At six months old, Azuli is quick to make friends. Her innate personality played no small role, but there are a few things I did to enable her to become smart and well-behaved. Still, she taught me as much as I taught her. I suspected this might happen, but I’m still surprised what I’ve learned so far.
This is part of a series of posts.
There’s an old joke amongst enigneers that goes something like this:
The problem with computers is that they do exactly what you tell them.
The playfully omitted truth being, of course, that computers do not speak human. Neither do puppies. But puppies do communicate. Their language is not vocalized. It is told through body language and expression. Just watch two puppies play-bow at each other.
Dogs understand body-language and intonation. Words can be learned, but the good dog trainers out there will tell you not to even bother with them in the early days. Better to begin with gestures and body language. For a demonstration why, just try replacing a with something similar but in the same intonation, like “stay” and “wait.” If your hand movements and body language are also the same, the puppy will react the same.
It’s pretty obvious in theory, but hard to implement in practice. Clear communication with a puppy requires both self-awareness and exaggeration. I’ve come much more cognizant of every movement and the “energy” I’m projecting. I’ve also had to become comfortable with correcting her in public spaces. A proper correction requires a relatively loud, stern voice — the kind of thing which can be embarrassing to use around strangers.
I’ve largely gotten over the embarrassment. Besides, most corrections can be avoided by paying a little attention.
Good communication must be well-timed. A common mistake made by new dog owners is to rub a puppy’s nose in excrement after an accident. We’ve known for some time that this only confuses the dog. Bad behavior has to be caught (and corrected) in the moment it happens. This requires fairly consistent monitoring of young puppies; at the recommendation of training books, Azuli was even attached to my hip at all times for the first couple weeks.
I quickly began to learn her mannerisms. After a month, I was able to predict what she needed fairly consistently. As long as I could provide it to her before she did something naughty (peed, barked, etc.), the bad behavior was avoided all together. This sort of conscious monitoring of another mind is tiring, but also empathy-building.
Sometimes bad behavior still happens, but the best correction is a redirection. I have to remember that Azuli is not trying to disobey; she just needs to be shown what is okay to explore and what is not. If she steals a sock, a light correction is not enough. I have to then trade her for one of her toys, wait for her to start playing with it, and then praise her for doing so.
In my work on human learning, I discovered that habit-elimination is impossible; habits must be replaced. The same goes for developing habits in puppies. By “closing the loop” and also praising her for good behavior, it creates a pleasant memory which sticks.
Like children, puppies are still learning what’s going on with their bodies. They pee their proverbial pants because they don’t know what a “bladder” is. They’re looking for cues, but those cues must be repeated consistently in order to form habits.
Potty training a dog is simple. It’s also very repetitive and boring. The more consistent it is, the faster the habit forms. Thirty minutes after a drink of water, a puppy will need to go outside. After a couple nights going to bed (and waking up) at the same time, a puppy will become better than any alarm clock.
It is very tempting to break the rules. I know. After a long day at work, snuggling with a puppy on the couch sounds pretty darn good. But being suddenly allowed on furniture is confusing to a puppy. In many ways, it’s harder for me to follow the rules than it is for her.
It’s not just about consistent rules, though. The smarter and more social an animal, the more it wants to learn. Consistency is also about consistent novelty (if that’s not a paradox). Australian Shepherds require both physical and mental exercise. This means an ever-expanding array of challenges.
I’ve seen Azuli become disengaged when things don’t get harder. The natural drive to learn means she also gets bored with things she already knows. At first, I tried puzzle-feeder activity boards. Within a couple days Azuli was able to clear the entire board in about twenty seconds. She could slide a cover with her nose while opening a lever with her paw at the same time. Soon I discovered Clever.Pet, an electronic dog feeder developed by neuroscientists.
After two months, Azuli has just reached level 10 of 11. Each day, she spends hours solving puzzles. It started with basic skills like touching the lit-up pad. Now, she’s playing sophisticated color-matching games.
Consistently progressing through mental challenges at this young age is setting up Azuli for some amazing things. It’s self-reinforcing: the more she learns, the smarter she becomes, and the more she can learn. This doesn’t mean that just because she’s good at playing her food game she will be good at other things, but it does lay a neural foundation.
Her early tricks were pretty straight-forward. Sit, down, stay, come, stand, shake, and so on are simple behaviors which are easy to reinforce and therefore easy to teach. Now, Azuli is starting to learn more complicated behaviors. The Clever Pet is also teaching her patience, to understand that a reward may requires several correct behaviors.
As an example, I’m now carefully inflecting words to teach her their meaning based upon her existing behaviors. When she begins to approach me with her toy, I say “toy? play?” in a very quizzical voice as I stick out my hand. If she gives me the toy, I exclaim “toy!” and begin playing (tug, fetch, etc.) and congratulate her “play!” If she does not approach, then I turn my back and return to what I was doing. This is to counteract the fact that she likes to disappear with toys.
Once she begins to understand these words, I’ll start re-contextualizing them. I’ll ask her to get her toy, to see if she will bring it to me when asked. The dream is that one day she’ll even do things like put her toys away into her crate.
Until then, she still has a lot to teach me.