Not long ago I had the pleasure of watching a rising star in the dog training world, Chirag Patel. There were a number of things I loved about his presentation, but I kept thinking about one in particular: The importance of knowing when your dog needs a brief break during a training session.
This is not something that we humans are hard-wired to do. After all, we–the trainers–are fine, being the ones who know the goal of the exercise. We’re cruising along giving positive reinforcement boom boom, boom, one right after the other. It’s all positive, right?
Well, no it’s not. No matter how many pieces of chicken can go down a dog’s eager throat, it can be exhausting to learn something new, especially when one doesn’t know the goal. It is easy to forget how stressful learning anything new can be. That is true even for us when we know what we are striving for. Dog do not. They are also trying to learn something new in a foreign language, which must be a bit like listening to a podcast on how to solve quadratic equations through the scratchy sound of static.
This is why my favorite game in dog training classes is having Person A teach Person B an action using nothing but a clicker, when Person B has no idea what behavior s/he is supposed to perform. (Thank you Karen Pryor!) Person B inevitably reports that the process is tiring and frustrating and stressful.
And yes, yes, I know, really I do–that learning can be great fun, and many dogs love training sessions and are eager to play. Mine certainly are. But still, that doesn’t mean that dogs shouldn’t be allowed to learn at their own pace.
Example: I’ve been working Maggie on a Fitbone to strengthen her back legs. She followed me to our first session eagerly, eyes on the treat pouch, ostensibly thrilled to get special time with me along with dried liver bits. Training went smoothly, all simple and according to plan: Paw touched Fitbone, mark/treat. Weight shifted onto paw on Fitbone, mark/treat.
We continue for a few more trials, both feet on the Fitbone now, when she turned her head and became fascinated, absolutely riveted, on a previously ignored and invisible spot on the floor. Sniff, sniff, sniff, as if a veritable encyclopedia of olfactory information had arisen from the ground out of nowhere. It would have been easy to smooch to get her attention back, (my first inclination). However, remembering the importance of letting the student call the shots, I stayed quiet and let her sniff.
As I waited, I remember all the trainers at Natural Encounters, who let each parrot decide when it wanted to train and when it didn’t. The trainers might make one or two attempts to re-interest the bird with a different treat or a different task if the student lost interest, but if it didn’t work they simply stopped the session. Most importantly, I never heard one word of frustration or discontent about it. It’s the parrot’s call when to end the session, not yours. Period.
Channeling that philosophy and Chiraq’s wise words, I simply sat and waited until Maggie turned and looked back in my direction. I gave her a prompt, and boom, her two paws punched onto the Fitbone, her weight shifted forward just as I wanted. I worked on disappearing the prompt, reinforced like crazy for several more trials, and then ended the session.
Here’s another example from this weekend in Northern Wisconsin. We took a walk on the shore of Lake Superior, where small waves lapped at the water’s edge. Maggie, to my knowledge, has never seen a large body of water, much less one with waves. Even tiny ones. I walked her down to the water and she assumed the classic “scared but curious” stance of a nervous dog. You can’t miss it in the photo below–weight shifted backward, mouth closed and tight–but riveted on this strange, new phenomenon.
After a few seconds, she backed up and turned to look at me. Rather than encouraging her forward, I backed up with her, said something like “Waves! Cool, hey?” (Pause.) And then, “Take your time, girl.”
After looking at me, looking right, looking left, sniffing the air, the sand, the pebbles, and who knows what else, Maggie decided the waves needed more investigating. So back we went and in just a few minutes she decided the waves weren’t anything to worry about at all. If I’d forced the issue, I suspect that things would have gone differently. However, I was aware that it took a conscious decision on my part to let Maggie drive the lesson’s schedule. Not that I, as a dog trainer, ever want to be in control or anything.
It takes patience to let the student run the show, something that is often in short supply in our species. (I say that only theoretically, of course.) But it’s important, truly important. I would love to hear your stories of “the pause that refreshes”–how it’s worked for you, not worked, forgotten about and then relearned… You name it, we’ll all learn by reading about it.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Good to be home, but our short trip to Mercer, WI was heavenly. First off, the library in Mercer is gorgeous, welcoming, and chock full of great resources. About 65 people came to my talk on The Education of Will, and they were a great audience. I’m loving my “Year of the Library”; I’ve met such wonderful people. And I get to be surrounded by books while I’m talking. Heaven.
How many libraries have such a cozy reading room? I could spend hours in here.
One of the best parts of the trip were the visits from a family of loons, one of my favorite birds of all time. We didn’t get any great photos, the light was low and it was raining when they were beside our dock, but still….
Here’s a peaceful view of Lake Superior, or, Gitchi Gami in Ojibwe.
Next week we take all the dogs to northern Minnesota, where I speak at the Virginia Public Library on Tuesday July 24th. Can’t wait. I’ll write more soon about traveling with the dogs… in some ways the most fun has been Tootsie, who I swear has begun singing “On the Road Again”.