Twister (1992-2008) working her chair routine

Twister (1992-2008) working her chair routine

Isn’t it funny how all of these posts on dogs shaping people have ended up having picture of a terrier with them. And not coincidentally many of your comments are about Jack Russell Terriers! Hmm, yes indeed terriers are just masterful at shaping their people. It is because they are so brilliant and have a tenacity that allows them to continue to try something over and over until it finally works.

So let me start off by sharing some of the things my terriers have managed to shape me to do.  Twister was magnificent at it.

When I used to be in sales my dogs traveled with me. We would come home from work at night and I would rush to the bathroom. Twister would go to the office and take any new fax that came in from the fax machine and delivery them, one page at a time, to me sitting on the toilet.  Now this was a good thing and she would get reinforced for it. However when I left sales and became a full time dog trainer there where no longer daily faxes for my little terrier to deliver.

That didn’t stop Twister.  Every once in a while as I worked at my desk in my office, she would dig through trash until she found an intact sheet of paper. She would then leave the office with it and then prance back with it in her mouth, proud as can be as if to announce “here, you didn’t see this one, this is a fax that just came in.”  I would laugh my butt off and of course I would reward her.  She then went on to include John’s desk in on the game. She would jump on his desk and take a piece of mail from his stack to deliver it to me. It always cracked me up (although it soon grew tiresome for John:)).

I had trained Twister to sit on a chair in the kitchen anytime anyone prepared food (dogs meals or human) in the kitchen. When she got on her chair she would earn the chance to be rewarded. It wasn’t a gaurenteed reward, although Twister believed it should be.  If I was preparing a big meal and was in the kitchen for a long time she would get on and off the chair as if to let me know she been rewarded enough. That never worked, what did work (and it took me giving her quite few reinforcements before I clued it) was if Twist didn’t get her cookies she would start to rattle the chair. She did it by shifting her weight back and forth on it in order to get it rocking against the tile floor. This quiet noise brought my attention to her in a more subtle way and allowed her to earn several rewards before I realized what was going on. She was a gem that Twister girl and I continued to reward that little game of hers long after I knew what she was doing. Sometimes cute gets rewarded too.

DeCaff shaped me to do something that later caused me about 9 months of training grief. Here is what happened. When she was a puppy and we would tug I would play Smack Da Baby with her (wacking her with my free hand as she tugged) and she loved the game. However if I smacked her anywhere from her shoulders forward she would drop the toy. She always was happy to re-grip but she always dropped the toy. So her behaviour unconsciously shaped me not to Smack Da Baby above her shoulders. No big deal right? Wrong. It took me 9 months to figure out why I struggled getting any speed or rhythm with DeCaff in her weave pole performance. It took her over 4 seconds to weave 12 poles. Once I realized it was that she didn’t the poles touching her anywhere near her shoulders or face I fixed my problem with less a month of counter-conditioning.  When I was done not only could I Smack Da Baby anywhere on her body (including in her face) I also could also play the new game of smack-a-wee-baby-face-into-the polies.  I never had a problem with her weave poles again and she went on to have one of the fastest times for Jack Russell and mini dogs in the Clean Run 60 Weave Pole Challenge.

Don’t think terriers are the only dogs that can shape behaviour either. All dogs have this skill. My Border Collies are just to obvious though. Clearly they haven’t learned the subtitles of the terriers.  That is until Feature. I have always thought of her as  Terrier in a Border Collie’s body. The most annoying behaviours Feature has pulled on me involve her crate games. Notice how she has managed to get me to leave her on an agility table rather than in her crate when I teach or train. She is just brilliant.

Okay, your turn. Continue to tell me the things your dogs have managed to shape you to do. Do be shy, I’ve showed you mine, now you should me yours!

Today I am grateful how all of my dogs; those past and present, continue to teach me that reinforcement really does build behaviour.