Too Dumb to learn


To Dumb to learn by J. Renzoni

“My dog (horse or cat) is too dumb to learn that.”

“I don’t have enough time to do training.”

“All I want is a friendly furry face to snuggle.”

“My dog doesn’t like toys. He doesn’t play. He’s too old.”

A friend of mine who only had cats enlightened me about cats. She had all sorts of cat toys – fishing poles, furry teasers, light balls with bells and she played with her adult cats and they played well. I had thought that cats only really played when they were kittens and slept when they were adults. I hadn’t realized the games just needed to evolve with the maturity and preferences of the cats. But it’s true they sleep a lot, I never timed it, but it’s supposedly 18 hours a day.

Smokey likes comfortable spots to sleep, but he also likes balancing and leaping and kitty treats.
Smokey likes comfortable spots to sleep, but he also likes balancing and leaping and kitty treats.

So why am I talking about cats? Because many people think they can’t be trained to do things, which is just an extension of the concept of the ‘limited’ learning ability of dogs, horses, cows or anything non-human. Historically the majority of planned training has been done with scare tactics and stuff that the trainee wouldn’t like (do this-or-else strategy, or do this and I’ll stop doing something you don’t like). Cats just leave and so would horses and dogs if they weren’t tethered or fenced. Lots of teenagers just stomp off too.

The lack of time to train is a weird concept as each interaction is a training session. Our responses or lack of them is the process, the training. So the time is already there it’s just the awareness of what is being taught that is lacking.

For example if I had to walk my dogs on leashes daily for exercise each time I moved forward in response to them pulling me would be training them to pull on the leash, or each time I opened the door in response to them scratching it or barking would be training to scratch or bark to get my attention and go outside, or each time I petted or complained to them while I petted them for jumping up would be training to jump up to get attention and petting, or each time I let them take food off the counter or table or garbage because I left it there without supervising them I have trained them to steal things, or if I give them liberty in the whole house before I have clarified where to go potty I am training them to go where-ever they like inside, or if I use their name or call them to yell at them I’m teaching them to ignore their name and not to come to me.

You see where this is going? What is rewarded is repeated, what is punished is avoided, feared, causes anger and/or apathy. And if  punishment is used, but not consistently, then there are variable rewards, which are the most effective at keeping a behavior in place – in this case an unwanted behavior.

I think usually there is an assumption that the dog will know what the human rules are automatically. Some dogs are more phlegmatic or just have certain preferences (like really liking calm petting or liking the right things to play with) that make them easier, it’s like accidental training. Others are more active and more inquisitive and they tend to get the rough stuff done to them, which erodes the relationship and usually stunts the education and gets them labeled.

Reggie likes games and finding stuff.
Reggie likes games, carrying big things and finding stuff.

Become aware, mindful in the time you have. What are you rewarding? What does your dog want and what are they doing to get you to offer it? Dogs are great problem solvers and they use people as their tools to do it. If you don’t like what they’re doing you need to figure out how to reward the things you like them to do and stop reinforcing the things you don’t want them to do.

You already have the time, be mindful with it. How many times do you have to repeat the cycle to be able to predict the pattern? If you really like your dog, cat, or horse isn’t it time to get to know them? Know what they do and what they like? Know them as a loyal friend, not as a joke or accessory.

In dressage training (horses) we do a lot of circles. If there’s a problem at one point in the circle to fix it the preparation/adjustments have to start at least a quarter of the circle before the problem zone – not at the problem spot, not after the problem spot, those are already too late. Timing is very important, awareness and being with the animal in the moment is very important, rewarding successes with what they like is very important. The process is the goal.

Scout, 'will work for food' comes to see what I'm doing.
Scout, ‘will work for food’ comes to see what I’m doing.

If the process is in alignment with your life’s mission and your view of your better self, then you will have that furry friend to cuddle and who understands you as you have been aware enough to become understandable. And you will be able to see their strengths and be astonished at their capabilities, smile at their jokes and know how they learn.

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