In our post-industrialised society there is a big danger that we take away from the dog an ability to take decisions. I often see cases where every facet of a dog’s existence is being micro-managed. Effective learning depends on experiencing the consequences of opting for wrong choices, that is ‘making mistakes’. If choices are not made available, then we don’t get deep learning.
Training a dog requires that we meet a dog’s three basic needs, which are:
- Exercise, shelter and food – its physical needs
- Social interaction, play and bonding – its emotional needs
- Mental stimulation through freedom and play – that is, having real choices within a set framework.
Of particular importance to Search and Rescue (‘SAR’) dogs is mental stimulation. After all, it is the working dog in the act of making choices that provides the basis of any effective search routine.
I spend a lot of time with my pup, Badger, creating puzzles to help him learn how to solve problems. It is said that ‘problem solving’ in the dog species has suffered as a consequence of its evolutionary socialisation with humans. Certainly, wolves are far more capable at solving problems than dogs. So where possible, we need to ensure that our dogs get plenty of practice at problem solving. After all, searching is, at its heart, an iterative process where the dog makes wrong choices but quickly realises how to get back on track.
At the heart of mental stimulation is play. A good deal of attention has been given to the role of play in developmental psychology, particularly in primates. Less attention has been given to the function of play in dogs. However most researchers seem to agree that, in general, play improves motor skills and helps to create social cohesion.
Interestingly, it seems that the function of play in dogs is highly dependent on context. Dogs that play alone with objects appear to do so in order to sharpen up on predatory skills. Dog/dog play appears to mediate in social ordering. Dog/human play is more based on emotional bonding and is less competitive than dog/dog play.
This is consistent with the view that playfulness was artificially selected during the domestication of the dog because it facilitated training (playful dogs are more easily persuaded to do something than retiring dogs). Contrary to much received wisdom, dogs are not ‘pack’ animals in the same way that wolves are. Wolves cooperate with each other or die. Dogs have evolved differently to wolves as a result of human agency, restricting cooperative behaviours to human interactions.
This would suggest that playfulness and trainability go together. Dogs that are playful are more easily trained. Trained dogs are able to play more cooperatively (although of course we have to recognise that the human/dog relationship is not an equal one to start with).
Any dog activity such as search and rescue, retrieving or police work depends fundamentally on the cooperation of the dog. Dogs learn specific actions, such as ‘sit!’, ‘find!’ or ‘wait!’ through iterative reward-based training. Most ‘how to train a dog’ lessons concentrate on these specific actions. But underlying these specific actions there is motivational layer that drives cooperation. This layer is best accessed through the give and take of play. It is here that the dog learns that cooperation can work well and that this sometimes entails delayed gratification.