Category Archives: Learning

Thinking inside the box

I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.

And carried on lecturing.

It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not.  It was very rare for anyone to.

So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’

Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.

The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).

The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.

The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.

The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.

I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.

I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.

I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.

Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it.  They might help each other, they might not.  An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,

When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.

It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it.   RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.

Misunderstandings

Can you remember the first time you used a cash machine to get money out of a hole in the wall? I can’t. I’ve no recollection of how or when I acquired the skill. But I know that if I want to get cash out, I have to perform a sequence of pretty complex behaviours to get it. I have to drive to a machine, with a specific card (and only that card will do), be able to read the instructions, recall a number from memory, tap it in and then wait for the money to appear.

I have also learned what doesn’t work to get money out of it. Just standing staring at the machine hopefully doesn’t have the money magically appear. Trying other bank cards doesn’t work. Entering random numbers doesn’t either. Hitting the machine in frustration when I can’t remember the number will also fail. Short of getting some kind of heavy vehicle to ramraid the cash dispenser the ONLY way of getting what I want (cash), is to come up with the behaviours I have learned. Worse, if I continue to ‘guess’ and make too many mistakes, the machine removes all possibility I might get my money by eating my card!

What lessons can we take from this to help our dog training? Loads.

For starters, if I don’t understand how to work a cash dispensing machine, I cannot get any money. It’s not possible. It doesn’t matter how much money is available, or how much I want it or how motivated I am. If I don’t understand how to perform those specific behaviours I will not get the “reward” since the banks have (understandably) made it virtually impossible to get money out if you get the sequence of behaviours wrong.  So if I don’t understand the task, or know how to carry out that sequence of behaviours, how can I manipulate the machine into giving me money? I can’t.  Likewise, it doesn’t matter one iota how much our dogs want the hotdogs, game of tuggie or ball that we are offering them, if they don’t understand the task we expect of them, how can they possibly carry it out unless they are plain lucky, and hit on the idea of what works by sheer chance? And if they do, will they remember what they did, or understand what the cues were to success?

Wren cannot understand ‘fetch’ means bring that toy to me unless or until she is taught it.
That she might hit on the idea of bringing it to me by sheer chance can mean it would be quick and easy to teach, but it wouldn’t mean she understood what the word ‘fetch’ means until I have done a load of training and teaching. 

One message to take from this is that sometimes we completely overestimate how well our dogs understand what we want of them. OK, so the tasks we ask of them may appear simple to us, but that’s because we know what we want the dog to do and because, well, we are humans, not dogs. We function and perceive things differently. But nonetheless, we too frequently, expect them to understand tasks when we haven’t taken the time and trouble to train them so they can understand. So when your dog doesn’t do as you ask, ask yourself – does he really understand? Or is he, like us sometimes, staring helplessly at a cash machine, trying to work out precisely which sequence of buttons to press to get the desired outcome? Or is he guessing and trying random versions that might work?