Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

by Dr. Kirk Brumels, professor and chair, Hope College Kinesiology Department

Providing unabashed love in exchange for food and shelter, my dog Dixie’s devotion and friendship is a commonplace canine occurrence. Yet, as an English Setter from hunting bloodlines, she is genetically wired for more. So when Dixie became part of our family two years ago, it became my responsibility to help her satisfy her natural desire to pursue grouse and woodcock within Michigan’s upland forests.

Learning how to train Dixie caused me focus a bit more on sequential development and guiding correction involved in teaching a new skill or concept. The beauty in this lesson is that it impacted my role as an educator.

Never having owned or trained an upland bird-hunting dog before, I discovered quickly that Dixie and I were newbies who needed to acquire some old tricks. Learning how to train Dixie caused me to focus a bit more on sequential development and guiding correction involved in teaching a new skill or concept. The beauty in this lesson is that it impacted my role as an educator.

Now, let me be the first to say that I don’t treat my students like I treat my dog as a belly rub, a scratch behind the ear, or cut-up hot dog pieces as performance rewards may be considered inappropriate! But I believe the principles of training a dog can be applied to my teaching…let me explain.

The basic idea behind hunting with a pointing dog like Dixie, is that her natural scenting ability is used to locate and “point” out desired game birds. Once found, she should hold still (point) in close proximity to the bird until I can arrive on scene. Opportunities are lost if Dixie gets too close or chases the birds. Dogs like Dixie must be trained how to respond when birds are found. She needed to be educated on how to apply specialized, skilled behavior with her natural instincts. Dixie instinctively knows that smelling and locating birds is fun; however, she needed to be shown that keeping such birds on the ground and in front of her provided a greater reward.

Teaching and educating often involves an explanation, a demonstration, or both. I remember being asked in a college education course to teach someone to tie shoelaces by either words or actions alone. It was difficult. Obviously, a better teaching strategy was to simultaneously explain and show the sequential tasks that would lead to the end result. I learned then and, now more recently through training Dixie, that becoming skilled at either explaining or demonstrating the sequential steps improves my teaching when I actually combine the two.

A better teaching strategy was to simultaneously explain and show the sequential tasks that would lead to the end result.

This concept of intentional and sequential instruction was amplified while training Dixie.  Verbal explanations were not an option during our training (dogs understand limited English!) so I was required to show, reinforce, and reward a series of behaviors built upon those that preceded it. Dr. Steven Smith, professor of kinesiology and head men’s soccer coach, explains this “chaining instruction” to his pedagogy students and players on a daily basis. The model, according to Smith, is to “teach the individual parts and then chain them together like links of a chain.” This form of instruction links one activity or task to another until an end goal is reached, and it was a critical component of Dixie’s training program.

Likewise, with students whom we can extensively speak to, it is important for our verbal explanations to be progressive in nature. Smith likens this spoken instruction to motor skill development where “there are mature and immature behaviors or understanding and it is our job as educators to seek ways of moving our students step by step through the maturational and instructional process.”

Whether tying shoes, hunting upland game, or teaching skills and concepts, ultimate success relies on breaking down the end goal into sequential steps. We must start at the beginning and progress toward a goal. But, it does not end there. We cannot simply “get the ball rolling” and hope it ends up where we want it. We must also provide continued correction and reinforcement along the way.

That brings me to my second point.

In addition to “chaining instruction,” the value of positive reinforcement became exceedingly clear during Dixie’s training process. The extrinsic rewards of effusive praise or food treats are a critical component of training a dog in the early stages, but eventually they are replaced by obedience to expectation. The satisfaction of a job well done eventually becomes the intrinsic reward.

Laszlo Block of Google in his book titled Work Rules! states that “simple practice, without feedback and experimentation, is insufficient” when it comes to skill acquisition. Referring to the work of K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University professor of psychology, Laszlo mentions that in order to gain mastery, an individual must break down the desired goal into “tiny actions” and then “repeat them relentlessly” with “immediate feedback, correction, and experimentation.”

As we worked on performing desired skills, certain undesired responses inevitably happened. These moments of correction were necessary and expected, but they were not where emphasis was placed.

Correcting aberrant behavior and reinforcing appropriate actions were both critical for teaching Dixie the desired skills and behaviors that make a successful bird-dog. It all seemed more effective, though, when I positively reinforced a desired behavior than when I attempted to correct a negative one. As we worked on performing desired skills, certain undesired responses inevitably happened. These moments of correction were necessary and expected, but they were not where emphasis was placed. The focus was our desired end goal and the corrections served only as a way to redirect momentum toward positive responses that could be rewarded. By not over-reacting to deviant behavior, but instead by re-directing expectations and rewards toward positive behavior, I reduced the requirement for and time spent on correction and “constructive criticism.”

What this old dog learned is not necessarily new, but thanks to Dixie, I have a new appreciation for these old tricks. I can only hope that through applying these lessons to my responsibilities as an educator, I equal Dixie’s ability to find birds.

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