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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Canine Communication

“Watson, come here…”  When Alexander Graham Bell first realized he had invented a new form of communication that worked across the miles, he must’ve been thrilled.

On a smaller scale, it feels similar when the channels between humans and canines are suddenly clarified. We were “communicating” this morning in Singer’s obedience class and it did feel good. We both learned how certain signals, both verbal and nonverbal, could be interpreted by each other. Singer focused quickly on my hand, and watched closely to learn how she could get me to give her the treats. She picked up a difficult command, “leave it”, rather easily while the simple “sit” is still fuzzy for her.

The “leave it” command was taught by showing her a “low value” treat—a plain dog biscuit—then throwing it a short distance away while saying “leave it.” I had to block her as she went for it, and then treat her with “high value” treats—pieces of meat. She learned “leave it” after blocking her the first time. I think she saw the utility of the command. It somehow made sense to her that she wasn’t supposed to go after something, and quickly realized that the tastier treats were in my hand anyway. But “sit” and “down” seem rather pointless to her. She finally sat when the treat was drawn over her head as she watched (I remembered this trick from when Saylor took the first intro class). The down command was a little harder for her. We asked the teacher to come over and help us out. She got Singer to sit, then she lured her down by bringing the treat to the floor, and Singer went down with it to try to get it. When she was flat on the floor, she got her reward. “Good girl!” She seems really responsive to verbal praise, and she got a lot of it this morning. Treats helped, too.

There were quite a few dogs and their owners in class—about twenty in all. We met a female black lab, Maxine, seven months old, a rescue dog. Maxine sniffed at Singer and then decided she didn’t like her, but we kept the two from fighting. Maxine then growled at a Great Dane, who looked like he could’ve swallowed her up in one gulp. She’s a feisty one, Maxine. Her owner was really nice.

These commands like “sit” and “down” must seem contrived to dogs. They all quickly learn that they are getting treats in exchange for a lot of silly movements. To help us understand the canine perspective, the teacher had us try to get our dogs to sit with our backs facing the dogs. Singer didn’t do it, and I’m not sure any dog was able to do it. The teacher showed us that this is a perception issue —dogs think sitting means right in front of you when you have a treat in your hand. A rock solid sit is when the dog will sit on voice command no matter where you are and with or without a treat. We have a lot to work on this week! But I think the value of learning how to communicate with your dog is the real benefit of these classes—not perfect obedience, although I do want to make sure Singer always comes when she’s called.


Marianne said...

One of my sister's has a "fully trained dog" who goes to the door and barks when she's on the phone. My sister gives her a treat to keep her from barking. My sister knows she's reinforcing the barking, and Macie, the dog, knows that her "trick" of barking to get a treat only works when Martie is on the phone. Smart dog! Cats have both their fluid and their mechanical sides too, so I suppose we humans do also, maybe we just don't' want to admit it.

Singer's Mom said...

Ha! The more "evolved" species is outsmarted by the lesser species! I think you're right that we humans don't want to look too closely at our own natures and are quick to judge the lesser kingdoms. I also think animals provide an imperfect mirror to our own motivations. What those might be is the purpose of my writing about it--i hope to find out! Thanks for posting. BTW, I would be interested in your experiences as a cat breeder--how they are the same or different than dogs.