This is an extract from the book: Teaching with Reinforcement by Kay Laurence
Dogs will often choose how they maintain their connection with you. This connection, the thread that binds the pack, is an invisible and easily dismissible element. I see it more and more often, and feel greatly renewed when the threads are strengthened. I see it in the elderly gentlemen taking his dog for a walk. I see it in the casual hand contact between the farmer and his tractor passenger. I see it in the competitor resting their hand on their dog whilst waiting to enter the ring.
The connection itself is difficult to observe until you have developed your eye for the highly punishing disconnection that frequently occurs and is obviously punishing behaviour.
~ The person who has been training their dog, but continually casts around the room to see who they have impressed.
~ The person who has been playing with their dog but stops to talk to their friend.
~ The disconnected walk where the person and dog are physically separated and they are both outwardly focussed: the dog is watching the horizon and the person is texting.
I see the dog, I see the withdrawal of the connection and a slice of understanding just evaporates.
Connection is not black and white, it comes in lots of shades of colour and intensity and it is developed between both recipients. I do not have the same connection with all my dogs. They are different individuals and have different needs in our relationship. Some are doubtful in their connection and needs regularly and lengthy strenthening with affection and time together. Others are quite sufficient with a monthly top-up.
The connection cannot be measured by a simple on or off switch, a yes or no answer, it will come and go in different strengths. This is often a reflection of the activity you are engaged in, the environment around you both and disruptions that draw you attention.
The connection may be supportive when one partner is focussed on an activity, it could be protective in a threatening situation, it can be caring. It should be healthy and an active choice for both parties.
Connection works at its best when equally reinforcing for both ends of the thread.
When it stops being a reinforcer
Connection can stop being reinforcing when the dog requires some “dog time”. Either to rest, sleep or interact with the ground. They need their own time, and this is good time to absorb learning, who knows, perhaps they “reflect” on their lessons! But without the down time from endless interaction and communication it can become a less effective reinforcer.
Trying to maintain a connection in a disruptive environment can be tiring.
This is part of the social security and power that many dogs find reinforcing. In the company of multiple dogs, the dog nearest to you is enjoying some reinforcement from their proximity to you over the other dogs. I keenly observe where each of the dogs settle when I change my activities. Often I place their bedding where they chose to settle, particularly for the dogs that find comfort a lower reinforcement than being nearest to me, or being able to watch me.
Collies generally have comfort quite low of their list of favourite things and nearly always place themselves between me and the doorway out of the house. Any fun time tends to begin once I am through that doorway and they hate to miss out. Gordons will observe from a place of comfort until there is a definite cue for action – boots on, coat on, keys picked up.
Tessie, the Gordon, returned to me at 4 years old, was very in need of my company, a connection, for the first few months. As she became more confident she would watch me settle down to watch TV, and then go back to the kitchen to her favourite bed. This change in need to be near me, was a good indicator of her change in sense of security. On odd occasion she “needed” to join me on the sofa, and perhaps something had happened during the day that made her slight anxious. When I see her “needing” me more often, I take special care to have our staircase chats, sitting side by side, several times through the day.
This frequent connection is deeply reinforcing for both of us, and reduces much of the stress behaviours in all my dogs. It is sometimes easy to ignore the adults until their behaviour changes, this regular connection maintains a relaxed atmosphere and easily managed group.