Be-toothed Learning Machines

by | Mar 25, 2024

The night before his arrival, I flicked through books on raising Collies, wondering briefly what I’d let myself into, before realising that the people who wrote those books probably didn’t like Collies very much at all. Armed with a couple of years of exposure to the world of dog training, I knew very well all the things that could go wrong, and was loaded up with with enough oversimplified reasons as to why and how that I was already a bundle of worry. What if I messed him up?

Oh, the ambitions, hopes, fears, and plans of a new puppy guardian. Oh, oh, the arrogance of thinking that we have that much control over another living being we expect to be a tabula rasa, a blank slate. All the best intentions about how they would be raised, what they would get to do, what they would be protected from, when they would be exposed to certain stimuli and how. And oh, oh, oh the stress and worry when things just don’t go to plan.

The problem is that things rarely go to plan when one is dealing with another sentient being. The very fact of two parties (never mind all the other variables) in the relationship means that to some extent one must cede ones hopes and dreams to the reality of those of the other.

I swore I’d never buy him a ball. I’d seen too many Collies become “ball-addicted.” I know someone who swore her son would never have toy guns, but said resourceful child bit the shape of one from his slice of toast and pretended to shoot his mother across the breakfast table. T fashioned his own ball from any round piece of fruit or veg he could get his paws on. So I submitted. And now T has more balls than a Disney princess.

One of the very real anxieties faced by many of those who raise puppies is the industry’s insistence that there’s a right way to raise them with schedules and windows, with developmental milestones and with protocols. Bring your puppy here; let them meet so-and-so; make sure that they sleep hither and urinate yon. Lists of recipes that you may wish to follow, but about which your puppy, your lifestyle, and your energy levels may have other ideas.

If Nika had her way, the world would be her red carpet, with everyone existing just to admire her. She’s the kind of dog who will try to climb into the laps of strangers in the vet’s waiting room; who’ll smother everyone she meets with the affection they thought they wanted until she got to work on trying to exfoliate them with her ever-busy tongue.

The thing they don’t tell you is that raising a puppy is DANGED HARD WORK. Biting everything, peeing everywhere, eating anything that stays still long enough, running like a cartoon coyote on double speed before fighting sleep with a grizzle before they finally succumb to tiredness, testing and exploring every corner of their world as well as their relationship to you. These little betoothed learning machines are not for the faint hearted. You can add to the mix, of course, other people’s unsolicited opinions about how they should be raised, their desire to maul them (and you, if you happen to be holding them at the time), and, of course, potential disagreements within the household about their care, and you’ve got yourself a whole bundle of exhaustion and stress. It’s if you cry-eat a bar of chocolate while locked in the utility room; I won’t tell a soul.

My first night with T was a wash-out. By that I mean I had to wash out the duvet as well as my pyjamas in the middle of the night when, after bouncing around the room for several hours after lights out, he peed on the bed. The next day, he and I napped together on the kitchen floor. I was cold, sore, and stiff, but those were a very sweet 20 minutes before the bouncing and peeing routine resumed.

If you are one of the unlucky ones who has read The Books and followed The Trainers, you will have absorbed the advice and with it the stern warnings. In fact, you may be primed to feel like if you follow all the guidance you will have the Perfect Puppy, and if not you’ll have failed them. The weight of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: the danger of accepting what the experts say is that one may avoid listening to the puppy in front of them. “Lazy socialisation” was the phrase I had heard used for people who didn’t bring their 12-week-old puppies to meet 7 bald bearded men, 3 green tractors, a room full of people in chicken-costumes, and 8 skateboarding clowns. T didn’t much like “outside” when he was 10-weeks-old, and Nika would have gone wild with excitement for all of the above. “Socialisation” of any kind would have been such an affliction for either of them, but it took me until Nika to be truly comfortable with that fact. 

We preferred to prioritise Nika and T’s relationship rather than her toileting outdoors in her first few days here. The process of “going on grass”, as a result, took slightly longer than usual. But that was okay; we weren’t working to anyone else’s schedule.

Having raised two very different dogs, I can’t tell you that I got it right. I can tell you that we’re all doing okay together, that their needs are met in so far as is possible, that they seem to enjoy their lives and their relationships, and that I protect them from what they find unpleasant in so far as is possible. In many ways, I raised Nika quite differently to T; in many ways I had to because she’s a very different dog. And I’m sure the next puppy I raise will be raised, in many ways, very differently from them both. And that’s the thing: there’s no rule book other than your own moral compass, the life you want to live together with them, and the guidance you receive from them about how the world presents to them.

But there is solace to be found in community. I could be glib and say that “misery loves company,” but you will find, in a well-curated community of people who themselves are caring for betoothed learning machines, solidarity, reassurance, and hopefully thoughtful probing all you thought you knew about raising puppies.

As for the puppies themselves..prepare for your knowledge to be tested, upturned, and dismantled. That’s what puppies are best at after all.

Key Reading

Construction or suppression

Looking at the way the behaviour is carried out is the most important element, and that is the product of all the considerations.

Do you see what I see

Doing better is the reward from doing the work. This work needs to be the right work at the right time with the right intent done in the right way.

What is a Trainer?

I know what I am, as a trainer. But does my view of “A Trainer” coincide with, or even overlap with yours?

The choice of lure

Luring teaches trainers essential skills. We learn how to use suggestion and guidance to shape behaviours. We learn how to explain dynamic movement in the cues from our hands. In combination with reinforcement, luring has without doubt, been one of the skills I value most as a trainer.

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

Don’t Let Them Learn

Becoming aware that we share our lives with premier learners, dogs, is about saving you frustration, despair, anxiety and endless hours further down the road.

Dogs are Born To Learn

We can build tremendous learners when we get beyond the idea that “dogs are trained”.

Guidance is not dependence

Guidance can be the lightest change in contingencies, an extra antecedent. I can place a palette of different paints and brushes next to the chair. It doesn’t mean you need to paint the chair, you could sit on the chair and paint your own shoes, but just the presence of the tools would give you guidance.

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

The Spaces Between

At the heart of learner-centred education, the teacher acts as a guide whose role is to elicit rather than to impart, and learners quickly become empowered and equipped to transfer their knowledge and skills to new scenarios.

Top Training

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

Teaching duration has become a very muddied understanding or what it is and how to teach it. This is partly due to how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings.

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Release cue or stay cue

Many of us begin with teaching sit or down, and this is one of the earliest experiences of training with reinforcement. Is the sit, or down, going to be a terminal behaviour, or a temporary position?

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Stop doing that ….

Can we teach an effective Cease That Behaviour? Absolutely. We can teach that positively, without harm, and we should teach them the skills of stopping that and doing this instead.

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.


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