I’ve had a curious assumption for years, that I’m smarter than dogs. But yesterday that idea was challenged by three dogs. My previous opinion was based on my realizing that instead of trying to convince my dog Tiger that something I said meant that he should do that particular act, rather some particular act that he did should be instantly attached to a word that I then said. So what I had just said fit what he had just done. And, that action was accompanied with a doggie treat, like a piece of kibble. The same amount of learning had taken place, but Tiger didn’t have to figure out what a word meant, I had to figure out what to name an action he had just done; and that’s why I thought I was smarter than he was, because it worked. Most people are still pointing their finger and saying fetch, and the dog doesn’t have a clue what is intended, because he doesn’t speak English or any other human language, so far as I know.
I haven’t had a personal dog for years, but I frequently go to the local dog park to talk with dog owners, and sometimes I get to throw a tennis ball or a Frisbee for a dog to fetch. Yesterday was a bit different in that one of the guys let me use his ball throwing Chuckit for five minutes, and I got to play with his dog and soon several other dogs joined in. Generally the dogs are rather poor at returning the ball and giving it back to their owners, but by the end of the five minutes there were three dogs fetching the ball, as a pack, and returning it precisely between my feet, leaving it there, and looking expectantly at me; and then waiting patiently for me to throw it again. Previously each of the owners had been having to wrestle their respective balls away from their dogs. I was as shocked by these dogs’ behaviors as were the owners, and so I tried to figure out what was going on in the dogs’ minds, and in mine. After a bit of obscure cogitating I realized what was happening.
I was rewarding the dogs by doing an action that was preparatory to something they wanted to do. Thus, each step of getting closer to throwing the ball had become a reward in itself for a behavior just completed at that time, and my throwing the ball was a special reward because then they all got to chase it. At first I began by establishing ownership of the ball by placing my foot on it, and rolling it around under my foot. Then after they accepted my ownership, I lifted my foot off the ball, but with it still between my feet, and said, “Sit!”. All of these dogs knew that word and sat looking at me. When I took my foot off of the ball, that was a preparatory reward, when I spaced out my feet with the ball still laying there it was a preparatory reward too, because they could then see the ball. I did maintain proximity ownership of the ball, and if they started acting distracted, jittery or acquisitive I firmly said, “Sit!” As soon as they sat and acknowledged my ownership of the ball for a second or so, I then slowly moved my foot away, and back over it a few times, and then put the Chuckit stick’s cup over the ball. If any of the dogs looked anxious I put my foot back on the ball and said, “Sit!” again, and they returned to the alert anticipatory mind-set. I then slowly lifted the ball in the cup up to a throwing position, moving it up in a slowly weaving oscillation as kind of a cobra snake-like tease. I did that to maintain their attention on the ball. Once I was standing tall, I quickly stood full up straight and immediately threw the ball, about thirty yards and the three dogs ran shoulder to shoulder after it at top speed. It was a happy pack!
Whichever dog got it turned and jogged happily back. The next thing was to get him to put it between my feet. It wasn’t difficult because these dogs already responded to the command “Sit”, so when the dog with the ball came close to me, and was fairly calm, I said, “Sit!” And that dog did sit, and with the ball still in his mouth. The next goal was to get them to put it between my feet. To make that easy for them I took a few steps closer and stood one step in front of the sitting dog with my heels together and my toes apart. I then took the throwing stick and tapped it sharply on the ground in front of him to make a noise, and draw the attention of that dog to that sound and that point. Instantly after they dropped the ball for the first few times, I instantly said “Drop it!”, later I would say “Drop it!” just after saying, “Sit!” and standing in front of them. When the ball was on the ground, I would put my foot on it, to establish ownership, and begin the process again.
At each point I was doing the thinking, not the dog, and I was rewarding them with a series of actions, each of which was a reward in itself, and it was getting closer to throwing the ball, which was the biggest reward for them. The biggest reward for me was seeing three happy dogs playing this game.
I didn’t take pictures of that event, but I did a similar procedure a few days later with a different dog, using a Frisbee and with similar results.
First I establish ownership of the Frisbee, by holding it under my foot.
I remove my foot, but maintain ownership with my proximity to the Frisbee.
After establishing ownership, and insisting on him sitting patiently, I praised him with “Good dog” and then slowly raised the Frisbee, while still insisting on him sitting, and then, when full up, threw it. After a few times the dog was bringing the toy back and placing it between my feet. If at any time he broke the sequence I returned to the first position with my foot on the toy.
This seemed similar to what most of the other dog owners were doing, the difference being that after a few cycles the dogs were retrieving the toy and placing it between my feet.
Sometimes, I am smarter than a dog, but I must see through his mind.