It’s Teaching, Not Training

Jana peruses several cards, then chooses "tug," asking to play tug.

Someone whom I admire greatly, though I have never met her, wrote a wonderful column a while back. It was emailed to me recently, and I’d like to bring it to readers’ attention. She describes an approach to educating dogs that she calls “Non-Training.” I’ve called this “Cognitive” dog training.

Whatever you call it, the idea is the same: Treat the dog as a partner and student, not as a robot who must obey.

It is a positive, motivation-based approach to teaching dogs that relies on their intelligence and problem-solving ability — not rote memorization of specific, inflexible responses to commands barked at them by an “alpha” human.

It starts with giving dogs choices. Teaching dogs a simple “yes” or “no” response is pretty easy. You can use your hands or ask the dog to do a different response, such as raise a paw or nose your knee. It’s up to you (and your dog) what response works. But once the dog gets the concept of a choice, the sky is the limit.

You can ask your dog whether she wants to go out, wants water, is hungry (use caution if you have a Lab or a golden!), wants the ball or the tug toy, wants a walk or a ball game, wants to rest, is hurting somewhere … Really, as in so many areas of our relationships with dogs, the limitations are imposed by our lack of imagination, not the dogs’ lack of ability or willingness.

Cognitive training goes beyond simple choices, though. It is about teaching dogs to think and solve problems, rather than waiting for us to tell them what to do. It is about shared goals, rather than humans ordering dogs around. It is a dramatic re-imagining of the human-dog partnership. It requires letting go, once and for all, of the idea that dogs “have to” obey humans, just because we have thumbs, or that they do stuff for us out of unconditional love.

A relationship with a dog is just that: A relationship. It takes work, mutual respect, a two-way avenue of communication that acknowledges what each contributes and what each needs from the other.

I won’t go so far as to say that it is or should be a completely equal relationship. Sometimes — often — the human gets to make the decisions. Much as some people loathe the comparison, it is like parenting in that way. The adult human is in charge, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to respect and encourage the dog’s (child’s) individuality, allow for expression of preferences, and allow the dog to make choices when appropriate.

I encourage you to read the column, “Teaching Your Dog to Say Yes or No: The Art of Non-Training.”



It’s All About Strategy

I recently wrote about how Koala uses tools, using a round chew toy as a base and holder to position a more desirable chew (an antler) for better chewing. But there’s more to her entertainment strategy than tool use.

Although she is a two-and-a-half-year-old working adult, Koala still gets puppy lunch. This is a point of contention in the family, because Jana thought she should get puppy lunch forever (but I did not agree), and Cali thinks, not unreasonably, that if Koala gets puppy lunch, she, too, should get puppy lunch.

What is puppy lunch, you ask. Large-breed puppies, because they are growing quickly, get three meals a day. Adult dogs, who only grow wider, get two (and in some cases, one!) meal a day. Puppy lunch is the mid-day meal that goes away when a dog is about a year old. Unless she’s Koala.

The first puppy-lunchless day is a day of infamy and trauma in the lives of goldens and Labs everywhere. Jana never really recovered.

Koala’s puppy lunch is a portion of kibble, served in a treat ball. The ball gets rolled and batted around, dribbling bits of food for Koala to munch. It’s fun. I have several treat balls, and sometimes give Cali food in one. She gets bored with it far more quickly than Koala, partly because she’s less food-focused. But Koala really enjoys her mid-day snack-and-play breaks.

All of that background offers the context for Koala’s strategic play approach. I was watching her eat her puppy lunch not long ago and I saw her using a fairly sophisticated tactic. We were at a hotel (at the Guiding Eyes weekend, actually) and the room had a dresser, sofa, bench, bed, etc. Lots of places a ball could roll out of reach. Koala is an exuberant dog, never more so than when playing, so the ball was getting batted around at a good clip. But it was not uncontrolled ball batting. She’d pounce, roll the ball, whap it with a paw … but always, always keeping track of the many sand-trap equivalents. Never once did she let the ball roll under or behind something. She’d pounce on it or bat it just in time, sending it in a different direction. She almost seemed to be gauging how close it could get to the edge of the bed, say, before she’d lose the ability to steer it out of danger. She’d watch, position herself, and, bam, send it careening away toward the next potential obstacle. It only takes her about 10 minutes to empty the treat ball, so this high-stakes bowling / golf game took place at an impressive level of intensity and speed. She’s really good at this entirely made-up game.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve seen a dog play a game that she has created. What held me spellbound was both the intensity and the advanced strategy. She had an intuitive understanding of a fluid situation. Much as dogs do when they catch a Frisbee or dive into a river at the precise moment needed to grab the ball or stick as it floats by, she showed a far better grasp of physics than I ever could.

The geneticist at Guiding Eyes says that each generation of their dogs is “better” — smarter, more suited to guide work, healthier — than earlier generations. If the dogs get any smarter than Koala, we won’t need to worry about robots taking over our jobs; the dogs will beat them to it.


Breaking News: Researchers Discover That Dogs Can Remember Stuff!

Science has once again confirmed the obvious: Dogs can remember things.

Specifically, a new study shows that dogs might have something that resembles episodic memory in humans — the ability to remember and learn from events and experiences. It’s a different kind of memory than “semantic memory,” which is memory of facts, meanings, and concepts. While these are learned, they are not experiential or shared with others; they are general knowledge.

Note that I am not at all unsure about this; all the conditional language is how science tends to express “discoveries” about nonhumans doing things that some humans think only humans can do. Like remember or use language. I am sure that dogs can do both, often better than many humans do.

Much of what we formally teach dogs — to sit on cue, to play with their toys rather than chew our shoes, to eat their own food rather than graze the pickings on the kitchen counters — falls into the categories of learning facts and concepts.

But anyone who’s ever taken a puppy to a puppy class has been exposed to a kind of teaching that aims to create positive episodic memories. The goal of “socializing” a puppy — teaching him to love children or not fear loud noises or car horns or skateboards or to feel confident and comfortable when experiencing a loud, busy place — all of that builds on the ability to form and learn from experiences. Episodic memory, in other words.

If your puppy has very positive experiences at her vet’s clinic — Cali’s puppy vet gave out the best cookies — then your dog is less likely to be among those who tremble and shake when the car pulls into the clinic parking lot. Or, worse, those who associate every car ride with an unpleasant experience and don’t even want to get into the car.

If dogs didn’t have the ability to form episodic memories, why would Cali bounce around like a very excited pinball (well, she would if she weren’t securely attached to her doggy seatbelt) when we cross the bridge that takes us to Berkeley and sister Dora’s house?

So, yeah, the scientists have, once again, proven something really obvious about dogs.

What’s cool about this study, though, is that the researchers used “imitation” or “do as I do” training. This sort of training shows that dogs have great flexibility and creativity in their ability to learn and extrapolate. The training works a little like Simon Says. The person tells the dog to “watch me,” then does something unusual. In the study, it was touching an open umbrella. The person then tells the dog to “do it,” and the dog is supposed to imitate the human. It’s pretty cool that dogs can look at our very differently shaped bodies and imitate what we’re doing. That they can and eagerly do join in this silly and fun human game is just one of the, oh, trillions of wonderful things about dogs.

And, I think that the training itself requires that the dogs have episodic memory. It’s not like teaching a cue that means a specific action: You say sit, the dog’s butt hits the floor. Imitation training requires that the dog say to herself, in doggy language, hmmm, I shouldn’t do what I did last time we played this and she said “do it”; instead, I have to watch what she’s doing now and do that.

That is more similar to remembering what you experienced in a place (beach or vet clinic) and deciding whether you are happy to return to that place than it is to remembering that hearing this word means do that action. It’s a different kind of learning, and it is based on experience, not association or remembering a fact.

So. That the researchers could even do this study shows that dogs have episodic memory. Now, isn’t that obvious?

Mind Your Manners

Wylie, a polite dog?Wylie hates peanut butter. It literally makes him gag. That’s why this story, from several years ago, is still one of my favorites: It tells me something really cool about dogs.

When Wylie was about to retire as a guide dog, his best friend t work brought him cookies. Very special gourmet dog cookies. One problem: They were peanut-butter cookies. Deni graciously thanked her colleague and said gently that she wasn’t sure Wylie would like them; he was fussy. The friend said, let’s see. He offered Wylie a cookie. Wylie accepted the cookie with appropriate doggy gratitude and ate it. The friend went happily on his way, feeling good that his gift had been accepted and enjoyed.

Surprised, Deni offered Wylie another cookie. He gave her what she can only describe as a disgusted “Are you nuts? I don’t eat that garbage” look, turned, and walked away. He never ate another one of those cookies.

Was Wylie “just being polite,” telling one of those little “white” lies we all tell when we want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Can a dog do that?

Here’s a different way to think about it, though, really, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Dogs are very empathetic. They excel at reading and responding to our emotions. Many dog people have stories of dogs offering comfort when they were sad; getting excited when were excited; responding in a way that many people regard as “guilty” when we are angry. In truth, the dogs are more likely to be trying to appease a person they perceive as angry, but they are accurately reading the person’s emotion.

If Wylie got excited about the cookies, he could be said to be mirroring the friend’s emotion: The guy was presenting a gift that he had selected with Wylie in mind, and he was happy to see Wylie get the gift and enjoy it. Or the friend was sad to be saying good-bye. But Wylie didn’t get excited or offer comfort. He offered a gracious and appropriate, but not overly happy, response. (I don’t think Wylie is capable of phoniness.) And he clearly rejected the gift as soon as his buddy left the room.

My explanation is that Wylie was reading the situation clearly and accurately. He’d been around lots of people in lots of social situations, and he knew these two people really well. He behaved as he’d learned was appropriate. He wasn’t, I don’t think, consciously deciding to lie — any more than we consciously decide to lie each and every time we say something that will make someone feel good — or, to more clearly match this situation, every time we say or do something that is nice and socially expected rather than blurt out our first or most honest thought.

Jana, who really has no use for children of any species, is perfectly gracious and polite when being “enthusiastically petted” (she’d say “mauled”) by a child, but she gives me that look that says loud and clear: “Get me out of here, now, please.” And Alberta would dutifully “say hello” to people she and Deni met, but she really didn’t want to; and she expected a cookie as a reward afterward.

So, I would argue, that dogs read social situations and respond appropriately. What is “appropriate” in a given situation varies widely, and it is learned, not instinctive. Some dogs, and some humans, learn better than others. Some dogs do this well with dogs and poorly with humans, or the reverse. Wylie’s social instincts with other dogs were often less astute than his social instincts in this particular human instance.

So, while I’m not arguing that dogs adopt human social manners, I would say that they learn, over time with the same people, what those people think is acceptable. Much about dog-human relationships entails dogs trying to do what they think their human wants; it’s not surprising that this can get nuanced or that Wylie and Jana are good at it.

How much is that in dog money?

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I had house-guests recently, and the girls put their entrepreneurial spirits to work. As I have described in other posts, the girls bring me my shoes when it’s time for a walk. They also bring their bowls when they are done eating. For each of these, as well as for getting the paper and for other tasks, they are paid in cookies.

There’s a cookie hierarchy in dogdom and therefore in our home. When requiring the girls to do something they dislike, such as submit to ear-cleaning or nail-trimming, I reward them (some would say bribe, but it happens after the fact) with high-value treats — freeze-dried liver, perhaps, or the dried beef patties we discovered at Costco. When we are practicing recall (come here, right NOW!) they get very high-value treats. We have special tooth-brushing cookies, which are of medium value. Ordinary chores like bringing the paper, shoes, etc. get ordinary treats — a few Charlee Bears or a small biscuit. This, it seems, is the currency of the dog world. They expect to be paid, and, so far, they have been willing to accept the prices I am willing to pay.

They showed a basic understanding of economics when they started bringing things I hadn’t asked for and expecting payment. It reminded me a bit of those kids who used to come out of nowhere and wash your car windshield while you were sitting at a red light, then ask for money. But the girls are cuter and very earnest.

Then my guests came along. One was so enchanted by the dogs bringing shoes — random shoes, no less, maybe taking my shoes to her or a single sandal when she needed her boots — that she inflated the payout. At least once, but I suspect more, she gave Cali a beef patty — a whole one! — and Cali had not even brought her the right shoes! I don’t even want to know what she paid for the girls’ dinner bowls.

Well. Jana and Cali don’t have MBAs, but they don’t need them. The girls quickly understood inflation and supply-and-demand economics. And bargaining: I’ll give you this shoe — and a boot — for one of those beef patties. I’ll throw in a phone or a TV remote if you’ll give me two. What? A measly Charlee Bear? I am going to hang on to this slipper. When your foot is cold, you’ll pay more.

Just what I need. A looming winter of cold feet and fat dogs. I’d better go to Costco this week. We’re gonna need more beef patties.


The Experts Finally Noticed

That dogs have feelings, emotions, and thoughts probably seems obvious to readers of this blog, as well as to most people who share their lives with pets. But, as I tell my students at Bergin U, sometimes things need the stamp of approval of science, via peer-reviewed research, to be fully accepted as Truth. Many, many studies of dogs’ behavior and cognitive abilities do not, actually, reveal anything that we didn’t already “know.” But these studies solidify that knowledge and induct it into the Body of Knowledge that gets academic credit, credibility, proof.

That’s why the establishment of a new scientific journal dedicated to the study of animal sentience is significant. Acknowledgement and study of animals’ thoughts and emotions has grown tremendously over the past twenty years or so. Now, those studies have their own journal. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling is a publication of the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy (HSISP), based in Washington D.C.

Alva Noë, a philosopher, says in an NPR article that “A new scientific journal is not merely a new venue for publishing research, it can encourage new science, create a new community of investigators and, to some degree, contribute to the establishing of new fields.”

That’s an exciting thought for people who care about nonhuman animals — and dogs in particular. For centuries, dogs were not considered worthy of academic study. Now, several universities host canine cognition labs; at Bergin U and elsewhere, students study the canine mind, along with canine behavior and communication, as they explore ways to expand the human-canine partnership.

The journal embraces a broad definition of sentience or “feeling”: “Feeling can be any sensation, such as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving, wanting, pain, pleasure, emotion, mood, anticipation or intention.” Intention. Anticipation. I know that my dogs experience these higher-level “feelings.” I also know that generations of researchers have been ridiculed for asserting that dogs (or any nonhumans) could.

It matters that people recognize dogs’ sentience so that the we can improve how we, as individuals and as a society, treat dogs. Before we had anticruelty laws, we had to know that animals could suffer, could feel pain. Now, as we consider how dogs fit into our lives and our society, it is equally important to recognize that they feel more than pain. They think, wonder, plan, feel happy or sad, they grieve — and they empathize when we feel sadness or grief. How do we need to change our laws and our treatment of dogs to accommodate this new understanding?

Maybe She Had a Cold

I watched Cali run to and fro one morning, searching for her ball at the field where we play. She was so busy anticipating my throw that she ran full-on in the wrong direction and therefore had no idea where the ball landed.

She does not use the logical grid search technique that Wylie, the German shepherd who once shared my life, used. She often runs right past the ball without seeing it. She usually seems to follow her nose, and she always does manage to find her ball, eventually. It’s a large field and sometimes the search takes a while. She wants only her ball; she sniffs and rejects any other ball that happens to be in her path.

But her nose seemed to be broken on this particular morning. Or maybe she just had a bad cold. She ran past the ball several times, almost touching it, without noticing it.

Cali also does not appear to have read those studies that say that dogs, even very young puppies, can and do follow human pointing gestures. Or the training manuals that assure us that our body language looms large in our dogs’ minds, and they will go in the direction that our body, eyes, and feet are pointing, no matter what verbal cues we’re giving them.

Nope. My voice, arms, feet, and body were all telling her the same thing. I even walked toward the ball, stood two feet away, and pointed. No response from Cali, who glanced briefly at me before continuing her random search.

She did, ultimately, strike gold. She then watched me throw the ball once, brought it back — and lost it again on the next throw.

Another thing. Those studies about how dogs know what people can see and therefore tend to deliver the ball to a person’s front rather than her back? Cali hasn’t read those either. Or maybe she thinks that, because I am her mom, I have eyes in the back of my head (my mom did!). I tell her that doesn’t work for adopted kids. I pretend not to know where the ball is. I beg her to bring it to me. I demand that she bring it. I walk away. No luck. She loves dropping the ball behind me. Maybe she just has an odd sense of humor.

I enjoy reading all these studies about dogs’ cognitive abilities, and I really believe that (most) dogs do have great potential for problem solving, interspecies communication, and other feats of intellectual greatness. But playing with actual dogs like Cali is a good reality check sometimes.