The Spaces Between
With pride that I’d “got the behaviour,” I review the video. The pride turns to astonishment to disappointment. One behaviour after another after another as I drop the food and turn away to reset. I observe in the replay the spaces between: his eyes searching for connection with me as I divert mine. His moment of glory, his reward: I treated it like a chance to buy myself some time. I’d got the behaviour but I’d lost sight of him.
When we think of “training”, we often think of something that’s linear, unilateral, and goal-oriented. We think of rapid repetitions of behaviours as the outcome and as the mark of the success. In fact, nothing could be—or perhaps should be—further from the truth. Human education has moved on from the idea that teaching is purely about imparting information to be memorised by rote, and even knowledge-based curricula embrace enquiry and problem-solving as important parts of learning. Educators recognise that learners will construct meaning that is determined by their own experiences, and that we can draw on these to deepen the connections that can then be made to new discoveries, new theories and facts, and new ways of engaging with ideas. 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. This is in marked contrast to a mechanistic process that focusses on outcomes and that fails to acknowledge the multiple forms of uniqueness that each learner will bring.
Yet, the common discourse surrounding the cohabitation of humans and dogs marks out their lives and their learning in behaviours and in our ability to elicit them. The ascription of value to particular outcomes—walking on a “loose lead,” recall, sitting when requested—these things inevitably funnel our focus in that direction. Try as we might resist some of the more arbitrary notions of how our dogs should move through a human world, the tendency to perceive our interactions with them as an exchange of actions—the pressure to “get behaviour”—can colour the edges of that shared world, and can result in a disjunction that positions us at opposite poles where we negotiate and trade to bridge the spaces between us. Yet rewards are at the heart of the learning process as the dog perceives it, and to place our focus elsewhere is to miss so much information that we can use to guide, is to lose sight of skills that can be transferred across contexts, and is to fail to honour and empower our learners.
His world, so heavily prescribed by my arrangement of it, is full of rewards that he seeks out; I vow to tune in more to the what, the where, and the how.
If learning is driven by rewards, and if the acquisition of new skills and the ability to solve new problems are pleasurable unto themselves, then it behoves us to tune in more frequently to what our dogs find rewarding and to how they enjoy it. It may be that they are thrilled by the anticipation, that they find pleasure in the exchange of something of value, that they relish showing it off, that they delight in being observed as they savour their prize.
Attentiveness to their rewards is not only a matter of demonstrating respect for our partners-in-learning, but it is also essential to guiding their acquisition of new skills. And if we can shift our focus to filling the learning with rewards and becoming part of that reward process through honouring it, then the entire process itself becomes enhanced for all concerned: through connectedness, through our pleasure at being part of their pleasure, and through a shift in focus that changes the colouring of the experience. We observe, we watch, and while we guide we empower them to enter into dialogue with us and to further inform the learning; our mutual communication and understanding will invariably improve as a result.
To teach effectively is to listen: to fully situate the process on our learner, to understand how they are experiencing it, to make adjustments where necessary, to elicit a sense of agency in them, and to, in turn, learn from them ourselves. To shift the process from one that is concerned with what we may take from it and to think, instead, in terms of what our learners are gaining is to make room for them to express themselves, for us to know them, and for the learning to blossom in this dialogue—this requires that we pay attention.
He taps my foot when he wants something. A compromise, certainly, and a remarkable adjustment to interspecies living. But every tap is a signal of a history of my failure to meet him halfway, to perceive him on his own terms.
The signs that we use to communicate as a species are comparatively more elaborate than those displayed, read, and understood by our canine companions. Our emphasis on symbolic gestures, and particularly on verbal utterances, is a marked contrast to a system of communication in which the slightest movement of an ear or the ripple of hair can convey so much information to an attentive observer. We expect the same elaborate gestures in return, watching for and only responding to the loudness, the largeness, and missing the subtleties and the nuance. We focus on the behaviours that are most visible, most audible, and in doing so we often fail to observe the gaps in which the most important information is conveyed, to read what is tacit, to carve out space, to create stillness that will invite the dog to fill it with information.
An advert appears in my social media feed: teach your dog to “talk.” The key to understanding, we insist, is the one that we hold; the world to be unlocked is the one we perceive and depict; the duty for this rests on their shoulders. The onus for communication is not ours; never ours.
It is in the silence that the most vital information is to be found: in the spaces between actions, movements, responses. To learn where to look for these spaces and to understand how to navigate them are skills that must be developed over our lifetimes and over those of each of the ones with whom we share them. Silence is the framework to the process of interaction. We may perceive that interaction only in moments of direct connection: proximity, physical contact, a shared gaze. But it is in the moments unencumbered by a focus on doing, a focus on behaviour, that the most important learning is to be had: our richest learning is to be found in in the spaces between.
Within the paradigm of an approach to learning that focuses on behaviours, we’re the ones controlling the communication; we’re the ones determining the acceptable responses; and therefore, in essence, we’re the only ones talking. To focus only on “correct responses” and not the complexity and vibrancy of rewards is to fail to listen to the conversation that’s actually taking place.
Yet teaching is a discursive process which is most effective when both parties are open to learning from each other. At its heart, it is a process of enquiry in which information is offered in every moment, but most particularly in the silences that bracket our delivery of the reward. The skill is in observing, in learning how to adjust and adapt to those moments in gathering the information from the spaces between in order that we may respond with greater openness, thoughtfulness, and care. In their attentiveness to the value of these moments—in their focus on what is most rewarding—dogs have far more to teach us than we have to teach them.
When he’s done with his task he flicks a glance towards me. One opportunity for connection observed is a reminder of thousands missed. Not knowing exactly how to respond, but determined to learn, I invite him to come to me, and he does, pressing himself against my shins as I stroke him gently and talk to him in whispers. I straighten up, moving backwards a couple of inches as I do so, and he fills the space between us again.
Tighearnan: eyes wide open looking for a chance to learn.
Build the Learning
Lifelong skills built in activities and play. A dog that is curious, confident, resilient with a natural enthusiasm for learning.
Learn about the fascinating landscape of rewards and how to make them the centre of your training and relationship.
Management or Training
Find a pathway to suit your lifestyle of living with dogs. When management temporarilly supports the learning, or choose training.
learn it once
Access to The Sett community forum and live Sett Chats
Setter Library with 12 courses, over 70 lessons, covering over 150 topics
Live Courses for Setter Members only.
Share your learning, upgrade your thinking