Friday, June 25, 2010

Word Associations

My little Sprout said her first sentence last night. It was only two words, but it was still a sentence. She said "BE QUIET!!!" when the dogs were barking. Or it might have been "PUPPY QUIET!" Either way it had a subject and a verb and according to 4th grade grammar, that's a complete sentence. Maybe a better question is why on Earth did she choose to scold the dogs as her first sentence instead of something like "Hi Mama" or "More milk"?

I don't know what's going on in that curly little head of hers, but I have a couple of theories. One is consistency. If I am outside and I hear Havana gear up for a barkfest, I will call out "hush" or something like that. Thankfully I'm very careful not to tell the dogs to shut up or else we could have had a bit of a Meet the Fockers moment. But because it drives me nuts when Havana has a barkfest you can pretty much guarantee I'll say something every time she does it. Since Sprout is usually outside with me she hears "breath in, barkbarkbar, 'Havana! Hush!"

There is probably also a fun factor going on. Our yard is big and Havana is loud. As a result I use a loud voice - some might say a yell - to tell her to hush. Yelling is pretty darn fun for a toddler and if Mama does it consistently in a certain situation then it's monkey see, monkey do. Add in that bossy big sister usually follows up Mama's scold with a "Havana! Quiet!" and you've got an awesome behavior chain that Sprout just needs to be a part of.

As I rather sheepishly reflected on my baby's choice of sentence, I started to think about other cases of associative learning that I've experienced. Dogs and kids both use cause and effect to their greatest advantage. Just this week we started the foundation work for "stay" in puppy class. I told my students NOT to say "stay" at this point because the chances that their puppies wouldn't stay was great. And believe me, I have seen many dogs - usually with owners who say "she knows stay" - come on cue, sit on cue, and stay...until she hears "stay" in which case she jumps up and runs to the owner. Or runs away.

The dog does indeed know "stay". She hears it every time she's about to get up, or is already up. So she knows that when she hears "stay" she has changed position into a stand so whenever she hears "stay" she should get up and move. What the owner has trained is actually a really reliable release word and not a command to hold position, but the dog, not knowing English any better than we speak Canine, has connected a specific action to a specific sound. It just so happens to be the opposite of what the human wanted, but was exactly what the human taught.

The saddest of what I call "anti commands" involves botched recalls. I work hard so my dogs not only come when called, they are happy about it. My heart, once it started beating again, just about broke when my foster dog Maya opened the slider and escaped one day. She didn't go far, just in the yard, but it terrified me. I ran over to her and in my happiest voice called "Maya!!! Come!!!" The first time she ran in the other direction, so I grabbed Cousteau to entice her and again called "Maya!!! Come!!!" This time she looked at me with such a sad look and dropped to the ground in an 80 pound puddle of immovable dog. Someone had taught her that if she heard "come", something less than pleasant was going to happen. I'd like to think it just meant she was going to get stuck in her kennel or closed into a room so her previous owners could leave. And maybe it was just that. But still, instead of approaching me when she heard "come", she learned it was better for her if she avoided the human.

Sadder still was a few years after that when I was walking a client dog. This dog, while a great pup, is not known to be Miss Congeniality and she alerted me to the presence of a dog on her street. I looked and saw a golden dancing around the backyards. She was skittish and wouldn't approach me, no matter what irresistible tricks I tried. I put my client dog safely into her house and tried again. Now the golden would come closer to me and I saw she had a remote shock collar on. Once again I called in my happiest voice "Hey! Come!!!" As soon as she heard a loud, firm "come" she tucked tail and ran in the opposite direction. Nothing I did could get her to come near me again. I strongly suspect the electrodes on her neck had something to do with it. She got used to "come"-ZAP and possibly further punishment once she got to her human that she didn't have any reason to approach a human who said such a thing. (I'm not getting into a debate over shock collars. Obviously I don't like them. I know there are arguments for sometimes using them in extreme situations. I'm not prepared to use them for my training so I don't advocate them. End of story.)

So now that my youngest chatterbox is starting to use understandable words I have to think more about the word associations she gets from me on a daily basis. And I need to continue to think about the impact my words and actions have not only on my children, but on my dogs who don't have the luxury of fluently sharing a language with me. And here I thought I could just open my mouth and let the words spew forth.


子帆子帆 said...

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珮瑜 said...

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