Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sitting in the Tall Grass Waiting for a Rabbit

I'm spending time these days with a very standoffish cat. After two months of concerted effort, major food bribery and a lot of rather undignified kitty-kitty-kittying, I have got him to warm up to me enough that when I'm sitting at my laptop he will occassionally come up close enough that if I stretch out my leg as far as it will go I can touch him with my toe.

All this cat activity has got me thinking about dogs. Some anthropologists say that dogs relate to humans as they do because they first started coming around human campfires for warmth 100,000 years ago, and have evolved as part of the human community. Other anthropologists point to evidence of the domestication of dogs over 30,000 years ago.

But is domestication the reason that dogs relate better to humans than cats? Or is it that dogs are more intelligent? Or does the autonomy of cats vs the dependence of dogs show that cats are more intelligent?

I don't think any of the above are the central reason for dogs' behavior. The central reason is their dominance-submissive tendency. By nature, a dog wants to be in a hierarchy: either top dog or submissive dog. Humans, being bigger and taller, naturally dominate dogs. That makes dogs feel comfortable, and makes them want to not just obey us, but also please us.

Consequently, it's not difficult for humans to command a dog they've just met. You don't have to forge a relationship, just establish control. Which means that dogs don't need to be trained (unless they have specific problems): humans need to be trained how to relate to dogs. As an example, I developed some hand signals so I could tell my dog what to do silently, and I've found that other dogs respond to them without any training (palm facing out for stop, finger pointing down for sit, etc). It is my knowing how to tell them that matters, rather than their learning how to obey me. Also, I've noticed that dogs don't need to be "thanked" with a food bribe: they seem most content when they're comfortable in their place.

None of this works that well, of course, until the dog has emerged from its teenage lunk-head years, which often is around 18 months or so. And you have to be sensitive to the dog's preferences (individual and breed-based), as you don't want to turn the little fella into an automaton.

If dogs are happiest and most obedient when they submit, then probably the best approach is to make the dog submit totally: get the dog to roll on its back and show its belly (maybe just once will do), and then act with consistency as the dominant partner, never asking for the dog to do anything, but simply demanding it.

(The title is from Jane Sibbery's song Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.)



Sara said...

Hi cousin-in-law, When we reward a dog with food, we aren't trying to thank it, instead we are using operant conditioning. You might be interested in Karen Pyror's books, such as "Don't Shoot the Dog."


Yappa said...

Hi Sara!

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you... my comments have been so sparse lately that I almost stopped looking. ;-)

I would think that you could have operant conditioning without food treats if the dog was rewarded with attention or patting. But I'm no expert: I've only had one dog, although I've looked after other ones.

I relied on a dog training book called Mother Knows Best (or something like that - my copy is long lost), which suggests training puppies as their mother does. No food rewards are used at all. In fact, the first thing my puppy learned was to sit by the food bowl and not start eating until I said "OK".

The second thing he learned is that the quieter my voice was when I said "No", the more serious was the situation. (That was also the best thing I taught him as I can't stand yelling at a dog.) I have found that the serious-quiet voice works on other dogs, too.