A journey into your dogs thought processes

Have you ever stopped to think about how you and your canine companions make decisions?

The other day I was on my way to Coffs Harbour with a zillion things to do and as usual not nearly enough time to do it all in. I had next to no petrol in the car and so had to stop off at the petrol station. I had that morning been contemplating the difference between how humans act within our world vs how our dogs behave and what influences those actions. This had been prompted by another one of those “my dog did something naughty hours ago to make me upset” type of comments that many pet owners like to say.

As I drove towards the petrol station I started to pay attention to the decision making that was going on automatically inside my head. Please don’t stop reading I know that the talk inside my head can be pretty scary at times.  My internal dialogue was going something like this:

” How much petrol do I need? How much cash is in the bank? Which bank account is it in? What price might the petrol be today {groan}? Where do I have to drive over the next few days and how much petrol might that use up? What food do I need to buy tomorrow, the next day, next week and if I fill the tank will that leave enough money for the bills I have to pay? Have I really considered all the facts I need to? Oh darn, is that really the time? I am running late now.”

     I told you it was scary and that’s just my internal dialogue from the first traffic lights at the start of Mackville to the entrance to the service station, about 400m distance. My head sounds like this all day and most of the night. But the important thing to notice is that I was using strong reasoning skills and had an understanding that the action I was about to undertake had an impact on the present, and the future. My decisions were also based on both positive and negative learning from the past, i.e. running out of petrol in a diesel engine is more complicated that in a petrol driven car vs not totally filling the tank means I can buy some groceries at the shop, maybe even a treat for myself.

Contrast this with how your dog might be thinking at the moment it is contemplating any behaviour:

“I need to wee, OK here is good. Wow that feels so much better”

No reasoning, no concern for the future they just perform the behaviour and move onto the next thing. Dogs live within the moment, sometimes even within the microsecond. They do not reason, in fact I don’t think any animal species has been clearly demonstrated as understanding the reasoning process and that their  behaviours have consequences like humans do but they can learn that behaviour brings rewards. There are some pretty amazing dogs who seem to be almost able to reason they can be seen on various websites selecting a single requested toy from a large group (See links below). Researches are yet to really understand how this happens and if they are in fact reasoning. In my experience the dogs I have worked with do not show much appreciation of the future. beyond that which is fairly immediate.

What is the application of this understanding to companion animal training?

Dogs do what works for them right now and how they define a positive outcome is not necessarily the way we do. Elimination is a highly rewarding behaviour for a dog. They fail to understand the we do not like eliminations on our expensive carpet or on our beds as they are unable to comprehend the reasoning that the carpet is expensive to replace or clean and we sleep in the bed and what they have done is unpleasant to us. They fail to understand being punished for an act that happened hours ago which they have probably long forgotten as their concept of past is hazy at best.  Hence your dog will do the wrong (to us) behaviour over and over again.

We need to find an effective training tool that is capable of marking behaviour that happens within a microsecond in a sea of hundreds of other behaviours that the dog may be exhibiting that we fail to see. A clicker, silent whistle or marker word is a perfect tool to use.We need to develop the ability to give our dogs time to think about what we are asking, especially when we teach a new behaviour to allow for their different way of processing thought.

Napoleon practising his high five

I was doing a training and grooming demonstration last weekend at Pet Barn Coffs Harbour and it was a great opportunity to work one on one with Napoleon, my first ever fully clicker trained dog. I got him at 7 weeks of age and he was never trained with anything other than positive reward based methods. Napoleon is now a clicker savy dog and has an ever expanding list of tricks he can do. I was reinforcing old tricks and also expanding his skills, showing people just how effective clicker training is. What was evident was that when I introduced a  new behaviour he would continue to offer the old one, as that had previously been gaining him yummy treats. He needed time for his brain to process the fact that I was now asking for something different. He was acting in a purely instinctive way and I had to give him as much time as he needed to “think” differently. There was far less processing of what I wanted going on than you would expect. The more distractions and the more tired he got the less he was able to process the new request. I introduced a new command to our training that was “think about it” when I could see the cogs in him mind turning as he was trying to work out what I now wanted. This became his cue to offer me something different.

A clicker savy dog like Napoleon knows to offer behaviours as he has only been trained using positive reward based methods. Dogs that are trained using negative or aversive methods lose this ability and have to be retrained to think and offer behaviours to find out what we might reward. The are operating in shut down mode as all they are taught is what not to do. Rarely are they told what we want them to do.Likewise our dogs who are not ever given any positive reward at home. Don’t bark, don’t wee there, don’t hassle the cat, don’t jump on the lounge. You literally see some dogs lower their heads and try to hide as they shut down, while others bark or get aggressive in frustration.

Has this given you some food for thought. Let me know what your thoughts are on how your pet’s mind operates. Do you agree or not that they cannot reason?

Links to two amazing dogs that appear to understand words:

Happy Mother’s Day to all two and four legged mums. Put your feet up and get all the positive rewards you can next Sunday

Louise Kerr
The Pet Care Magician


Posted on May 3, 2011, in Dog Training, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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