Learning How to Learn

This entry is motivated by a bit of pride as much as it's motivated by the concept I want to talk about. A couple of weeks ago, Andy and I went on vacation a few weeks ago, and we left the dogs with my parents, who have graciously dog-sat for us on the one-ish vacation a year we take that's not dog-friendly. My mom, who went from a novice in competition to a nationally ranked handler in World Cynosport Rally, had a really fun idea. She was going to a competition with Summer the first day she had our boys, so thought it would be a blast to take one of them and see how well he could do.

We came down on a Friday night, very late, and got on a plane early Saturday morning. She chose Comet, because he's a bit older and mellower than Jax, and trained him a bit on Saturday morning. By Saturday at 2PM, Comet had done his first rally run ever, with a qualifying score and a fourth-place ribbon to boot. His second run was also a qualifier, and he took first place on that one.

There are three things that made that possible, I think.

One, rally is designed to be similar to real-world obedience skills, so a dog with regular real-world skills is already largely prepared for the lowest level of rally course. It only asks for sits, downs, stays, polite leash-walking, etc. It would not be feasible to prepare a dog in a single morning for a sport like obedience or agility, simply because they would be too unfamiliar with the specific tasks asked of them. Rally, though, is really asking your dog to work with you, connect with you, and perform skills reliably in a distracting environment.

Two, my mom is a really good handler. Even though she and Summer have only been competing for less than two years, she is extremely good at communicating with a dog and at navigating a rally course.

Number three, though, is the thing I'm really interested in right now: Comet doesn't just have solid training on skills like sits, downs, stays; he has also learned how to learn.

Comet's whole experience with training is that he is encouraged to figure out what we want, and then he's rewarded when he does. If he can't figure it out, we ask him for something more feasible. Because he is not harshly punished for getting things wrong, he has the confidence to keep trying. I don't intend this little entry to be a polemic against punishing dogs in any way, but I do want to make the point that when you make it unpleasant for a dog to be wrong, you run a substantial risk of slowing down his learning (among other things). I don't want a dog who's looking to avoid getting in trouble. I want a dog who feels confident that if he works out what I want, I'll make it worth his while, and that if he's wrong, he'll get another chance.

Over the years, he has gotten better and better at learning, so that old saying is super wrong: not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, but an old dog might just be better at them if he's learned how to learn.

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