In which we talk about willfulness, intelligence, and covenant loyalty in dogs while Arthur Schopenhauer and Micah the Prophet glare at the impudent dog trainer who has stolen their ideas for his own purposes.
I’m firm, you’re stubborn, and he’s a puppy
Mr. Darcy is now in his 11th week of life. At about 35 pounds, he’s quite an armful to carry even when he’s willing to be picked up. Right now, since we want to minimize the amount of coercion we use, I often have to carry him out and down the front stairs because he’s a floppy puppy who doesn’t want to perform the required prophylactic eliminations upon waking, eating, and/or every hour or two. In that mode, he’d be great at a sit-in protest.
But he’s also a very willful dog: one with definite ideas of what he wants to do. This is actually a good thing, since we’re trying to bring up a dog capable of making fairly important decisions on his own, so he has to be allowed to exercise that will when doing so won’t reinforce an unwanted behavior or endanger him.
Such dogs are often called “hard,” in the Mohs Scale sense of the word. The old force-trainers used to define a hard dog as one that required fairly severe positive punishment corrections in training. This led to practices like “choking out” the dog by raising him from the ground by his choke (slip-chain) collar, or even “helicoptering” her: literally recreating the centrifugal rope-and-bucket scenario with the dog as bucket. However, to me, as a positive trainer, a hard dog is one on which coercion doesn’t work very well. The harder the dog, the worse the results.
Mr. Darcy is a hard dog, but his hardness is ameliorated by an extremely social nature: he loves being with people. Nonetheless, he goes through phases of extreme willfulness, and he’s in one now. Most of the manifestations are harmless and easily discouraged.
One, however, is definitely not: snapping and snarling at the two-leg when he or she tries to make him do something he doesn’t want to: for instance, pick him up to carry him down the stairs as described above. It’s actually a bit frightening to be halfway down the stairs and suddenly have a fairly sizable dog with very sharp teeth snarling and biting at one’s face, even if only as a bite-inhibited warning.
I won’t say the positive training goes out the window at that point, because there’s still no punishment involved, but a swift muzzle grab (try that with your hands full of dog) and even “grounding” (but NOT “rolling”).
I have found that explaining why he has to do whatever it is he doesn’t want to actually helps; I don’t know what he’s hearing or how he processes it, but I think that the thought processes involved for me, and reflected in my body, align my affect and my actions in a way that has more integrity. Since you can’t lie to a dog, that’s very powerful.
Anyway, we’re making progress, and as he “undulates” from compliance to willfulness and back again as he grows, this too shall pass.
Whose intelligence is it, anyway?
In the meantime, accompanying his willfulness is a comparable level of intelligence. Usually, when people describe a dog as “intelligent,” what they really mean is “easily trained:” the dog gets the “idea” quickly. There’s a lot more to dog intelligence than that, but trainability is certainly a foundational aspect of dog intelligence in a human world. A dog that rapidly forms associations, whose behaviors are easy to reinforce or extinguish, is a dog that will fit into a family or other human group quickly: a highly-adaptive ability.
Unfortunately, the more intelligent in that sense a dog is, the more likely it is that the associations it forms are not what the human intended. Unless you develop the ability to consistently mark the behavior very quickly—certainly less than a second—the dog is likely to decide that you are marking whatever it was doing right after the desired behavior. This makes the dog look stupid, but the fault is that of its two-leg(s).
For instance, if Mr. Darcy “locks on” to the cat—an intent, prey-drive focus of attention preliminary to play-chase—I say “Leave it!, then watch for him to look away from the cat, mark the behavior with a loud, sibilant “Yes!” and then treat. (Several seconds can elapse between the marking—by word or clicker, for instance—and the delivery of the treat; eventually, once the association between marker and reward is established, intermittent non-delivery of a treat actually reinforces the behavior better!)
However, if I am late with the marker, Mr. Darcy may have already looked back at the cat. Oops! I just reinforced the exact behavior I’m trying to modify. This phenomenon, I think, is responsible for most training failures. It is also responsible for the incredible intensity of early training for a working dog who is also intended as a house pet (as opposed to one who lives in a kennel and gets regular attention and exercise). Every moment is a teaching moment; I’m glad there are two of us two-legs to tag-team Mr. Darcy.
But, oh, what joy when he “gets” it, both for the two-legs and the puppy. One of the ancient dreams of mankind is to converse with the animals, and in training, when conducted respectfully and in integrity, one finds that experience anew each time things “click.”
And, oh, what joy in Mr. Darcy when he understands what he’s been asked to do: “I have a job!” There is a definite telos in the life of a dog, most strongly in a working dog, for he was created as partner and helpmate to humankind. The credo of dog is simple and a type of a particular spiritual orientation that Micah described 2500 years ago, here paraphrased:
“Man has shown you, O Dog, what is good.
And what does Humankind require of you?
To act justly and to love covenant-loyalty
and to walk humbly with your Human.”
Please follow @MrDarcyGSD for updates on our progress from a foot above the ground, and @davetrowbridge for the view from six feet up.