By luck of timing, I currently have a couple of friends raising puppies for the first time. As a former dogsledder capping out at over fifty dogs in my yard at one time (yeah, another story), this means I’m getting a lot of training and behaviour questions lately.
Training any animal is a simple combination of positive reinforcement and repetition. Surprisingly, the more challenging part of the equation is repetition, since the animal kingdom is designed to spot patterns -any patterns- and learn from them. Unfortunately, some of our most persisting patterns are the ones we’ve stopped noticing. The first step in training is to take a look at ourselves and begin to notice the things we do without thinking, for those are the clearest messages we’re sending to out pets, the training we’re doing by accident.
Years ago, while on vacation in Calgary, Alberta, we took a lovely road-trip into the mountains. On the way we stopped at an incredible waterfall right by the road. Fresh mountain air and hiking make a person hungry, so the restaurant across the highway was well placed, and appropriately busy. Lunch was great, served on the patio where we could still see and hear that waterfall. After dessert we were eager to continue our journey and headed back to the parking lot.
As we approached the car, we spotted a dozen or more plump rabbits on a grassy knoll. Ever seeking the perfect shot, I grabbed my camera and moved in closer, capturing several shots before my partner grew impatient and moved back toward the car. As she did so, several rabbits stopped posing for me and chased after her down the hill. This is highly peculiar behaviour for rabbits. Wild ones run from people and tame ones seem to ignore them. Seeing them run like a herd in pursuit was fascinating. Stranger still was when she opened the car door and they all gathered underneath it.
I looked around for obvious predators and, seeing none, ducked down to take a look. There they sat, half-a-dozen rabbits, just hanging out under my car. Neither beckoning nor chasing seemed to affect them, so I decided that starting the engine would likely do the trick. No such luck. Instead, the sound of the starter brought another four or five of their friends running down the hill so that most of the rabbits were now immovably parked beneath the car.
We were both laughing in amazement and wonder as my partner dropped to the ground and watched the rabbits and I moved the car slowly backward, creeping out of the parking spot. Still, no one budged. Rabbits are cute and fuzzy creatures I really have no desire to squish… even if they are clearly insane, so we kept looking for a solution. Finally my partner offered to run inside to get some scraps from the restaurant to coax the flock out. That’s when it hit me.
Training is a simple combination of positive reinforcement and repetition. It must have started by accident, but now tourist after tourist had repeated this pattern and the rabbits had learned, changing their behaviour accordingly. Flocking under departing cars brought food, probably even good food. It was unconscious training at its best. Stubbornly refusing to contribute to their delinquency, we found a long stick instead of food and inched the car out while poking the critters out of the way. Obviously the people using this method are and ever shall be the minority, so I realize we made no impact on the overall training process. Still, as a trainer, I just couldn’t be part of it. It took longer, but eventually we drove out, accelerating away from the rabbits, likely perplexed that they’d missed their treat.
Unconscious training happens all the time, and is usually the answer to our most perplexing behaviour questions. Every time I find myself wondering “what would make a dog do this?”, I take a step back and remember the rabbits under my car.