Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Wordless Wednesdays - What Are They Thinking?

Eddie Helps in the Garden

A few days ago, spring having finally started, M and I decided that the garden needed some attention. In the morning, the first task was weeding and cutting, both some of the old growth of last year that we hadn’t bothered about over winter, and some of the new stuff that was already making a bid to take over the garden. Cassie and Eddie joined us outside, of course, both somewhat perturbed at the sudden amount of activity in what, over the winter months, had not been much more than their occasional powder room. Soon Cassie found a spot of suitable lawn and lied down to observe us and life. Eddie, as always wanting to be in control, was more restless, walking around, checking us out and occasionally voicing his displeasure at not knowing why and what was actually going on, by whining slightly.

After clearing the garden we all went for a long walk, and returned via the garden centre, purchasing some new plants. In the afternoon, then, I begun digging a hole for one of these plants, using a spade. Eddie was standing next to me looking at me intently. I had just turned the earth in the border, and it was soft and uneven. As I momentarily stopped digging, I could see Eddie tentatively pawing at the earth, and looking at me. I took the spade out of the hole, asking him if he wanted to help. I was quite surprised to find that he apparently did. He jumped into the hole and started digging. After a few seconds he jumped out and ran in a little circle, ending up in the hole again. He dug a little more, did another lap and finally lied down in the muddy hole, wagging his tail.

I was quite fascinated with this behaviour and what brought it on. Eddie has never dug in the garden before. Indeed, I can’t remember seeing him dig anywhere. He was clearly in a playful mode, bowing to me, and running in that lighthearted way, with an arched back, and a waggy tail. The greyhounds at the kennels behave in the same way sometimes, when let out into the paddock. They dig ferociously in a spot with some soft earth for a few seconds, and then playfully zoom around in circles, before coming back to the hole and starting again. This is clearly a great game to them, and seems to be partly brought on by the presence of nice soft earth. They don’t dig in this way on the grass or on concrete (although some do display digging behaviour in their kennels, but it is not in this playful way).

Perhaps, then, the presence of soft dug-over earth, not something Eddie usually encounters in our garden, inspired him to dig. He did seem to test it with his paw first. Also, I have noticed that the dogs clearly do interact in very specific ways with the ground they walk on. On the beach, stretches of softer sand will make both Eddie and Cassie set off at full speed. Perhaps this has something to do with their pasts as racers, when they ran on sand. However, also this behaviour is very playful, having them running and jumping in circles. Maybe there is something about the softness of the ground that inspires play.

Maybe, as Eddie was testing the ground with his paw and looking at me, he was searching for permission to dig, and granted it he dared do what he wouldn’t otherwise do in the garden. Saying that, I can’t really remember having told him that he was not allowed to dig, as I don’t think he has ever tried it. But perhaps I forget an attempt which he has dutifully remembered.

I am tempted to consider to what extent an element of mimicking was involved in Eddie’s outburst of digging joy. I remember reading that dogs have indeed been shown to mimic their owner’s actions, although part of me thinks I am simply anthropomorphizing. I highly doubt that he actually had any sense of “helping out”. While cooperative behaviour is not entirely foreign to pack living canines, I am not sure digging is one of the activities in which it occurs. In addition, my action with the spade is very different to a dog digging with its paw. Yet, the resulting hole is a pretty clear indication of what it is I am doing, and one that a dog can relate to. Of course, a dog’s capacity to mimic human action is limited by its cognitive horizon. If Eddie saw me playing the violin, it would not cross his mind to attempt to do something similar. Digging, however, is an activity he understands, and I don’t think it is beyond the realm of possibility that he was copying me in some sense.

In any case, it was one of those moments, when there was clearly a connection between his actions and mine. He didn’t dig independently of me. He observed my actions, and he sought my attention and approval. It was obviously a game to him, one he perhaps felt that I had invited him to partake in. Or maybe, not really understanding what I was doing with that spade at all, simply enticed by the soft earth, one he was inviting me to partake in, with the unmistakable sign of the play-bow.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Rethinking the Squeaky

Previously I posted about the importance, for successful training, of finding what it is that motivates your dog. If you want your dog to do something for you, you need to give them a reason. The dog will learn that if he or she listens and follows your commands, it will be worth their while. Many dogs will find a morsel of food motivating enough. However, some dogs are not as interested in food as you may expect, especially not in situations where there are a lot of other exciting things going on.

I have found that while treats are a big motivation for my greyhound boy Eddie, they are much less so for greyhound girl Cassie. Therefore, recall training with Eddie was fairly easy, but I had to work on finding a different reward to entice Cassie to come on command. It turned out she absolutely loved squeaky toys, so I used them as a way to reward her when she came back. It seemed to be a good idea.

Recently I have, however, been rethinking this strategy. I wasn’t entirely happy with the method anyway, as she wasn’t necessarily always coming to my call, but rather to the squeak of the toy. That is, I wasn’t sure how much she was actually learning to listen to me, rather than just following the squeak. Yes, she will get a reward if she comes, but she should understand that she gets the reward from me for an action she performs. At least half of the time it appeared to me as if she ignored my voice, but decided to come simply when she heard the toy. This doesn’t really constitute training, as she is just opportunistically going for the toy, like she would any other prey that would randomly appear on her horizon. I wasn’t really reinforcing the recall, but rather her obsession with the squeaky.

This became more clear to me recently. Cassie suffered a broken toe in January, and her exercise has been restricted for two months. Even when I started taking her on walks again after a month, I had to keep her on the lead. No running, and so, no squeaky toy. She is not keen on playing with squeakies on the leash, as she wants to run about with them.

Throughout these months I have noticed that she has grown more attentive to me. Of course, she was on a leash, so she kind of had to be, and also, she has now been with us for six months, and I also found with Eddie that this was time it took for him to really become attached to us. In any case, I have a feeling that not spending her walks chasing a squeaky around manically has made her pay attention to what the pack was doing more.

I have thus decided to restrict her play with the toy, and also the use of the toy as a lure. Indeed, now that her toe is healed and she is off lead again, it is clear that he has mellowed somewhat. She does keep closer and listen to me more. However, there are moments when she doesn’t, and I have resorted to squeaking the toy again, at it is a sure way to make her come back to me. I am not sure this is the right thing to do. As she really likes the toy, I would like letting her play with it at times, but I don’t want her to get too focused on it again. Certainly, I want consolidate her recall on my command. 

In fact, the advice given at the Greyhound adoption kennels at which I volunteer, is that squeaky toys should be avoided, because they reinforce the already strong hunting instinct of greyhounds. If you want a greyhound with good recall, the reasoning goes, you don’t want to encourage chasing in any way. While this makes sense, I have decided to allow my greys off lead and to chase in safe environments, as long as they come back to me afterwards, so I am not sure the squeaky will make that much of a difference. I am not really discouraging chasing, just encouraging obedience. On the other hand, I can see that I will need to modify my use of the squeaky toy if I am to use it in recall training. I need to make Cassie understand that it is a reward, not a bribe. I think the key is not to squeak it until she actually comes to me. This means I can't use it as a short-cut to make her come back, however, but I think spending some time to get this right may be beneficial in the long run.

If you have any experience or thoughts on this dilemma, please comment!