Who's Training Whom?



Recently, I went down to the classroom with my Chow mix Mokie.  I had invited Mokie's best play pal Leila and her owner Nicole so that the girls could play while I vacuumed the classroom.

Mokie has absolutely no fear of the vacuum whatsoever.  In fact, she frequently expects you to vacuum around her and will remain napping even if the vacuum is bumping against her.  After she and Leila had played until they could hardly move, Mokie relaxed for a nap while Leila busied herself contently with her favorite classroom toy, the Nylabone.

As I was vacuuming, Mokie was napping directly in my path.  I tossed a treat to the side to get her to move out of the way.  She rose to get the treat and I continued vacuuming.

Two rows later, I found her directly in my path again.  Again, I tossed a treat to entice her to move.

The next row, the same thing happened.

I paused for a minute, thoughtful; then looked at Nicole, laughing.  "Nicole, want to see the new trick Mokie trained me to do?"

In three repetitions, Mokie had taught me a new behavior.  The antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) contingency was as follows:  A(ntecedent) - Mokie obstructing vacuuming path, B(ehavior) - I throw a treat, C(onsequence) - I get to continue on with my work.  The O.C. (operant conditioning) quadrant at play here was negative reinforcement.  Interruption of my work was an aversive experience for me (truth be told, the act of vacuuming isn't that high on my list of "faves" either).  Tossing the treat was my response, which initiated relief - ability to keep working and hopefully get nearer to the ultimate goal of clearing Pomeranian-sized hairballs from the classroom mid-coat-blowing-season.  This reinforcement made my behavior of treat tossing more likely. 

For Mokie, the contingency was:  A(ntecedent) - mom approaches with vacuum, B(ehavior) - lie down in an as-yet unvacuumed area, C(onsequence) - treat toss.  The O.C. quadrant at play here was positive reinforcement.  Mokie did something (block the path of the vacuum) which made good things (treat tosses) happen for her.  This reinforcement made her behavior of blocking my path more likely.

Incidentally, this is an easily fixed problem.  I could ask Mokie to go to a mat or crate to receive reinforcement while vacuuming – this is reinforcing an alternative, incompatible behavior.  Or I could manage the situation, by tethering Mokie while I vacuum and giving her something to do, like chewing a bully stick, marrow bone, or playing with a food dispensing toy.

I told my business partner Steve about this experience and he started laughing.  Steve had experienced something similar with his own yellow lab, Cougar, who is a fetching maniac.  I can probably count the number of times I've seen my friend Coug "sans ball in mouth" on one hand, and we've spent many happy times together.  Those who have met Cougar at ClickerExpos can back me up on this, he's always got his red blinky ball in his mouth.

Steve has beautiful property.  He owns acres of woods, a beautiful pond, and his yard is a five acre apple orchard. 

Steve was out on the riding mower working on keeping his yard lovely.  As he made a pass, he saw that one of Cougar's balls was in his path.  Steve stopped the mower, got off, and threw the ball across the yard; then went back to work.  A few passes later, the same thing happened - another ball directly in his path.  Again, Steve got off the lawn mower and threw the ball.  Cougar was teaching Steve the same trick Mokie taught me - "stop what you're doing and do something I like!"  Cougar is clever, and would make sure to place the ball when Steve was going in another direction and thus could not see him.  Cougar would quickly deposit the ball about eighteen inches inside the tall grass which bordered the freshly cut grass and then rush back to the spot where he was last laying, looking innocent and for all the world as if he'd been napping the entire time.

Steve and I got played.  Without even knowing it, our dogs had trained us to do new behaviors that they were cueing! 

(This situation is also easily remedied, through management – pick up dog toys before mowing the lawn!)

As a trainer, I've seen dogs train their owners to do all kinds of things while their owners were blissfully unaware.  Many of these dog owners have been trained to give their dogs treats, scratches, or attention whenever the dog barks, wines, or jumps up.  While I see it every day in my work, I foolishly thought to myself, "not me, I won't fall for that!"  While that was a nice thought, Mokie proved it to be a false hope with the vacuum incident.

This reminds me of a question I very frequently hear from clients - does the dog know what they're getting clicked for?  Initially, chances are good they haven't the slightest clue why you're clicking.  I certainly didn't realize that I was being trained by my dog initially.  It took a few repetitions for me, even with my comparatively large primate brain, to figure out that we were playing the training game only this time it was my dog training me instead of the other way around! 

Another question I hear very frequently is, "how much time do I have to spend every day training my dog?"  For most pet dogs, the answer as far as "real training time" goes is about ten to fifteen minutes broken up into numerous short training sessions.  However, this is a trick question.  The real answer is, our dogs are learning from us all the time as we are learning from them all the time. 

We inadvertently train our dogs to offer unwanted behaviors and then get frustrated when they offer those behaviors.  We usually positively reinforce these behaviors (with attention), making the behaviors more likely to occur in the future. 

They inadvertently train us to appease them when they offer demand behaviors.  Pawing, barking, nipping, whining, are all annoying behaviors to humans generally, so we learn through negative reinforcement.  When a dog is barking at you, and you just want to make it stop so you give them a bone or treat or toy – the dog’s barking is being positively reinforced and your treat giving behavior is negatively reinforced – it instantly (though temporarily) stops the unpleasant and sometimes annoying barkiness.

While you may only spend ten or fifteen minutes a day working on training behaviors, it is important to be aware of the fact that dogs are always learning from us and we are always learning from them.  Learn as much as you teach when you work with your dog.  Be aware of the behaviors that you are reinforcing in your dog, and be aware of how your dog’s behavior cues your own actions and responses; any dog owner would do well to develop this self-awareness and recognize the big picture – that dog training is not an event or a session. 

Dogs are great people trainers, and can put our own behaviors on cue easily.  Are our dogs manipulating us deviously?  I prefer to think not, and that we, like they, are simply operant creatures which are susceptible and incredibly responsive to the laws of learning. 

Can you think of any behaviors your dog has trained you to do on cue?  If so, chime in with your comments.  I know Steve and I are not the only humans guilty of being easily trained by a cute and clever pooch!



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