I’ve been privy to a very fascinating process over the past few weeks–the beginning steps of training a puppy to become an autism service dog. Sometimes I feel like the most ignorant person on the planet. There are so many interesting things a person can do with their time, and training a dog to become a service dog is one of them. Did you know that you can train a dog to do laundry? Of course, dogs can be trained to sniff out bombs and drugs, but some dogs are even born with the capacity to sense a forthcoming epileptic seizure before the epileptic himself knows it’s coming. That, however, is an inborn gift. No dog can be trained to do that.
I have been privileged to spend a great deal of time with a friend who not only trains service and therapy dogs but also had three service dogs which she herself trained (She has even trained Malinois for the Québecois police. These dogs are badasses!). One of her dogs had the inborn gift of sensing seizures which was serendipitous indeed as she, like me, has TLE. She, however, lost two of her dogs very recently to cancer, and it became time to acquire a new pup. Enter “Quick”, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever aka The Toller. He was going to be trained to become an autism service dog as well as show and trial ready. This boy has fantastic genes. My question: “How do you train a dog to be a service dog?” I’ll answer that in a roundabout sort of way.
For the past two years, I’ve been surrounded primarily by one breed of dog–the Australian Shepherd. Two of my friend’s service dogs were Aussies as well. I have an Aussie. They are not retrievers in any way. To illustrate the difference between a retriever and an Aussie, I’ll share a brief story with you that my friend shared with me. When she was training her first Toller, she gave him the command to go to the refrigerator and fetch her a canned soda. He obeyed by opening the fridge, finding a canned soda, closing the fridge, and happily bringing it to her. He sat, wagged his tail, and “smiled”, full of self-satisfaction. The retriever loves to please its handler.
She gave her Aussie, named Zap, the same command. Zap opened the fridge, scanned the fridge, and spied the summer sausage. Zap gave my friend a surprised look as if to say, “Hey, there’s sausage in here!” She quickly found the canned soda, threw it at my friend with a quick toss of her head, grabbed the sausage, and hunkered down for a meaty feast, leaving the fridge ajar. That’s an Aussie for you. Creative obedience. Clearly, Aussies do not live to please their handlers. They are just a bit more high in the IQ range. They have that spark of mischief in them. It’s why they are such excellent problem solvers, and it’s also why you want them by your side if you’re surrounded by unruly cattle or a herd of dumb sheep. These dogs will work a herd even if they’re hurt, and they will take a bullet for their handler if their handler has been good to them. It’s the relationship between an Aussie and its handler that determines its obedience. Trust. When an Aussie trusts you, you’ve got a loyal friend for the life of the dog.
Watching my friend train her new puppy has been fascinating to me. She is using operant conditioning with the use of a clicker. Essentially, every time her puppy performs a behavior that she wants, she “clicks and rewards”. Eventually, the pup will form a neural connection, draw a conclusion: “Oh, every time I sit, I am rewarded. I like that reward (in the form of food). I think I’ll sit again.” Eventually, she’ll add the word ‘sit‘, and the pup will learn to connect that action with the word. New command learned. This is how she has trained every dog. The only time she’s had to use aversives (negative training) is when she had to train a dog never to tangle with rattlesnakes; this dog was receiving cadaver training. And, she had a problem barker who refused to comply with operant conditioning. This dog just liked to bark..all the damn time. So, he was introduced to “Mr. Bitey”–the shock collar. This dog was one of her Aussies. I knew this dog. He was the male equivalent of my Aussie in temperament in that he lacked a sense of humor in almost all things, but he wasn’t sensitive like my girl. If I ever put a shock collar on my Aussie, she wouldn’t take to it at all; her feelings would be terribly hurt and our relationship damaged. This dog, however, did very well, and, in the end, all he needed was the reminder of a few warning beeps, and he stopped his metronome-like barking. Pirate died a few months ago.
In watching this training and having an Aussie to train and manage myself, I have learned one very important thing. Always praise the desired behavior even if the dog has been a complete douche the moment before. The dog will really only remember the last thing it just gave you.
Scenario: The dog is being a complete jackwagon in the yard, ignoring your command to “Come” or “Return”. The dog looks at you defiantly, runs around brazenly, pees a few times, rolls around in the grass, barks at passers-by, and seems to know exactly what he’s doing. You suddenly have an urge to make a throw rug out of the dog. He always did have a nice pelt. You want to indulge your inner caveman and beat your dog with a newspaper. At the very least, you are going to yell at your dog and lock it up for disobeying you. BAD, BAD DOG!!!!!! The dog finally comes bounding back.
What should you do? Praise the hell out of your dog. He came back. Find your happiest, praisiest voice. Now, you may find yourself telling him that he’s the worst dog you’ve ever met, and there’s a local glue factory that might benefit from his internal organs in their next formula; but, tell him that in your loveliest voice. Watch him wiggle and wag, preen and prance. He’ll be so proud, AND he’ll come back next time, too. If you punish him for returning, then you can bet he’ll make a break for it the next opportunity he gets. What’s more, he won’t come back either. Why would he? You rule him with fear, not with love.
I can tell you that this is true. My Aussie did exactly that. She decided to defy me in our yard one day, and she really took her time obeying the “Return” command. I was pissed, but when she returned I praised her outlandishly. Does she return on command now? You bet she does. She knows that I’m going to love her up every time, and Aussies love attention particularly mine. She’s a total attention whore.
So, what does this have to do with anything? I think that operant conditioning is actually counter to human nature, and I think that praising a dog for returning after they’ve just spent time openly defying you goes against our grain. It reminds me of the Divine. Whenever I do these things, I feel as if I’m moving into God’s image and leaving my darker, more human ways in the dust. What do I mean?
How many times have you or I totally fucked up? Pardon my language, but, sometimes, that’s the only thing I can really call it. A fuck-up. No…I didn’t make a mistake. I didn’t “miss the mark”. I blew it. I blew it so spectacularly that I ought to win an award for the amount of sheer effort I put into blowing it. That’s a fuck-up. And, let me tell you something. I excel at fucking up…multiple times…in a row. What am I really good at? Making the same spectacular mistake over and over again. Fucking up brilliantly. I’m a fucking brilliant fuck-up. What do I want to do when I’ve fucked up for the umpteenth time…yet again? I want to run off and hide somewhere where nobody can find me. I don’t know if you’re like that, but that’s my gut instinct. I know that there are consequences for my shitty choices, and I just don’t have it in me to pony up to the bar and pay the bartender. Throw God into the mix, and it all starts to feel like one big clusterfuck.
If you believe in God…no, let me take that a step further…if you have a dynamic relationship with God, then what do you do when you know that you’ve fucked up? I’m not asking what you think you should do. I’m asking you to ponder what you actually do. Let’s drop the “ought” for a moment. I’m not going to should on anyone in this paragraph. When you find yourself in a situation where you feel your own culpability accusing you, pointing its black, bony finger at you shouting, “Guilty!”, what do you do? For the moment, let’s not moralize. Let’s not weigh guilt or try to decide which “crime” might cost more than another. What if you found yourself guilty of:
Would I be thrilled to step forward and admit my moral failures to my friends and family, my community? Hell, no. I would be terrified of being judged and ostracized not to mention prosecuted if I had actually committed a felonious crime. What about those lesser, moral issues? Those skeletons in our closets that make us feel deeply ashamed when we look at our image in the mirror. I don’t want to discuss those with anyone. So, if I suggested that you just lay it out before God, the whole damn list, let him at you, what is your first reaction…the knee-jerk response? If you’re anything like me, you’d run for the hills.
Here’s the deal. Our view of God determines everything else that we do in our lives. Forget the doctrine that you’re always spouting at people in your attempts to try to convert them. It doesn’t really matter that you won a contest at Vacation Bible School when you were nine because you knew the most Bible verses. Knowing the Bible doesn’t mean that you actually know God and the way his heart beats for you. I’ve known Bible scholars who wouldn’t know Jesus if he walked up and kissed them on the cheek. Set all that aside. It comes down to this at this moment. If you were a disobedient, defiant Australian Shepherd who decided to frolic in the front yard instead of obeying the “Return” command, what sort of welcome would your master give you once you decided to go home? Is your master going to love you up, or is he the “pop and jerk” sort of master, ruling you with fear, telling you that you should have known better, you sinful, unworthy, bad dog?!
Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 of the New Testament. To sum it up, the guy was a selfish asshole. He had been favored and loved by his father for the entirety of his life, and then, one day, he goes to his dad and says, “I want my inheritance today. Now. I’m leaving.” In case you don’t know, in the Jewish culture, in that time, for a son to ask his living father for his inheritance is the equivalent of saying, “I wish you were dead.” The act of taking the inheritance and leaving was the equivalent of saying, “You are now dead to me.” This was a severe action. A brilliant fuck-up. The asshole son then went on to squander this inheritance in a lifestyle of unabashed debauchery. If you can think it, then he did it. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a lot of ways a man could roam about the countryside debauching. Just to make sure we all understand the lengths to which this man went in his efforts to fuck up brilliantly, he found himself eating with pigs. That’s what was left to him. Living in a sty, eating with the swine. To a Jew, this is the lowest of the low. Pigs are unclean. He was an untouchable, completely destroyed and defiled. The asshole son had fucked up brilliantly, and now had only one place left to go–his dad.
Would you have gone back to your dad after what you did? I don’t know if I would have. I would have been scared. I would have been prepared to live with the servants. Punishment. Hatred. Disavowal. I would have deserved it, too. The asshole son’s father, however, had spent every day watching for his beloved son’s return, and the moment that he sees his son’s body’s profile move over the horizon, he runs. This is the only time in the entirety of the Bible that God runs. This father embraces his asshole son who is utterly beloved. He loves him up. He’s returned. Good job!! You returned!!! You returned!!! You returned!!! It didn’t matter what he had been doing before. His beloved son had returned. He immediately put a robe on him and announced his return to the entirety of the household. I think he does that because the son knows what he’s done. It’s playing through his mind. All the mistakes. The last words he spoke to his father. And, don’t forget, he stinks of pigs. His father is reinstating him right then and there as his son because he knows that he doesn’t feel like his son. He knows that he feels guilty to his core. He needs to be told who he truly is rather than who he feels that he is. Only his father could do that for him.
If I were a dog, I’d be an Aussie. I am stubborn, creatively obedient, and loyal to a fault. And, you know what? God knows that. Because of my past experiences, it’s very easy for me to think that God is a hard master. When I fuck up, he’s going to beat me with a rolled up newspaper. I’d better run away. I’d better cower in the corner or lash out and bite his hand. I’ve come to find that he is nothing like that. He is endlessly patient. He is defined by his kindness and eagerness to love me up. And, if I stand still long enough, he’ll run to me. I won’t have to return to him because he’s already there, embracing me, praising me for simply turning towards him, giving him a chance…one more time. That’s how God’s heart beats for me. Full of passion and fire yet tempered with unmitigated tenderness.
Whether you are a Toller or a Golden Retriever, a Scottie, Neufie, Poodle, or even a Pit Bull, God’s heart beats the same for you, and he will always love you up regardless of where you’ve been or what you’ve done. Even if you’ve just received the Academy Award for fucking up spectacularly (I have a few on my mantle), he still wants you. To him, you’re not a fuck-up at all. You’re beloved. Thank God…