Yesterday, The New York Times had a piece on Brooklynite Peter Taft and his search -and-rescue dog, Cassius. Cassius, a German Shepherd, was found at a shelter in Milwaukee and then trained at the Northwest K9 Academy in Seattle. Since then, he has traveled the world using his nose to help find survivors of disasters. The article also talks about Wizard, a seeing eye dog. Describing them, Guy Trebay writes:
Like every dog hero, Wizard and Cassius surpass the ordinary expectations of dogs as chattel or faithful, trusted servants. They belong to a category of animal partners that, if not altogether equal to humans, share some of Homo sapiens’s better qualities.
Perhaps the problem is that we just have unnecessarily low expectations of our dogs.
Here’s a radical idea: Let’s raise our expectations.
We tend to see some animals as more exceptional than others. Most people think their own dog is exceptional, and I see no problem with that. Anyone who knows your dog as well as you do probably agrees.
However, there’s one thing that makes some animals seem exceptional even if you don’t know them intimately: mental acuity.
Every service dog, search-and-rescue dog, signing gorilla, acrobatic cat, dancing horse or what have you is the product of education. Almost always, the methods used rely on the basic laws of learning, classical and “operant” conditioning. (What does “operant conditioning mean?” you ask. We’ll get back to that in the next paragraph). Dogs are learning this way all the time. Indeed, people are too! But I think to say that humans own this kind of intelligence and dogs may occasionally “share” in it is a rather human-centric view of things. Woof.
Classical conditioning was what was at work when Mabel, my childhood dog, learned that the sound of my dad ripping a check out of his checkbook meant she was going to get a walk to the bank. Eventually, she learned that she had control over the situation: If she pulled her leash off the door knob, he’d go get a check and they’d go out.
Classical conditioning is all about the signal that tells you what happens next. The green light that means go. The bell that got Pavlov’s dogs thinking about food. Same thing.
Operant conditioning gives control. Instead of an change of a sight (green light) or sound (bell) indicating what comes next, a certain behavior brings about the desired consequences. It’s doing something in order to bring about desired consequences.
Classical conditioning is the cat learning that the sound of the can-opener means food is nigh. Operant conditioning is what is going on when the cat learns that meowing at your feet will result in you causing the can-opener to make the happy sound.
Mabel, for example, knew how to make the checkbook-walk chain of events take place. In the same way, a working dog can learn that in order to get its owner to reward her, she need only bark whenever she smells a bomb, for example.
The equation is: If A, then B will equal C.
In the presence of A (bomb), if I do action B (bark), the consequence will be C (big treat).
For Mabel, it was:
In the presence of A (my owner), if I do B (grab leash), the consequence will be C (walk!).
This is powerful stuff.
Once you give your dog the tools to fully grasp this kind of intuitive learning, the possibilities are endless.
Here’s one in our household:
In the presence of A (the doorbell), if I do B (resist the urge to bark), the consequence will be C (permission to greet visitors).
And guess what! It’s exactly by this process that humans learn, too.
In the presence of A (my boss), if I do B (look busy), the consequence will be C (avoid punishment).
I’m not sure this is one of our “better” qualities as Trebay says, but its a quality I have no problem sharing with my pooch.