My mother says that when I was a child, animals would just follow me around.  She says not much has changed since then.

Animals were simple back then.  If I met an aggressive dog, I thought, “I’m going to make you like me.”  When I wanted the rabbits to come to me (Yes, we had rabbits, and of course I trained them!), it just seemed easy.  Come to me, and I will give you the best, sweetest grass there is.  “I’m gonna’ teach you.”  If a scared kitten recoiled as I tossed treats, I never felt offended.  I would just say, “I’m sorry, I’ll make that easier.”  When my puppy thought my new hat was odd, the answer was simple.  Have a Mad Hatter party.  This is a hat; I am going to put it on.  This is a hat.  And this is another hat.  Pretend tea and crumpets for all at the hat party.  “I’m gonna’ show you.”  Maybe children have so many things in the world to see, they understand that a slow, easy and gentle introduction without any fear is appreciated.

Today, I know that these strategies have names.  “I’m gonna’ make you like me,” is classical conditioning.  “I’ll give you the sweetest grass for coming” is operant conditioning.  “I will repeatedly show you” a hat is habituation.  Saying I’m sorry and adjust difficulty is about criteria setting or adjusting the threshold.

I am not suggesting that we put children in harms’ way and put the burden of training on them.  I am suggesting that we remember what it is like to see the learning process the way we used to as children.

Children often understand things that adults struggle to comprehend.  We over complicate the obvious.  We attach emotional baggage.

As we mature, we take a more complicated road.  Debating whether to give a cookie triggers analysis paralysis.  What should be a simple answer to a simple question becomes a five-page oratory that really just says, “I dunno – maybe.  Come to my $500.00 seminar and ask the guru yourself.”

Looking only at behavioural principles, there are only a few limited choices at our disposal.

  • Reinforce/Punish
  • Classical Conditioning/desensitizing
  • Extinguish/Habituate
  • Highly controversial flooding.

All protocols boil down to these core elements.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Professionals absolutely should understand how to execute these strategies well.  From speed of reinforcement, criteria setting, finding the dog’s threshold all the way to variable schedules, extinction bursts and post interval scallops – maturity brings experience and greater knowledge.

Maturity should also bring things like patience and understanding.  We should realize that Rome was not built in a day.  Our actions have consequences.

Yet, we often do not have these traits.  Our stupid, busy lives can take simple problems and cram them into a pressure cooker of stress and expectations.  We want it fixed – this dog is so stubborn – this dog is ruining my life – it’s costing me so much money.

Molehills become mountains and we forget that there was a time in our lives when learning and doing stuff was fun.

I find revisiting a more simplistic, childlike view makes it easier to empathize with the dog – to feel what that dog might need.  To stop feeling so stressed about problems.

We forget that a Mad Hatter tea party can be a valid teaching tool.  School becomes a chore.  We forget what it feels like to be scared of things like a haircut.  Our grown up maturity become insensitive because we forget what that terror felt like to us so many years ago.

Kip and mom copy

We become one of THOSE people that we swore we would never become – old of mind and heart.  The inconvenience of having our orderly (boring) life weighs heavy; we make the mistake of thinking that big words, jabberwocky and a handful of cash can buy the perfect dog that fills our heart with joy.  If everyone just did what he or she was supposed to do we could fix it NOW!

Our desperate need to fix everyone around us triggers fad jumping – a desperate search for the one magic protocol that gives us a Norman Rockwell dream.  Mr. Rockwell painted plenty of dogs, but he also painted plenty of children.  He painted relationships, some tinged with whimsy and some with a bit of naughtiness.  Those real, imperfect relationships illustrate joy.  Rockwell’s pictures often show dogs doing things that a bitter person would frown upon – a dog bowing in church tsk tsk.

If you want joy, do not expect the dog to give it to you.  Look inside yourself.  Are you joyful or have you crept toward intolerance.  It happens.  Your dog is here to shake you up and wake you up.  Would you feel stupid having a hat party?

Maybe that is what dogs give us.  They are the looking glass that reminds us that another version of ourselves exists.  That person is young at heart and joyful.  They are capable of seeing that most problems can be fixed with “I’m gonna’ make you like…I’m gonna’ teach….I’m gonna’ show….I’m sorry, I’ll make that easier.”