Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Great Expectations

A recurring thought often goes through my mind that I have received more formal training in the past year from the Helping Paws program on how to raise a dog than is ever offered to prospective and current parents for raising their children. Hospitals offer a birthing class and there are programs like Early Childhood Family Education (E.C.F.E.) but these programs are mostly voluntary and are most often attended by "good" parents - those that already work hard at learning all they need to know to be a loving, caring, teacher and parent.

At Helping Paws we receive training, medical and reference manuals that discussed the methodology of the program and how it fits with the physical and mental development stages of the puppy soon to be placed with us. We are required to attend weekly 1 1/2 hour training sessions with homework assigned for the next session. We are given time to ask questions about training difficulties or relate training successes with our peers within the training group. We are given training instructors with years and years of successful training experience with both dogs and their foster home trainers. When my kids were born, I was given a box of diapers and some coupons by vendors hoping to wrap up my child's "business". Formal training was neither required nor readily available.

At Helping Paws positive reinforcement is at the core of all we do with our dogs. To be successful we have to know what behavior we want to reinforce, recognize it when it occurs and immediately praise (reward) the dog for offering the behavior. Consistency in treating the dog in this fashion builds trust and confidence in both dog and trainer. Sometimes, the hardest thing about consistency is patience. Waiting for the dog to behave as directed but not letting them off the hook if they don't want to perform the cue. And that's the tough part for me.

In writing my resolutions over the past couple of days, I tried to think about what I could do differently to help Belle achieve success with the cue "come". When I played back how I have behaved after giving her the cue, I realized I was giving a conflicting message. I would tell Belle to come, but when she delayed, I would continue to get ready for whatever I wanted her to come for. I decided that I would change this behavior and just wait for her to do as I asked. The first test came when I wanted Belle to come, get her gentle leader on, and go with me on some errands.

Belle was outside playing and I knew she would balk. I gave her the cue and waited never taking my eyes from her. As expected, Belle looked at me for a second and then bounded off in search of a toy to pick-up. I didn't move and I kept my eyes on her. Soon she stopped frolicking about and pretended to look at something else - all the while keeping watch on me out of the corner of her eye. I took a step backward never breaking my attempt to make eye contact. She took a few steps forward and then lay down, but now she was facing me and giving me eyebrows just to see if I was still looking at her. I backed up again - and now she started to crawl towards me. I encouraged her telling her "that's it", and she bounded up and ran around the yard again. But this time, when she stopped, she was just a few feet from me. Again, I encouraged her. Again, she lay down. I stepped back and this time she got up and came right over to me. Jackpot!!! She got all the treats in my pocket, a big hug, and tons of praise.

I wish I could say that she's now coming immediately on cue, but we repeated the whole sequence again last night. I expect I will have to repeat these actions a few more times before she trusts me to expect nothing less than her immediate response. The best part is that she will want to respond immediately because she has learned that it makes her happy to do so because it pleases me.

Consistency, Patience, Reward, repeat. I saw this in action yesterday - so clearly, I wish I had it on film. A simple approach but in practice sometimes more difficult than it seems depending on the personalities and skill sets of dog and trainer. With a dog, development and results are achievable more quickly than with a human child - and not as complex. Still, I can't help but think that if each parent had the type of training in CPR that we receive through Helping Paws this world would truly be an awesome place. It certainly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "life support".


Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head. Good blog!

Speak(er) said...

Thank-you, Anonymous!