Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Learning by Watching

Ok, I'm going to brag a bit on Baxter's behalf...Baxter is a model dog in many ways. His eagerness to please makes him an easy dog to train and to live with. He's good-natured and extremely polite. This isn't just coming from us...we've heard this from many friends and relatives, some of whom don't even like dogs as a rule. "I'd get a dog if I could have one like Baxter," more than one person has told us. He doesn't jump on people, he shares his toys and his food willingly, and if we put him behind a gate he could easily jump over, he stays there because he knows we want him to. Some of this is because we've spent a lot of time working with him, but I think a lot of it is due to the fact that Baxter's nature makes him easy to work and be with.

It is this good behavior that made us want to get a puppy while Baxter is still young enough to interact well with a youngster. It was our hope that Baxter would model the behaviors we hoped to cultivate in a new puppy, even if the puppy was a different type of dog. To some extent, getting a puppy that has a very different personality from Baxter's is a true test of this "learn by watching" approach, because it separates some of what is innate in Baxter or his breed from what is learned.

I'm a big fan of Irene Pepperberg's work. She's a friend and former professor of mine, and she has done groundbreaking work with an African Grey parrot named Alex. Alex has learned a tremendous number of words and concepts through a model/rival technique that involves watching his trainers teach each other and be rewarded. Like children, animals seem to learn pretty effectively by watching others.

This has certainly been true already with Kirby. He has been a breeze to housebreak, I think partly because he watched Baxter ask to go outside and then be praised by us for a job well done. I tried teaching Kirby "sit" by having Baxter repeatedly sit and then get a biscuit. (I think Baxter thought I was crazy asking him to do something that simple for a biscuit, but I didn't see him complaining.) After about four rounds of Baxter's demo-sitting, Kirby looked at Baxter, looked at me, looked at the biscuit and then sat down. Wow. He has done it pretty consistently ever since. We have done the same thing with "down," although it's a bit more challenging to give Baxter a biscuit when he's down in Kirby's direct line-of-sight (thus, the next challenge).

The one that seems to be a bit more difficult for Kirby, and I think this is due to the nature of the dog, is "stay." Baxter is a pointer, so having the ability to freeze in a position is one of his genetically-encouraged abilities. This ability is one reason William Wegman chose Weimaraners as his subjects. By the time he was 12-14 weeks old, Baxter would stay in the living room while we went upstairs to hide one of his toys. He'd stay there until we gave him the "go get it!" command, then launch himself into a joyful hunt that could go on a very long time. We were amazed at Baxter's patience and his ability to focus on the hunt at such a young age.

While Kirby is very much a mixed breed, his personality appears to come from whatever terrier genes he has in there. He's bold, independent, lightning fast and jumps at the smallest movement (all benefits when your job is hunting rodents). Staying still when there's a toy to be played with is a painful thing. He's actually pretty good at paying attention (perhaps the German Shepherd genes are making a wee bit of an appearance), and he knows the command...we've been able to get as far as 10 feet away before he lunges for the toy. But to stay while we hide it out of sight in another room? No way. At least not yet.

And yet Baxter still models the perfect behavior by staying behind as Kirby follows me into the back room. This is one area where terrier training and pointer training diverge. And it's a skill that's apparently quite difficult to teach via the "learn by watching" method... expecting Kirby to learn by watching Baxter when all Baxter is doing is standing still is asking a wee bit much. In Kirby time (which is akin to New York time), that's like watching the grass grow.

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