Dogs learn by trial and error and association. They repeat any behavior that receives positive reinforcement. They teach us by seizing on any positive (from their perspective) response we show to their behavior.
When Jocko first showed signs of the progressive arthritis that made his last days a misery, full of pratfalls and challenges in getting back up, we got him a metal food stand. He watched with ever-present curiosity as stand and bowl were mated. It probably took all of ten seconds before he sniffed, concluded that my machinations had produced no food, and batted the bowl with his paw. He recognized immediately that he could spin the bowl; it made a heck of a racket!
Had I been a more empathetic human being (such as, for example, my wife), I might have told myself “oh, the poor dear is hungry” and filled the bowl. That outcome would have fulfilled his not –manipulative-but-dazzlingly-effective effort to teach me that when I heard the noise, he intended that I fill the bowl. Had I filled the bowl, my family would have been treated to that racket dozens of times a day. Because I didn’t do so, he limited bowl-spinning to a desultory once or twice a year exercise.
A client’s dog provided a less edifying example of teaching humans and of learning by association. A toy breed dog with a fearful temperament, who, we may surmise, dreaded being stroked and/or picked up by a succession of strangers at his front door, had developed a surefire and effective way of teaching visitors that he didn’t want them to touch him. He urinated on the shoe of each new arrival. While we would not view the dismay, yelling and chastisement that inevitably followed as a positive, the dog always achieved his teaching objective without fail. Nobody invaded his space.
Peter Levy is a Master Dog Trainer and Behavioral Therapist with TLC of San Diego Home Dog Training,