The Answers Await Discovery
“Choose a project to work on with your dog over the next twelve weeks.” I sat at my desk in front of a blank piece of paper, furrowing my brow and trying to find an answer. Surely everything I wanted him to learn he had learned already: he could sit on cue, lie down, place his paw in my hand, return to me when I called. What else was there?
The idea that we’re responsible for our dogs’ learning might well seem strange when we consider how we conceptualise “training:” as a terminal process that is high stakes for the dog and low stakes for us. We think in terms of finite learning outcomes that once achieved can progress no further: the dog comes when they’re called, sits on cue, goes to their bed when asked. We often offer our dogs up to others to train, allow their curriculum to be defined for us, and then, if we enjoy the process, we navigate a pick‘n’mix of tricks, bouncing from one source to another in search of something novel. When “problems” arise, we opt into paradigms that make grand claims about repackaged material, and we hope that we will land on the right solution. If it doesn’t, we tend to blame the dog (“stubborn,” “naughty,” “disobedient”) or blame the recipe we’ve selected to help us get the behaviour.
He used to walk away during training sessions. I’d offer what I thought to be higher value food to try to “motivate” him. He’d hang around long enough until enduring my ignorant click-and-dumping, my disregard for him in the face of the instructions that told me how to get the behaviour, just wasn’t worth the taste anymore.
In a previous essay, I wrote about how we frequently look outside of our relationship with our dogs to answer how they should live with us. We turn to watered-down science to justify our investment in obedience, control, and command, and we heed other people’s ideas of how to teach a generic dog to do the things that our culture believes a generic dog should do (clue: fade into the background unless their role at that particular moment is to entertain or to flatter).
As a result, we view our dogs’ learning in terms of behavioural outputs that we can programme: we perceive “training” to be something we impose upon them. We rely on others to determine for us what they need to know and how to make it happen. Our end goal is a behaviour on cue, and their reward a piece of food or a brief interaction with a toy. Yet, this is only a very superficial, limited, and limiting understanding of learning – one that restricts our dogs’ potential and ignores the richness of possibilities available to them and us.
“What did he learn? What did you learn?”
What kinds of questions were they?…This was just about learning to play a game, wasn’t it? We’d only had one session of Sheepballs…what was I supposed to have learned?
So immersed have we become in behaviourism, in a focus on outcomes and operant processes, that being asked to look to our dog, to look within the relationship, to look to the environment in which they live to determine what and how they should learn – what and how they are learning – is a rather radical departure from the way we live with dogs. It is, however, a leap worth taking. The field of education theory or pedagogy, for example, has a wealth of understanding to offer us about learning processes and methods, about the development of skills and knowledge, and about how we (and our dogs) understand and interact with the world. Its primary value, though, is in the ways it can help us reorient to a learner-centred process: one that shifts the focus away from the “trainer” or the “behaviour” and onto the dog themselves.
“And how will you assess what he’s learning?” she asked. Assess? She paused: “what we learn isn’t always what the teacher intended.” I stumbled over my words…I, a teacher of humans, hadn’t seen it. I’d reduced the complexity of his learning to input-output. For my dog, I’d become the equivalent of the teacher of children who stands at the front of the class and drones on about their topic in the expectation that they’d see their words repeated verbatim in an exam.
A learner-centred approach is one that recognises that individuals construct meaning from their own experiences of the world and from new information that they encounter. It prioritises their learning needs and helps them to develop skills that will benefit them through life. Most importantly, learner-centred education recognises the individual within the learning process, strives to develop learning that is appropriate to and rewarding for them, and gradually builds their independence. It uses assessment as a diagnostic tool to ask what their experience and understanding is, and it uses the results of that assessment to deepen and recursively inform the learning design.
We watched videos of our own and each other’s dogs playing alone with toys, catalogued their interactions, examined the skills they displayed and their different modes of engagement with the objects in front of them. His vast repertoire, his dexterity, his preferences: learning he had already developed independently of me; ways of interacting with his world that had already proven to successful him; and others, perhaps, that were being explored for the first time. And I once had the audacity to think that sitting on cue was the extent of the learning he deserved.
When we situate our dogs at the centre of the learning process, a whole world of possibilities opens before us: the potentially endless skills that we can help them develop, and the opportunity to enquire of and draw out who they are. In turn, this enhances our understanding of each other, empowers them in communicating with us, and nurtures not only the relationship but also their ability to move through the world with ease. With this shift, we come to think in terms of “not yet” rather than “can’t;” in terms of learning gaps and opportunities rather than deficits and problems. This reorients the very foundations of the relationship itself, and compels us, too, to be learners, explorers, and investigators into the ways of our dogs and our interactions with them.
If we consider our dogs’ learning in this way, then they are not merely passive receptacles for information, but rather active agents in their own learning who encounter new learning opportunities equipped with a wealth of resources and skills, including when faced with perceived challenges, threats, or problems. We see this in how they generalise their learning naturally: transferring it from one context to another as they use it as the basis of further discovery; drawing from it to bolster their confidence and to harness their autonomy.
“Build the reward into the activity:” to do this, I needed to learn more about what he found rewarding. I had to pay more attention to his interactions with the world independently of me. And sometimes I wondered which of us was facilitating the other’s learning.
For example, rather than conceptualising a movement as a repositioning of the body, we enquire what the movement is and how it will be carried out; we clarify its benefit to the learner; we assess what skills they have and what skills they will need to learn it well; and we seek to develop those skills in such a way that they not only provide a good basis for that movement, but are enjoyable for our learner. Proprioception, balance, stability, awareness, muscle engagement are not the happy side-effects of this learning; rather, they are the foundation on which it is built. The result is a dog who enjoys movement with good form, who has a wider repertoire of skills to navigate the world, and who feels more comfortable in their own body.
These skills, if learned with pleasure, are more than mere responses to what we ask of our dogs. While a dog who learns to sit on cue merely learns to sit on cue, a dog who learns to engage their muscles to move well does so whether we, and the extrinsic rewards we offer, are there or not, and they integrate new learning with this acquisition. The pleasure of moving with control, balance, and stability is a reward unto itself, and we can often see the dog increasingly gravitating towards ways of exploring their newly developed skills.
His bow stretch must have felt so good to him: he carried it into play, adopted the movement on his own volition in more contexts, relished a longer stretch upon waking. Learning it well, learning it comfortably, learning its pleasure, allowed him to lay claim to it and to draw on it whenever he desired.
This depth of learning is a mutual process, as we learn alongside them, not only about how better to engineer their learning but also about who they are and the potential they hold. Rather than foisting learning upon them, we ask them to participate actively in conversations about it; we engage in a dialogic and dynamic process that demands that we continually reflect, adapt, assess, and develop, constantly building and progressing rather than extinguishing and suppressing.
The benefits to us are ample: to be attentive to them is to develop the skill of observation to learn more about them and to enhance our “listening” to them. To attune ourselves to them in our design of their learning is to enhance our skills at planning, assessing, and adapting where needed. To shift the focus onto the process over the product transforms our role from one of instruction to one of support, and for both us and the dog this can be a powerful reconstitution of the relationship as we learn to negotiate and compromise rather than to impose and prescribe. As we question how our dogs construct their skills and knowledge in order that we may better facilitate that process, we come to rethink our own interactions with the world, challenge inherited wisdom, and probe about our own assumptions. Both parties in such an interaction, then, explore together, develop better ways of conversing, become more effective at communicating with each other.
If we view the dog primarily as a producer of behaviours, and if we perceive those behaviours to be the heart of their learning process, and their reward merely an extrinsic one, then our focus is invariably diverted away from the dog, away from their skillset, and away from their understanding of the world. Here, we lose out on a valuable opportunity to help them develop into who they can be. A focus on skills appropriate to that individual, however, acquired in a way that is rewarding for them and engineered so that they are consistently successful, demands that we focus on what they need, what is to their benefit, and what is, ultimately, of benefit to the development of the partnership. To humble ourselves to recognise that we can learn as much from our dogs as they can learn from us is the essential first step in a most fulfilling and revelatory Voyage of Discovery.
The dog who used to walk away now bounces excitedly when I make the invitation to learn together, his ears back, body waggling, lower teeth jutting in anticipation. He explores the new movements he’s learned during play. He applies his learning outside of the house, bringing new skills and an attitude of exploration to the world that once seemed so full of surprises to him. He suggests to me what he’d like to learn, orienting towards the place where a particular piece of equipment is stored and giving me “The Look.” The hardest part is being the responsible one who brings the session to a close when we both want more.
And we always want more…