Thursday, June 24, 2010

The proof is in...

As fascinating and persuasive as I found Karen Pryor's account of her experiences as a clicker trainer, my skepticism toward "mechanical" behaviorist methods remained strong until I finally tried them out. Reaching the Animal Mind has a narrative focus but does include some guidance for beginning and "crossover" trainers. (You can find more explicit and comprehensive instruction in Pryor's earlier book Don't Shoot the Dog.) All I needed to get started was a clicker and some treats.

It took all of twenty minutes for my doubts to melt away (granted, it was August, but still...). Barley sold me. I should preface any description of my conversion experience by noting that seven and a half years in her company had convinced Pete and me that, if dogs lived to please humans, then Barley wasn't a dog. This was the behavioral-phylogenetic syllogism that had encouraged us to think that she could be a dingo: the word on pet dingoes (those socialized early to human company) is that they enjoy domestic comforts without ever quite embracing domestication. Their wills remain resolutely their own.

While Barley hates to see Pete or me upset-- on the rare occasions that we engage in "intense negotiation," she tries physically to break it up by climbing into the nearest lap and licking the offending face 'til it's smiling again-- she's never been able to fathom how she might upset us, simply by doing what she decides she needs to do at any given moment. Her virtue is a given, so our reactions to some of her behavior baffle her completely. My friend Becca dubbed her the "guilt-free dog." I love and admire this quality in Barley, even if it sometimes moves me to mutter, "Why, you stubborn little cuss!" Usually because she's planted her feet and won't move except in the direction of cat poop. I've had plenty of time and opportunity to reconsider the soundness of the premise "dogs live to please people," but the fact remains that Barley is unusually indifferent to outside opinion and utterly offended by physical correction. As well she should be.

Her love of food (stinky food! crunchy food!) had given us the leverage we needed to persuade her that some human rules were worth following, but her curiosity and love of novelty had always pointed her away from "civilized" life. She'd fortunately outgrown her love of "bowling for toddlers," but given the chance, she often went awol-- bolting through an open door to investigate neighbors' yards, scampering up a ravine in search of coyote playmates (a story for another day). I already knew how eager Barley was to learn, I just didn't know how to interest her in what I had to teach. Or how to teach it clearly.

Suddenly I did know. Our "untrainable" dog learned more in a week of clicker training than she had in all the time we'd been together. Not coincidentally, I learned more about her. I'd finally answered the question "what's in it for me?" to her satisfaction. We discovered together that we could greatly expand the territory where our desires overlapped.

P.S. Pete admonishes me for my mangling of the title proverb. It should be: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Which makes much better sense but doesn't work for my purposes. So I call creative license!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Playing for keeps

We closed a satisfying four-week run of Proof with a matinee performance last Sunday. After striking the set and restoring the theater to black emptiness (a state of infinite possibility), we gathered at the BBQ joint around the corner for another demolition project, this one internal. A variation of the old Tootsie Pop question: how many beers does it take to get to the center of an actor after the play is done? I'm sure it depends on the actor-- after all, some don't drink anything stronger than cranberry juice-- but even a smart owl might have a hard time saying how we slip in and out of character while remaining perfectly, distinctly ourselves. A very smart owl might say we don't. We can't play at another self without allowing the self that's playing to blur and be altered. An actor's working philosophy and methods may encourage her to close the distance with her character or maintain a critical detachment, but there's no safe distance: she can't avoid getting touched, bruised, stained by the experience she shares with her fictional counterpart. Her work partly consists in deliberate failures of integrity.

There are many stories of "method"-oriented actors getting lost in the emotional and psychological wilds of the fictions they inhabit. I caught a cautionary glimpse of one famous disintegration back in 1989, when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis play Hamlet at the National Theatre in London. It was an extraordinary, incandescent performance, also-- quite palpably-- a risky one. Day-Lewis appeared to have only a fingernail's hold on common reality, and the ground was eroding fast. A little more than a week after the show I saw, during one of Hamlet's encounters with the Ghost, Day-Lewis experienced what he later described in an interview with Simon Hattenstone as "a very vivid, almost hallucinatory moment in which I was engaged in a dialogue with my father" (who had been dead for years). Day-Lewis left the stage and never returned, but this did not finally register with him as a professional failure. On the contrary, he counts it an unusual success: "To me, it was like a natural conclusion to the job I was doing. If I hadn't
arrived at that centre of confusion, I would have probably felt a sense of disappointment." He's nonetheless clear on the cost: "I don't think I had a breakdown, but I daresay I wasn't that far from it. I broke myself down."

That open courtship of confusion marks out the reckless (though in many cases highly disciplined) end of the broad spectrum of acting methodologies. At the other? Brechtian alienation? Mametian ventriloquism? It could be any approach that discourages emotional identification between actor and character as a dangerous or distracting indulgence. Unfortunately for those who would like to keep their selves whole and clean, even the "merely" muscular habitation of an alien persona may resonate inward.

Consider a recent bit of research out of Italy, as reported in New Scientist. In a study of patients with "locked-in" syndrome, unable to move anything but their eyes, Luigi Trojano discovered that they had great difficulty (relative to a control group) interpreting the emotional content of facial expressions. Trojano speculates that we depend
for our understanding of others' emotions on our ability to mimic them physically... which supports the further speculation that muscular imitation conjures emotion. A scientifically tenuous proposition at present, but it accords with the experience of actors and others whose masks shape and reshape their faces.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When positive is a bad thing

Ooh. Bad kitty!
We sometimes create unnecessary confusion when we mix terms of art with everyday language. Take the word "positive." Those of us who shelter under the wide umbrella of "positive training" mean "positive" in the way that most people do: we like to exchange good stuff for good behavior. Unfortunately, we get tripped up when we then try to explain the principles of operant conditioning that buttress our methods: "Well, positive punishment isn't actually part of positive training..." Aargh.

We might have an easier time if we substituted "addition" and "subtraction" for "positive" and "negative" in our description of the consequences that condition behavior. As awkward and ungrammatical as "addition punishment" might be, it would at least have the advantage of common sense. But for now we have "positive punishment," and I want to examine some of the fundamental reasons that it's bad not only in the moment for the trainee but in the long term for the trainer.

Sad to say, there are people who get a charge from punishing other creatures; we can define a sadist as someone who finds punishment (colloquially here, the infliction of suffering) reinforcing. These are often people whose insecurity runs so deep that they require cringing submission from dogs or children or spouses to reassure them of their power. The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article by Charles Siebert describing a shift in the attitude of police and others in law enforcement toward animal abuse: as they have come to recognize its strong correlation with other, human-directed forms of violence, they have begun to take it more seriously.

The fact that many serial killers begin by torturing animals is well enough established to have become something of a cliché in film and fiction, but I hadn't known how often animals are used as the levers of pressure in abusive family dynamics. According to Siebert, abusers will often threaten violence against a pet in order to bend other family members to their will. This kind of emotional blackmail has the horrible side effect of eroding empathy in the victim: a child who is helpless to protect a beloved dog or cat can only defend himself against the pain of identification by numbing himself to the animal's suffering, even to the extent of participating in the abuse.

Many (I want to think most) of us with pets use punishment more "judiciously," and yet it's difficult to make an indelible distinction between abusive and "constructive" punishment. On the question of what motivates abuse, Siebert quotes Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's senior vice-president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects: "I've spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime."

All social engagement requires negotiation. When we share our lives with other creatures, we often find that our desires clash. When compromise seems impossible, we may resort to force to impose our will. If we are not sadists, if our sense of compassion is strong enough that we feel the pain we inflict ("this hurts me more than it hurts you"), we punish because we're convinced that nothing else will work-- we don't know how else to interrupt or eliminate behavior we find unacceptable. In the heat of frustration or anger, we're often unable even to imagine other possible responses, let alone consider their relative efficacy.

Regardless of the soundness of our reasons and the resilience of our capacity for empathy, we punish because we can. We are only able to use pain as an "instructive tool" if we're at least momentarily in a position of superior power (real or credible): we either don't expect retaliation or are prepared to escalate our force if the other party fights back.

Committed positive trainers reject that contract. They recognize the fundamental imbalance of power that exists when one creature is dependent on another for its sustenance and many of its pleasures, but refuse in principle to exaggerate that advantage through the use of force. Indeed, many of our methods were developed in situations where coercion wasn't practicable, with wild animals in open spaces.

We reject punishment in principle, but as impulsive animals with many bad habits (maybe I should speak only for myself here!) we may sometimes find it difficult in practice to eliminate it from our training. Fidelity to positive reinforcement requires self-discipline, and so in the process of training other animals, we discover that our first, most important (and most challenging) task is to train ourselves.

Photo by Bob Pearson.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Every project of behavior modification is essentially optimistic, a vote for change. Contrary to common perception, this optimism doesn't require any faith in one's power to effect a specific outcome; it only requires that one cultivate a friendly relation with change itself. Indeed, a robust and inflexible will may sometimes be a liability, as willful creatures tend not to respect (let alone take their creative cues from) real limits, and their optimism sometimes becomes indistinguishable from outright delusion.

I realize that I'm sounding extremely un-American here. Sigh. Won't be the last time, I'm sure.

It's been two months since I borrowed Esther Woolfson's enchanting book Corvus: A Life with Birds from the library. I read most of it during a visit Pete and I made in April to the Olympic Peninsula, where we tucked ourselves away in a perfectly tiny and tranquil cabin when we weren't hiking. Some voices demand an expanse of quiet to be heard properly, and Woolfson's is one of these (though she's describing some very noisy birds), so I've been savoring the last few chapters at long intervals, over tea and the rumble of dog snoring. She perceives human vainglory clearly, wistfully:

"No one, surely, can watch a bird step easily from the edge of a roof into that pure moment, to expand into the air over the sorry world below, without envy, without the shadow of the thought that it's not fair, that we have (albeit without much effort on our part) evolved to the high state in which we believe ourselves to be but still cannot, and will never, fly. Most of us accept with grudging equanimity that birds can and we can't and we're grateful (or not) for the little we can achieve, flapping a strapped-on, bound-to-fail accessory as we're pulled by gravity towards the bottom of the sea, or gazing down on cloud and sea and city from ill-ventilated metal tubes stuffed with people and trolleys of food and screens busy with entertainment to take our minds from the boredom, paradoxically, of flight.

There are those who can't accept it, as there have always been, those who will try anything to raise themselves beyond the restricting bounds of the earth. So far, every human attempt, mythological or not, to emulate the flight of birds has been risible, a history of crazy daring, of failing and falling, of everything complicated, risky, doomed, the true antithesis of the delicacy, lightness, the unmediated facility of bird flight, from Icarus's melting wings to the jet pack, all so very far from that one ethereal, lifting moment we will never achieve."

Monday, June 7, 2010

All dogs are bad

Just like people.

Jean Donaldson has many choice words in her book Culture Clash for people who endow their dogs with saintlike virtue, then bust them down to felon status when they misbehave. One of the greatest barriers to effective and positive training is the myth that dogs live to please us. Like all living things, they live to please themselves; they just happen to be more directly dependent than most on the whims of an alien and unpredictable species. Yes, they (or their ancestors) chose this fate for themselves (by degrees, over millennia); because humans are fickle and more powerful than wise, many animals have found that their best (or only) hope for survival lies in making themselves indispensable to us. Plants, too-- Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire offers four wonderful case studies of species that have piggybacked on the naked ape and thereby turned our unseemly success into their own.

Our long shared history with dogs does complicate the equation some. Many evolutionary biologists are less biased than they once were in the direction of Hobbesian viciousness (yes, it's hard to drop the moral vocabulary here); they begin to credit and elucidate the ways that humans and other social species find selfless behavior paradoxically rewarding. The phenomena of empathy and altruism do not contradict the tenets of Darwinian selection, but they do tangle them up rather beautifully. We have very good reasons, reasons articulated in creed and law but encoded in our DNA, to show consideration to others and selectively curb our "animal" appetites.

The spontaneous pleasure we often take from our own acts of kindness speaks to the adaptive value of generosity: it wouldn't feel so good if it didn't boost our chances in the genetic wheel of fortune. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has written a brilliant, persuasive, and finally dismaying account of how the human capacity for connection might have become so well-developed under one set of evolutionary pressures, and how it might just as naturally fall apart as those pressures shift. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding is the most compelling and nuanced synthesis of biology and anthropology I've yet read.

If dogs' ancestors were not already highly social, if they hadn't already evolved to take pleasure in the company of their fellows well before they got on the human gravy train, it's doubtful that we would ever have become so symbiotically enmeshed. As it is, dogs and humans have kept company for more than ten thousand years. In spite of our many differences and misunderstandings, both species have found it "good" to care, and extended our capacity to care across a great genetic gulf. It's not magical, but it is marvelous.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sweet little lunatic II

As accommodating as Pete had been to previous expansions of our menagerie, I guessed that I might meet some resistance this time. I couldn't justify the addition of a third dog in any terms that weren't selfish. Yes, this pup needed a home, but at the time I couldn't imagine how he'd have a hard time finding one (or keeping it, more to the point). The truth is, if I had known then what I know now, it would have been still more difficult to convince Peter (or myself) that we should adopt him. I'd fallen in love. It was that simple and indefensible. When it comes to guys of any species, my sweet spot is at the intersection of terribly handsome and seriously silly. That was clearly the place where "Zeke" lived. But I had overestimated our collective ability to absorb an extra dose of chaos-- or underestimated the size of the dose. That's the story of, that's the glory of...

I tried to proceed responsibly. Pete's enthusiasm for the prospect of a bigger pack was meager to nonexistent, but he held his power of veto in reserve, at least until he could meet the guy. Given Kili's spotty history with other dogs (even with her best buddy, Barley), Zeke had to pass muster with her before we could seriously consider adopting him. I took her out to OHS for a date in the chip yard. Tanya Roberts, the head of the behavior and training department, met us there with Zeke. We kept both dogs on leash while they checked each other out from a distance.

Zeke was clearly more interested in Kili than vice-versa, and once they were free to roam the yard, he made all the advances, testing the outer limit of Kili's tolerance for his wiggly idiocies, and scampering off each time she stiffened and barked. But he quickly turned this into a comic flirtation, getting bolder with every pass and more antic with every retreat, until Kili finally succumbed to the spirit of the game, chasing him in figure eights around Tanya and me, then stopping up suddenly and barking him off again. Very much in spite of herself, she enjoyed the little fool of a pup. He was in!

If he could win Kili, I thought he could win anyone, so I was surprised and sorry the next day when Pete and Barley gave identical verdicts: meh. They loved me and would endure this new "adventure" if I dragged them into it, but they wouldn't pretend to think it was a good idea. Even before we learned what Zeke's third owner meant when he wrote on the intake form "likes to chase cats for fun," there were clouds over Zeke's homecoming and an understanding established that what followed from here would be my fault. Pete and Barley were both quite clear on that.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Just pretend!

There are many people from many fields now exploring the roots of the common (it appears biological) compulsion to play, and speculating on the adaptive advantages it may confer in the broad evolutionary sense and in the individual life. A coherent but inclusive definition of "play" is difficult to pin down, but I want to focus for now on play that includes an element of pretend, the magical "as if" that spreads a safety net under behavior that would otherwise be intolerably risky. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and author of Inside of a Dog, has spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours viewing and reviewing video of dogs at play, seeking to determine among other things how dogs effectively contract with each other to "fight" for fun.

The play bow-- head dipped and front legs outstretched while butt and tail are raised-- appears to be dog Esperanto for "I didn't mean that, and I don't mean this either! Ha!" An exchange of bows, deep or hieroglyphically sketched, typically initiates a friendly bout of wrestling or chasing, and the socially hep dog will repeat the gesture anytime the play contract seems to be fraying. As is the case with people, some dogs have a harder time than others remembering the rules of the game and honoring the agreed-upon distinction between "real" and "pretend." Indeed, play wouldn't be so compelling if that line were perfectly clear, if the safety net weren't a little patchy and the thrill of risk were entirely banished. But that's cold philosophical comfort when you're taking one dog to the vet because another never really got the hang of bite inhibition. (More on the scary side of Kili in a later post.)

One of the reasons I finally decided that I could not hack being a theatre scholar is that I could never quite take theatre seriously, and I honestly didn't think I should. The scholars I most admire-- many of whom are commonly judged to be either hopelessly old-fashioned or lightweight-- are playing in earnest. They recognize the essential frivolity of their occupation (in both senses of the word), its glorious extraneity to "real" life, but this is not a barrier to their investing their work with passion, wit, imagination. On the contrary, the magical "as if" liberates their brilliance as it has that of the artists whose work they study. Unfortunately, they appear vastly outnumbered today by scholars with extremely poor bite inhibition, maddened by their own irrelevance and deeply resistant to the pleasures of play.

Sweet little lunatic

Yes, two dogs, two humans, and a cat make for a plenty interesting household. By the time I started volunteering last summer at the Oregon Humane Society (you see where this is going), Pete, Barley, Hops, Kili and I had all ambled along together for a little more than six years, riding out the rough stretches with only a few scars and white hairs to show for our trouble. (It's not the years, honey. It's the mileage.) Our equilibrium had held for an eon. Or at least an era-- depending on whether you're measuring by the span of dog and cat or human life. Those wee temporal scales had begun to haunt me, from the moment our normally sensitive vet had started sprinkling the word "senior" into discussions of the girls' health.

But the truth is that, if you're going to spend any time in an animal shelter, you had better be prepared to discover your upper limit for furry mayhem. In the years since we'd adopted Kili, I had made only a couple of joking references to "how nutty" it would be to have three dogs. Pete never laughed, he just gave me warning looks. The message in his eyes was perfectly legible: "Don't even think about going there." And I'm sure that if I had not decided finally to wave a white flag in the direction of all things animal, if I hadn't scoped out all the exits from "crazy dog lady" and found them blocked, I would have been better defended against another heart attack.

The boy looks wonderfully mellow in that photo, doesn't he? Ha. He had me fooled, too. When I first met "Zeke" at OHS, he was as wiggly and bright-eyed as a 10-month-old puppy should be, but in a raucous kennel he didn't say boo. He was shy but quick to warm-- he leaned against me when I sat down, and lay his flat little head in my lap. On a walk, he was excited but manageable. How in the world had three different homes all gone bust for him?