I went to visit my dad yesterday (something I should do more often), and when I walked in the house, I came upon a very strange sight.

My dad was standing in the living room, a few feet across from his six year old Puggle, Kahlua (my stepmom’s choice in breed, not my dad’s, he has always been partial to large, lean dogs like Doberman Pinschers and Weimaraners).








In the middle of this odd show down were a pair of my dad’s slippers. I noticed my dad was holding a box of Kahlua’s favorite treats, and I cocked my head to one side and sat down on the couch to watch.

“Hey honey, I made you some hot chocolate, you might have to heat it up though.”

“Thanks dad,” I smiled and went and got myself some hot chocolate before I settled back down to continue to watch the showdown at the Davis family living room.

After a few sips of cocoa, Kahlua approached the slippers and started sniffing them. By the time I took another sip, he had put his whole head inside the slippers and resurfaced with a treat. As soon as he finished munching, he began to sniff the shoe again, then began to paw at it.

“Ah ha!” My dad cried, “Good boy! Slippers. Slippers. Yes, good boy.”

My dad then picked up his slippers, put them on and came and sat on the couch. Kahlua followed him and immediately started sniffing his feet.

“No, no, that’s enough for now, go lay on your chair.”

Kahlua sighed, then followed my dad’s direction and hopped up on his chair by the fire.

“Uh, dad, what are you doing?”

My dad shrugged, “I’m going to train him to bring me my slippers.”

I chuckled softly and shook my head, and my dad puffed his chest out ever so slightly.

“What? He’s going to get it. He’s a smart dog, and he learns quickly. He picked all his other tricks up in a matter of hours.”

“No, no, I wasn’t laughing about him not getting it. Of course he’ll get it, you use food based training, and dogs learn quickest using food based training. I was just laughing because I guess I never really thought of you as a big dog trainer before.”

My dad laughed, “Well of course, I don’t think anything else but food would work with this dog, little fatty. And of course I train him, I taught him all his other tricks!”

It’s true. My dad had taught Kahlua all kinds of tricks. He can sit, speak, lay down, roll over, play dead. He can high five and handshake. He can howl on cue and flip treats off his nose and catch them. I don’t know why I never thought that my dad wasn’t a dog trainer, except that he never really talks about it. He never whined or complained about training. But now that I think about it, I think he never really had to. Kahlua was always well-behaved. He only ever had one accident in the house, and he never really got into much mischief (partly a consequence of his breed and partly because he always had a nice piece of steak waiting for him when he did something good).

But how did my dad train him? I thought about it. Always using food. And not just any food, steak, actually. Hm…

“Hey dad, do you know anything about operant training?”

My dad looked at me and seemed shocked that a science word might have just come out of my mouth. My dad has a master’s in Biology and Chemistry and three quarters of a doctorate in Biology (he said he never really “got around” to finishing his dissertation). I think he always secretly hoped that I would grow up to be a doctor, but that hope died early on when he realized I didn’t much care for all that (now he is obviously hoping for lawyer), “Why don’t you tell me about it?”

So I dove into my whole spiel on clicker trainer and operant conditioning, on what I was learning that was effectively working with our dogs and how I was encouraging them to think creatively with a food reward and a marker. He sat back and grinned, ear to ear, ecstatic that he was hearing his daughter say words like, “Pavlov”, “evolutionary” and “the scientific method”. Since I was about age four or so and learning to read, he had given up on ever having a conversation with me about any of this, and now here we were, having that conversation. I, for my part, was berating myself for failing to see how much this conversation would interest my father.

When I was through, I braced myself for impact. I was waiting for him to say something like, “Are you out of your mind? They’re just stupid animals, they aren’t people. Do you actually think you can teach them to learn?”

I should have known better. What he did say was, “That’s pretty impressive, to train a fish to go through a hoop. They are pretty low on the evolutionary chain, but I mean, they have brains, so they do have the capacity to learn. Otherwise, they would be dead fish. That’s pretty neat. And you know, I never really believed all that ‘be the alpha of your dog’ stuff. It never made sound scientific sense to me. I mean, you take an animal that can smell a thousand times better than you can, an animal that is currently capable of discerning the scent of different cancers forming in the body, and you tell me that it can’t smell the difference between a dog and a human? Never mind the fact that they can clearly see you aren’t a dog. And becacuse we aren’t dogs, there is no way that we can effectively punish our dog like a mother dog punishes her young, I mean, we can’t replicate that. We aren’t another dog. But what we can do, is manipulate their desire to earn food.” This part he said with a grin and a bit of gusto. He always likes to joke about how Kahlua will do just about anything for a tasty morsel. “So basically, what you’re telling me, is that I have been doing this all along. That means I should get some of the credit for inventing this, right?”

I laughed and pulled one of my clickers out of my purse, “Sort of, but you are missing a little bit. Here, let me show you.” I took Kahlua’s treats off the table and started breaking them up into small pieces. I quickly associated the click with food by clicking and treating and then I took one of my dad’s slippers off of his feet. Everytime Kahlua looked at the slipper or smelled, I clicked and tossed him a treat.

My dad watched, fascinated. Before long, Kahlua was reliably picking the slipper up in his mouth, “I get it, you mark the behavior you want with the click, and he gets the idea that he is headed in the right direction.”

I nodded and handed my dad the clicker for him to try. He grinned, “Hey, do you think I could have this?”

“Of course!”

This morning, I got an email from my dad that began with, “Did you know?” The body of the email was filled with scientific theories and explanations on brain synapses, evolutionary responses, survival of the fittest and fight or flight reflexes. I tried to read through it, but mostly I just skimmed (sorry dad, still an English major!) At the end of the email, he wrote, “By the way, Kahlua is bringing me my slippers now! So I guess you can teach a couple of old dogs some new tricks.”

My email back was short and sweet, “Yes dad, I think you’re right. Glad to have helped.”