Trainer Worries About False Claims About False Claims That Dogs Lack Emotion

photo: Taro the Shiba Inu,  CC by 2.0

photo: Taro the Shiba Inu, CC by 2.0

In an October 12 blog post for Psychology Today, “Trainers Worry About False Claims That Dogs Lack Emotions,” evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff reports that some dog trainers (and at least one ethology professor) have written to him to express dismay at claims supposedly originating from neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett and behavior analyst Susan Friedman that dogs do not have emotions.

I can’t speak in depth about Feldman Barrett’s work, as I still haven’t finished her book, How Emotions Are Made (though Bekoff seems to indicate he hasn't read it either). But I teach fellow animal professionals about behavior analysis under the mentorship of Susan Friedman. As many of her students have already pointed out on social media, there are some grave misconceptions about what she teaches in the post.

Bekoff quotes an e-mail from a dog trainer, identified only as well-known:

“Susan Friedman, for instance, insists that terms like ‘protective’, ‘pushy’, ‘playful’, ‘reserved’, ‘grumpy’, ‘extroverted’, ‘curious’ etc. should never be used when speaking about animals, with these being examples of improper verbiage...It is a powerful force in the dog training world right now that's moving away from an integrated understanding that sees the whole phenotype of the animal and considers both proximate and ultimate explanations for behavior."

Bekoff then links to a longer list of adjectives included in one of the free handouts about behavior assessment available on Friedman's website. In the handout, Friedman advises that these words don’t “describe behavior in a functional way.” Bekoff writes that he can't understand why she says these words are "functionless."

First, I don’t think anyone who has taken any of Friedman’s courses or attended her seminars could report that she has said that animals do not have emotions. Should you be interested in her perspective on emotions (and have $60 to spend well), you can watch her give a 90-minute lecture on the subject to an audience of animal trainers, drawing on a multidisciplinary basis of evidence, on ClickerExpo’s video-on-demand site.

Second, the reason the words on the worksheet are described as “not functional” is not that they serve no purpose. What Friedman means here is that these words do not describe the function of the behavior.

In behavior analysis, the function of a behavior is more important than the form, which means it is never completely described without reference to its context. We all seem to agree on this. Context is what Bekoff suggests that we look at to determine how animals are feeling:

“I've argued that there's chimpanzee joy, dog joy, and human joy, and elephant grief, gorilla grief, and magpie grief, and even among members of the same species (conspecifics), these feelings and the ways in which they're expressed may vary. However, there's little to no doubt about what the individuals are feeling when their behavior and the context in which it's observed are detailed.”

Bekoff almost sounds like a behavior analyst here: The form of “grief” looks different not just between species but between individuals within a species, and so the only way we can reasonably infer that, say, crying is an expression of “grief” in humans is by seeing it in context.

Then again, how are we to tell whether crying in the context of a friend’s recent death is “grief” and not, say, “regret” at not having spent more time with her before she passed? We could ask, but how will we then verify that the answer (itself behavior, and influenced by its own conditions, let's say a public setting) accurately represents the private behavior of the crying person?

Describing what an animal is doing, rather than what we perceive it to be, what we think it is feeling, or even what it says it's feeling, is what allows us to locate the behavior within the conditions that are likely responsible for it. Immediate conditions are one of the three main factors influencing behavior in the behavior analysis model, along with past experience and genetics. And they are notably the only one of the three we have any control over.

So, just to be clear: The description of what the animal does, under what conditions, to produce what outcome, is a functional description in that it describes the function that the behavior serves. Not in that it functions as a description, though . . . that too.

Why is a functional description important? A couple of examples from my own work:

If you tell me that your dog “hates guests,” before I give you any advice, I’m going to ask “what does that look like? What does the dog do? When he does it, what do people do in response?”

If you tell me that when people come in the house, if the dog stiffens, lowers his head, peels back his lips, and growls, then people then stop approaching him, we can probably make an educated guess that he is behaving to avoid proximity to people. Do we want to agree to call that “hate?” What about “fear”? Or is it “dominance,” as some would argue?

These labels are important, not because they describe anything other than behavior in conditions, but in that they may influence how the owner (or trainer) will attempt to address the problem. They may be useful in engendering empathy (and yeah, we have to ask "what does that look like?"). They may be harmful in encouraging solutions directed at the “hate.” But they do not add anything to the understanding that if we want the dog to change his behavior, we will need to change the conditions so he can maintain distance from guests without threatening them, and further, so that maybe maintaining distance from guests will no longer be an outcome worth growling for.

On the other hand, if you tell me the dog “hates” having guests over, and when the specifics are investigated it turns out that he barks repetitively in a high pitch at you whenever you sit on the couch with a guest, and each time he does, you get up and give him a new bully stick or Kong to work on, we’re going to make some different environmental changes from the first scenario.

Is it any more useful to say a dog (or for that matter a person) behaves because he “hates guests” than to say he behaves because he is "pushy"? (For the record, Friedman has never said such words should never be used to describe animals; what she has frequently said is that labels for behavior—of animals and humans alike—can be useful, but only once all stakeholders know what they're shorthand for.)

In both cases above, I will need to know: what behavior are we talking about, and under what conditions?

Do we disregard emotions by focusing on behavior we can observe and measure, instead of what we presume to be in the dog's mind or brain? No, because the behavior we can observe and measure is the same behavior that we use to infer emotions. When the behavior changes, we look at it under its new conditions and infer different emotions.

Another misconception: The well-known trainer refers to what trainers are being taught of applied behavior analysis as “methodological behaviorism.” That’s incorrect. Simplified, methodological behaviorism (a) generally assumes that there are processes occurring in some unseen dimension, e.g., the so-called mind, that mediate between the environment and behavior and (b) that since these processes can not be observed or measured, they are not appropriate subject matter for a science of behavior, and are to be set aside. (My source on this is here.)

B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism (radical as in thoroughgoing, far reaching, and fundamental, not as in extreme) distinguished itself from methodological behaviorism in part with the gorgeously parsimonious assumption that private behaviors, including those we might call emotional, are still behaviors, and that though they are hard to verify and sometimes hard to identify even within ourselves (do I feel sick? Or am I just tired?), they are subject to the same influences as public behaviors. They are obviously important to the organism who experiences them, who can observe them, and a thorough behavior science is obligated to try to account for them. The pioneers bringing ABA to animal trainers are, to my knowledge, radical behaviorists. (Friedman addresses other misconceptions about Skinner and behaviorism in another video on demand here.)

Radical behaviorists also certainly take into account phenotype, contrary to what the well-known dog trainer asserts, and both immediate and distant explanations for behavior. In fact, Skinner wrote a lot about evolution. He saw selection of behavior within an individual’s lifetime as both similar to and intertwined with selection of behavior over a species’ existence, and it was from this perspective that he strove to account for complex human behavior and its possible origins (see, for instance, The Evolution of Behavior).

The question among dog trainers who operate with more than a casual knowledge of behavior analysis, then, should not be whether dogs have emotions.

Bekoff suggests that we ask not whether emotions have evolved, but why, which is an interesting question whether you’re an evolutionary biologist or a behaviorist. Skinner sure thought so.

But we might first have to answer this one: What are emotions?

Is there any evidence that they exist as something separate from behavior and context?

How do we come to an agreement on what behaviors go with which labels? Is a stiff upper lip “stoic” or “angry”? How can we verify that a person who says he is "happy" and smiles and a person who says she is "happy" and weeps are experiencing same private behavior?

If we can't find emotions in the mind (which probably doesn't exist), or in the brain (Feldman Barrett argues convincingly here, in lay terms, that emotions don't live in particular brain regions), or in consistent facial expressions (Feldman Barrett again presents falsifying evidence), or anywhere other than in the behavior we observe and the context we observe it in, does it exist anywhere else? And if not, can emotion "underlie" behavior, as dog trainers so often say?

One last and more practical question: What should dog trainers focus on if they want to ethically and effectively change behavior or, allowing for the possiblity that they’re distinct entities, emotions? What is in our power to directly change?

The concept of functional description that Bekoff misunderstands is a key component of functional analysis—which, on the subject of ethical behavior change, has been correlated in human behavior with a marked shift in human practitioners’ choice to use reinforcement-based procedures over punishment. As behavior analyst Gregory Hanley writes, it is a "humanistic" approach: it “dignifies the treatment development process by essentially asking the [organism] why he or she is engaging in problem behavior prior to developing a treatment.”

And while observation of behavior can arguably be supplemented with actual “asking” in humans (as unreliable as their answers may be), the observation of behavior in conditions is all we have with animals. So it’s critical that before we agree on whether and what to label it, we see it with clear eyes.

Training With the Grain

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Most recently in her brand-new podcast, British trainer Kay Laurence repeated a point she's been making for years now, recommending that we rethink “sit” as the gold standard for a well-trained dog. When we ask a dog to place its hindquarters on the ground to prevent it from doing some other behavior, she argues, we are squeezing “positive” training into a traditional mindset. In applied behavior analysis, this is referred to as a pathological approach (geared toward "curing" unwanted behavior), as opposed to a constructional approach (envisioning what is wanted and then figuring out how to build it).

Don’t care what “mindset” your training is squeezed into, so long as it works? Well, Laurence is practical as well as dog-centric. At a seminar at For Your K9 several years ago, she noted that when we teach an "unnatural" behavior, it will require more maintenance (read: continued reinforcement by the trainer) over time. And for many dogs, in many situations, she argues, sitting is an "unnatural" response. It “goes against the grain.”

This observation is consistent with the basic laws of behavior, though we might argue it is the context, not the behavior, that is "natural" (or not). In the sense that behavior is an adaptive tool, all behavior is "natural" (a distinction Susan Friedman has emphasized, and that goes back to B.F. Skinner observing that the organism was always behaving as it should). It's through natural processes that behaviors like "sit" acquire new and counterintuitive functions, such as getting food. (What animal sits to get food in "the wild"?) If there are no naturally occurring reinforcers available for the desired behavior—or if it is especially effortful in a given situation, or if in order to do it the dog is consistently asked to give up reinforcers it could get for doing a different behavior—then a trainer will have to continue to contrive ways to make her preferred behavior reinforcing for the dog.

Deciding what we want the dog to do instead of behavior x or y is the core of problem solving in modern dog training. And if we keenly observe dogs—both in general and as individuals—as well as the behaviors they choose when they are allowed to choose, we may find that there are better options than the standard “obedience” repertoire suggests. By “better” I mean that they may both fulfil the dog's needs or desires and require less maintenance effort on our part.

To this end, the larger dog training community of which I am a part seems to be thinking more and more about facilitating vs. suppressing behavior. One lovely example appeared on the blog Eileenanddogs, where Eileen Anderson wrote about “bootleg reinforcement,” a name for competing reinforcement that undermines training. Bootleg reinforcement can range from a treat inadvertently dropped by the trainer to interesting odors wafting by on the wind to the relief of an empty bladder. Very often, it is naturally occurring reinforcement; we call it "bootleg" because it reinforces something other than what we are training.

Anderson was having a problem with a behavior she had reinforced with food in order to stop her dogs from doing something else: All three dogs had been taught to lie on their mats just outside her mudroom so that they wouldn’t all crowd into the small space near the back door. But one of them, Clara, kept getting off the mat in order to cross the threshold and sniff her. This dog's behavior demonstrated that access to sniff was more reinforcing than the treats available for staying on her mat. What's more, staying on a mat (though lord knows it is often a successful and helpful alternative behavior) would be a pretty unlikely behavior for an untrained dog to use to track a scent of interest.

Rather than punish Clara, which would damage the relationship she had carefully built with this formerly feral pup, or give her even more food for staying on her mat, Anderson observed what the naturally occurring reinforcer was for Clara’s unwanted behavior and decided to figure out an appropriate way she could give it to her.

“The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to ‘get on the mat for a cookie’ vs. ‘take a sniff and get some novel odor,’ would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations,” Anderson wrote. “And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade. So—what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal?” This wouldn’t do with “behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?”

Visit the blog post for a video of Eileen’s elegant, dog-centric solution.

So, some takeaways about how to "train with the grain": (1) Consider your choice of alternative behavior--is it easy or hard for this dog in this situation, and if it's difficult or effortful, is there an easier, less costly, acceptable alternative? (2) In searching for powerful reinforcers, watch the dog. When dogs are "misbehaving," they often might as well be holding up a big flashing neon arrow that points to the strongest reinforcers on the scene.

Just one example: Many owners ask their dogs to sit to get their leash put on for a walk. Not only is this not necessarily the most convenient thing for the owner, depending on the equipment (I find it harder to buckle a harness around a dog who's sitting than a dog who's standing), but it may not be a behavior a dog would likely do when getting ready for active movement. In the video below is one way I found to train "with the grain." Rather than picking Scout up and stuffing him into his harness because we could, or even placing it on the floor and teaching him walk onto it, we let him do what he normally did when the harness came out—jump up—and put the harness in his path to start capturing and shaping this behavior.

This post has been significantly revised from a post written several years ago for One Tail at a Time.

Redirect or Preempt?

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Well-intentioned training "tips" can really go south if you don’t understand the underlying behavioral principles. One of those is the advice to “redirect” unwanted behavior, e.g., that when your dog jumps, or puts his paws up on the counter, or barks at you while you’re watching TV, you should direct him to a more appropriate behavior.

If your dog is already jumping on a frail, unsuspecting old person or small child right this very minute: by all means redirect him to another behavior. But know that if you make a habit of this, your dog will probably make a habit of jumping. Here’s why:

Cues are signals that predict reinforcement for a certain behavior. If you have trained your dog (as I hope you have) that sitting on cue will produce a treat, petting, play, or something else he wants—then through close, repeated pairing, your sit cue has acquired some of the value of that treat, petting, or play, becoming what’s known as a conditioned reinforcer. Money is a powerful conditioned reinforcer for humans—we work for pieces of paper or numbers on a screen because they have been endlessly paired with food, shelter, clothing, Netflix, Moroccan rugs, airplane tickets, and everything else we need and want.

Cues can thus be used to reinforce other behaviors. Which is fantastic news if, say, you’re trying to maintain all the behaviors in an agility run, where food or play can only come at the end.

But it also means that if the dog throws his paws up on the counter, and you give him a cue that means sitting will be reinforced, you will reinforce putting paws on the counter. Even, potentially, if you don't give him whatever that cue has been paired with. And behavior that is reinforced is repeated.

Please don’t leap from here, as so many do, to the conclusion that we must therefore punish unwanted behavior. Unfortunately things just aren’t that black-and-white. Punishment, especially (but not only) physical punishment, carries the risk of side effects including fear, aggression, apathy, and escape-avoidance behavior. The same conditioning that creates such good associations with cues trained with positive reinforcement can create bad associations with people, places, animals, and cues that may predict something aversive. (Read about “poisoned cues” here.)

The fact is, if the dog is already doing the unwanted behavior, you’re starting out behind the eight ball. All your choices are less than ideal. You may be obligated for safety or other reasons to reinforce the behavior (e.g., dragging the dog away from whatever he’s using aggression to get distance from, or handing a barking dog a bully stick so you can finish your important work call).

If there’s no immediate danger, you may be able to simply make reinforcement unavailable (e.g., by continuing to scroll through Facebook as your dog barks in your face) or remove it (e.g., stepping away from the dog when he jumps to greet). With ignoring or otherwise removing reinforcement by itself, though, you risk creating frustration, which looks like escalation to more intense and emotional behavior.

If your dog has a rich repertoire of other well-reinforced behaviors that you like, however, he may try one of those next—be sure to notice and reinforce it.

Or you can redirect. Yes, you might reinforce the unwanted behavior. Is it the worst thing in the world? No, and sometimes it’s the best of your crappy choices. Probably anyone who lives with a dog will settle for it in some situations. I’ll confess right here that I redirect my dog from barking pretty much every night—when my husband is cooking dinner, and I finish up on the computer and walk down the stairs into the kitchen, she play bows and barks. I then cue her to her mat, and when she lies down (which for her tends to be incompatible with barking), I pull a fish-skin chew out of the treat basket and hand it to her, or play some fetch. Think she’ll bark again tomorrow? I do; however, I've accepted it as a reasonable request on her part.

If you do need to redirect, do it as quickly as possible, so that you only reinforce a little bit of the unwanted behavior. Then make sure the dog is not set up to immediately repeat the cycle—after all, setting up rapid repetitions and reinforcing each one is exactly what you do when you want to teach a behavior. Prevention of repetition might involve leashing, gating, or crating the dog, or just giving him something more appealing to do (say, chewing on a fish skin) BEFORE the unwanted behavior starts.

If it’s important to you to reduce this behavior in the future, that last item is one to focus on. Your first job is to figure out how to predict the behavior so that in the future you can preempt rather than react. Put another way: if you want to teach a different behavior in response to the cue that currently evokes the problem, you need to first identify that cue.

Ask yourself: What are the conditions that set the stage for the behavior? What time is it? Who’s present? What are they doing? From how far away? What seems to be the most immediate cue for the unwanted behavior? Can you prevent any of these conditions from even happening in the first place? (If the blinds are closed, the dog can’t bark at stuff he sees out the window. No “training” required.)

Next, what do you want instead? If the cue does happen, what would you like the dog TO DO? (This answer shouldn’t involve the word “not,” as in “not bark.”) A word of advice: Pick something easy. When the cue for the unwanted behavior occurs, that’s the best time to ask for (or just catch) a desired behavior. With repetition and reinforcement, the problem situation can begin to cue the new behavior instead of the old one.

Finally, what does the dog get out of the unwanted behavior? That’s the “reason” he does it again and again. Can you provide that same consequence "legally," either for free or so that it reinforces a more acceptable behavior? Can you provide something the dog likes as well or better? If the new behavior produces more reinforcement, over time, that’s what the dog will begin to choose when he has the option.

This systematic way of looking at the behavior in the context of its environment is called functional assessment. It lets us figure out when and why a behavior is probably happening, and gives us the specific information we need to get ahead of it—instead of waiting for it to happen and then trying to figure out what to do about it.

Now you’re ready to train. Does your dog have the needed tricks in his bag already? You may need to strengthen, or even teach from scratch, the behavior you want the dog to do instead. Best to do that in low distraction first, then introduce it into the problem scenario. While you're doing that teaching, you need to prevent the problem scenario if you can (it's of course much easier if you have identified it, as described above). And you may need to introduce the new skill into the problem scenario in small, achievable increments.

But sometimes it’s much simpler than that. If your dog routinely jumps to greet, and you routinely cue him to sit before petting him, can you instead reach down and pet your dog while his feet are still on the ground, or invite him up on a bench or chair so he can get closer to your face without jumping? If your dog puts his paws up on the counter to get tidbits while you’re cooking, can you put his bed nearby, ask him to lie on it before you start food prep, and toss him bits of what he wants straight from the chopping block?

As a treat for reading, here's 20 seconds of Crash, the dog pictured at the top of this post. Crash had developed a hapbit of barking at his owners for the duration of meal prep and eating. He's a recent rescue, so we don't know his history, but this behavior looks to have been reinforced, perhaps intermittently, leading to a rather persistent version with the hallmarks of "frustration" discussed above. Over three sessions in the past month, Crash has learned new skills, including going to a mat, lying down, and maintaining that position in different settings and for different durations. This week we put it all together and added a problem scenario: meal prep. In the entirety of this session, a whole carrot was chopped into tiny bits, and Crash got to eat some of them—a powerful reinforcer for his new behavior.

Revised and updated from a blog post written for One Tail at a Time.

How to Teach Your Dog to "Do Nothing"

Basic dog training tends to focus on behaviors with names, or what are often referred to as commands: sit, down, come, heel, stay, etc. But in my experience, about 80 percent of what most people expect a well-behaved dog to do is not behave, or at least not behave in ways that come naturally to dogs. Do nothing when a stranger stomps up the front steps and pushes papers through the mail slot. Do nothing when another dog appears across the street. Do nothing while the rest of the family gathers around a table full of food, delicious food.

Our inclination when we want a dog to do nothing can be to wait for and then punish the thing he's doing instead. It’s hard to wrap your mind around how you can teach a dog to do nothing using positive reinforcement—after all, by definition, there’s nothing to reinforce, right?

Sometime our language seems get in the way of our eyesight. “Doing nothing” is never doing nothing. Whatever your dog is doing when he’s doing nothing—standing around, lying belly up and staring into space, glancing at something without bothering to investigate it—that’s all behavior too. And behavior doesn’t have to have a formal name attached to it for us to identify it, reinforce it, and thereby make it ever more likely in the situations where it has been reinforced.

Dogs come knowing how to do pretty much any behavior you might want. They just don’t know that you prefer sit, down, and that cute head cock over barking, jumping, and playing tug with your scarf. But when you begin systematically selecting behaviors you like, by immediately following them with things the dog likes, the dog learns to resort to them more quickly and more frequently—often in place of other, less desirable choices.

What's more, the context in which offering that behavior was reinforced will begin to signal to the dog that this behavior is a good choice in that context. In the video at the top of this post, three-month-old Milo, who has been reinforced periodically for settling on a bathmat over the past couple of weeks, is now beginning to learn that settling on that mat is a better choice than jumping in the dishwasher to lick plates or jumping up to grab towels as his mom tries to fold them. She's not waiting for him to jump and then kneeing him in the chest or pushing him down; she's proactively teaching him what TO do when she does dishes or laundry. And though it looks like "nothing," it's decidedly not.

To teach a dog to do a behavior more often, you can use a technique called "capturing." Applied animal behaviorist Kathy Sdao has described this as See, Mark, and Reward Training (or SMART). I like this, because it emphasizes that you must first be able to notice the behavior that you want to increase. And I love the SMART x 50 game she suggests in her book, Plenty in Life Is Free, in which you set aside 50 pieces of kibble or treats per day, watch for behaviors you like, mark them (with a word or a click), and deliver one of the treats. (The advantage of marking, rather than just delivering a treat, is that it can bridge the gap between when the behavior occurs and when you can get the treat out and give it to the dog.)

Do this with a new dog or puppy for the first few weeks, when many newly adopted dogs are still in the relatively subdued “honeymoon period,” and, without ever barking a single "command," you’ll have applied the power of more than 1,000 reinforcers to significantly increase the likelihood of your preferred behaviors happening, in the circumstances where you would most like them to happen.

Cues like words and formal hand signals can be attached to these behaviors, if you like, once the dog is consciously and confidently repeating them in a predictable way. For sit, e.g., you could simply start to say “sit” right before you can tell the dog is about to do it again anyway. Just like other, environmental context cues, the word can become associated with a high probability that reinforcement is available for that behavior, and can then be used to ask for it.

Sitting is a great alternative behavior to jumping on guests or running out the front door. But so is standing—a behavior we rarely notice and almost never name, because to many of us it looks like "doing nothing." And while most dogs will need quite a bit of training to learn to sit in exciting situations, standing is the behavior that is usually already happening right before a dog jumps or runs. Using capturing—with treats or other reinforcers the dog may be seeking, such as petting—it's fairly easy to teach your dog to simply keep his front feet planted as people approach or as you come in the door. Which would you prefer upon coming home—having to tell your dog what to do or having him figure it out from the context?

Likewise, you can capture silence as mail comes through the slot, a cursory glance at another dog, or lingering at the threshold of the kitchen or the baby’s room). A while ago, when I used to routinely leave the house before my husband, I set my sights on one of my own dog’s annoying behaviors: barking at me when, after gathering up my belongings, I walked over to the bed and leaned in to kiss my husband good-bye. I began by leaning in only partway and clicking before Pigeon had a chance to bark, then leaning back out (what I hypothesized was the reinforcer for her barking) and delivering a treat. After a couple days of this, when she was anticipating reinforcement for just watching me lean in, I advanced stepwise through the whole cycle of leaning in, kissing, and then leaning back out before clicking and treating. It took a week or two of one session a day to solve the problem.

Like me, you may need to break your final goal into smaller ones. If you have a dog who’s already learned to bark at the mail, beg at dinner, or pull toward other dogs on walks, you’ll need to prevent him from continuing to practice those behaviors (by restricting access to or increasing distance from whatever triggers the behavior), and then start capturing whatever small step toward the desired behavior the dog can offer. If you need help, a good trainer should be able to help you make a management plan and plot out training steps that are achievable for both you and your dog.

The Importance of Fundamentals, or Why Musicians Make Good Dog Trainers

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When I originally wrote this post for One Tail at a Time, I had some new clients, both professional musicians, and our two productive sessions so far had me thinking about why musicians were some of my favorite people to work with. (These clients have since moved to semirural Texas and adopted 38 more animals, including goats, chickens, and donkeys.)

It’s not just that I have an affinity for musicians—I’m married to one, and I’ve played in a couple bands myself. It’s that musicians frequently seem to enjoy and excel at dog training.

Like playing music, dog training is in large part a physical skill. It requires practiced movements and good timing. Any kind of training you care to do comes down to providing consequences in such a way as to make them dependent upon the dog’s behavior.

But I also think musicians do well at training because they understand the importance of good fundamentals.

You’ll notice above that I didn’t refer to myself directly as a musician. That’s because, after 15 years, playing two different instruments in bands that recorded and toured, I still can’t call out a note by name or play a proper scale. Figuring out my own way to play what I wanted to hear, with the occasional assist from a knowledgeable friend, was good enough for punk rock. Yet a few years ago, a client who was taking ukulele lessons invited me to a hootenanny at her house. I merely observed, becausae I didn’t have the foundation skills to pick up a piece of sheet music and join the fun.

Likewise, humans have been cohabitating with dogs for centuries, and when it goes well, good enough is good enough (at least for the humans—I can’t speak for the dogs). We figure out ways to get dogs to do what we really need them to do, picking up bits and pieces from TV or the Internet or friends with dogs or people whose dogs seem to be under control at the park, and we put up with whatever we’re not sufficiently motivated to figure out. But under pressure, the lack of fundamentals will out.

The good news is that the foundation most dogs need to live successfully with humans consists of a few simple building-block behaviors (I’ve recommended some here) bolstered by a long, consistent history of reinforcement, or “behavioral mass,” a concept behavior science has borrowed from physics. The more mass a behavior accrues, the more momentum it has when it encounters resistance. The more that sitting when you say “sit” has been reinforced, the more likely your dog is to sit when you say “sit”—even if more effort is required, even if there are more appealing options, even if you haven’t reinforced the last few sits, and even if there are potentially aversive consequences.

If you want fancier behaviors, the dog still needs fluent component skills. One example of a foundation behavior that opens up a lot of possibilities is targeting, where the dog touches some part of its body to something. Once a dog learns to touch its nose to a person’s hand, for instance, it can learn to move to or follow the hand into a multitude of other behaviors, including come, sit, down, up, off, over, under, around, spin, retrieve, and many more. (For some beautiful examples of the uses of a targeting, watch this video of Ken Ramirez working with a one of the dogs at the Shedd Aquarium.)

If the basic target behavior doesn’t have enough mass, though, it will fall apart when you try to build on it. So if you’re teaching your dog to touch his nose to your hand, start close in and reinforce well. Practice regularly, practice in different places, make small changes to how you present the target. But don’t be in a hurry to ask the dog to do a lot more work to follow your hand. Once you have the understanding of and enthusiasm for the simple target, it will be relatively easy to build distance, duration, and performance amid distractions.

Or to put it in music terms: play the scales.