Friday, September 19, 2008

Easy to please

One thing I love about dogs is that, unlike so many humans, they are generally easy to please.

One time I was over at a breeder's house, working with her to train some new show dogs. These dogs had never been on a lead before, and were learning to free-stack, which is basically standing four-square facing the handler so that the judge can see a side profile. Not too difficult, but if the dog has never been worked with before, it takes a lot of reinforcement with food to get them to understand what they're supposed to do.

Because you have to feed the dogs so frequently when they are first being trained, I usually give small pieces. I figure it's the gesture that counts. You do something good, you get a reward. The dogs are not going to stand there and measure each piece to see if it meets quota. Most of the time they gobble it down without even tasting it anyway. And if you give smaller pieces, you can train longer without enlisting your dog in Weight Watchers and trying to figure out how many points are in a serving of dog food.

At one point, the breeder noticed the size of the chunks of cheese I was feeding the dog, and exclaimed, "What is that?!"

Cheese. Duh.

"That's not a chunk," she said, taking the cheese out of my hand and breaking off a piece the size of about half of a baby carrot. "THAT is a chunk."

She then compared it with an exaggeratedly small piece of cheese that was supposed to represent my pieces. "Which would you rather work for?"

I didn't argue--they're her dogs and they'll be fed as much as she wants them to. But did the dog work any better for the bigger piece of cheese? No. (Though she'll claim that they did.)

Big or small chunk, that dog wanted cheese and was willing to work for it. Dogs aren't like humans--they rarely demand a higher salary. It's not the amount of the reward they've been given that matters as much as the principle behind it. I believe dogs like to do good work. They like knowing what to do and being able to do it well. Sure, the dog I was training wanted cheese, but I believe she also just wanted to know what to do.

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