Chris Martin

Garden thinking

My childhood pet was a border collie mix with a lazy disposition, the predictable anxieties of a herding dog with nothing to herd, and a repertoire of tricks that included fetching the newspaper. When I bought my first home and adopted a year-old black lab, I found myself overwhelmed by the new dog's more exuberant nature. Wondering if I would ever be able to match my parents' dog training success with Ozzie, I signed up for a six-session class hosted by PetSmart.

The trainer gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since: Dogs learn a lot more from successes than failures. A stern 'no' isn't entirely lost on a trainee, but it's nothing compared to a reward. The goal as a trainer is to repeatedly elicit some desired action and then reward it.

The tricky part is that first elicitation, because your dog has absolutely no idea what you want. The common wrong way to teach a 'sit' command: Say "sit!" repeatedly. Each time the subject, in a panic of random guesses, sits, you reward. The right way: Hold a treat in a closed hand and lift it back over a dog's head. The nose follows the hand, and the dog sits. Using a clever trick that exploits the animal's natural tendencies and anatomy, you get to the correct behavior immediately, and the dog gets a simple and clear lesson.

My favorite training accomplishment with Bowser was 'leave it'. This is a command that you use when you accidentally drop food onto the floor, or when you're out for a walk and pass by some discarded chicken bones. It means "That thing you want right now? Don't go for it." It blew my mind to learn that this concept was possible to convey to a dog. Again, it requires starting with a clever trick.

Hold out a treat in a closed hand and issue the 'leave it' command. The desired behavior is "do not take", and because your hand is closed, the dog cannot fail at this! You can then reward with a different treat from the other hand behind your back. The real trick is that this technique reframes a negative (do not surreptitiously go for the thing you want) into a positive (do look to me for a legitimate leaving-it reward instead of that thing).

We recently decided to crack down on our indoor animal behavior and establish a no-dogs-on-furniture rule. This change can be hard for older animals who are used to couch privileges. At first, the only training strategy we had was failure. Dog jumps up, receives reprimand, returns to floor. Doesn't really work. I ought to know better.

Fortunately, we have one dog who makes it easy to remember the trainer's lesson, because this dog really wants to be told what to do. When Alonzo jumps off the couch, you can see him ask Where should I go? The beginning of the end of the couch problem came when we started answering him. Go to your bed.

Another pattern: He'd come in from outside and immediately go to the couch. There was a clear opportunity there for a replacement behavior. When you come in from outside, go to your bed, get a treat. That's several easy successes every day. Dogs learn a lot more from successes than failures.

I'm thinking about all these dogs while I weed the garden. I've been referring to this sort of thing as having "garden thoughts", memories that have room to mingle while the hands are occupied. They're like shower thoughts, but longer.

I'm pulling up the exact same weeds I pulled a week ago. This place was a mess, landscape-wise, when we moved here. We've made a lot of progress, but there are some corners of the yard where all I can yet manage is to cut back each rain's new growth enough to make sure the little dog doesn't disappear into the foliage. I ought to know better.

One never entirely stops weeding, but my two hands cannot directly compete with the scale of nature. While I have other responsibilities, the entire property has all day to grow. No, our power lies in tricks. We plant things we do want, and allow them to compete with the weeds for sun, rain, and nutrients. The worst spots, the failures, are the places where we haven't planted anything else yet. Telling an area of land what not to do doesn't work. We also have to tell it what to do instead.

A constructive approach does not merely mean putting out good vibes. It means learning and planning. A positive attitude did not teach me how to get a dog to sit; a professional trainer did. Compassion doesn't keep the dogs off the couch; a strategy does. As for all the permaculture research, well, at the moment I'll still have to let Julie explain fruit guilds better than I can.

To respond to a problem with a fight is easy and obvious. I see thistle and bindweed, I see dogs on the couch, I try to stop them. But force and persistence are not good enough. Humans can do better than plants and animals because our special ability is to design new ways for things to be.

I write about Haskell and related topics; you can find my works online on Type Classes and in print from The Joy of Haskell.