The skills of ideas, techniques, and strategies used by positive reinforcement dog trainers are broadly applicable to other situations and can easily be used to influence the behavior of many other species (including humans). Karen B. London, PhD, in her new book, Treat Everyone Like a Dog, examines how these skills can be used to make life easier for everyone – dogs and humans alike.
Part 2 of our discussion with Karen London about her new book, where she shares her thoughts on persistence and understanding of dogs that helped her understand people.
Bark: In your book you realize the importance of consistency. What do you see as some of the barriers to this and how do you feel best overcome or at least balanced?
Karen London: Being consistent is one of those things that is so easy in theory, but so challenging in practice. Because something is simple, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s easy, and being consistent is a good example.
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The first obstacle to coherence is not realizing its importance. Learners learn that they know what to expect as the rules and consequences do not change. This makes the process more effective and faster as the learners are less confused. If teachers and trainers knew how consistency facilitates the process, they would be more likely to commit to it.
Another obstacle is that it requires a lot of organization and planning. This takes both time and energy, especially at the beginning when systems need to be set up. Many of the best teachers are persistent teachers and students benefit from it. It is not by chance that they are also the most experienced.
Sometimes consistency is difficult to achieve because it is not recognized as a skill in itself. As teachers and trainers, we can work on our own consistency like we teach any other skill: step by step, so that we can achieve many successes on the way to our ultimate goal. Like any other skill worth developing, it takes patience and practice to get really good at it and to feel natural.
B: Would it be fair to say that the more you understood dogs, the more you understood people? Can you draw parallels between human and canine behavior?
KL: I am a trained ethologist, which means that my research studies include the behavior of animals in their natural environment. My studies also typically span multiple species, often in a comparative fashion. I have always been fascinated by the similarities and differences between and among animals, and it is perfectly natural to apply what I have learned about one species to others, whether the species of interest are wasps, cats, frogs, Sea snails or locusts, dogs or humans.
The principles of learning theory and other aspects of teaching and training apply to all types. The more I learned from working with dogs, the more I was able to teach people in friendlier and more effective ways. Certainly, my professional life has passed into my private life for my own benefit and for the benefit of those around me.
Perhaps one key area where understanding dogs has made me more understanding of people is empathy. I’ve become more and more empathetic to dogs and the challenges they face while teaching and exercising, and that has made me more and more empathetic towards people when it comes to their behavior and learning. Watching people train dogs in confusing or ineffective ways filled me with sympathy for dogs who, through no fault of their own, have failed.
Mentally, I have a tendency to lump learners of all kinds into one big container, and this makes me aware of how they are treated and viewed by those who teach them. When someone comments on a dog less than positively, I quickly see the dog’s point of view and apply it to my point of view of people as well.
For example, a friend’s dog, Roxy, loves other dogs so much that when she sees one, little else is important to her. One day I was walking Roxy and we saw another dog approaching us on a side path. The other dog’s owner stopped to let us pass, but Roxy wasn’t interested in continuing on our way. She sat down and waited politely. I tried to call her away and even jumped and ran a step or two to encourage her to come with me, but she stayed where she was, sitting and waiting for an opportunity to greet her next best friend. The other person said, “Boy, is she ever stubborn!” I smiled at the remark but disagreed with it.
Soon I was able to lure Roxy away with a few goodies, followed by a chase game; We then went on. I didn’t see the problem as being stubborn. Roxy and I just had different desires at that moment. Since the other person obviously didn’t want the two dogs to say hello, I wanted to continue our walk. Roxy, on the other hand, wanted to stay where we were, presumably hoping to see a new dog.
Roxy and I were equal but had different preferences, and we each communicated what we wanted to do while realizing that we did not agree to those goals. This is not stubborn, which I believe, despite good reasons or arguments, refuses to change one’s views or opinions. When people have strong views or preferences, I know it’s worth thinking about instead of labeling them with a word that has negative connotations just because we don’t agree.
I constantly see parallels between dog and human behavior, especially in our fascination with the game. Gambling behavior does not occur in all species and is not as common throughout the animal kingdom, but it is as important to both dogs and humans. I think my obsession with playing with animals results in part from the way our two species interact, which is a true biological wonder that I enjoy over and over again.
One of my soapboxes is that the game is underused in influencing behavior. I’ve written and spoken about the importance of play for dogs
More on this in Part 3 …