Thursday, November 29, 2012

If Only Cooper Could Talk


Cooper, the three-ish year old Welsh Terrier who visited us for two months this fall, is an opinionated, intense and extremely funny little guy.  He grew up in Guelph, attended puppy classes at Dogs in the Park, moved on to our Levels program and spent a good deal of his time training his person to be the best she could be.  He taught her for instance that Welsh Terriers don’t like cuddling.  They like scheduled, short periods of affection, in private, quietly, at a predictable time.  He taught her that Welsh Terriers DO like hunting and ratting, but that toads taste bad and should not be disturbed.  He also began teaching her about ratio strain, schedules of reinforcement and many of the vagaries of operant conditioning, but then she moved him to the United States and they started on her advanced education.

In the US, Cooper could not find a training school that fully met his needs.  He did find an agility class that was kind of fun, where he taught the instructor that luring is lame and shaping rocks and rolls.  He taught another instructor the value of the one hour sit stare.  That is when the dog doesn’t like what is happening in class and sits.  And stares.  For an hour.  He taught his person the value of a scale of reinforcers and that sometimes you need a variety of reinforcers to keep a Welsh Terrier in the game.  Cooper took great pains to teach his person that the more you spend on Rally-O trial fees the more likely it is that you are going to be embarrassed by your dog.  When I visited, Cooper was so pleased he took a hour out of his precious day to demonstrate to me all the Rally moves he had learned successfully, but since I wasn’t at the trial, he took the opportunity to show his person new ways to do the Halt-Stand-Walk Around that included Halt-Stand-Pee on the Rally Sign while your person is on the wrong side of you.

Cooper teaching dog training
Along the way, Cooper’s person had a very good job and settled into her new life until a calamity occurred, and then Cooper needed temporary accommodation for two months.  Here at our farm, life is quite different than it was at home for Cooper.  Here Cooper lives a very structured life in our kennel with regular house time and training time and long country walks, but that doesn’t include things like “watching your person get ready for work” or “tolerate snoogling on the couch”.  At our house, Cooper spent every night in his crate.  He got yard time several times a day in the company of a very wide variety of dogs-sometimes as many as twenty different dogs in a week.  At least five days a week Cooper got to go to class, and some days he got to do class twice and had some private sessions with a variety of trainers in training.  Cooper was fed twice a day in his bowl at predictable times, with the rule of if you don’t eat, you can have dinner in class for training treats, and if you don’t want dinner as treats, then you probably aren’t terribly hungry (and yes, we kept track of how much the little dude got each day, so that he never actually missed a meal-sometimes he just got more training opportunities).  Cooper taught us the true meaning of a schedule nerd; he loves his schedule!

When his person came to pick Cooper up, he was delighted to see her and showed her a bunch of cool things that he had learned and then asked to go back to the kennel.  Three times that afternoon he came up for short visits and asked to go back to the kennel.  He was happy to see his person, delighted in fact, but he also was very clear that there were aspects of his life here that suited him just fine.  One of those things was a lot more down time than most pets get.  For whatever reason, Cooper likes to spend time in his crate.  By himself.  And he likes to spend time with his dog friends, unencumbered by the responsibility of always training his person.  

On the first evening, his person brought him upstairs to sleep in her room.  After an hour, he asked to go down to the kennel.  First vaguely, by being restless ,and then firmly by sitting and staring at the bedroom door.  We have long known that Cooper is a dog who likes his sleep, and prefers to sleep long and hard each night.  In the morning, Cooper was thrilled to have some training time, some attention and some scritches by his person, but again, he wanted to go back to the kennel.

Cooper’s person has struggled in classes in the states, and not because she doesn’t do her homework or because she has lacked for good coaching.  Part of the problem lies in the philosophy of training that Cooper espouses.  Cooper does not “get” trained.  He participates in it.  Cooper teaches his person as much as his person teaches him.  Cooper will accept nothing short of a 50-50 partnership.  Not only does he want to learn tricks and skills, but he expects his trainer to be actively learning too.  In our classes, with vet students and our staff working with him, with John and me participating in training, Cooper worked willingly for an hour or longer at a time, where at home, he would often quit on his person and give up in disgust after short periods of time.  If the trainer isn’t learning, Cooper isn’t interested in learning either.

I have often thought about what Cooper might say if he could talk.  The first thing that I think Cooper might tell us is that he is an intensely private little guy, and somewhat of an introvert.  Cooper would not tell you about his birthplace or the puppies he met in puppy class, because I think for Cooper, that is private information.  Cooper would also tell us that he likes his sleep.  Lots of it, in private, without disturbances.  On the other hand, Cooper is a responsible little guy, and he will tell you when the new neighbours upstairs get home from work at one in the morning.  Or when the person in the next hotel room gets up and goes down the hall for ice in the middle of the night.  Those are activities Cooper thinks you should know about.

I think Cooper would tell you that if you cannot think up a way to make the game meaningful to both of you, he isn’t interested in playing it.  Cooper is very interested in what makes people tick, and he manages to hit the nail on the head reliably time after time.  Cooper isn’t interested in being pandered to, and if you are not at least equally interested in what he is interested in, then he isn’t interested in playing whatever game you want to play.  
When Cooper is working with a vet student who is at Dogs in the Park to learn about training, he decides when they are ready to move to a variable schedule of reinforcement, and stops giving them cued behaviours the first time they ask.  Sound weird?  Yup!  Just when the student begins to grasp a one to one behaviour to reinforcement ratio, Cooper will start embellishing the system, adding bits and pieces, taking bits away and challenging the student to fine tune his or her skills.  He reinforces good timing with desired behaviours, but when the student is sloppy with his timing or cues, Coop throws nonsensical behaviours to make the student back up and start fresh.  He knows exactly when to apply the pressure of a lack of interest and participation to give the student just what is needed in terms of a learning experience.

Cooper has needs...and is most co operative when his needs are met
Cooper would also tell you that a doggy social life is essential to his well being.  Without social time, Cooper is a sad little puppy, and he will impose his view of this matter on you by dragging towards dogs he wants to meet.  Cooper isn’t unreasonable.  He will work off leash, in the presence of food on the floor and other dogs in the room, provided his needs have first been met.  From Cooper’s point of view, fair is fair, and if you aren’t going to be fair in letting him have social time, he will take care of that matter himself.

Cooper is a unique, highly communicative dog.  He is a fascinating fellow and I am fortunate to have worked with him for the past two months.  I think if Cooper could talk, he would have a lot to tell us, but the real lesson to learn from Cooper is that training is a partnership.  When you meet all of your partner’s needs, and you are willing to learn from your partner, you can both achieve great things.  I think Coop can teach us a lot about training not being about skill acquisition, but rather about meaningful activities that you do together, or more simply, about your relationship.  A good relationship is a careful weaving of needs of both parties and boundaries you each need to feel fulfilled.  It is a blend of common goals and activities and give and take on both sides, and Cooper is a dog who is unwilling to accept anything less than his fair share of the relationship.  Cooper is perhaps the best trainer, dog, horse or human, that I have ever met.

Thank you Cooper for an instructive two months.

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