Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why "The Dog Trainer's Baby"?

I never set out to be the crazy dog lady. I just wanted a dog and my husband wanted a yellow Labrador Retriever like the ones he'd grown up with. So when we got married 7.5 years ago, I bought him a yellow Lab as a wedding gift. At that time I had no idea how much that darn puppy would change my life. I expected a Disney-like Eddie Bauer catalog model. What I got was Satan on four paws with floppy ears.


We took Cousteau to training class out of self defense. It was that or dump him at the shelter door and run. He was still a beast after the first class. And the second. I kept taking classes and soon realized that I enjoyed it. Plus, the things I was learning from my positive reinforcement dog classes worked really well in my 4th grade classroom! I eventually decided that teaching children wasn't for me, but that I really liked teaching people how to train their dogs. I was offered an assistant position at Mad City Dog Training in Madison, WI and I've been an instructor there for almost 5 years now.


Fast forward to 2005. That's when I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl, whom I refer to as BabyBug. Motherhood is the one thing that I've always wanted, ever since I was about 2 and started playing with dolls. Well, motherhood and a cat. Now I have a baby, two cats, and two dogs and I've discovered that they all learn in basically the same way - trial and error. They do what works and stop doing what doesn't work. Behaviors that they've found to be safe they continue, behaviors they perceive as dangerous they discontinue.


Thanks to my great family I had a pretty good sense of what a mother is and what a mother does. I'm the middle of 18 cousins ranging in age from 40 to 5, so there were always babies around for me to smother with affection and my aunts let me. On top of their examples of mothering, I now have several years of experience raising or helping to raise dogs. Dog raising has become as ingrained in me as mothering.


I know some people are terribly offended by my comparing raising my daughter to raising dogs. I see it like this - my daughter and my dogs are all living, breathing, feeling creatures who didn't ask to be a part of my life. I chose them and they didn't get any say in the matter. Sort of a variation on the old "I didn't ask to be born!" As such, I owe it to them to make sure that their lives are as fulfilling as possible. I do different things for each because my dogs are not human and my baby is not a dog. But my dog experience has definitely made me a better person and I'd be a fool not to let whatever can be crossed over benefit my daughter. Hence - The Dog Trainer's Baby: How I Raised My Daughter Like I Train My Dogs.


I've recently begun re-reading Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot the Dog. I personally feel that everyone should read this book, whether you have any interest in training animals or not. Pryor does a great job of explaining how positive reinforcement works for every sentient creature on the planet - including how she uses it on herself. As I got sucked back into the excitement of basic learning theory (yes, I'm a nerd. Learning theory is exciting to me!), I decided it was time to start putting my thoughts together on how my dogs started making my baby's life better before she was even conceived.

2 comments:

Laura said...

Interesting blog and post. Um, have you read Alfie Kohn? (Punished By Rewards, etc.?)Just curious and wondering about your thoughts on intrinsic verus extrinsic rewards.

JRM said...

I haven't read Alfie Kohn, but I'm adding it to my list of books to read. As of right now, I feel that there is a place for both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. It would be great if everyone did things because it was the right thing to do and it feels right, but the fact is that all creatures learn more quickly when there is something in it for them. For a baby or toddler - or a dog for that matter - a small token of an extrinsic reward can help the learning process, both of the skill being taught and in working on looking for the intrinsic reward in doing the right thing. Heck, even an adult enjoys a little something extra for a job well done, even if we know it was the right thing to do. We shouldn't always expect something, but it's nice when it happens.