Ready. Set. Let’s Go! What’s Up?

Now that I have a new puppy, I am brushing up on important training tips.  Perhaps one of the most important ones is that, when training, you must always give feedback. Consider your own life experiences when you were learning a new skill, such as driving a car. You get in the driver’s seat with dad sitting next to you. You put the key in the ignition and turn it, but the car doesn’t start.  It might be that you need to step on the brake for the car to start or maybe you need to step on the clutch first.  How would you know?  You look over at dad who sits there in silence, expressionless, giving you absolutely no feedback.  You might sit patiently staring at him, but after a while, you’ll most likely get out of the car and walk away in frustration. Either way, you’re not going to be eager to have dad teach you anything in the future, are you?

Apply this concept to your training regime and remember to give (preferably positive) feedback as soon as your dog’s behavior is moving in the desired direction. The idea is that you are patterning his behaviors; in essence, you are shaping his actions. So, say you’re training the “go to your place” command. When Muffin starts moving toward the desired location, urge her on with a “yes, good girl.” Remember to throw a smile her way, too. Maybe even let out a little chuckle. Dogs have a fantastic sense of humor, after all. Tell them a good joke and you’ll have made a friend for life. Did you hear the one about the chicken that crossed the road?  Be aware of your expressions at all times. Throw a frown your dog’s way and he will be riddled with disappointment. Do it often and he will start questioning his every move, worried that he will upset you.

To emphasize the importance of positive feedback, allow me to cite a study led by neuroscientist Attila Andics at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary. (Not to be confused with Attila the Hun, who devastated lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean in the 5th century.) This study, recently published in the journal Science, involved 13 dogs: 6 Border Collies, 5 Golden Retrievers, a German Shepherd and, my personal favorite, a Chinese Crested. Only canines were used in this experiment because, while it is believed that other species may have the mental capability to comprehend human language in the same way that canines can, they often lack the interest in what humans have to say. I think we can all agree that while Whiskers may know what “put the goldfish back in the tank” means, she is unlikely to respond in any way. I suppose you could test the theory of “caring” quite easily by spending a day at the zoo trying to converse with its residents, but you’re likely to get arrested while trying to gain entry into the lemmings’ enclosure. And that could be dangerous, anyway. What would happen when they start propelling themselves off a cliff? Do you follow suit? Wouldn’t it hurt when you hit the ground below, face first? Communication with any species might prove impossible with your jaw wired shut.  Something to ponder, indeed.

Back to the experiment: All the dogs were trained to lie motionless in an MRI machine. That must have been a challenge in and of itself. I mean, really, what if they suddenly saw a squirrel? I wonder how many dogs flunked the “don’t move” test. Just teaching a three-minute sit for competitive obedience can be taxing, but lying down (I’m guessing) on their sides or tummies for seven minutes? That’s a Yikes with a capital Y! Maybe they supplied the dogs with a good book, such as Chester Gigolo: Diary of a Dog Star. Anyway, once the “lying motionless” mountain was climbed, they scanned the dogs’ brains and what they found was nothing short of amazing. It turns out that the dogs processed words with the left hemisphere of their brains, just like people do. Furthermore, they processed the intonation used to utter those words with the right hemisphere, again just like humans. Cool, right? Well, it doesn’t end there. The dogs demonstrated that they understood they were being praised when both words and intonation were positive. However, meaningless words such as rock, yellow, or pickle, for example… Wait—pickle might not be meaningless if it’s burger and fries night at the local production of Hamlet.  Anyway, meaningless words, even when spoken in a pleasant intonation, didn’t have the same effect. Furthermore, when spoken in a tone lacking intonation, meaningful words didn’t have a positive effect. Keep this study in mind while training Buster so that your positive feedback can be as positive as possible and, as I said before, even flash your pearlies his way often. Just remember to brush first; no one wants to see a piece of spinach stuffed between your incisors.