14/300: To Train a Dog

Penny is a good dog. She’s seven months old and smart. She’s a Golden Retriever, the same breed of dog I had when I was young. But even smart dogs – dogs who seem to learn quickly and challenge your authority – can be difficult. She’s a good dog. She means well, but she’s a puppy. She’s learning. Sometimes she gets a little too playful and she clearly doesn’t understand the impact of her strength, all 41 pounds of sinewy muscle and excitement.

She needed to be trained. She needed it and we did too. We needed to be able to handle her when she got excited. We needed to be able to have the authority to set boundaries, especially with the kids. She listens to me. I guess I’m the alpha. But the kids, she treats them more like litter mates and that can only end up with laughter turning to tears and play turning to injury.

Last week, Penny went to school.

My wife found the place, tucked away in an industrial building ten minutes from home. It’s run by a woman who is clearly a dog person (perhaps more of a dog person than a people person), whose system is based upon positive reinforcement and helping people understand how to break even the simplest commands into manageable steps.

“A person looks at a set of stairs and thinks ‘I have to climb five stairs,'” said the woman teaching the class. “A dog looks at the same stairs and says ‘oh boy, a stair. Oh look! Another stair!’ They have to have small, specific steps in order to understand.”

She gave me a clicker and a small bag of treats and worked with Penny and I (and the four other dogs and owners) on simple ‘life skills.’ We worked on resisting temptation by holding a treat in each upturned fist near the dog’s nose. Then we opened our hands. If the dog moved to take the treat, we closed our hands again. If the dog waited patiently, we handed the dog a treat.

We worked on sitting, learning both hand signal and voice commands. “You need options,” the teacher said. “If you come in with arms full of groceries you need to be able to say ‘sit’ and have your dog understand you. If you come in and are on the phone, you need to be able to use a hand signal to get your dog to sit.”

We worked on putting on a leash in a three step process beginning with a sit and followed by bringing the leash to the dog and eventually snapping it in place. The dog needs to recognize this is not a threat, but something that needs to happen.

We worked on dealing with changing directions and avoiding distraction. We worked on getting the dog ‘settled’ without command so we would be able to take our pets anywhere, into any situation.

The hour flew by and Penny, all in all, did a very good job. She learned quickly, but was still distracted by the other dogs. “It takes practice,” said the teacher. “We don’t expect any dog to get it all right the first night.”

For the last few days, I’ve spent time working through the drills with Penny. The clicker, the treats, managing expectations and breaking tasks down. I’ve never trained a dog before, but I’m starting to get the hang of the logic. To a dog, there is no long-term, there is only the immediate next thing; there is no big picture, there is only a focal point.

In that way, I’m starting to believe there’s a lot a person can learn from a dog. So often, we look at a project and see the mosaic of its component parts. We see all the tasks at hand, all that will go into getting something done. It’s intimidating. It’s discouraging. But maybe, just maybe, we can think like a dog and work on ‘life skills’ of our own. Maybe the best way to approach training ourselves is not to think about being trained, but to think about the immediate next step. In fact, that’s the only way we can approach things, because it’s the only way we can actually do things.

Multi-tasking, mosaic thinking, we consider them important, evolved, somehow evidence of our human superiority as a species. But why? Why not think like a dog? Why not get a sense of what we’d like to do, the direction we’d like to take and then forget about the whole thing to focus on the next step? And what if we rewarded the steps along the path, not just the completion?

I didn’t ask for a dog. It was a gift. My wife and kids thought Penny would be good for me. And the more time I spend with her – the more morning runs and evening walks, the more training and learning, the moments that force me to slow down, to play fetch or stroke her ears – the more I see how right they were.

It turns out, there’s a lot I can learn from a dog. Maybe there’s some things she’ll learn from me too.

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