Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dog training is sexy

Tonight I tweeted: “Dog training is sexy. I wish more people understood how cool it is to train.” And then I thought: but who better than me to tell them?

So why is dog training so sexy?

  • Dog training is communication with an alien being. Dogs really are “other nations,” as Beston’s famous quote goes. They have their own understanding of the world. In fact, the world they live in is not the world we live in: they live in a completely different mess of colors (fewer) and smells (many many many more) and sounds. Their understanding of the world is different from ours, and we still have no real idea how they perceive things or what is going on in their brains. But we can communicate with them by gentle pairing of signals (“sit”) with actions (their butt goes on the floor) and consequences (cookies). And once we become really good trainers, we can start exploring their dictionary, maybe discover that the translation isn’t what we thought it was (we think “ball” is a noun, meaning that spherical thing, while they think it is a verb, meaning to get something throwable). We get insights into their brains, and maybe they get some into ours.
  • Dog training is brain remodelling. When I am desensitizing my shy dog to the presence of strangers, I am actually helping her form new connections in her brain. In fact, I am influencing which new connections form, and which old ones atrophy. I am modifying her brain. I am a brain architect!
  • Dog training is an art. My shy dog is afraid to leave the house, so we take very short walks on which I reward her a lot and make sure she doesn’t become overly stressed (in dog training geek talk, I am trying to keep her “under threshold”). She can be unpredictable, and some days keeping her under threshold is difficult. So I try different approaches: more food, more sniffing of grass, not so far from the house, moving more, moving less. I don’t know what is going to work for her on a particular day. Sometimes I don’t even know why I stop trying one approach and switch to another. It’s a gut feeling. I have been working with this dog for so long that it isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It is the art of playing with my dog.
  • Dog training is a science. In years past, we didn’t think of training as a science. We approached it with Just So stories, such as “Dogs evolved from wolves, and wolf packs have a dominance hierarchy, so the trainer should make sure to behave like an alpha wolf.” But then science started making itself heard. Trainers started geeking out on learning theory, using terms like “the four quadrants of learning” and “extinction bursts.” Read Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor if you want a digestible but fascinating introduction to learning theory. Or Excel-erated Learning by Pam Reid. You can’t remodel brains without the proper tools, after all. You need good tools to create fine art, too.
  • Dog training deepens your relationship with your best friend. That is, if you do it right. Good training is fun for you and fun for your dog. It is not a chore, used temporarily to create a good dog and then set aside. It is an ongoing, integral part of a relationship that is built on communication between two very different species.
Training improves my life and the lives of my dogs. I love training my dogs, and they love being trained.

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