You are not born with the skills to be successful in my world. It’s up to me to teach you.–Marge Rogers’ pledge to her puppy, Zip
In case you hadn’t noticed, all these “puppy lessons” are lessons for the trainer as much or more than for the puppy. But Lesson Six most of all. In this lesson, Marge makes a pledge to Zip: She will remember that it is up to her to teach him what he needs to know and how to act in order to be happy in our strange human world.
It’s not a question of “obedience.” It’s more like someone explaining to a dear friend how best to get along in foreign country.
So much of our normal approach to dog training is that of solving “problem behaviors” that bother us (usually after they have gotten established). Nine times out of ten (that’s a made up statistic, but I bet it’s true), the problem behaviors are just regular old “out of the box” dog behaviors that don’t fit well in our human world. You know, chewing stuff up, stealing food, jumping on people, digging holes, barking too much, nipping at fingers. These things aren’t evil. They usually just aren’t convenient for us. But throw in the mythology of dominance, where we are told that dogs are continually challenging our authority, and these natural dog behaviors can cause a dog to lose its home or its life.
What you will see in this movie is the opposite of that. The most important word in the movie is “teach.” Thoughtful, preemptive teaching such as Marge is doing is a win/win for human and dog. Puppy learns a palette of fun, acceptable behaviors via positive reinforcement. He develops skills for even more fun and learning with Marge. He develops good associations to the world through careful exposures. Marge gets a lovely, well behaved dog and Zip gets a big, big world to play in.
Marge points out in the movie that puppies are not born with the skills to get along perfectly in the human world. And it’s actually worse than that: they are born with behaviors that are actively troublesome to us. For instance, “See food. Eat food,” as Marge puts it. The counter surfing dog is not challenging our authority. He is doing what comes naturally: scarfing up whatever is available. And once he finds something up there, it will be tough teaching him never to go there again. It will make little sense to his doggie brain. It’s not about authority, it’s about availability. How much better would it be to teach him never to go there in the first place? Never get that first sweet reinforcer for counter or table surfing.
Hence, Marge will teach Zip habits that are incompatible with inappropriate scavenging. Marge used to have much bigger dogs (mastiffs, then ridgebacks) and I was going to tease her and say she finally got a dog who couldn’t reach the counter, but I can hear Sue Ailsby laughing at me. Porties are said to be incorrigible counter dogs. But Marge is a match for that. As you’ll see in the movie, she has her special “magnetic mat” in the kitchen door that has thwarted many a potential food thief.
My favorite part of the movie is when Marge has Zip in her lap for administering eye medication and getting a toenail trim. She prioritized handling (building positive associations with classical conditioning) and has a pup who is all squishy in her lap: relaxed and trusting. She has the benefit of being able to do some tricky husbandry behaviors with a cooperative puppy. But Zip is the big winner here. He doesn’t fear the grooming table, the clippers, the medication bottle, or Marge’s hands, for that matter.
My heart still gets all mooshy when I see people doing training that doesn’t have human preferences as the sole prompt. This whole movie is dedicated to Zip’s welfare every bit as much as Marge’s convenience. The more things our dogs are comfortable with, the more skills our dogs have, the wider their worlds can be.
Marge’s summary to Zip after the six Life Lessons (so far!):
These are my life lessons for you, my sweet puppy. And for me too. Now, let’s train!
Life Lessons for My Puppy (a blog page with all the puppy lessons)
Other Good Stuff