What’s Cooking? A Warning About Recipes
“With the dog in a down…take a piece of food in your right hand…hold it at the dog’s…wait for the dog to…click and treat…when the dog gets it right four times out of five…increase the difficulty by…”
Recipes for “training” dogs are so prevalent in how we live with and talk about them that their existence often goes unquestioned. We often hold the authority of others in higher regard than our own knowledge of our dogs and our intuition: what to do when we first bring them home; what games to play with them and how; how to deliver their meals; what stimuli to introduce them to and when. While it’s reassuring to have guidance and support from external sources, there’s a danger that we might, in the face of all of the often simplistic information that circulates, disregard our own knowledge of what’s best for our dogs, our understanding of who they are, our own most solid instincts.
Is a cuppa always a cuppa?
Only between 2pm and 5pm. The Irish brand of teabags that comes in the red box, made in my 500ml-capacity mug with the cartoon characters painted on. Bag in, boiling water on top, stir three times, squeeze the bag against the side of the mug before removing. Splash of soy milk; no sugar. Perfect…for me.
Not your cup of tea?
I once took a cooking course, which, as you might imagine, was assessed in part, at least initially, on our ability to recreate dishes. Our instructors were overwhelmingly focussed on our knife skills, temperature control, precision in applications of heat, balancing of flavour profiles. All of these skills had to be in place before we were allowed to progress to prepare dishes, but they had to be demonstrated the entire way through the course. Graduation tasks involved creating recipes to very broad specifications: small bites, cold soups, etc., and here we were encouraged to think beyond recipes to our understanding of harmony of flavours, textures, the consumers of the dishes, etc.
The instructors analogised recipes to route planners: they are one way of getting from A to B, but they aren’t the only way or the best way. No tarragon in the cupboard? Understand the flavour profile of the dish and be familiar with herbs to decide if and how to substitute it. Fan oven? Adjust the temperature and cooking time. Want a slightly different texture? Consider what ingredients or methods to add or adapt to produce that effect.
We learned that working with recipes is not only a matter of preference, but also a matter of chemistry: the results of a sourdough loaf can be affected by humidity, altitude, the seasons, the brand of “strong white bread flour” used, the bacterial composition of the yeast. Roasting vegetables will produce different flavours depending on the size and the cut; the role of thyme in a dish can depend on whether it is chopped or not, and how finely, where on the plant it is taken from, and whether the stems are included and how.
For someone who just wants a roast potato, these details may not matter, but for someone who wants their roast potato to be just right, they matter very much. And I can assure you that just right when it comes to my roast potato will be very different from yours, and yours from a hundred different people: all of these just rights shaped by physiology, learning, experience, sensory preference, and many other factors besides.
A Perfect Dog?
We’re led to believe that “dog training” involves following a series of steps to achieve a certain result, regardless of whether the two individuals involved have the requisite skills, or, in fact, whether that learning is appropriate. Yet, if we recognise that no two dogs are identical, no two humans are identical, no two partnerships are identical, then we repeatedly need to enquire of the learning, the partnership, and the other party when designing any learning. This is, in fact, where learning actually happens, for both us and our dogs. Just right for them, for us, for our lifestyles will diverge significantly among each of us, and even within our multiple-dog households.
When it comes to our lives with dogs, then, recipes abound, as though we can produce identical dogs to order. The appeal that we might be able to take a formula and apply it to achieve certain “guaranteed results” is understandable, but is it really desirable? A takeaway version of “dog,” neatly packaged in the distinctive wrappers of negative attributes (dog does not bark, bite, growl, pull on lead, protect their possessions, struggle with being alone, jump up, counter surf). A veritable menu of suppression, with easy-to-follow steps to get the dog you want as fast as possible. Not only do we inherit recipes for their learning, then, but for their entire existence, putting us in danger of becoming so reliant on external guidance that we repeatedly look beyond the relationship and our own instincts.
Someone else’s recipe for a Good Dog, though, is not the same as mine. And the reality of the individual dogs with whom I live will differ, too, from my idea: while I’d like a dog who’s indifferent to strangers out and about, for example, Tighearnán doesn’t want to meet them; Nika, on the other hand, finds novel humans (in real life, or even on TV) extremely arousing. I wouldn’t change either of them for the world – they’re perfect versions of themselves – but I can set up their environment and build their skills and rewards to facilitate their success at moving through the world in a way that’s best for them, for me, for our lifestyle together, and for those they encounter. And only they and I can determine what this means.
Essential for whom?
Are we just making dogs compliant for people or should we give more consideration to what is going to be beneficial for that dog, living in that lifestyle and an uncertain future?
My dogs have never had to walk in busy traffic (Checklist item #35), mingle with children (Checklist item #2), encounter steam trains (Checklist item #306), or go to restaurants or bars (Checklist items #10, 186, 283, 945); I don’t foresee any of these things in their future, so they’re not where I invest our time and energy.
I don’t want them to sit to greet – in fact, I don’t want them to be greeted by strangers at all I want us to connect on our walks together (Recipe #67) but that doesn’t mean that they need to look at me every few steps (Recipe #148); instead, it will mean that we will match our pace, communicate with each other in various ways including through the lead, and share our focal points. I don’t want them to look at me on cue (Recipe #1035); I want them to look to me when I’m about to do something relevant to them because they’ve learned to read the sound of my breathing, my posture, and other cues that I unthinkingly transmit that tell them a reward is available. I wouldn’t have “trained” them to make eye contact (Recipe #3456) if it hadn’t come naturally or comfortably to them and it would serve no discernible purpose in my relationship with them. I don’t want a vet visit to be an exciting and gleeful event (Recipes #87, 91, 234, etc.); I want it to be minimally stressful and over as quickly as possible – they don’t need to have lots of positive experiences in that place, but I will ensure that we minimise the negative ones” (which is why Tighearnán and I wait in the car, or why Nika licks pâté off the table so she doesn’t notice the needle).
Resisting what others, especially those who claim expertise, tell us is best for our dogs is not always easy. In fact, it puts back on our shoulders the onus of thinking critically about the life we want for and with our dogs, the responsibility for their behaviour, and the duty of engineering their learning thoughtfully and with care. It requires that we examine who they are, our lives with them, and our individual situations to make choices that are in the best interest of all concerned. But it is worth doing if we want to make sure that the ingredients that we have – them, us, the way we live together – combine into a dish that’s just right.
More on the Shelf to Read
A Teaching Plan
Discusses the importance of learning design and provides some examples of what this might look like in the context of engineering learning for dogs. The importance of considering the individuals involved in designing any learning. The benefits to both parties.
Heartbeat of Living with Dogs
A post seeks to shift the paradigm from the mindset of adapting dogs to fit our lives and towards attentiveness to the individual dogs themselves.
An investigation of learner-centred education through the example of Merrick’s learning preferences.
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 and groups
Discount for all courses and videos 50%
Archives of previous courses and books
Share your learning, upgrade your thinking