Friday, October 16, 2009

Lessons in learning

One of the fun things about having puppies is that they're always learning. Unfortunately, they don't always learn what you're trying to teach them.

A case in point is freeloading Dempsey. I had been trying to teach teamwork, but what Dempsey learned is that it's enough just to look cute and show up. As Sarah Palin is (hopefully) learning, this will only get you so far. Eventually, you need to deliver, especially if you're a service dog.

Another example is "get your pack" and "get your leash." Individually, Dempsey does them brilliantly. Here's a video of Dempsey getting his pack from upstairs, (mostly) ignoring the distractions of Sawyer barking and Doreen roasting a chicken:

And this wasn't even his best effort! Without the distractions, Dempsey makes a beeline for his pack. I would think he has this down cold.

However, when I put the pack and the leash on the chair together, the behavior completely falls apart. Dempsey is not hearing "get your pack," or "get your leash." He's just hearing "get your blah blah blah," and he picks up the objects randomly.

With some tips from our instructor, I slapped together a lesson plan in discrimination: put the pack on my right, and the leash on my left; point as I say the cue; then gradually fade the point.

Our instructor said this would be very difficult for Dempsey, but within 10 minutes, he got it!!!

Or so I thought. When I switched the positions of the objects, Dempsey got them completely backwards. Apparently, I had taught him that "get your pack" means "step to your left and get the object there" and "get your leash" means "step to your right and get the object there." Dempsey got an extra big breakfast that day as I worked to untrain what I had just trained.

Now that I think about this, it makes sense. Everything I tell Dempsey is a verb: sit, drop, get, even Dempsey (which means, "look at me"). So naturally Dempsey would think "get your leash" and "get your pack" are verbs, too. It really is going to be quite the conceptual leap for him to understand that words can refer to things as well as actions.

This is interesting because, as a human, I rely more on nouns than verbs. For example, when I travel abroad, I can usually just say "train station?" or "bathroom?" and make my intentions clear. (The latter is especially effective when accompanied by an interpretive dance.) There's even a French novel -- God bless the French -- written without a single verb. But for dogs, verbs rule.

As our instructor said, this is hard for Dempsey. It's been about a week now, without much progress to show. But I think it will be very rewarding when he gets it. Once he knows nouns and verbs, I want to see if he understands grammar, the idea that you can form novel cues by combining previously learned nouns and verbs.

Dempsey's taking a nap now, and I'm just looking at him wondering what he's dreaming about in his cute little head. Puppies are such an endless source of joy and wonder.

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