IN “DON’T SHOOT THE DOG”, her seminal behavioural-training book of 1984, Karen Pryor recalled a dolphin researcher telling her that “nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken.” The experience with the chicken—an animal that cannot be trained by force—should remind readers that they need not use punishment to change behaviour in pets, nagging relatives or difficult co-workers. Instead, positive reinforcement is key, Ms Pryor argued.
Where lockdown may have brought dread to parents of hyperactive toddlers and moody teens, dog-owners should be thrilled: it presents the perfect opportunity to train pooches. Ten minutes a day can bring a joyful break to monotonous routines. It is also a chance to deepen a bond, which could prove welcome as other relationships feel the strain.
Unlike puppy training, which is essential for any dog-owner who does not wish to live in filth, and obedience training, which helps keep them safe, dog training is not necessary. Teaching a dog to play dead, high five or retrieve particular toys has few practical advantages. But make no mistake, training a dog brings tremendous benefits for both parties: the mental stimulation exhausts them, it makes them less likely to chew furniture and more focused on their human when out and about. This means they will be easier to take to offices and cafés once restrictions lift.
At the heart of modern dog training is the idea that bad behaviour should mostly be ignored and good behaviour rewarded with treats and lavish praise. A clicker (either a device or the click of a tongue) helps “snapshot” the exact moment she is being a good girl. To teach a dog to play dead, for example, first lure her into lying on her side with the help of a biscuit; click and reward her as soon as she does. Gradually raise the bar for clicks, until all four paws are raised with a dramatic pause. Although scans of canine brains have shown that “it’s not just about the hot dog”—i.e. most dogs also want to please their owner—a tasty morsel is still very important. The harder the trick, the better the reward needs to be. Pieces of rabbit ear or chicken liver will have your dog dancing and prancing in no time.
A small apartment is not a problem. The lack of outdoor diversions—joggers, binmen, rabbits and their droppings—make for a calmer training environment. As the dog progresses, interference can gradually be introduced: a spouse skulking in the background, a chirping child, a juicy steak on the floor. At first the dog will jump up and take whatever distraction is offered. But eventually they will “get” it. Desired behaviour means click. Click means sausage. Sausage means satisfaction.
As in life, not every day will be a good day. Ms Pryor warned of the “pre-learning dip”, in which the animal suddenly acts as if they have no idea what their owner is on about. “The chicken looks at your hand, but it doesn’t dance. Or it may stand still when you give the signal and then dance furiously when the signal is not present,” she said. During such moments of brain freeze, your correspondent’s dog has a habit of displaying a carousel of tricks, with streaks of drool flying across her ever-more desperate face.
The greatest prize, though, is not practical but emotional. Humans have bred dogs for 20,000 years, for work but also for companionship; from this has come a relationship between two species unlike any other. But where humans express themselves verbally, dogs do not, and training provides the tools to bridge that gap. Much like relationship therapy, it teaches you to listen and to be heard. Once you speak each other’s language, the rewards are outstanding.■
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