Tuesday, September 04, 2007

This Blog Has Gone to the Dogs...

...which I think is indicative of how much time we spend on the dog and how little we have to work on the house these days.

We don't know what breeds CC is (she's clearly a mix of something and, um, something else), and I think I don't want to know. There are breed specific behaviors and I'd be tempted to attribute at least some of her actions to genetics if I knew.

Now that is theoretically fine, since some of her actions probably are genetic, but in practice dogs learn, and they learn in ways we might not expect. It's easy for us to say "Rover is doing X because he's a Y" but perhaps Rover learned to do X...perhaps we taught him without realizing it.

CC had a behavior that I finally figured out (which says more about how stupid I am about dogs than about her behavior): she would dig a little in the lawn, grab a big chunk of grass in her mouth, and run like hell.

I finally realized, it's not somethign she's predisposed to, it's something she learned. Normally digging would involve trying to bury something, or digging in its own right (a 'play' behavior, one part of a normal sequence of behaviors taken out of sequence). I don't know if she learned it from her previous home and we reinforced it, or she learned it from us, but our attempt to stop this behavior (by moving toward her to reclaim the hole, yelling at her, or chasing her to attempt to get control of her) all reward what she's done. She figured out that the best way to ask her human friends to play a nice game of chase was to dig, eat the lawn, or both.

We have figured out something that does stop the behavior almost immediately: Lori and I say nothing, don't react, and simply walk into the house, closing the door behind us. She immediately drops what she's doing and comes to the door.

The moral of the story (besides "CC is bad for the lawn") is that social recognition is enough of a positive reward to encourage behaviors, and being told "no" is probably more fun than being told nothing. (And being chased after is really, really fun!) As we've internalized this (I would not have thought before getting a dog that yelling "no" at it would be a reward) it's changed how we manage problem behaviors, and helped us get CC under control.

As a final thought: sometimes dogs become anxious in the dog park, sometimes with merit, sometimes just because. The humans (owners and otherwise) almost always react the same way: "you poor thing", comfort the smaller, more fearful dog. But what is that smaller dog really learning? In mathematical terms...

big dog + anxiety = affection

Hrm...accidental operant conditioning...that's probably not what we want to teach our dogs.

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