Supposedly people are smarter than dogs.
But I wonder if that’s true. I feel dumber than my dog all the time.
And it’s a fact that sometimes our dogs train us.
Our First Dog Trainer
My last dog, Shadow, definitely trained us.
Yes, we’re the ones who used clicker training to lessen her reactions to other dogs on the street. But Shadow trained us well enough to open our wallet.
At night, Shadow slept on her pillow beside our bed. Around four a.m., she’d jump onto the bed and curl up on my feet until we were ready to get up.
I don’t sleep very well.
And a forty-five pound weight on my legs doesn’t help.
That’s easy. We’ll train Shadow to stay on her bed all night.
Easier said than done.
Because Shadow was a better dog trainer (dog. trainer. get it?) than we were.
First we tried teaching Shadow to go to bed on a cue. When she did it, we gave her a treat.
It worked at night. But it failed miserably at four a.m.
Then we tried creating a barrier that prevented Shadow from jumping on the bed. She responded by barking in frustration.
No problem. We just had to wait her out.
Eventually she’d realize her barking wasn’t getting her the reward she wanted and she’d stop.
Except she. didn’t. stop. barking.
Imagine hearing a big, booming bark in your ear at four a.m. on a work morning.
We tried to outlast Shadow’s barking for three months. She never stopped until we had to get up, exhausted, to go to work.
Yep, folks. Aversive training works. And Shadow was a master at using it.
Dog Trainer Sponsorship
Finally, we gave up our idea of having Shadow sleep on the floor all night.
We bought a bigger mattress.
Which mean buying a bigger bed. Which meant buying a matching bedroom suite.
The queen mattress barely fit up our tiny staircase. I can still see the dings it made in the plaster walls.
I think I’ll use a chainsaw to get it out when we move.
I wonder if Shadow was working for the furniture store that sold us that mattress and all that furniture?
Stories We Tell Ourselves
I’ve always been interested in the stories we tell ourselves about rescue dogs (click the link; although it’s four years old, I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written).
We told ourselves a story about Shadow to justify allowing her to sleep on the bed early in the morning.
The shelter workers told us when we adopted Shadow that her family surrendered her on the advice of their doctor. Someone in the family was suffering from kidney failure and waiting for a transplant. The doctor told them it was not smart to have a dog around someone with a compromised immune system.
So Shadow’s family drove her miles from her home to the only no-kill, open admission shelter in the area.
Shadow was eight years old when we adopted her. She was a beautiful and mellow dog with perfect house manners.
Sure, she couldn’t walk on a leash without nearly killing someone.
But if you never left the house, you had the perfect dog.
We told ourselves that Shadow’s people probably loved her. Maybe one of Shadow’s people went to work before five a.m. and Shadow took his place on the bed to keep his other person company.
And maybe it was his other person who had been ill. And maybe Shadow had jumped on the bed early in the morning for years.
How could we expect her to change after all that time?
The only things we knew were what the shelter workers passed on. And who knows if the people who surrendered Shadow told the whole truth?
But the story made sense out of a behavior we could not train Shadow away from. She jumped up on the foot of the bed before dawn every day she lived with us.
And we don’t have to admit to ourselves that Shadow was better at training us then we were at training her.
Your Turn: What has your dog trained you to do? And does anyone have an example of their dog using positive reinforcement instead of aversive training tools?