Keep con­se­quences close when dog mis­be­haves

StarMetro Halifax - - DAILY LIFE - Yvette Van Veen SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

I have read that dogs can­not re­mem­ber what they did even a few min­utes in the past. This means that all con­se­quences have to fol­low the dog’s be­hav­iour im­me­di­ately. How soon af­ter a be­hav­iour do you need to act be­fore they for­get what they were do­ing?

Dogs don’t have am­ne­sia. They can clearly re­mem­ber things. For ex­am­ple, many dogs run into the house and look for a bone they were chew­ing an hour pre­vi­ously, ex­actly where they left it.

How­ever, when it comes to ef­fi­cient dog train­ing, con­se­quences should hap­pen im­me­di­ately af­ter the be­hav­iour. This is a gram­mar is­sue.

Dogs can learn that words and phrases pre­dict out­comes. While there are some ex­cep­tions, con­se­quences usu­ally hap­pen right af­ter an event or se­quence of events. Pets learn that “car ride” means an out­ing. The event usu­ally fol­lows the phrase. We wouldn’t ex­pect a dog to work out the con­nec­tion if we said “car ride” hours be­fore the trip. The closer the con­se­quence is to the be­hav­iour, the eas­ier it is for dogs to put two and two to­gether. We have no way of us­ing past tense to ex­plain that what a pet did hours ago is mak­ing us happy or up­set right now.

Some peo­ple are con­vinced that dogs look guilty when chas­tised. When peo­ple point to dam­aged ob­jects, the dog ap­pears to slink or look re­morse­ful.

In an old but clever study, Alexan­dra Horowitz put the guilty look to the test. Dogs were told to leave food alone while the owner was out of the room. When the own­ers re­turned, the dogs were ob­served. How­ever, some of the peo­ple were mis­led into think­ing that their obe­di­ent dog had in fact dis­obeyed. Other dogs were disobe­di­ent, but own­ers were told that the dog had been good.

Obe­di­ent dogs, with no rea­son to be guilty, showed the most pro­nounced guilty looks when ad­mon­ished. The re­searchers con­cluded that the guilty look was likely more tied to scold­ing — a re­ac­tion to the hu­man. The dog slinked be­cause the hu­man acted an­gry, not be­cause they felt guilty over some mis­deed. It’s im­por­tant that we do not as­sume that dogs men­tally time travel and con­nect the deed with scold­ing. Dogs are able to re­mem­ber things, but they can’t un­der­stand past tense gram­mar.

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