Teaching a Dog to Think -- Part One
While on vacation this summer, the dogs and I often took long walks and enjoyed the fresh air. Our excursion often took us by a house with a beautiful border collie tied to a dog house in the front yard. Upon seeing us he erupted in a impressive display of barking, running, lunging and jumping, trying his best to get to us.
We've seen this dog many times and still I am overcome with a sense of sorrow at this dog's lost potential. His owner's are never out in the yard with him. I never see them play ball with him, or let him run, swim, or be the magnificent creature he was meant to be. His only activity involves barking maniacally at anyone who passes by. He always responds to us the same way: run 3 steps to the left, jump and pull the full length of the short chain, spin in mid air land and repeat in the other direction. All the while he's barking like a wildman.
It makes me wonder if you can truly drive a dog to insanity with a lack of social stimulation and adequate exercise. I believe the answer is yes. Dogs are social creatures with a need for meaningful stimulation. My greatest pleasure as a dog trainer is to take a socially deprived, highly under stimulated dog and teach him to think. This may sound a bit anthropomorphic, but dogs really do think and make choices if they are provided with the right environment. Just like socially deprived people, dogs who are tied in the yard all day are hard to communicate with, they do all the wrong things to get our attention and only succeed in driving us further away.
Dogs are intelligent creatures, driven mainly by their own best interests but intelligent all the same. Teaching a dog to think is not difficult but it does require patience on the trainers part and a decent sense of timing. Consequence drives behavior, meaning if good things happen as a result of a behavior the behavior becomes more likely (dog jumps on table, finds sandwich, dog will jump up more frequently). In contrast, if a behavior elicits a negative consequence, the behavior will be less likely to occur again (dog jumps on table, bag of empty coke cans falls on the dog and scares it, dog is less likely to jump on table again). If we want to teach a dog to think, we must set up situations where the dog is allowed to make choices (like the last scenario) where we do all in our power to make what we want the dog to do the more attractive choice.
My favorite doggie brain teaser is teaching the "leave it" command. The dog goes on a leash around the trainer's waist and carefully selected distractions (paper towels, cookies, balls, bones, toys, etc.) are put just out of the dogs reach. The dog is allowed to pull, struggle and pursue these objects but does not receive any input from the trainer good or bad; the trainer simply stands still, ignores the dog and waits. Remember that I said you need patience to teach a dog to think. Eventually the dog gives up on the pursuit and sits- this immediately gets rewarded by the trainer with a "good boy" (click and treat).
This sitting behavior is the beginning of the leave it command and is being rewarded again and again, while the behavior of struggling to get to the distractions is ignored. The dog is learning that staying with the trainer gets rewarded, while pulling to get away gets nothing. After a few repetitions the trainer's criteria can be increased to requiring that the dog look at the trainer in order to receive the reward. When this is mastered the session can be changed so that the dog is required to walk by the distractions. If the dog attempts to lunge for them the trainer swiftly back peddles out of range and ignores the dog until he leaves the pursuit and looks at the trainer.
These training sessions are changed so that the dog is exposed to the distractions under different conditions and has more tempting choices ( the dog is brought closer to the distractions, the distractions are moved or are thrown by the trainer or a helper, etc.) At an advanced stage of learning the rules are changed dramatically: the trainer gives up even more control and actually uses the distractions as rewards. This level of difficulty is essential if we are to have a dog that is truly trustworthy off leash.
The distractions we are using are things the dog wants, and therefore will consequently be very reinforcing to the dog. It is critical that as often as is possible the distractions be used as rewards for the dog listening to the trainers command to come or sit or leave it. For instance, if a dog is constantly running away at the park to go play with other dogs, than the trainer would be wise to start using playing with other dogs as the reward for coming when called. What the dog wanted in the first place (playing with other dogs) becomes the reward for paying attention to his trainer. When it comes right down to it the difference between a trained and untrained dog is simply whether or not the trainer controls what the dog really finds rewarding. Start teaching your dog to think, he's begging for it!