Thursday, April 5, 2007

Green Acres is the Place to Be

After last week's disasterous outing, Ari and I have decided to throw ourselves into the process of domestication. We enroll in a class called "Basic Behaviors" at Green Acres Kennel, one of the leading sites for positive reinforcement training in Maine.

I spend a lot of time reading the brochure given to us by Don Hanson, the Green Acres manager. It promises to help with our own domestication process by teaching us socialization and polite manners—two areas where we can both use some serious instruction. Looking ahead to the start of class, I construct wild fantasies about a well-behaved dog who exists in our house with a kind of debonair quality that elevates us all.

At our human-only orientation, I am introduced to our two instructors, Joel and Erin. Both are in their mid-to-late twenties: Joel has a tidy ponytail and clunky, cool-guy glasses; Erin has long brown hair and a big smile. They seem delighted to be here. In the room with us are about a dozen other people. Half are here for a class called “Puppy Manners;” the other half are enrolled in “Basic Behaviors.” I frankly think we need both, but Ari’s advanced age of four months has qualified her for the latter course, so I join a young artsy-looking couple, a family in NASCAR t-shirts, and two middle-aged single women on our designated side of the room.

The session is an intense three hours with a lot to keep straight: hierarchies of rewards, types of training, theories of the mind. I scribble notes like my harried students and hope there won’t be a test later. During the lecture, Joel echoes much of what Don has already told me—that dogs are intensely social, but not necessarily eager to please us (unless doing so allows for even more social time). He also tells us that, while dogs may have an innate sense of direction, they lack any semblance of a moral compass.

“Dogs don’t know right from wrong,” Joel warns us. “They just know safe and dangerous.”
In other words, they will be bad when they think it safe, and will refrain when it is not. Outside in the woods, then, Ari will most likely be motivated by what she can get away with. She will almost certainly look for opportunities to be mischievous, but only if they do not compromise her relationship with me. We can use this fact, Joel tells us, to shape behavior through repetition.
Dogs are highly successful at learning through what is called instrumental condition or shaping. If you can lure a dog into a behavior and then reward her, she’ll repeat that behavior over and over again. Not only that, their very DNA is programmed to make them one of the most trainable of all mammals through this methodology.

But, Joel adds, this training is far more important to the human participants than it is the canine ones. “Everything you teach your dogs is just a silly trick to them. Sitting, rolling over, healing—they’re all just meaningless human requests that result in food rewards,” says Joel.
This revelation surprises me. Even knowing that dogs are opportunists and do not subscribe to our moral code, I somehow always believed that they really want to please us.
“Maybe,” Joel concedes unconvincingly. “But they’re much more likely to respond because they get something out of the deal. We tend to romanticize dogs—like Lassie. But really, they’re about self preservation before they’re about any bond with us. As Don always says, ‘if Lassie were a real dog, she would have stolen Timmy’s sandwich, pushed him into the well, and when asked, acted like she had no idea where he was.’”
So much for my fantasies about canine-human relationships.
A few days later, the three of us report for our first official—and chaotic—day of dog school. Five young dogs bursting with energy and no sense of decorum strain, swirl, and bark in an attempt to get close to one another. In two minutes, we are all a tangled, writhing mess of humans and pets.

“Social animals,” Joel reminds us firmly. He is unfazed by the din but sternly reminds the humans to keep their dogs separated. “Play,” he tells us, “is for outside time.”
While Joel continues to school the humans, Erin smiles and strokes the dogs, endearing herself to each one. The basic premise of positive reinforcement is engagement: you reward your dog for gazing into your eyes and figuring out what you want. When she does, you shower her with treats. This requires a dog to relinquish any last wolfie vestiges she maintains. The dogs in the room don’t seem to mind. In fact, they are positively smitten with Erin and her treat bag. When she approaches Ari, she holds a small snack just above the pup’s forehead and slowly moves it backwards. As she does, Ari sits. Erin clicks her little metal clicker and gives Ari the treat.
I’m amazed. Greg and I have tried multiple—and highly unsuccessful—attempts at home to achieve the same behavior. We’ve gently pushed her bottom onto the floor, mimicked the sit we want, waited until she sat on her own and then exclaimed, “Sit!” thinking she would make the connection. All of these approaches, I soon learn, are absolutely wrong. When it comes to training, dogs favor visual cues and what trainers call ‘lured’ behaviors: hold a treat over a dog’s nose, and he’ll have to reposition his tush on the floor if he wants to snatch it. Soon, tush + floor = snack.
I tell Erin I always suffered in math classes.
“Don’t worry,” she assures me. “You’ll get it soon enough.”
True to Erin’s word, Ari is sitting consistently on cue by the end of the month. We have also built the framework for the most important command we will learn at Green Acres: recall. When mastered, this skill means that Ari will come to me immediately when called. Such a skill has tremendous appeal: learning it means that I can consistently let Ari off leash in the town forest and count on her to return. But Joel stresses it can take years to establish what he calls “a reliable recall.” And, he warns, until we do, we always run a great risk when we let our dogs off the leash: there are simply no assurances they will return. He lists the many dangers of unleashed dogs and reminds us that most lost dogs are never recovered.

Achieving a solid recall proves much more difficult for the humans than the dogs, largely because it flies in the face of our own instincts. Under no circumstance—and no matter how frustrated we feel—are we to call angrily, even if the dogs are raiding our refrigerator or burying our shoes or kidnapping a neighborhood child. Instead, we are to be cheerleader perky and always, always, ALWAYS offer treats. This is not obedience; this is bribery.
We try it out a few times in class. Joel tells us to jump up and down, to use terms of endearment, to coo and laugh. In other words, to make utter fools of ourselves. Dog school is all about leaving your social comfort zone. I find myself suffering from an unexpected case of stage fright, and give a half-hearted attempt. As I do, Ari looks at me suspiciously. She turns to Joel, as if to ask, Has this human lost her mind? Why on earth would I run over to this flailing lunatic? He tells me to jump higher and coo louder. I do, but the pup looks more wary than ever.
“Try holding up a treat,” Joes advises.
Aha!, Ari seems to say, now I get it, and she trots—albeit a little warily—over to me.