I am having a wonderful time teaching kids about dogs. I like finding ways to help them relate to what is going on in the dog's head. Today's lesson was about how a dog figures out what the rule is; what the person wants. A clicker trained dog is brilliant at figuring out the rule, although you have to be careful that the rule you think you're teaching is the same one that the dog is learning.
When I was a kid my father used to load everyone in the car and drive around. It never seemed like the goal was actually going somewhere as much as simply all being together in the car with him driving We played a lot of games on these car trips. It was enforced family time and many of those car games have stuck with me over the years. One game in particular seems to correspond well to how dogs figure out the rule. The person beginning the game says "When I Go on My Trip I'm Going to Take a _________________" filling in the blank with something that fits the rule they are using. The next person has to take something that fits the rule plus whatever the first person took. If their item fits the rule they can go if it doesn't fit they don't get to go.
We played a variation on this in class today. I didn't worry about whether they could remember all the previous items or not only about whether their item fit the rule. I began, "When I Go on My Trip I'm Going to Take a Rug." In this first round not a single kid guessed that the rule was it needed to begin with an R; they guessed things that went in houses, things that were similar to rugs, thing that rhymed with rugs, etc. When it was my turn again I said I'd take a Rug and a Radish. About half the kids figured out the rule then, but it took a third round for everyone to get it. They were learning to figure it out much like a dog does. In the second game of "What I'll Take on My Trip" I began with a cantaloupe, the kids all thought the rule would be things that began with the letter C and that looked like a promising strategy with the kids bringing cake, candy, cherries, and carrots being allowed to come on the trip. Everyone was surprised when I said the kid bringing a cat couldn't come. So the rule wasn't just words that began with C, clearly that was part of the rule but not the entire rule. Canned Corn could come on the trip but the Camera couldn't. Kids began to test their hypotheses and eventually figured out that the rule was things to eat that begin with the letter C.
Dogs do the same thing, they observe what gets them rewarded and try to repeat that. Finna for example is learning to sit and scratch herself if she wants/needs an out. Initially, I was simply trying to get her to sit rather than barking wildly and launching herself onto me but she was stressed enough by trying to figure out the rule that she'd sit and scratch as almost one motion. This was marked and rewarded often enough that she began to suspect it was the rule. It amused me that she would sit and scratch as a way of asking to be let out that I made that the official rule. She's still not positive that it is both together and will sometimes scratch while standing and often offer just a sit. I only mark and reward when her behavior matches all of the rule and she's becoming more certain of what she needs to do to get me to take her out. Just like the kids in the class she tests hypotheses and tries different strategies.
Often in Finna's life the rules get more complicated. When we started teaching house manners Finna's rule was not to bolt out the door as soon as it opened. Once she'd mastered that the rule became sit and do not bolt out the door. Now her rule is sit, do not bolt out the door, make eye contact and wait to be given permission before going out the door. As she has learned the intricacies of the game the game has gotten more challenging.
Next week my two legged puppies will be meeting Ranger and learning about dog body language. I'm looking forward to it.