Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Obedience Training for Humans

October 08, 2009

Travvy is a sergeant in the Malamute Resistance Movement (MRM), an far-flung organization that occasionally uses the Malamute-L e-list for its interstate and international communications. The officers and NCOs of the MRM are quite aware that humans are listening in, not least because computers were not designed with the canine physique in mind, so most of them exercise caution in most of their posts. Still, the MRMers display a scary degree of insight into human behavior. I wish I could audit a conference where dogs share what they know about human obedience training. Meanwhile, I learn plenty from trying to keep one paw ahead of the Malamute I live with.

Some months ago I taught (feel free to smirk whenever you read I taught, I trained, or any other symptom of human self-delusion) Travvy to go to an old faded green saddle blanket and lie down. This was not hard. When Trav put a paw on the mat, I clicked my clicker and gave him a kibble bit. When he sat on the mat, he got a click and a kibble. When he lay down on the mat, he got a click and one, two, three bits of turkey dog. In no time he figured out that the big payoff came when he lay down on the saddle blanket. The blanket is about four feet from my desk chair. At irregular intervals I'd toss him another hot dog bit. Eventually he'd fall asleep on the blanket.

This trick -- "go to place" as it's often called -- comes in handy. In the spring, when we'd return from our morning walks at Misty Meadows, Travvy's legs would be crawling with dog ticks. I could do a pretty good de-ticking job out on the deck, but no way could I find all the ticks hiding out in that thick Mal fur, even with a comb. With Travvy on his mat and me at my desk, I could keep an eye out for ticks coming out of hiding -- before they took up residence in my bed. The same goes for muddy paws and belly fur: Trav would clean himself up on the mat and track less dirt around the apartment. And I take the green saddle blanket to Rally practice, where it gives Trav a little home base when he gets overexcited.

Travvy is no dummy. Having established that lying on the saddle blanket elicited morsels of hot dog, he started taking the blanket out of its resting place. To get my attention he'd shake it vigorously. I tried to keep a straight face. Often I burst out laughing. He'd drop the blanket to the floor and lie down on it. Finally he figured out that the magic blanket only produced treats if I spread it on the floor.

Fast-forward a few months. Malamutes aren't inclined to fetch -- well, no, that's not quite right. They love to chase and snatch. What they don't especially like to do is return to you with whatever they've got in their mouths. They'd rather laugh at you while you jump up and down and yell at them, and/or they'll eat whatever they've snatched, whether you think it's edible or not. As a sort of training challenge I set out to teach Travvy to fetch an "Air Dog" -- imagine a squeaky tennis ball elongated into a cylinder about 10 inches long and about 2 inches in diameter. First I tossed the Air Dog and clicked whenever Travvy went to it. Then I held out till he touched it. Then till he picked it up. Then till he carried it in my direction. Then till he brought it all the way to me. (The neat thing about "positive reinforcement" training methods is that the dog will experiment until he figures out what you want, instead of cowering or freezing because he doesn't understand.) So now we have another fun game to play inside.

Except yesterday Travvy pulled the green saddle blanket off its chest and halfheartedly tried to get me to reward him for lying on it. Needless to say, my heart was stone and that didn't work. So Travvy picked up the Air Dog, tossed it toward the front door, then brought it back to me and dropped it at my feet. I was bad, I was really bad: I laughed out loud and gave him a cookie.

So he's got another case study to take to the next conference on human obedience training. Tentative title is "All Humans Are Patsies, but Some Make You Think Harder than Others."


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