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My dad is hands down one of the most intelligent people I know. He’s always encouraged me to know more, learn more and be more. He’s always pushed me to lead, not follow and to fight back harder when I’m attacked but never before I’ve sat quietly and listened.

My dad is quiet, not quick to laugh and very opinionated. Most people don’t like much of what he has to say, which may be why he doesn’t say much. Because he’s silent and thoughtful, people almost always shut up and listen when he speaks; something I am fascinated by, yet struggle to learn. He has a keen wit, but has a propensity to take information he’s heard elsewhere and try to reinvent it. Yesterday, I found him excitedly telling me about “a sport where dogs jump into the water”. Upon seeing my smirk, he followed it up with, “You told me that, didn’t you?” To which I replied, “It’s all right, you can tell Kel.”

While photographing his seven year old puggle, Kahlua, yesterday, I got the wonderful experience of witnessing how science can form a true emotional bond. (This is where my dad would interject and say all bonds are formed by science. My father is an atheist, one of the many things people find disagreeable about him that he tends not to advertise, so here I am publishing it online).

Kahlua

As I’ve said before, my dad has always trained Kahlua using food rewards. He takes special pleasure in seeing Kahlua “dance” when the bell of the microwave goes off (Kahlua’s meals consist of kibble, milk and leftovers from dinner heated in the microwave for 23 seconds. I also would like to note that this is the cause of his obesity, not the clicker training, a fact my father is poignantly aware of). When Kahlua begins to dance, my dad smiles and says, “Just like Pavlov’s dogs,” before putting the bowl on the floor and asking Kahlua, “What do you say?” (Kahlua’s cue to speak) to which he responds, “That’s right, please” (Kahlua’s release cue to eat).

This entire loving ritual was formed between the two of them without any knowledge of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement or clicker training. That doesn’t mean, however, that the principles weren’t still at play. Regardless of what my dad did or didn’t know when teaching Kahlua to speak or sit or play dead or flip treats off his nose or basic house training, positive reinforcement principles were at work.

Kahlua performing one of his many tricks for my dad.

The reward wasn’t always food either. When Kahlua was just a pup, he got up on a stool. My stepmother was about to take him outside and noted the peculiar behavior. She delighted in it for a minute then took him out. From that day forward, Kahlua repeated the “stool” behavior and as a reward, got fawned over then taken outside to their five acre backyard to potty and play. He got a treat after he went to the bathroom (and does to this day). He only ever had one accident in the house. My stepmom says they got “lucky”, but my dad and I realize luck had nothing to do with it. Positive reinforcement, and the science behind it did.

My dad applies the same thinking at work. He likes to reward the employees he manages, and they respect him and work harder for him. In turn, his company rewards him and there are little to no conflicts. When I mentioned TAG teaching and behavior modification using positive reinforcement to my dad, he smiled and said, “Maybe our country could use a dog trainer as president. I’ve always said we need a scientist in office.”

Back outside, my dad ran Kahlua through his various tricks, so I could capture them on film. While the two of them worked, I found myself marveling over the beauty of their connection. Although my dad held the treat up, Kahlua spent most of the time looking into my father’s eyes. They both seemed to say, “I see you.”

Kahlua and my dad working. Unfortunately, my dad would be mortified if I posted a photo of him on the internet, so I had to crop him out, but I think you can sense the relationship still.

Enchanted with their connection, I pondered over it. Nothing my dad does with his dog is “special”. It’s all hard science, and yet, this beautiful bond had formed. When I remarked on it to Joe and showed him a picture, he smiled and said, “I guess you don’t know this, but that’s how all of our dogs have always looked at you.” Later that evening, I watched Joe work with Panzer and saw the same look reflected in their eyes. Scrolling through pictures of friends with clicker trained dogs; I saw it again and again and again.

But what’s so special about positive reinforcement training that you get this look? Well, the answer is, I’m not sure. I haven’t read anything that can explain to me why, but I have some theories, foremost among them being that positive reinforcement training fosters a sense of trust between you and your dog, horse, cat, pig, sheep, rat, etc. The animal trusts you because they have no reason not to. Your working relationship exists entirely on reward. They have no reason to fear you, because they’re not punished. Every answer is essentially a right answer, but sometimes, there’s a better answer, and they get rewarded more heavily for it. The best relationships don’t even need to be aware of punishment. It is not true that punishment is required for you or your dog to understand reward. In fact, in my experience, the dogs that I find happiest are those who are never punished. The relationship is not tainted with fear of reprisal; there is only this intrinsic joy, which is communicated without words. And communication without words is right up my dad’s alley.

Kahlua running to my dad’s call.

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