A rambunctious five-year-old Labrador Retriever who until a few months ago knew not a word of any language, obeyed no command, charged around the house or zipped through any hole in the fence before one could utter the name he didn’t seem to recognize has become my 91-year-old mother’s great and constant companion. He sits or lies by her when she is sitting or lying down. He moves with her when she goes somewhere with her walker and when she tells him to give her clear passage. He accompanies her when she walks around the pool for exercise. She says, “He is a good boy.” My mother has never trained a dog. She had a nice trained dog once, but she had been trained by someone else and given to her.
But Rocky, as he was named by my mother’s granddaughter, received no formal instruction from any source. He was neutered, which helped slow him down, but more profoundly, he and she opted for companionship and accommodation over ignoring each other. She talks to him constantly, telling him what she wants him to do. If she praises him, she is not effusive. She may occasionally slip him some food when she is cooking, and he will if given a chance steal her breakfast bagel. There is no system to it, but there is consistency.Top of Form
More than a few dog trainers who follow behaviorist principles that require a stimulus, a reward or punishment, for learning to occur would argue that Rocky is untrained—that is that he still will not perform on command the actions demanded of him—except he comes when called. He moves when told. He tells my mother when someone is at the door and stands by her when she opens it, thereby providing at least the illusion of protection. If that is not training, what is it?
My friend and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Marc Bekoff (“Animal Emotions”), might call the process dog teaching or dog learning.
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It might not be as quick or as systematic as one of the common schools of training, including those that use electric collars and choke chains and those that rely on clickers and food rewards or other positive re-enforcers. But then again the results might be quicker, deeper, and longer lasting.
I have seen no statistics on the numbers of dogs educated in this fashion, but I imagine it is substantial. Essentially it relies on the dog’s innate curiosity, desire to please, and recognized ability to imitate behavior and recognize words and emotions, traits which arguably thousands of years of living with humans have served to enhance. It also requires the human have an interest in being with the dog and interacting with him or her in a meaningful way—what used to be referred to as “quality time” with the hound. Praise and rewards are meted out more according to the person’s nature than any program or schedule. They do not have to involve food. Our Kelpie Katie was unmotivated by food—she would ignore food rewards—but when a tennis ball appeared she went on high alert. Even then the ball was not essential to her learning something.
This intuitive style of dog teaching is not without its intellectual underpinnings thanks initially to Edward Tolman in the first half of the last century. He proposed that learning had intrinsic value and that people and animals could learn in the absence of immediate rewards—latent learning it is called. That idea underpins what is called the social theory of learning, which also views learning as a social endeavor that can involve imitation of behavior that is demonstrated or verbally described.
In an article in the January 28, issue of Applied Animal (Behaviour Science, entitled “Should old dog trainers learn new tricks? The efficiency of the “Do as I do” method and the shaping/clicker training method to train dogs,” Claudia Fugazza and Ádám Miklósi of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, look at a canine system of social learning that relies on the dog’s great capacity for imitation called Do As I Do (DAID) compared with clicker training, which relies on the timely delivery of rewards to employ the dog’s associative abilities in shaping its behavior. (The article is only available by subscription, but here is the Abstract.) The clicker becomes a stand-in (secondary re-enforcer) for the actual re-enforcer, usually food. Clicker training is individualized instruction that requires the dog to figure out what earns rewards.
Fugazza, a graduate student in ethology developed Do As I Do in order to study social learning in dogs. To do that she had to develop protocols for teaching them. Judging from its success, it should gain a wide following. In this method, trainers, usually the dog’s primary human companion, use standard reward-based techniques to teach the dog to associate a small number of gestures with the command, “Do It!” The dog is then shown a new task and taught to perform it upon being given that command.
For this study, Fugazza and Miklósi compared the speed in learning three sets of tasks of increasing complexity, from knocking over a glass (simple) to opening or closing a locker or drawer (complex task) to a sequence of actions, like hopping on a chair and ringing a bell or opening a locker and removing a purse (compound). Objects were involved in each task that were not considered part of the family dog’s normal repertoire so that mastery of the task could be construed as learning. In the simple task there was no difference in performance between clicker-trained dogs and Do As I Do dogs, but that changed as the tasks became more difficult. Do As I Do dogs performed noticeably better, with more of them learning the task in the allotted fifteen minutes than clicker-trained dogs.
No one knows how the dogs are making the connections, and in their conclusion Fugazza and Miklósi thought it more important to downplay that result in favor, Miklósi said in an email, of providing trainers with as many methods as possible so they can choose the one best suited to their needs.
That is a tactical decision rather than a scientific one. It is grounded in the recognition that, especially commercial dog trainers and trainers of working and service dogs, like to use what has worked for them in the past with the kind of dog on which it has worked. That is one reason punishment-based forms of dog training persist.
For home schooling, time, patience, devotion—and a daily reminder of who has the big brain—are the keys to success and those come from discipline we often need more than the dog.
Used with permission of Mark Derr and Psychology Today, see more from Mark Derr’s blog “Dog’s Best Friend.”