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!

No comments:

Post a Comment