Monday, April 30, 2007

Signs of Spring

Joel tells us to practice our new obedience skills constantly—but always in a safe place. We work in the living room, the backyard, the corral at dog school. I become arrogant in Ari’s confidence as a student. And so, on the last day of the month, we walk through the woods to our neighbor’s pasture. I’ve picked this locale as a compromise: Ari can still roam free, and as best as I can tell, there’s little that would lure her away. Furthermore, we’re bound in by old rock walls and formidable blackberry bushes, so the pup’s opportunities to stray are severely limited. As we step into the clearing, I cup my hand and ask Ari to sit. She does. We stare at one another for a minute or two, assessing our options.

Eventually, I decide I can trust her impulse for domesticity. I bend down and unhook her leash, holding my breath as I do. She looks momentarily confused, and then delighted. I inhale deeply, ready to take off in pursuit, but Ari stays put. We begin a walk around the circumference of the field. Every three seconds, I look down to make sure the pup is sticking close. She is—contenting herself with some tight little serpentines around my path and always checking in.

We make it all the way around the pasture without incident. I begin to let down my guard, just enough to take in the scenery. It’s a blustery day, and the western wind still holds an arctic chill, in spite of the fact it’s nearly May. The gusts kick up last season’s leaves and cause them to dance about. But that’s not the motion Ari follows. Instead, she casts her gaze far outwards, as if no longer content with what’s at the end of her nose. I look across the field as well. We are both confused: the other side of the pasture appears to be moving and shifting upon itself, as if it were alive.

We walk closer to investigate. Ari raises her puppy hackles, looking cartoonish in her attempt at fierceness. She tries an assertive bark, still high and thin with youth. It’s enough to startle whatever continues to hop across the pasture, and one of them takes flight. As it does, I see an undeniable rosy patch on its breast. A robin! I look more closely. Sure enough, the pasture is filled with nearly fifty robins (Turdus migratorius), hunting for earthworms in the few patches of soft ground.

The puppy has seen birds at our feeders and a few chickadees in the trees outside our house, but these are different. Not only are they strong in number, but they’re all around us and not showing any sign of straying very far. Ari flattens her hackles and instead raises her tail in a robust, full-circle wag. Forget about wolfie predation, these birds could be doggy friends! She takes off in pursuit, arcing through the air in what can only be described as pure joy. She stumbles and tumbles in her excitement, looking more like a rubber ball than a puppy. As she does, the robins disperse, rising en masse to the birch and pine trees.

As I will learn when we return home, these birds are capable of going from a standstill to 20 mph in no time. Furthermore, they know exactly when they need to: not only can they see farther than we can, they can also discriminate more points on the color spectrum and pinpoint the movement of an object with tremendous accuracy. In other words, the chances of Ari ever catching up are slim to none. Still, she runs harder, hoping they might let her follow. I do the same, following not the birds but, rather, the racing puppy. All I can think about are feral whippets running around busy boroughs and Joel’s disapproving face.

“Ari, come!” I shout, knowing the command futile before I even open my mouth. “Ari! Ari?”
Meanwhile, the birds have ensconced themselves high up in the trees, where they sit silently, their soft brown eyes taking in the actions of the pup. Standing below them, Ari appears first confused, then hurt. The robins don’t seem to share her enthusiasm, and they’ve clearly rejected her overture of friendship. She drops her tail and turns to look at me. I feel badly for her. I do my best cheerleader dance, opening wide my arms.

“Come’ere, puppy,” I sing at the top of my lungs, “Come on, Ari Jindo! Bung Ari Jan Gab!”

I try not to show the apprehension I’m feeling. Even still, I get the impression Ari can sense it. She eyes me and then the robins, as if weighing the appeal of both. I squat down, opening my arms wider.

“Arr-ii,” I sing. “Aarrrrrrriiiiiiiiii. Come back, pup.”

My overtures work. She smiles tentatively, then trots over to accept both a treat and her leash. It’s time to return home.

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.