Dog Days – Lessons From Mans Best Friend

I recently started editing some articles for the e-magazine Women Testers. One of the articles I reviewed led to me suggesting the writer should think about adding some discussion on operant conditioning. Since I made that comment it has had me thinking, mostly about the time I have spent training dogs. I’ve worked at two obedience schools, in both instances a Saturday morning  job that got me away from the IT world and earned me some pocket money. Working with dogs is great fun and very relaxing. You get so caught up in the now of training any work issues just drift out of focus.

The term dog trainer, at least in my opinion, is a misnomer. I didn’t train dogs, I trained people. I trained people how to teach their dogs specific behaviours. Forty five minutes once a week is not enough to get a dog trained in a skill. That time is spent having the owner work with the dog and the trainer observing, providing feedback and encouragement. This is not a talk and watch role, this is, if you are doing it right, very much about observation and active participation. You try experiments, guided by feedback, to get behaviour improvements. I saw a lot of common ground between testing and dog training (but that might be another blog)

I trained dogs using a clicker (basically just some metal in a plastic cover that when you press it, makes a clicking sound), sometimes a  dog would be uncomfortable with the clicker and we would use another means. Rare but something you needed to be aware of.

Let’s start by defining behaviour, at least at a level sufficient for this discussion. I’ve borrowed the following from Psychology Today  because it is relatively simple and is pretty equivalent to what I would state using my own words. Behaviour is any:

“Observable activity of an organism; anything an organism does that involves action and/or response to stimulation”

So when we want to build a behaviour we are looking at creating a specific response to stimulation. To do this we utilise, primarily, two approaches:

Classical conditioning – I have borrowed from Simply Psychology which states, “Classical conditioning theory involves learning a new behavior via the process of association”. Think Pavlovs dogs and you get the idea. Only the bell is switched over for the clicker. The clicker is going to allow me to signal two things to the dog, the behaviour is complete and a reward is on the way. It takes a little bit of work to build this association in a dogs mind, but not a lot. Some dogs work it out real quick.

Operant conditioning – The following definition is also from Simply Psychology. “Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)”. I could go quite deep on operant conditioning but I’m not sure it serves any purpose for this blog. If you want to dig into the history of operant conditioning (and there is some interesting reading to be had) there are plenty of resources available.

So let’s put all this together. I want to teach a dog to drop, without going through the explanation of how to actually teach this behaviour, I’m going to get the dogs attention, get it to perform the behaviour. Once the desired behaviour is performed I’m going to quickly “click” the clicker and reward the dog, most likely, but not always with a doggy snack (more on the “not always” bit later when I talk about motivation). The reward is positive reinforcement. The dog likes food reward and is likely to perform the behaviour again when asked because the outcome is in its best interests. There is now an understanding, an important one, between the dog and the trainer. When that clicker goes off the dog expects a reward. You click at the wrong time that reward must still be paid, the contract must be kept valid.

So where is all this going? Good question, thanks for asking. There are many crossovers between training a dog and working with people. Can I suggest that from the above paragraph setting the right learning environment and immediacy of feedback/reward are simple, yet powerful, crossover lessons. Let me say at this point I am not providing a psychological analysis of how to work with people, just passing on some observations that you might find useful.

Keep it slow – get it right

Training a dog to a new behaviour takes time, it often takes a level of patience, it definitely requires keen observation. If your dog doesn’t know how to sit you wont achieve reliable sitting unless you start by guiding (to use the proper term “luring”) the dog. Once the dog gets some idea of what is required we will progressively link a name (“sit”) to the behaviour. When the behaviour is achieved the clicker is used so the dog knows it has done what we want and a reward is on the way. The ciulmination of these steps is our ability to utter a word and have the dog do as asked. What we will not do along the way  is attempt to force the dog into compliance, yell at the dog or otherwise behave in manner that will otherwise have a negative impact.  The dog will make mistakes, the trainer will make mistakes. Trainers click at the wrong time often, especially when learning how to use this clicker. So what?  A click at the wrong time will not invalidate the work you are doing with your dog (sometimes owners require quite a bit of reassurance before they get comfortable with this).

The lesson at work for me is quite simple. When training someone in a new skill, or explaining a new concept, take things slowly. Allow questions, create safe learning environment, allow mistakes. Mistakes are fine, they’re not fatal. Remember Thomas Edison and “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I have some wonderful experiences where I’ve trained people on a task, they have got stuck and come back to clarify. When I sit down with them and look at where they are at they have taken an unexpected turn and unintentionally found a better way or helped solve another problem I had. I’m now a big fan of the idea that you “show your colleague the path but let them find their own way along it”. Just for consistency in this story, yes I’ve also used this approach in advanced behaviour dog classes – here’s what we want, how do we get there? I learnt things from my clients whenever I did this.

I do things because it is in my best interest

Whether dogs can actually process that thought, I don’t know. I have my doubts, can’t rule it out, but I do know they will behave in ways that derive a great outcome for them. Dogs crave attention, in my opinion, this is one aspect of their behavior that aligns quite strongly with human behaviour. Both species are, essentially, pack animals. We like being in groups, we enjoy getting some level of attention. When a dog learns a new behaviour we reward it often (continuous reinforcement), as that behaviour becomes more and more reliable the rewarding becomes more sporadic. There are a few reasons for this but ones of the things this reward pattern achieves is improved performances of the behaviour.  I borrowed the following from Dog Star Daily “Variable duration reinforcement is really good at getting dogs to perform for increasing lengths of time.  Since the reward-time is unpredictable, the dog’s behavior does not drop off immediately after each reward because the next one could be just one second later.” The rewarding, while now sporadic, does not stop completely (note: the article actually talks about phasing out rewards, I removed this as I don’t believe this is good practice). To do so risks the dog stopping the behaviour. This is called behaviour extinction. The dog is simply saying “nothing in this for me, why should I do this for you”? Before we move forward let’s consider “why do I train my dog to perform a behaviour”. Dogs are trained in behaviours because it delivers benefits to their owners. The dog is a better companion because of the obedience, you have better control over the dog. All round dog ownership becomes a much better experience.

Let’s spin this in to the office space. How many times have you taught someone a new skill or had one taught to you, and, upon applying it the first few times, received great positive feedback that then just stops? How does that make you feel? From full on praise to no acknowledgement at all. Does that take some of the gloss off the shine it had when you learnt the skill? Is the task still worth performing? Being a professional the answer to that question is probably “yes, but…”. Very few tasks are handed over to people in perfect shape. A new set of eyes will often find new ways of doing things that save time, produce better outcomes or both. You need people awake and alert for this, innovation requires motivation. Spend time noticing what people do, especially when they are doing things that support you and make your work life easier and more productive. Rewards don’t need to be big, they just need to be sincere.

My dog is stupid, it doesn’t understand me or listen

As a dog trainer I never got in to the “dog analysis unit”. These are people that work at dog schools that have spent working out what troubles a dog and how to work toward a “peaceful dog” outcome. These people work with some dogs that have very nasty habits and bad temperaments. I’m not going to talk about these kinds of dogs and issues here.

My general opinion, dogs aren’t stupid. Another general opinion, people aren’t stupid. In both cases some pick up skills faster than others but the inability to pick up a skill doesn’t make you inherently stupid. When a person would come to dog school and complain about their dog being stupid, unreasonably stubborn or non responsive I’d borrow the dog for a few minutes. Generally this would be a short walk with dog on leash. In nearly every case the dog was fine, attentive and co-operative. Why the difference? Well it generally came down to a couple of factors. I’d worked with dogs, I had learnt to do several things. Speak directly without being harsh (a direct but neutral tone) and use good body language. You don’t ask dogs to “sit” you tell them, but in a nice way. In doggy terms I was showing leadership, I was providing direction. In the absence of direction the dog will decide it is the leader (and this can create some significant behavioural issues). I like to think of this interaction as being me crossing in to the dogs communication style. Earning some canine respect.

I don’t agree with everything every one of work mates, colleagues and friends say. It’s my right to have a different opinion. I respect people for having an opinion, I hope they give me the same consideration in return. Some people are hard to work with but that is no reason for not working with them or respecting their views. I’ve learnt the importance of this, and it would be fair to say, the hard way. I regularly see people making the same errors I have made. You really need to understand the people you deal with, how they best communicate, their communication, and even learning, style. Radiate respect, use good body language, use language appropriate to the people you are talking to. Your inability to move people across to your point of view does not make them stupid, unresponsive to your needs or stubborn. It makes them different, they don’t instantly see the point or benefit you are promoting. Understand the differences. Take a metaphorical walk and see what you can learn. Learn when you should lead to ensure the required direction is provided.

But everybody loves this…….

Are you sure? Every dog loves food, right? Well that’s close but it isn’t always the case. Some dogs I’ve met were so uninterested in food I would wonder if they were actually canine, the behaviour  so far removed from the dogs I had owned. Why is this important? Good question. As mentioned earlier a dog does things because it is in their best interests. Another way of expressing this “what motivates your dog”? I use to have the occasional class member ask me what motivated their dog. Given they lived with the dog, and I’d only met it fifteen minutes before, this always struck me as an interesting question and perhaps a glimpse in to the dog/owner relationship. Motivation can be so variable. I’ve trained dogs that found food motivating but only if it was hot dogs or a particular type of ham or a specific type of dog treat. One specialised in a particular cheddar (right down to the brand – by the way, bit of trivia, most dogs love cheese). But then I had a dog whose attention we could not hold because every time a bird flew over, it’s motivation, in all the wrong ways for training, went through the roof. It was a breed of bird dog with a very strong genetic behavioural disposition. We resigned to never being able to break that motivator but we did find a toy that did a good job of getting the dogs mind on task. I had another dog that had no interest in anything other than a tennis ball. Quite simple really, “Fido do as I ask then you get to chase the ball and we will do it all again”. Amazingly effective when you learn what works.

Ok, let’s leave the dog park behind and hop back in to the office. I mentioned earlier that rewards don’t need to be big, they just need to be sincere. That holds but they also need to be targeted. When you have people working under your management, those people are clients. When you work with people, all contributing to a common outcome, those people are stakeholders of yours (well at least that is the way I like to think of it). Think about your external clients. Would you use the same motivators for each of them? I suspect that is unlikely. You would think about what each relationship means, what you know about the client, what they prize. Rolling up to a client meeting with a big chocolate cake and lots of useful information might be great at one meeting. Take that cake to your next meeting where the staff have signed up to a corporate fitness and diet challenge and the motivator may be viewed in an entirely different light. The bottom line here is understand what works for the people you work with. A pat on the back, a “well done” might work for some and not for others. It might work for some but not all the time because they have heard it so much it no longer has a motivating effect. Again keep it simple, keep it regular, keep it sincere. When something really special happens then up the ante and make a big deal, help people understand that hard work leading to great results has real value. For all of that, the one thing that possibly motivates me most, is when someone says to me, as I’m packing up to go home, “Thanks for today, great job, you’ve really helped”. In my current scrum team there are several team members, especially the ScrumMaster, who say this, or something similar, every evening. Why would you not want to return the next day?

As I’ve been writing I’ve had other items pop in to my head that could just as easily be part of this article. Maybe another blog, another time. Maybe some encouragement to extend the analysis. For the time being, enough said.


Thanks for dropping by.




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