At Canine Assistants, we no longer train our dogs to robotically respond to cues like sit, stay, and heel. Instead, our methodology has evolved to reflect the latest research on dogs’ remarkable ability to make surprisingly complex decisions. These discoveries in canine cognition have been transformative, leading us away from training and towards a focus on teaching dogs how to think for themselves. We jokingly call our new approach Non-Training At Its Best, and it is revolutionizing the way we relate to our dogs.
One of our recipient teams, Eddie and his service dog Bee, recently had the opportunity to demonstrate what non-training looks like in practice. A woman approached the pair in a large department store and stared disapprovingly at Bee. She barely nodded at Eddie in his wheelchair before turning her attention to his dog. “Sit!” she commanded in a loud, stern voice. Bee did not respond, but kept her eyes fixed on Eddie. The woman clucked, and said, “This dog is poorly trained.” Without missing a beat Eddie replied, “Bless you ma’am for noticing. Bee is not trained at all…but she is brilliantly educated.” Eddie sometimes has difficulty with certain speech patterns and words, and he keeps several pictures taped to the side of his wheelchair to help him to communicate his needs to Bee. While pointing to a photo of a cup, Eddie asked Bee, “Would you please?” Bee immediately pulled a cup from the pack on the back of Eddie’s wheelchair and handed it to him. Next, he asked Bee, “What goes in a cup?” Bee responded by pulling a bottle of water from the other side pocket, and laying it in Eddie’s lap. He then asked Bee if she was ready to go, holding out his left hand as he said Yes and his right hand as he said No. When Bee firmly pressed her nose into Eddie’s left hand indicating Yes, Eddie wished the astonished woman a pleasant day and rolled away.
This interaction may seem incredible, but it wasn’t difficult for Bee to learn to answer yes and no questions and to do things to help her dad. Bee, like most dogs, was an excellent student, once we became good teachers. In order to allow Bee to really use her brain, we had to do two things: first, we had to assure her that Eddie’s affection was unconditional, and second, we had to help her understand how to make good choices without direct cues from us. A request takes considerably more thought than a cued demand. When Bee matched the photo of the cup to the actual object, remembered where the cup was located, surmised that Eddie wanted it, and then retrieved it, she was demonstrating complex thought. The same goes for her ability to answer Yes when Eddie asked if she was ready to go. Bee’s actions also required her to have enough trust in herself and her bond with Eddie to risk being wrong.
Bee is certainly a special dog, but her abilities are not unique. All dogs can learn and what they can learn might just surprise us. We’ve been so busy telling our dogs what to do that we have neglected to ask them what they are capable of. When we start from a place of unconditional trust with our dogs, it turns out that they can and will do far more than we’d ever imagined possible.
Like Bee and Eddie, you too can teach your dog yes and no. This will make life with your dog easier since you will no longer have to guess at her wants and needs. Additionally, being able to make her wishes known gives your dog a voice, which is critical to her mental health.
To teach your dog Yes and No:
Start by rubbing a bit of yummy of treat on your left palm, carefully avoiding getting food on your right palm. Then place the food where your dog can’t reach it. Ask your dog if he wants a treat (pointing at the food) and ask, “Yes?” while extending your left palm and “No?” while extending your right palm. When he sniffs the food on your left palm say “Yes – okay” and hand him the food. As he begins to understand that touching your left palm means he is going to get the food, you can start adding other items and/or opportunities (such as going outside) to the mix. (Note: You may find it easiest to allow the absence of a Yes response to serve as No and that works equally as well as the two-handed approach.)
Additional tips on how you can use Bond-Based Choice Teaching® with your own dog are coming soon!
(Names of our recipient and his dog have been changed to protect their privacy.)