Beer, Steak, and Writing: Dog Training by Metaphor

I am blessed with a generous friend who is also a great trainer. She has witnessed Peeka and Hawkitt in their native habitat, has seen me managing them, and has been my “go to” person for all training and behavior questions. We met over Cinder: Brydon fostered Cinder and the relationship an adoptive owner can strike up with a foster can be profound. Dog after dog, wacky situation after even wackier situation, I’ve found that I could lean on Brydon for advice, reality checks, and friendship. This morning we talked about motivation.

I asked Bry to give me an example of a dog being asked to work for stuff he or she doesn’t want. I was thinking “don’t dogs want everything? Food, love, praise, tug, etc… aren’t dogs easy to motivate?” Brydon’s reply was so awesome I was inspired to write this whole blog post about it. She said “I want you to write a story. I will pay you in beer.”

Sheesh, I thought. “Brydon, I love you, I love writing, and I love beer. This is a no brainer.”

“What if I offered to pay you in steak?”

“I am allergic to beef. I haven’t eaten a cut of beef since I was 16 and had an anaphalactic reaction. I still love you and I still love writing but I’d walk away from the reward.”

“What if I asked you to clean the bathroom and offered to pay you with a hamburger?”

“I still love you but I hate cleaning bathrooms.”

And so on. It was starting to make sense for me in a new way. Three components to asking anything of a dog: your relationships with the dog (I love Brydon and would clean a bathroom or even [shudder] change a tire for her); the task you’ve asked of the dog, and the reward you’re offering the dog for compliance.

The three components work together, though. If Brydon offers me a beer, I trust Bry that it will be a craft brewed India pale ale, and not a poorly-balanced, overly citrusy one. We have an established relationship so I can trust that if she says beer, she doesn’t mean Coors light.

I love to write. But what if every time I wrote Bry a story, instead of giving me a delicious IPA, she said “that story wasn’t what I had in mind. I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear, but I need you to rewrite it from scratch.” What if no matter how many stories I wrote, she always found fault and withheld the beer?

And let’s take Brydon out of the equation for a moment. What is the person asking me to write has no relationship with me at all? How would I go about deciding to write for him or her? I’d need more information about the story (what type of story? How many words? On what topic? And just one beer? Or a whole six pack?)

Building relationship and building motivation or engagement or working drive or all four of these separate but related aspects of training happen organically as we live with and work with our dogs. Bry and I were chatting about Bendy Bindi and how she’s adapting to our lifestyle here on the mountain. One of Bry’s quotes, taken slightly out of context, but relevant nonetheless was “every time she even glances in your direction, love the shit out of her.” Building relationship means, in part, building joy in interacting. When I was studying to be a social worker, I learned the term “role induction.” Mothers of newborns induce their babies to be “givers of joy.” It’s a feedback loop for sure – mom responds to baby as if baby is a giver of joy and … lo and behold, baby starts acting like a giver of joy. It’s not the same process with dogs, but it looks similar from the outside: every time the dog approaches you of its own volition, you let it know that approaching me is AWESOME. Interacting with me is AWESOME. Me in your life? AWESOME. How awesome? Add a bit of delicious food AWESOME.

Tired but happy. Bindi hiked in the Catskill Forest Preserve and showed me what bond in action looks like.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting: Bindi shows an obvious intense bond and profound engagement and she’s only a silly Bendy-Pawed Puppy who has been here 4 weeks. But in photo after photo, video after video, if I step back and watch objectively – it’s clear she is focused like a laser on me. She is eagerly trying to figure out how to be my giver of joy. And she is clearly receiving the positive feedback that I am trustworthy, fun, and safe. We will start trading stories for beer at some point, but by the time we do, she will know she’s got nothing but craft brewed double IPAs coming her way and I will trust that her stories will be a pleasure to read.

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