Empty Promises

Are your cues just empty promises?

A few days ago, Yoenne said something really profound. She said “I don’t want to be making any empty promises”. She was talking about calling in our cows, who were out in a back pasture lounging in the warm rays of the early spring-time sun. She has trained our cows to come when called, using the same techniques that I use when I’m training my dogs or my clients’ dogs to come when called: we pair the cue with a delicious reward; add in a dollop of practice practice practice in increasingly difficult scenarios; et voila: we get a trained dog (or a trained cow). The animals—dog, cow, it matters not—learn to the do work of the recall for the paycheque of the food, as reinforcement. Yoenne had been considering calling the cows to her to check on them, but she didn’t have any food (the usual paycheque for cow recalls is either grain or hay cubes, both of which cows adore). So instead of calling them in, she walked out to see them.

Shouldn’t they just do it?

Us humans (myself included) have a set of very natural, but plum wrong, feelings about dogs doing stuff for us. When we ask our dogs to do something, it feels like they should just do it because they love us and they’re part of our family. This is a bit of transference of human stuff to dogs, though…when we ask members of our human family to do stuff for us, it’s often reasonable to expect that they will. Human families are complex and our evolutionary history has made it wise and reasonable for us to do stuff for each other for free. But dogs, like cows, are their own animals. They have their own motivations and must meet their own needs, in their own way. Humans understand, and benefit from, “should”. Dogs? Not so much.

A cue is a promise

A cue, to an animal, is a sort of promise. It’s a promise that if they do x, y, or z; something is going to happen. Once a cue is delivered, it’s up to the animal to decide if doing x, y, or z is worth their while at this particular moment in time. It’s our job, as the humans in the equation, to make sure the promise isn’t an empty one: we don’t ask for our dogs (or cows) to do something over and over without ever signing a paycheque. It’s also our job as the humans in the equation to make sure the promise isn’t a threat: do this or else. When we make a promise with our dogs (and if we want our dogs do the work of that recall, or down-stay, or standing still for the leash to be snapped on…) we better hold up our end of the bargain. No one likes an empty promise—not a cow, not a person, and not a dog.

Kristi Benson1 Comment