special meat treats, have to be earned.
Cali’s pretty strongly food motivated, but if she’s got a tennis ball and a prospective ball thrower, she’s not at all interested in any kind of treat. And when she’s at the vet and the tech wants to lead her somewhere — whether a soup ladle is involved or not — it takes an extremely high-value treat to get her to go. Koala, on the other hand, will pretty much do anything for a treat.
For some dogs, especially the high-drive dogs who tend to excel at search, scent detection, and police training, active play with a ball or tug toy is the best training reward they can imagine. Other dogs will give the toy — and the human offering it — some side-eye and then (again) demand their pay — in food.
The owner or trainer or dog-walk can have whatever ideas they want about what the dog should like or want. But if something isn’t rewarding to the dog, it’s not going to work. That’s true whether the human is trying to train, get the dog to do something — or get the dog to stop doing something.
It’s worth figuring out what foods work best as treats and what non-food rewards — praise, petting, toys or other play — work for your dog. Save the very best ones for special occasions — times you need the dog to come over in a hurry or cooperate with a particularly unpleasant experience (ears, nails, vet) — and use the “good” and “very good” ones for everyday training and rewards.
It’s a paradox: Training a dog takes a lifetime; but everyone has time to do it. How’s that?
Dogs, like humans, continue to learn throughout their lives. It is, in fact, possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and doing so enriches their lives (and yours).
At the same time, each training “session” can be only minutes long.
People often think training a dog takes hours a day and requires special skills and they just don’t have time for it. Instead, they spend hours cleaning up messes made by unschooled puppies or rearrange their schedules to walk their reactive dogs very early in the morning, hoping to avoid other dogs. Or, rather than spend 1 minute a day brushing their dogs’ teeth, they spend hundreds of dollars annually and accept the many risks associated with sedating their dogs for a professional cleaning.
Here’s the thing. You have the time — and the skills — to teach your dog the basic manners that will make your lives (yours, your dog’s, your family members’, and your guests’) better.
Young dogs can only handle a few minutes of training at a time. Even if you’re doing formal training, such as teaching tricks or putting behaviors like sit, lie down, or keeping 4 paws on the floor when greeting people, on cue, you can really only actively train for a few minutes at a time. Under 5 minutes for puppies; maybe 10-15 minutes for older dogs. But 5 minutes is fine for them, too. You can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes.
Training doesn’t have to be formal, though. You’re teaching your dog how to behave all the time, whether you think about it or not. What makes it informal training is thinking about it — how would you like your dog to behave? And how do you teach her what you want? Then, build that into daily routines.
You feed your dog, right? (I hope so!) Teach your dog to stay out of the kitchen or in a specific spot, out of your way, while you prepare her meal by guiding her to the spot and saying, “Wait on your mat,” — or any cue words you want. As long as you use the same cue each time, you’re fine. The dog will learn to associate the place, and the words, with meal prep. The other piece of this equation is a “release” word that gives the dog permission to come over to her bowl once her meal is ready. It can be the same release word, like, “OK” that you use for other things, like going out the front door or greeting another dog or … just about anything you’d like your dog to wait for permission to do.
Your dog already knows how to sit and lie down, but putting those behaviors on cue control means that you can ask for them. All that means is teaching the dog to associate hearing a word, the cue, with doing the action. In other words, learning that sit means sit. One way to build this association is catching the dog doing the behavior and naming it. Another is using a lure, like a cookie, to induce the dog to sit (or lie down, etc.) while introducing the cue. Many trainers practice eliciting the behavior before using the cue to be sure that the dog learns to associate the right behavior with the cue and not, say, think that “sit” means “sniff my hand for a cookie.”
Here’s the daily routine part: You do stuff every day that your dog could and maybe should sit for: Put down a bowl of food, put on a leash for a walk, go out a door or down stairs, pet your dog, allow your dog to greet a visitor. Practice using the sit cue and waiting for the dog to sit before doing these things. The meal itself can be the reward for sitting nicely while you’re serving it; for other behaviors, you might reward with attention and petting or use very small treats as rewards. (Very small treats means maybe one Charlee Bear or piece of kibble; not a huge dog biscuit. The idea is to teach the dog, not make him obese!)
Some behaviors are more challenging. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash, for example, takes a long time. If your dog is very reactive to people, cats, or other dogs on walks, you may need to call in a trainer for assistance. But for basic manners, and even fun things, like shaking hands or bringing you things you’ve dropped, spending a few minutes a day teaching your dog will produce great results. Besides, it’s fun!
In last week’s post, I described some things to consider when choosing a dog trainer for your puppy or adult dog. Here, I’ll provide a few resources to help you locate a suitable trainer.
Professional organization listings
Two professional dog training organizations that I have been involved with have directories of positive trainers. These are a great place to start your search — or continue it if efforts to get recommendations from dog-obsessed friends have failed:
Pet Professionals Guild — This is a 100 percent positive trainer group that is very serious about continuing education. They publish a journal and a blog; have regular webinars, workshops, and conferences, and are a truly dedicated group of professionals.
Their mission statement: The Pet Professional Guild is a membership organization representing pet industry professionals who are committed to results based, science based force-free training and pet care.
APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers) — The APDT is dedicated to “least intrusive, minimally aversive” training approach. This is a mostly positive approach that emphasizes humane and effective strategies to change behavior. They offer a ton of resources, have huge (really fun) conferences, and are also very dedicated professionals.
Dog training clubs
Many cities and counties have dog training clubs. These vary widely in their size, philosophy, and what they offer. St. Petersburg, Florida, has a very active club where you can find puppy classes, obedience, Rally, agility, other dog sports, and much more. Google, ask fellow-dog owners, and dig around to see what your city offers.
Many shelters offer classes, especially to people who’ve adopted their dogs. But most are open to the community, reasonably priced, and focused on basic manners or obedience.
Ask lots of questions
Whichever path leads you to a potential trainer or class, ask about the approach used and what equipment is recommended. If anyone says to bring a choke or prong collar to your first class, run! If you’re advised to do something that seems off, ask for an explanation. Follow your instincts; your role is to teach and protect your dog. You do not have to hurt him to get him to behave!
Most trainers love to talk dogs. If you have questions about (mis)behavior, problems, or simply are new to dog-parenting, ask, ask, and ask more questions.
Don’t be put off if the trainer suggests more classes. Building a relationship takes work and time. Training classes are a good place to learn what to do. And, realistically, most people don’t practice much between classes, so continuing to attend ensures that you continue to work on behavior problems in a calm place where you have help — which beats yelling at your dog in frustration whenever she does something “bad.” Even “frivolous” classes like trick training and scent work are great for building your relationship, improving communication with your dog, and just having fun together.
When you are just getting to know your dog, the focus should be on building a connection and communicating. A positive trainer will help you develop skills in communicating to the dog what you want her to do and also in understanding your dog’s communication with you. That is the best foundation for your relationship.
A more “traditional” or obedience focused trainer might introduce punishments for “bad” behavior — things the dog does that you don’t like. At any point in your relationship, but especially at the beginning, this has the effect of cutting off communication with the dog. The dog begins to worry about what might trigger the next punishment. Often, you’ve given the dog little or no (or very unclear) information about what you do want her to do. On the other hand, when she does perfectly normal doggy things, like having accidents, if she’s a young puppy, or eating some interesting smelling thing, unpleasant and scary things happen. This does not build trust.
Red flags to look out for: Trainers who advocate using harsh tools, like prong collars, on puppies or very early in training; trainers who routinely use shock collars or who expect you to use them for an extended period of time (more than 1-2 uses); trainers who emphasize the need to “be the alpha.”
Does the person do classes, private training, or board-and-train? A combination?
You may have preferences for a class vs. private; board-and-train might sound tempting. Think through the options.
For a puppy, a great combination is a puppy play with short training classes. The opportunity to play with other puppies in a supervised, appropriate (size, age, play style) group is essential to developing good doggy social skills.
If you have an older dog, classes and private training are good options. Private training is ideal for focused work on a specific problem. Classes that focus on reactive dogs or trick training or scent training or some other fun or serious topic can also be helpful. It’s good to see how other dogs and their humans do things, it’s fun to meet the other people and make connections. General manners or basic obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, or classes geared toward teaching manners for dogs who are out and about with their humans are all fun and helpful. They tend to focus on things that every dog needs to learn: walking nicely on leash, staying calm around other dogs and people, not jumping, settling quietly. Your options may be limited, depending on where you live, but I hope you can find something that works.
Board-and-train might be a good choice for some adult dogs for some types of training. I do not recommend it with puppies because the puppy should be forming her primary bond with you / your family — not with a trainer. Obviously it can work; many service and guide dogs spend their puppyhoods with families and then transfer their bond to their new partner. But given the choice, I think your new puppy belongs with you.
Choosing board-and-train to work on a specific problem or if you need to leave your dog for a time period anyhow (maybe during a 2-week no-dog vacation) could work out well — if you are realistic in your expectations.
The trainer, likely an experienced professional (choose carefully), will probably make a lot of progress with the dog during the training weeks. But when you get back, you and the dog have made no progress at all. That is, the dog has no reason to behave any differently with you in your home environment than she did before you left.
Many dog owners mistakenly assume that the trainer imparts knowledge to the dog and the dog then knows exactly what to do in similar situations from that time forward.
For example, your dog goes nuts when she sees another dog, a squirrel, or a cat when you’re out for walks. The trainer spends 2 weeks working on this, and is able to walk the dog calmly through a park filled with squirrels, cats, and other dogs out for walks or even playing off leash. So you’ll have no more problems, right?
Your dog is going to go just as nuts with you as she did before the training, unless and until you work with her to change that.
The trainer has taught your dog an alternative behavior, but the dog still needs to learn that she has to use that behavior with you. That requires undoing an established pattern (the dog going nuts, you freaking out …) and learning a new one. This will be much easier since the dog has already learned the new pattern, but…
Board and train is not a replacement for work, lots of hard work, with your dog.
I’ll cover more trainer-selection criteria in another post.
A puppy I know has trouble with greetings. She’s so excited to meet people that she bounds to the door and, essentially, assaults them. That is pretty normal puppy behavior; they’re not born with perfect manners (who knew?). And people usually mean play, treats, toys … all kinds of good things. So of course puppies get excited.
There are a few possible responses to this assault. Most people do the natural (but also among the worst) thing: They exclaim at the puppy’s cuteness and pet the puppy. Hm, thinks the puppy, people love being jumped on and even gnawed on at the door.
But … most people don’t love being jumped on and gnawed on by puppies. And puppies have a tendency to grow. Larger-breed puppies might be cute when they jump on visitors as 8- or 10-week old balls of fluff, but even the people who think that is cute are less amused a few weeks later, when the 4- or 6-month old adolescent, or even the 60-lb adult engages in the same greeting.
“Managing” the situation by removing the puppy before answering the door is also a common response, though this does not teach the puppy manners and therefore requires a lifetime commitment from the humans. It’s also not great for times that people show up at the door unannounced, as delivery people, mail carriers, and relatives tend to do.
So, the puppy must learn some manners.
One slow option, with great long-term payoff, is teaching the puppy to do something else: Get a toy. Sit. Sit and offer a paw (charming!). Go to her bed or crate.
A supposedly easier option is “correcting” the puppy. Unfortunately, there are still many old-school trainers out there who use physical “corrections” (a euphemism for physical punishment), for all manner of infractions where punishment is really inappropriate. Even more horrifying, many of them apply these techniques to puppies.
So, this pushy puppy’s trainer suggested using a prong collar. She gave the whole speech about how it doesn’t hurt and is better than a choke chain. I know the speech because I used to believe it. But, a prong collar is a choke chain. Even worse, it’s a choke chain with dozens of pointy spikes designed to dig into your puppy’s neck when you pull on the leash, tightening the … choke chain. Technically, it’s a “limited-slip” collar; the chain only tightens so much, so you won’t choke the puppy to death. How comforting.
Its sole purpose is to hurt the dog (to “get her attention,” the trainer will say. Yep, if someone jerked a pointy chain tightly around my throat, that would surely get my attention …). So, yes, it hurts, unless your puppy is a thick-necked muscular breed, but even then … is that really how you want to get your best friend’s attention?
And, more to the point, it doesn’t work.
OK, yes, if you set the puppy up, have the puppy dressed in prong collar and leash when someone comes to the door (as you’ve prearranged), and the puppy jumps, and you give a perfectly timed correction, the puppy most likely won’t succeed in jumping on that visitor. If you consider that “working,” your bar for success is pretty low.
Will you keep the puppy on leash and in full prong at all times? Will you be holding the leash at all times? If so, then you are a monster and do not deserve a puppy. If not, then it’s quite likely that the puppy will still succeed in jumping on people. Often.
So, what the puppy will learn, very quickly, is that she can get away with jumping when she’s not leashed and pronged. She’ll also learn that being leashed leads to being hurt and that being near you leads to being hurt. Those are not things you want your puppy to learn, are they? I mean, you do want to be able to hang out go for walks together that the puppy does not regard as torture. At least, I hope you do.
It also fails because it doesn’t teach her anything positive. It doesn’t teach her what you want her to do, for example (sit, get toy, etc.). It doesn’t even really teach her what you don’t want her to do because there’s too much going on for her to understand that the fact that she might jump is what triggers the “correction.” And few dog owners, especially when frazzled and dealing with puppy and visitor and who knows what else, have great timing; there’s no way you will always deliver the “correction” right at the moment she’s jumping. So the puppy might think it’s the doorbell or her barking or people reaching to pet her or any number of things that are causing the painful jerk on her neck.
What this painful “correction” might teach her is that people at the door are scary because they cause her to get hurt. She might even figure out that people at the door cause her humans to go crazy and attack her.
In either case, since the puppy cannot prevent people from coming to the door (or avoid them, if you’ve got her on a leash), she’ll do what every scared canine is hardwired to do: defend herself. That’s right. “Correcting” the puppy by hurting her — and failing to teach her what she should do — can make her behavior at the door far worse by convincing her that it’s a threat. She might growl, lunge, bark, even try to bite people once she connects their arrival with the painful leash jerk and pronged choke.
I had a trainer tell me that I had to use a prong collar on Cali to teach her to heel and not get excited about the other dogs in class. Cali was an older puppy at that point, maybe 7 or 8 months, and in full-fledged obnoxious adolescence. Even so, she was a puppy. A golden retriever puppy, for goodness’ sake! If an adult human cannot teach a puppy to behave without resorting to brute force, she shouldn’t have a puppy. (Same goes for a toddler!)
I didn’t use it. I decided that I wanted a relationship with my dog that was not based on scaring her or hurting her, but on teaching her. Granted, her leash manners are not perfect, and she still gets really excited about meeting people when we’re on walks. But visitors? She runs to get a toy and prances around with the toy. No jumping, no barking.
Fortunately for my puppy friend, her parents won’t be using a prong collar either. But the prong collar solution appeals to many puppy owners (and sadly, trainers) because it seems to have an immediate effect and it’s “easy.”
Yes, actual teaching takes longer. It also offers a real solution to the problem: You end up with a dog who greets people politely, offers a toy, or goes off to her own space. Isn’t that who you want to spend the next 12 or 14 years sharing your home with?
No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.
We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!
We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.
I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.
A play pen
I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!
Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.
I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.
Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.
I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.
It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.
Reading about this study will make you want to go back to college. A team of undergrad researchers had the best job ever: Watching hundreds of hours of puppy videos.
They were looking at the differences in how moms at The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school in New Jersey, treated their pups. Some were very attentive, constantly licking and cuddling their newborn pups. Others spent as much time as they could out of the whelping box, away from the babies. Some lay down to nurse, making it easy for the pups to gorge themselves. Others stood, perhaps longingly eyeing the happy hour menu just out of reach. The researchers not only studied the moms’ behavior, they also measured their levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress. Moms with higher anxiety tended to spend more time with their pups and coddle them more.
Guide dog puppies are set up to succeed. They have great genetics and prenatal health care, as well as top-notch vet care throughout their lives. They get early enrichment and socialization, lots of training. Even so, many don’t make it. A dog who is nervous or fearful makes a poor guide, as does one who can’t think independently and solve problems. Puppies who learn faster, solve puzzles faster, or figure out how to contend with obstacles naturally make better guide dogs. So do puppies who are confident and unafraid of new or potentially scary objects or situations. Temperament tests for puppies abound, but it’s still hard to reliably predict adult temperament or success.
It might seem that pups with attentive moms would be more confident and therefore more likely to succeed. But that’s not what the research indicated. The pups who had to work a little harder to eat and those who were less coddled by their moms turned out to be more independent and better problem solvers — scrappy, tough little dogs who had higher success rates in guide dog school. The coddled pups showed higher anxiety and less problem-solving ability. Even these pups are far ahead of the average pet dog in terms of temperament, ability to cope with the everyday stresses of life, and general health, though. But helicopter moms seemed to put their pups at a disadvantage.
It’s hard to determine just how much of the pups’ success or failure is linked to maternal behavior and how much is genetic, so more study is needed. But the attention to maternal behavior could help shape early training and enrichment. It could also point to ways that we could more successfully help our older puppies and adult dogs cope with anxiety (less coddling?).
Anyhow, doing more research is so appealing. Sign me up to watch those puppy cams!
For a little over a year, I have been writing for an online “magazine” that covers online learning. Some of my articles touch on various learning theories and how these might be applied in “eLearning” or online training and performance support. Every so often, a source talks about “spaced learning” or “spaced repetition.” It’s funny to me that many of them think they’ve stumbled on a new secret weapon.
Spaced practice is simply practicing a skill or recalling information, maybe by taking a quiz or using flash cards, at short intervals over a period of time. It’s long been known to be effective both in the education of children (and adults) and in the education of dogs.
I first learned about spaced repetition in my first dog training classes. Particularly when working with very young puppies, we paired very short training sessions with spaced practice on the same set of skills. Hmmm, did we also discover microlearning, another current hot topic in eLearning? Maybe so.
Microlearning — very short lessons — certainly worked with our 4-week-old puppies. Two five-minute sessions a day (even one, if we got busy) were enough to teach one puppy I worked with about 15 cues by the time she was 10 weeks old. I’ve used the approach, with great success, with dozens of other puppies and adolescent dogs, but my training skills are becoming rusty from disuse.
I’ve been thinking about both microlearning and spaced learning for two different reasons this week.
One is a conversation I had about a friend of hers who wants to train her dog to help her with some aspects of her MS. The dog already has some foundational skills. The friend, due to her MS, has limited stamina and would only likely have enough energy to work with her dog for a few minutes a day. I found myself telling my friend that that was not an insurmountable obstacle. If she were able to spend a few minutes a day practicing a skill, the dog could learn it very well.
The second reason is my own lapse in spaced practice. When Cali was a puppy, I was very diligent about practicing her recall and working on her willingness to accept grooming, especially handling of her feet and nails. I did everything by the book, practiced almost every day, sometimes two or three short sessions. Cali was a great student. Then life got in the way and I stopped practicing. She now has a mediocre recall and hates having her feet handled. Great.
I know that I can find five minutes a day to work with Cali, and I know that, with the right treats, her recall could again become speedy and eager. That matters here in Montana, where there are many places that Cali could run off-leash.
I’m less sure about the feet, but I could probably get her to be a little less skittish and a little more cooperative. It’s certainly worth a few minutes a day to try. I have a new bag of very desirable treats; maybe I will use them for some remedial training. Wish us luck!
I’ve written about both Alberta’s and Koala’s adventures with the marshmallow test and I’ve been thinking about what it tells us about each dog. Is Koala a “better” dog because she didn’t have to work as hard as Alberta? Is she more obedient ? (No!) More — or less — intelligent?
Dr. Walter Mischel, the psychologist who originated the test, wrote a book about it a few years ago; he also was interviewed in The Atlantic. The topic of both book and interview was some common misunderstandings about the test.
Mischel said that it is less about self-control than about achievement and making choices. It’s also, to some extent, about how and when a person (or dog) chooses to exercise self-restraint, not whether she can. Other research shows a phenomenon called willpower fatigue; exercising self-control takes cognitive energy. Using that energy on one task means you have less of it available for other tasks, whether they are cognitive tasks or exercising self-restraint.
Maybe Koala would do less well on the marshmallow test after navigating Deni through a strange airport, hotel, and restaurant than she did in the morning on her home turf.
After reading the interview with Dr. Mischel, I don’t think that the test tells us whether a dog is “good” or smart or even obedient. It tells us that training helps a dog make good decisions, and that making those decisions comes more easily to some individuals or at some times. Dr. Mischel told The Atlantic, “What we do when we get tired is heavily influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly influenced by the models we have.”
In other words, when we’re challenged, we fall back on our training and experience.
Alberta and Koala both had excellent training and socialization. They were also both taught the “leave it” cue. The original children tested were from affluent, educated families. These children, as well as Koala and Alberta, had some respect for and trust in authority figures (the children were tested, as were the dogs, by a familiar adult). These circumstances set up a person or dog to succeed. A random puppy pulled from a shelter pen by a stranger would likely not fare so well on the test.
That’s why it is so important to teach puppies to sit quietly, even if only for a few seconds, before they get to eat or greet someone; it’s why it’s important to ask them to wait at doorways and before jumping out of a car. Yes, we are teaching them manners and protecting their safety. We’re also giving them models and a basis to form “self-standards” that include self-restraint.
They might slip up sometimes. Cali gets so excited about meeting new people that she wriggles and dances. And when we approach the office of her friend the cookie lady, she’s a jumping, pulling, dancing demon.
It’s not just Cali. We all experience willpower fatigue. For instance when the scent of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies … mmmmm!
Our dogs have jobs that they are expected to do, similar to assigning household chores to a child. Jana brings in the morning paper. Jana and Cali each bring me a shoe when we’re getting ready for a walk. And each dog is expected to bring me her food bowl when she’s done eating.
Jana learned this task very quickly. She does it eagerly, always happy to receive her dessert in exchange (a small cookie). Alberta is also an eager participant, usually the first to finish her meal and deliver her bowl. If I am not paying attention, she’ll push it into my leg, hard, in a not-at-all-subtle demand for her pay. Past dogs have learned the task too, though Wylie made it quite clear that he saw this task as beneath him — girls’ work — and he would immediately depart for more masculine pursuits upon finishing his meals. Jana was happy to pick up the slack (and the extra cookie).
Then there’s Cali. For months, she’d pretend to try, lifting the bowl by one edge before dropping it with a loud clang. Putting on her saddest golden retriever face, she look at me as if to say, “I tried, Mom, but I just can’t lift it. It’s a very large bowl, and I am a very small puppy.” As the very small puppy became 56 lbs. of solid muscle, this excuse held less and less water, but the sad eyes … well, let’s just say that she does a very good “sad golden” face.
Along came Deni. Not only did we switch Cali to a smaller bowl this summer, but Deni took over much of the feeding supervision. Deni wasn’t moved by the sad face. Weeks of cajoling and praise and cookies paid off. Cali started bringing her bowl, but reluctantly and only with much encouragement. Once we knew that Cali understood what was expected and that she was fully capable of doing it, the coddling was phased out.
Now, as Deni explains, Cali broods over the looming task or “stands there and glowers at her bowl.” She knows she’s supposed to pick it up; she simply does not want to. It’s similar to her reluctant acquiescence to brushing her teeth. But, more and more, Cali talks herself into bringing the bowl with no prompting from either of us. Deni reports that if Cali sees that extra-special treats are being offered for dessert, she is able to convince herself to pick up the bowl much more quickly, and she does so with far more energy and enthusiasm.
The battle of the bowl shows Cali’s increasing maturity and offers a window on her personality and intelligence. We all sometimes choose to do things that we do not want to do. Sometimes we do them for rewards (a paycheck, working extra hours to earn a vacation …) or to avoid worse consequences (dental checkups) or because we don’t want to disappoint someone we care about. Whatever the reason, we all face large and small decisions every day. Cali is no different.
In his wonderful book Beyond Words, which I have mentioned before, Dr. Carl Safina talks about sentience, cognition, and thought as the “overlapping processes of conscious minds.” He defines sentience as “the ability to feel sensations”; cognition as “the capacity to perceive and acquire knowledge and understanding”; and thought as “the process of considering something that has been perceived” (page 21).
We see all of these at work in Cali’s struggle. She understands what she needs to do and how to do it; she feels stress, anxiety or discomfort of some kind when she thinks about this expectation, and she considers how to resolve it. Sometimes the feeling of anticipation or desire for a treat wins; sometimes, probably, the desire not to disappoint Deni or me tips the balance; sometimes she needs some prodding. But she is very definitely making a choice. Whether she decides to go for the cookie or she’s concerned about our reaction or she walks away and lets Alberta or Jana pick up her bowl, she is in control; she weighs the options and makes her choice. She is not instinctively or automatically responding to a stimulus in a conditioned way, as some behaviorists would argue. Every day, every meal, Cali shows what it means to be a thinking dog.