This is a light-hearted example, but one that has shown me first-hand, the power of unconscious conditioning.
Our young rescue furball, Bear, is able to run his nose (and tongue) over the worktops in the kitchen with ease thanks to his height. Now, when he joined our family he had a few guarding issues, especially with food, so one of the first cues I taught him was ‘on your bed’. That meant I could manage him in the kitchen, reward him on his bed and ensure he knew that the good stuff would come to him regularly and when he was (a) on his bed and (b) calm.
Bear has his own little collection of disgusting things (treats!) in the fridge and to begin with, would look at the fridge and then to me as a not so subtle sign that it was time for a treat. It didn’t take him long to realise that if he got on his bed and then looked at the fridge, he was more likely to get something. I was happy to reward that to begin with because he was relaxed and having fun, not guarding, but gradually he would happily settle on his bed and knew that when he was cued with ‘on your bed’, he would sometimes get a treat and sometimes he wouldn’t.
What I hadn’t realised, was that he had also noticed my addiction to cheese! I eat quite a lot of cheese and if I grate some for myself, I always leave a bit at the end, ask Bear to go to his bed, and then he’d have the bit I’d saved him.
Without me doing anything else… this changed over a period of a couple of months through a little cycle:
- Bear would sit by my feet, drooling while I grated the cheese, I’d ask him to go to his bed and he’d get his piece.
- Being a little fed up with the drooling, I asked Bear to go to his bed before I started grating, which he did and waited for his share.
- I noticed that as I got the cheese out of the packet, Bear automatically went to his bed. I didn’t say anything!
- After a week or so, Bear went to his bed when I took the cheese out of the fridge. He didn’t do this for any other item I took out of the fridge!
- Now, I only have to get the grater out of the cupboard and Bear takes himself off to his bed where he watches me go through the routine and waits for his share… which he always gets as I am very well trained!
This has been a fun opportunity to not only learn about the way in which dogs notice our patterns of behaviour, but that we don’t actually have to do very much to teach them ways that we can live harmoniously together. I am often talking to him as I make myself lunch and I’m definitely relaxed in my body language so I have no doubt he is responding to that as well as knowing with certainty that he doesn’t have to worry about when food will come any more. He is relaxed and no longer drooling, this has now been transferred to him happily going to his bed when we’re cooking other meals and to a point where we can eat a meal with him in the room and he’ll go to sleep. We don’t have to save him any of what we’re eating as he knows his treats don’t necessarily come from the plate but will magically appear on his bed!