Nika and the Humans

by | Mar 6, 2023

“It’s lovely that she’s so friendly,” my sister said, wiping her shoes with a tissue as I wince and offered her the enzymatic spray.

“I’m more worried about that friendliness than I am about Tighearnán,” I said, as the latter stood eyeing her up, wondering whether he should swear at her just in case.

“Oh no. Everyone loves a friendly dog. You can bring her everywhere, introduce her to everyone.”

And that – watching the squirming puppy plead to be picked up by this person she’d just met – was when I first understood that that was precisely what I shouldn’t do.

Maybe I should have seen it coming

Her dam wiggled her entire body with delight at our arrival and had there not been T to think of we’d have adopted her immediately without even seeing the puppies. And there was the nose-biting incident, which didn’t exactly testify to Nika’s shyness. In fact, the entire litter bounced between the two new humans they’d just met, wanting to get as much information from them by using as many of their senses as they possibly could.

Nika’s not just a friendly dog, though. Nika’s a dog who is extremely stimulated by novel humans. She tries to climb across metres of air into the arms of any proximal human whether they are, at that moment, available for puppy-holding. Zoom meetings will bring her to my office door where she petitions to be let in to meet the bearers of the voices she hears. Her neck rotates in owlish fashion as she looks around for new people to greet. And my poor sister left the house covered from head to toe in puppy saliva (and the aforementioned enzymatic cleaner) after a canine cross-examination.

Puppy ripping up a box

People find her attention extremely reinforcing (as can be seen in the results of their brief cost-benefit analysis of spending the rest of their day in pee-soaked footwear). “No puppy cuddles for me today?” asked a friend as I called in to see her, this time without the puppy who had scrabbled to get out of my arms to her. “She’s such a lovely little one,” the postman said leaning over the garden wall as a perplexed T looked on, his daily profanities having been interrupted by this violation of the rules he and the postman had agreed upon (some mutual barking and a hasty mutual retreat; I don’t pretend to understand their relationship). My memory of our reaction to her dam – how appealing her desire for social approval was to us – brought with it the realisation that Nika’s world would need to be very carefully managed to guard her against the desire of other people to seek social approval from her as much as her desire to seek social approval from them.

“She’s so cute.”

“Can I say hello to your puppy…?”

It’s extremely flattering.

And she’d likely love it.

But common sense kicks in.

“Can I say hello to your puppy…?”

 “No, sorry.”

That learning, that realisation that many people see puppies as shared objects to be enjoyed by all, and that I was living with a puppy eager to be enjoyed, made me take a step back to recalibrate, to think about what I want for her and what I want her to learn.

My advocacy for her, initially, didn’t account for the hands that just appeared as if from nowhere to touch her, inadvertently brushing off me as they did. But I quickly learned not to go to places where that’s likely to happen, and I’ve been practising protecting her space by blocking her with my body in case it does again.

Puppy ripping up a box

T, in many ways, was so different at her age: uncertain of unfamiliar humans, he wanted to get distance from them. And so I supported him in that, prioritising his feeling of safeness over the socialisation checklists and talk of “windows of development” that I’d been taught to believe were the most important thing in raising dogs. Every decision I made against the experts, although in accordance with my own instincts and what he was communicating, felt like another step down a dangerous path. But my gut ruled, and as we grew together I knew I had done the right thing by him; by us.

But in some ways, he’s not so different; in many ways, their learning will take a similar course.

I don’t want Nika to learn that the world is full of humans who offer her the reward of the sensory exploration of novelty that close proximity affords, or the social approval she finds so appealing. In that version of her future, Nika would likely spend a significant proportion of her time outdoors seeking those novel sensations and that approval from others. I want her to learn, just like T did, that strangers exist, and that they are irrelevant to us. Since I have a duty of care to define the limits of her world to keep her safe, this means that it would be as inappropriate as it was for T to bring her out and about with the express purpose of meeting strangers.

Instead, just as with T, I am striving to channel Nika’s learning to provide positive and safe learning experiences through observation. I am building on that eagerness for learning by providing ample opportunities for introducing her to novelty at home. Her desire for social approval is met primarily by those with whom she lives, but also by those with whom she will form relationships – family, close friends, and, when she visits for treatment, her veterinary team.

These are the only people on whose shoes she’ll get the chance to pee with delight.

Wet shoes

Follow Nika and her First Year of Learning to Live with People

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Key Reading

Think carefully

We cannot presume a cue is a reinforcer unless we can shape a new behaviour using that cue as the marker. Read carefully. Think carefully. Consider multiple perspectives. Sometimes it seems easier to let someone else do the thinking for you and just copy, but we need to become thoughtful trainers.

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.

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.

Dogs are Born To Learn

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

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

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 Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers

We lean on science in our efforts to bridge the gap as though it provides the answers to how things should be rather than describing how things are understood.

A Road to Nowhere

When familiarity is stripped away we seek recognisable signposts that will take us back to comfort and security. This is survival instinct. It is worth listening to as it keeps us alive.

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.

Top Training

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.

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

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.

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.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

Reasons to use a clicker

The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time. The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching.

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?

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

Luring: Hand lures

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


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