The Beautiful Flow of Experimentation

marbles of different sizes and colorsWhen we are living with any dog, but especially a fearful dog, we need to be prepared, at any moment, to reinforce behaviors we like. This is what behavior modification is all about.

If you sat two children down, one with a pile of marbles, the other with a bucket of tennis balls and gave each the task to put these objects into a milk jug, what do you think is likely to happen? Start off with- which child is more likely to be successful? Assuming that the marbles are all small enough to fit into the jug and the child has the dexterity and hand/eye coordination, the child with the marbles will be. What about the child with the tennis balls? Even if they have the ability to try to perform the task, how many attempts do you think they will make before they give up altogether when they discover that tennis balls don’t fit into milk jugs? I’m going to guess, not many. Why bother?

If we were to bring in another child and give them a variety of different sized marbles, some which will fit, some just barely, others not at all, how many attempts do you think they will make before they stop? Let’s assume that putting marbles in jugs is fun for the child or that we’ve promised them their special treat for doing it, and I’m guessing that they will keep trying until they have put all the marbles that fit into the jug and have a pile of those that don’t. If we asked them to do this a second time they might even do it more quickly if there were easy ways for them to differentiate between the sizes of the marbles; all the red ones fit, blue ones don’t.

When our dogs are interacting with us and their environment there is a continuous flow of experimentation of behavior. Each behavior provides the dog with information as to whether they should do it again or not based on what outcome the behavior produces. Does the behavior fit? If we always provide our dogs with information that tells them that a behavior is the right one, they can be prepared to use that behavior again in the future. If we resort to punishment too often, which for a fearful dog may be just once, they may, like the child with the tennis balls, stop bothering to experiment to come up with the behavior that fits.

We don’t need to hit them over the head to let them know that a behavior isn’t fitting. If they have learned a variety of ways that tell them that a behavior does fit; food treats, praise, smiles, cheers of approval, a click, the word YES, when one of these does not occur, they are prepared to experiment with another response until they are successful.

In life, on rivers, or when training a dog, there are advantages to going with the flow.

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11 comments so far

  1. Sam Tatters on

    I don’t know much about the way Inka was trained before he came home (choke chain, electric shock collar, beaten with a stick, kicked, starved, shouted at? Could be any or none), but I *do* know that the sheepdog broker taught him a marker signal – a sigh. I don’t know what happened after the sigh, but I do know I can’t sigh – or sometimes even breathe deeply – when Inka is around. Even if he’s asleep, and I sigh because it’s raining (again!) or my partner’s late home from work, I get a little waggly pup with lots of “kisses” and worry on his face.

    My theory? He was given the marbles and jug, but not told what to do, and then berated any time he tried anything other than the exact motion to get the marble in the jug,

    • fearfuldogs on

      The power of conditioning associations. Something we need to be aware of with these pooches.

  2. rangerskat on

    Another timely post. Sometimes I suspect you of spy cameras your posts match so well to what we’re working on. Currently we’re training Finna to walk on the treadmill and I know I am subverting my own goal of having her use all four paws at a time because her preferred method amuses me. For some reason she prefers to have two paws still and two paws walking and it doesn’t matter to her if she’s run forward to put her front paws on the motor housing and walking her back paws or has stopped moving to ride the belt back to the point where her back paws drop onto the carpet and she walks with front paws. Even though she only earns food for four paws walking on the treadmill the two paws earns smiles and laughter. Her preference is OK–she’s putting the easy marbles in the jug–and Mom’s amusement is a reward. The marbles that are a tight fit–four paws on the moving belt–earn a desirable food reward but it’s not as comfortable for her. She’s choosing the more comfortable task for the non-food reward.

    • fearfuldogs on

      How about you put up a camera and tape Finna on the treadmill. I’m trying to picture what’s she’s doing. Sounds like you might need to work on exercising front and back legs separately!

      • rangerskat on

        I plan to get a video of Finna in action as soon as the kids remember where they put the new video camera. She definitely prefers to use two legs at a time moving on the treadmill and doesn’t seem to care which two she has moving and which two stationery.

      • rangerskat on

        http://youtu.be/z72IamxC-Ik video of Finna using the treadmill. My training skills are nothing to write home about and the quality of the video is rough but you can clearly see the different ways she’s figured out to use the treadmill.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Very cute. Love the cross paw dance move!

  3. Sillyshishi on

    You know, you have made some good posts in this blog, and I have enjoyed them. I have to say, however, that this is definitely one of the best.

  4. Hazel on

    Sometimes I am the one with the marbles and Dusty & Rascal are much better trainers than I am. Many times I have thought “This just isn’t going to work” and I swear at times Dusty smiles cause I change what I think should work to what he will deal with at the time.
    I also agree that you have spy cameras. I do believe you got one trained on my house/yard.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I assure you no cameras! I’m sure it’s illegal & creepy 😉 And lucky for us we too can benefit from the flow and learn to do what’s best for us and our dogs. We just need to be ready to let go of beliefs that might be keeping us stuck.


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