Why can’t we just think of our dogs as chickens?

I started learning about clicker training in 2002 before I got my dog Dea. For me it made instant sense: reward the behaviors you want by marking them with a temporal marker that is always followed by a reward, ignore the behaviors you don’t like, they will be extinguished. I myself have always felt fearful and very stressed when being taught by punitive teachers, who used to be very abundant especially in the equine world that I have been involved in ever since I was 8 years old. Even now as a “grown-up” I just coil when being taught with punitive methods, it seriously interferes with my learning because I am too stressed to comprehend anything. So all in all I was very determined to train my dogs with positive reinforcement. I love clicker training, it is such an amazing tool to communicate with your animal. Every time you clicker train you learn something new about the mechanical aspects of training and how to adjust the training to your animal that particular day, under those particular circumstances. But here comes the catch: when speaking of our dogs we just have so many expectations of them that sometimes I’m surprised they have survived the evolution with us at all. With the pressure of the expectations how can we just “wait” for “the good behavior”?

I will quote Jean Donaldson from her book MINE! A practical guide for resource guarding in dogs: “Our expectation of dogs are very high. The standard we have set for them is one we would consider absurd for any other species of animals, including ourselves”. When I read this for the first time I totally agreed (and of course I still do!): exactly, our dogs are not allowed to show any emotions or behaviors that we don’t like! But what if a chicken does something that we don’t like? We just shrug and say: what the heck, it’s just a chicken, it behaves the way that is typical for that species. Where this chicken story comes from is that I was just watching Bob Bailey’s new DVD:

Clicker trainers practice with chickens, I look forward to doing a chicken camp myself. With chickens we people can have absolutely no expectations, everything is stripped down to its bare minimum: the trainer’s training skills. Timing, criteria, rate of reinforcement, if you’re off with just one of them, you are not going to get where you want. The way a chicken learns is not different from the way a dog learns. Then why do we behave like dogs should be our telepathic mind readers?

First of all, I’m looking at myself. I want to have a perrrrrfect obedience dog, tracking dog and search and rescue dog, all of them in the same individual. These are the reasons why people who want performance dogs go for certain breeds and breeders to get the vessel for their dreams. But what if things don’t go according to the textbook and my training is not progressing, what does my dog think about all this? She/he of course couldn’t care any less. What can I do about it? I can get frustrated and angry, compare myself to others and basically just get bitter about things: how come my dog is not doing what I want her/him to do?! Or I can think of my dog as a chicken, set my personal ambitions aside, and break the training down into such small increments that my animal will be successful no matter what. Here is an example of a ‘chicken’ behavior, a training movie with Dea’s search and rescue indication behavior chain (I’m so glad we got it on video before she was gone!) that we spent literally years polishing:

After watching Bob Bailey tonight I was inspired again to stay true to the principles of learning, forget my human emotions (or at least try!), focus on my dog and how to make him successful in training (here I’m talking about my Aussie boy Forbes going through is adolescence). Observe what is going on with your dog, forget the others and adjust your training¬† plan to the present moment.

OK, I can psyche myself to look at dogs as chickens but now I’m also a trainer training people to train their dogs, how can I make other people see that training dogs has exactly the same principles as training chickens? This one I have no definite answer to yet. People adopt dogs with best intentions in mind, they want companionship and a family member. Even though their time is limited they are dedicated to commit to training but what if it just takes too much time and it is not progressing fast enough? Your trainer starting to talk about chickens probably won’t help in most cases, so lets not do that. It is up to me, the trainer, to break the behavior down into small enough increments for other people so that they can be successful with their dogs. Hmm, I think I may have gotten it, what I have to do is to think of chickens myself, not say it out loud though,¬† bring the criterion down to a level where success is imminent, and let people experience how wonderful it is to have a dog engaged in working with them so that the ultimate goal is forgotten for the time being. After all, life is all about enjoying the journey and not worrying about the destination.



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