Meeting Nika

by | Feb 20, 2023

Collie puppy

The puppy who launched herself across the sofa to bite my nose stole my heart. It made me laugh then, but at three o’clock in the morning being treated like a rubber chicken (and, if we’re honest, making similar noises as a result) is less entertaining than that endearing introduction that set her apart from her littermates. Now, though, as her physical skills develop, she pins me down, a front paw on each side of my face, as she manoeuvres to find just the right angle to awaken me with a canine (tooth and species) up the nostril.

So wonderful to watch them develop!

She’s only been here two weeks, but I’m already intimately familiar with the feeling of warm dog wee between the toes (no shoes or socks in this house, and not merely because they’re so appealing to her ever-underemployed teeth) and I’m adept at standing on one leg while disinfecting the tainted foot under the shower head. Eight weeks in a whelping pen means that learning to toilet outside will be a work in progress for a while as the warmth of the living room is at present more rewarding than cold, wet grass. Attentiveness, guidance, and acceptance that there will be puddles to clean up will support the process.

The dog ramp in her foster home was a real boon: not only can she climb to places that a puppy her size ought not be able to climb, but she can do it butt-first. She can leap from sofa to the coffee table, scale the raised beds in the garden to drink from the bird bath, and squeeze through the tiniest gaps to find the things least suitable for chewing. Management is constantly tested as she milks every ounce of adventure, exploration, and discovery out of her day.

This appetite for learning about and exploring her world is so hugely reinforcing. To observe her incipient physical and motor skills, the refinement of her sensory perception, and her puzzle solving is such a cherished gift. The emergence of her predatory skills leaves me breathless in awe. Watching this novice learner filter information from her environment to figure out what brings the rewards she craves is humbling: the patterns of behaviour of her humans that form chains that let her know when an outing is on the cards or when food is about to be delivered – our mistakes, her rich learning experience.

And that learning is constant. She has observed and discovered which way each door in the house opens so that she can position herself optimally to race through first; she lies on the mat in the kitchen watching me cook dinner in the hope that there will be some novel ingredient of which she is offered a taste; she has been attentive to our strange human sounds and understands that “pocket,” “shopping,” “bedtime,” “car,” and “outside” are among the many words relevant to and meaningful for her. She understands that “Nika” means “you” and “Tighearnán” means “not you,” but opts to tag along on “not you” adventures just in case…

Rather than overloading her with what I want her to learn, I’ve been watching to find out who she is and what will benefit her as she grows. That hands are a source of rewards provided the curriculum for our first planned learning session together, and their free offerings changed her perception of my sausage-fingers from…well…sausages…to beneficent dispensers of the ever-sought food. I dropped the ball on doorway learning, and this now becomes a priority for everyone’s safety.

Her world expands from the familiar environment of the car, built on a foundation of learning that it is a place of comfort and rest whether on the driveway or in car parks. From here, she has encountered all of the hustle and bustle of the world, become familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of various stimuli that will feature in her environment if her comfort level allows. For her world will only ever expand in accordance with that comfort level which, at the moment, seems to be capacious. The sound of the blender draws her to the kitchen in case a taste of breakfast smoothie is on offer; a can falling four feet to the floor is an object to be explored; and if it can be walked on, climbed over, rolled about, tasted, or dragged, it will be. I look forward to seeing the adult she will become, but with the knowledge that her current fearlessness will require a very particular kind of attentiveness and planning to that which her brother, far more reticent at her age, needed.

T and his new pup

Astonishment of Tighearnan now he understands exactly what he wished for … vs the Confidence of Youth

T, for whose benefit we decided another dog in the household was essential, is well and truly smitten. Previously a lone dog in the house, the species-specific games that he increasingly solicited convinced  me that with continuing attentiveness to him and an ample supply of all that he most cherished, a new canine resident would be most welcome. The timing was right: a period of working from home, coming into spring when the weather was good for outdoor play and morning toileting excursions in the garden (hers, not mine).

But New Year visits to family would need to be postponed, planned research trips cancelled, leisure activities curtailed, and funds redirected. Spring garden bulbs would either be sacrificed with the accompanying risks to health, or management would need to be put in place. The house underwent a radical reorganisation that needs to be constantly monitored and adapted as she learns to scale, scramble, and scavenge, and relentlessly pursues her desire to chew as many books as possible. Where on earth did that wire brush come from? And what attracts her to it? A mystery for Miss Marple books she finds so delicious, perhaps!

T takes his role as hall monitor incredibly seriously, firmly but gently setting down the rules (the canine ones he handles for himself; he summons assistance from humans to sort out their own nonsense (“she’s chewing piano music again… you deal with it”)). He offers his ears and tail as toys, teaches her how and when to bark, decides he suddenly likes carrots and would also like one to chew thank-you-very-much, and occasionally reverts to a puppy state himself as he fondly reminisces about the feeling of the coffee table’s corner between his molars.
Four meals a day, an assistant in hole-digging duties in the lawn, and the joy of having one’s face, tail, and ears bitten (if the volunteer is unwilling, an ear-dangle that tickles her nose will entice her to clamp on, he has gleefully learned): these are among the reasons why the Little One is in favour.

From him, she’s learned the fine art, of canine criminality, extorting a food reward in exchange for the collection of her dinner bowl, raiding pockets to steal tissues to shred, and teaming up to indicate to him which out-of-reach objects she’d like him to help her acquire. The blossoming of this relationship is an endless source of fascination and curiosity to me as I learn so much more about the dog with whom I have lived for almost three years.

Old strategies become replaced with new as she discovers what brings success: scratching your sleeping human’s head in order to wake them up for breakfast is far less effective than shrieking in their ear, and alarm clocks are now redundant thanks to the reliable chronometer of puppy hunger or bladder fullness. Her learning is so rapid and so eagerly sought that I am challenged constantly to examine its future and plan for flourishing. The enormity of the responsibility, the desire to serve her well, and the knowledge that I will make mistakes along the way are part of the pure delight that getting to know this marvellous being entails.

Meanwhile, thankfully, she seems to have learned recently that no matter how often she tries or how many strategies she marshalls, my eyebrows will remain attached to my face.

This will make you quite certain that people do not enjoy the same games that dogs do? 

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Key Reading

Since the Dawn of Dog Training

The old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right” and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

In praise of naughty dogs

.. a desire for solutions to problems that weren’t problems until someone else outside of the relationship suggested they were.

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

The Answers Await Discovery

The idea that we’re responsible for our dogs’ learning might well seem strange when we consider how we conceptualise “training:”

The Fade-in Protocol

Even though today we are surrounded by many available protocols for teaching with positive reinforcement, there is still a persistence that a dog should be set-up to make an error. An error is simply the difference between my expectation and the dog’s response. No more “distractions”, but faded-in environments.

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.

Ethos: A Personal Trust Pilot

Experience changes our ethos. There are many pathways that will broaden our choices.

Back to Basics?

The word “basic” is often derided as synonymous with “shallow,” but in its origins it is the very opposite: foundational, profound, supportive.

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

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

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?

Preparation

Preparing before you train and the final check list

Nose Target. No thanks

Nose target is a popular behaviour taught to many dogs, and other animals. It seems easy to teach and have practical application, but it is often not such a pleasant experience for all dogs. There are many other options available that give the same practical benefit, without the unpleasant extremes.

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.

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.

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

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.

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

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.

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