There were many ideas and provocations I encountered in the ballrooms and hallways of the Doubletree Hotel that I want to return to, things I'll need to gnaw on for a long time before I can digest them. What looks most temptingly chewy this morning, however, is a question that was posed to me by a fellow trainer yesterday morning. I had volunteered with a dozen or so other KPA graduates to offer a little coaching to interested parties (two sessions of twenty minutes apiece), with donated proceeds going a local charity. We worked in pairs, and it was unfortunately toward the end of our first session that our "client," whose dog was not with her, described how he would often growl when he lay on his bed and she approached and pet him. What should she do?
I really regret that our next client was waiting and we weren't able to give the question the attention it deserves, because it's loaded. Personally, emotionally, and theoretically. I didn't get any further than remarking that the dog was telling her something that she'd be wise to respect, which might have been a fine response if I'd had time to elaborate it, but was surely too brusque given the circumstances. My partner did better, noting that the dog was a terrier, asking whether the dog followed her hand when she withdrew (yes), and suggesting that the dog might be experiencing a conflict of intent: to roughhouse or to cuddle? But we had to leave it at that.
On the theoretical side, this presents as a relatively straightforward matter of strategic reinforcement, and I hope the woman with the terrier found her way later that morning to Ken Ramirez's excellent lecture, wherein he explored the promise and perils of working with secondary reinforcers, those things (not always tangible, sometimes experiential) that accrue value only by their association to other things that satisfy an animal's strong intrinsic needs (i.e. primary reinforcers). Is gentle touch a primary reinforcer? Considered broadly, for slow-developing, social mammals, it does appear to satisfy an intrinsic need, especially early in life. (Harry Harlow's poor rhesus macaques demonstrated this most tragically and persuasively.) But touch is critical at that early stage in part because it is instructive: a mother's or other's tactile tenderness teaches us what kind of touch is safe, and when. Squirming, jostling littermates and human carers contribute significantly to that education in the case of most dogs. Physical intimacy is double-edged for all of us: it has the simultaneous potential to be terribly harmful or deeply rewarding. So each of us necessarily becomes a connoisseur of touch, highly idiosyncratic in our taste for different varieties of contact.
As Ken noted, in the practical life of a trainer or pet owner, the need to draw any distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers is not nearly so pressing as the question of whether something is reinforcing at all. The question for the woman with the terrier is not whether her dog has a primal desire for touch, but whether he wants to be touched by her, in that way, in that place, at that moment. His growling suggests that he does not. Which does not mean that her desire to touch her dog in such a way under such circumstances must remain forever frustrated, only that she needs to teach her dog to enjoy it. Or risk getting bit.
There are many people who see these (sometimes irresistible) urges to kiss, hug, and cuddle our pets as yet another dangerous form of anthropomorphism. This is true to the extent that our species-typical touch repertoires do not everywhere overlap, and we need to be attentive to the places where they typically diverge. But when we're talking about an individual human and an individual dog (or cat or monkey or whale or other human), knowledge of what is typical may not only be immaterial, it may also be distorting. There are quite a few of us humans who find hugs from most people in most contexts highly aversive. Some find them aversive from all people in all contexts. Can we be shaped to enjoy them? Most of us, probably. But the more often we get hugged when we do not want to be hugged, by people who just want to show us how much they love us, the less a hug will communicate that professed love, and the more likely we'll be to interpret it as invasive and aggressive. As someone who should really know better, I am sorry to say that I think I inflicted an unwanted hug on someone this weekend, and the sincerity of my affection had no bearing on the question of whether it was rewarding for the victim. I "anthropomorphized" her, insofar as I made the narcissistic assumption that my desire to hug her was mirrored by her desire to be hugged.
Animals do this to us, too, as we'd be wise to remember the next time we get leapt on, slobbered over, or humped. My husband has a pair of black running tights that we've taken to calling his "sexy pants," because they drive our boy Pazzo into an amorous frenzy. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Pete vaguely resembles Pazzo from the waist down when he wears them.) Pazzo is clearly sincere in his passion for Pete, but the very force of that passion makes him insensitive to the question of how best to express it.