I don’t know how to fly a plane, but I can learn

Copper and Nero
Copper and Nero

I worked with a client recently who has a one year old Landseer Newfoundland called Nero and an eight year old collie cross called Copper. Copper is one of these “once in a lifetime” dog’s who everyone wishes they could own but very few of us, unfortunately, ever have the pleasure to. He is very confident, experienced, has great social skills with other dogs and people and is a true gentleman. This would appear to have come naturally to him. Nero, will be Copper in a few year’s time. He needs some more practice and guidance, but he has been reared in much the same way as Copper, with steadiness and consistency. He is naturally a little more inclined to do his own thing than Copper is, and doesn’t always respond the way Jeannine, his owner, wants him to.

Jeannine is an airline pilot, I’ll explain why that’s relevant in moment. The issues with Nero are that he tends not to settle when people come into the house, as he wants to say hello and he has a habit of running up to people in the park (he doesn’t jump up) also to say hello. I explained to Jeannine why he is doing this, and when we changed how he is being reinforced, when he is being reinforced and by whom, we very quickly changed his behaviour to something which was more acceptable for us.

During the first session in the park, I did the majority of the handling, as Jeannine had her delightful baby girl (who clapped every time I said “good boy!” to Nero), so she could have a clear picture in her mind of what we were looking for. I reinforced Nero for calmer behaviour with food, praise and the continued opportunity to play and explore every time he did something I liked, which was either waiting, recalling or sitting. As the session continued, Jeannine gave the cues and I reinforced the behaviour.

About 40 minutes in, Jeannine observed that Nero was responding to me much better than he usually responded to her. My response to Jeannine was ” But I would expect that, because I don’t know how to fly a plane”. This is a strategy I’ve adopted to make clients feel better, as often the remark is made by clients that their dog responds better to me than to them. Initially, and until recently, I’ve put it down to the fact that I have handled and trained dogs for years, my timing is better than novice dog handlers, and I am better at reading body language and predicting dogs’ behaviour. This is true, but it’s not the whole story.

When a dog lives with a novice handler/trainer (and I would put very many owners into that category, as it has to do with training experience rather than ownership experience) the reinforcement history can be very sketchy. The dog’s behaviour is sometimes reinforced, some times not, sometimes punished and sometimes not. The result of this is that the dog either consistently tries behaviour which works for him (very often the ones we don’t want) and doesn’t reliably perform others (very often the ones we do want).

On the other hand, when I meet a client for the first time with their dog, I am starting with a clean slate and I write my own history with the dog, with no reference to anything else. This leads very quickly to the dog trusting that when I act in a certain way, and he responds, his behaviour will either be reinforced or not. Because there is no history, the dog has not point of reference other than the limited experience with me, which is very clear (hopefully).

The point of this is that I can learn to fly a plane, given enough time, commitment and effort. We can all try to wipe the slate clean with ours dogs, and start building a new relationship built on consistency and trust.

In my next blog, I’ll talk more about how to build this trust and the things we can do, inadvertently, to damage this trust, which can lead to further frustration in both human and the dog and a further breakdown of trust.

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