‘Your dog doesn’t do things because he loves you’, the trainer in yellow is explaining to twenty dog owners, of which I am one, standing lead in hand next to their dogs. ‘Sorry to disappoint you’, he says, not looking a bit sorry. ‘But your dog is totally selfish’.
He pauses, letting his news sink in. ‘Sure your dog loves you. But he doesn’t do what you want out of love for you. If he behaves well, sitting on the pavement before crossing the road or coming on recall at the park, it’s because good things happen when he does. Pats’, he says, leaning down to ruffle his black lab’s head. ‘Treats!’ he adds, smiling and holding up a pellet between thumb and forefinger.
‘You may think’, he says, getting into his stride, ‘that by coming to these classes you will train your dog and that will be it.’ He snaps his fingers in the air. ‘But I have to inform you that it’s not like that with dog training. It’s just not like that at all. Training your dog is more like going to the gym. Which means you will be training your dog until the day he dies!’
Even the yappy dogs have quietened down by now. ‘The old way of training,’ the trainer continues, ‘with the owner, the top dog, teaching his dog behaviours that stay with that dog permanently, this way of thinking is well and truly is over. Sorry folks, I have to tell you that we trainers had it all wrong!’ He turns on his heel, throws his hand into the air, lets go of the chalk and neatly catches it. ‘You see your dog has no deductive reasoning. He lives entirely in the present. He has no concept of language. All he can follow is a chain of sounds, but not the words or reasoning behind it. You may as well say ‘Ketchup!’ to him, rather than ‘Sit!’, when you want him to put his bum on the ground’.
‘Most of the dogs here have been through our puppy class where, if you remember, we talked a lot about conditional reinforcement.’ And he writes CR on the blackboard, pressing hard on the chalk as he circles the letters. ‘Although we still talk about training a dog, what we are really doing is shaping, or reinforcing, his behaviour.’
‘The reality is that when you have a dog, you spend as much time unshaping as shaping his behaviour – detraining rather than training. You can’t make your dog do anything. All you can do is reinforce desired behaviours and turn a blind eye to any undesired behaviours, just as you might with a child. That was when it came to me. ‘Or, I thought to myself, ‘with my husband’.
Having come to dog training classes begrudgingly, feeling I’d been lumped with a task that my family had wormed their way out of, I found myself hanging on the trainer’s every word. In the cool light of the dog training shed I realised that my husband didn’t do what I wanted him to do because he loved me. Standing on one and then the other foot, it took a few seconds to take the analogy one step further. My whole marriage was on par with the dog training that I was doing with my kelpie-collie cross.
I’d done my best to be the top dog, to change my husband’s behaviour for the better. And the outcome? Dismal failure. If anything I’d reinforced the behaviour I didn’t like. And no doubt he’d say the same of me. Both of us were expending huge amounts of energy trying to train each other out of undesired behaviours. In the cool light of the dog training shed it was embarrassingly clear.
This wasn’t how we’d set out together over twenty years ago. At that time we were both involved in psychoanalysis, and it was in these lofty terms that we made sense of our relationship. Our future, we were confident, would be based on enlightenment and sympathy. We were intelligent. We had good jobs. It didn’t seem hubristic to assume that our relationship would sidestep the compromises that we’d witnessed in our parents’ marriages. Except, of course, for one thing. Our confidence failed to allow for the pressure our relationship would come under once we had a family.
‘How many of you have dogs who will sit on command?’asked the trainer. All twenty of us shot up our hands, pleased to be modestly competent even in just one area. ‘How many of you have dogs who will sit, and stay sitting, until you release them on command?’ No-one put up their hand. ‘Right’, said the trainer. ‘This lesson is all about how to get your dog into a reliable sit every time you tell him to’.
‘This’, he explained, ‘involves going back to square one. We want your dog to be able to generalise the command “Sit!” wherever he is and whatever he is doing. I’ll show you now, with my dog. I can bounce a ball in front of my dog when he’s in a sit. I can ride a bike around him. I can throw food treats at him. And he won’t get out of his sit until I release him with the word ‘Free’ – which I stay in a high-up girly tone that can’t be mistaken for any other word. And then, straightaway, I’ll follow it up with ‘Yesss’ and a treat.’
I don’t give my husband treats. And as far as I know he doesn’t sit on command. Nor do we have a generalised ‘Sit!’ in our communication with each other. And yet there is still a weird similarity between dog training and marriage, I think to myself, fumbling for a small cube of cheese and going back to square one to get my dog into a reliable sit.
‘Be kind’, my husband will say to me, now and then, as he comes into the kitchen. ‘Be sweet,’ he’ll continue. My teenage daughter can be relied on to explode disdainfully at my husband’s request for his family to be nice to him. And I admit it doesn’t go down that well with me either. However standing in dog training class, breaking a cube of cheese into tiny pieces behind my back, I begin to see what the trainer – and my husband – is getting at. What if, instead of starting the day with a vague directive to my husband, I begin it with a compliment – with a high value treat?
Having thought dog training classes might be trying, even boring, I now feel the opposite. Within fifteen minutes of being in the dog shed, and of starting the class, training our dog has become quietly rivetting.
But how can you go back to square one in a complicated marriage relationship? What would that look like? Will it involve cubes of squishy cheese in a treat pouch? Might my husband and I really be able to stop pushing each other’s buttons – invisible to a third party but electrically alive to both of us? And could this really take no more than two minutes of training, morning and evening, with a high value treat? Stay tuned.