Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Attention Deficit Disorder at Both Ends of the Leash

Inside every human, and underneath a relatively thin gloss of civilization, is the ancient genetic code of a social pack predator that is not so very different from that of a wolf.

The evidence is written on our face. Predators have eyes that face forward in order to judge the striking distance to the prey. Prey animals, however, have eyes located on the sides of their head in order to see backwards as well as forward.

The very shape of our face informs us of what we are: a predator.

Why does this matter in the world of dogs?  Simple: the mind of the dog and the mind of man are no so very different.  

Just 20,000 years ago, we were both living wild and close to the bone. A snapped stick could mean either opportunity or danger.  

A predator's brain is incredibly fast and robust as it has to judge velocity and distance, angle and size, probability and potential, and do it again and again in order to eat.

Neither dog nor man are well built for this modern world.

The speed of external change has eclipsed that of internal evolution.

What happens to a predator's brain when it is dropped into a world of Happy Meals and all you can eat bagged kibble?  Does it stop firing off?

Not hardly.  

The predator brain is constantly on the alert for clues and stimulus; the sound of a can opener, the click of a door, the scent of perfume, the rattle of a cup, the swish of a skirt, the greasy smell of a hamburger, the chime of an elevator.

As a consequence, both people and dogs seems to have epic levels of Attention Deficit Disorder.

What happens when the ADD mind of a dog meets the ADD mind of a human?

Often a great deal of misery!  

When distracted people interact with distracted dogs, the result is inconsistent and poorly timed feedback. Connections, if made, are poorly reinforced. Frustration grows. Both sides get bored and begin to question the intelligence of the other.

What can be done?

From the beginning, dog training tools have been about conquering ADD both up and down the leash.  

Oddly, two modern dog training tools, often set in opposition to each other, work in very similar ways.

One tool is a clicker, the other the e-collar remote. 

The clicker's canine focusing mechanism is the promise of food.  

The modern e-collar's canine focusing mechanism is an electronic tap on the shoulder.

One signal is saying "give me a little more of this." 

The other is saying "give me a little less of that."

In both cases, however, what is being shaped is not just downward to the dog, but also upward to the human.

Look what happens when someone has a clicker or an e-collar remote in their hand.  

Suddenly, they are focused. They are no longer flailing with their hands. They are no longer simultaneously talking and drinking while watching TV.

Instead, for at least a few minutes, the human is focused and sending just one signal to the dog rather than half a dozen.

And the signal that is being sent is both calm and assertive. You have the dog's attention, and they have yours, and you are both tuned to one channel without a lot of static.

A predator's brain is not built for too much of this. At least not at first.

Experience has shown that two or three 15-20 minute training sessions a day works better than one one-hour training session.  

If asked to focus for too long, the ADD brain of both the dog and the human starts to drift off and edit out. Training both up and down the leash starts to degrade. For every two steps forward, the dog or the human may end up taking one or more steps back if an early training session goes on too long.

So what's the difference between the proper use of a clicker, and a well timed and properly delivered e-collar correction?

Not much, other than the obvious --- one signal is saying "give me a little more of that," and the other is saying "give me a little less of that."

There is place in the bag for both signals of course; something every dog trainer understands in theory, if not in practice.

But when it comes to both tools, too much attention is probably placed on the mechanics down the leash, and not enough on the mechanics up the leash. 

It is not just the dog's ADD that is "trained away" with a clicker and an e-collar remote; it's the person holding the device as well.

Calm assertive dog training, with focused attention and consistency, combined with a daily exercise regime, cures quite a lot in the world of dogs.  But it's not just the dog that is being trained with the tool, but the human as well. The ADD is on both ends of the leash.

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