Often clients have difficulty embracing the proposition that showing leadership to our dogs and effectively communicating that we don’t want the dog to engage in unwanted behavior gets results very quickly, even if the dog has done the same unwanted thing thousands of times before. I love to analogize the client’s situation to the movie Groundhog Day. The client gets to be Bill Murray, with the luxury of repeating an effort until he gets it right. The dog is every other character in the film, living in the moment, blissfully oblivious to the repetitions while Bill learns, initially by trial and error (also characteristic of a dog’s learning system) and subsequently by reasoning and extrapolation. A dog doesn’t use much memory but responds to quite specific associations, which often are formed by a single experience and remain until replaced.
This anecdote sometimes helps people understand the distinction between memory and association. It also illustrates the similarity in the functioning of our own brains.
Years ago a young friend, Henry, rolled his car one evening on a rural highway. The next day he described vividly his terror: trapped upside down – the seat belt still engaged, the engine stopped, the night silent save for the tape in his eight-track player, the soundtrack chugging along despite his otherwise surreal situation and his fear of burning alive before being extricated.
Its likely that were Henry three months later to have heard the same song that played at his first moment of horror, he would have relived that same clammy chill. Memory would have helped him to comprehend why that feeling arose. If Henry was like most of us, three decades later the same song would still trigger the association, and its visceral fear, but neither the memory nor the comprehension. Canine psychologists believe that with a dog the association but not the memory is present much more immediately. Perhaps three seconds as opposed to the three decades I’ve posited.