Have you ever tried to train against a taboo?
There are some who oppose all forms of trained protection sport and protection work, citing variously that the training is inherently abusive (it’s not), or that the dogs dislike it (obviously untrue!). Occasionally a protester will suggest that biting a person in a sleeve or suit must of course reduce a dog’s bite inhibition, making it more likely that the dog will mouth or bite a person not in protective gear.
I’ve argued logically against this before, but now I have empirical proof — I can’t even pay my dogs to bite!
I never knew this would become a lesson to me in deep-seated avoidance.
I wanted a video scene of Laev quietly holding my forearm in her mouth while I spoke to the camera. (Never mind the why; it made sense in context.) I figured this couldn’t be too difficult to achieve with a few minutes of training, given that she already has a nice retrieve which includes both a take and a calm hold. We should have it quickly, but I’d allow some practice, just to build up duration with the new “object.” I’d even record the training, to show how quickly new behaviors can be put together from old ones with a savvy dog.
Note: Obviously, I don’t really find it annoying that my dogs exhibit a reluctance to put their mouths on humans, and there is a certain element of humor to the title and content of this post. If you find my goal behavior offensive, perhaps you’d find another post here more to your liking, and you’re welcome to skip to one now, no hard feelings.
So I popped Laev up on the table in front of the camera and asked her to take my arm.
Okay, we had some trouble. I decided to review “take it,” and I grabbed a number of mouth-size objects within reach.
So, Laev can retrieve a 5# dumbbell, but not my arm…. When I just could not get her to open her mouth on my arm, I cheated and had her take a wrapping paper tube a few times, then ripped it to cover my forearm. She decided that was okay and soon was grasping it gently.
I thought I’d hit “record,” but unfortunately I hadn’t — and I missed the defining moment when I partially slipped off the cardboard sleeve and psyched Laev into taking part cardboard, part my bare arm. The moment her mouth hit flesh, she recoiled and all but spat me out. “Ew! Skin! No way!”
More, she was seriously flustered by it and refused to play my stupid game for a moment, giving me dirty looks. She deigned to take the cardboard again, but only after thoroughly checking to see that it was fully cardboard. (No, you’re not imagining the sulky body language; this dog was NOT enthused about this training session. She only stayed in the game because of years of heavy reinforcement history. Could she make it any more clear that she thinks I am being stupid about this?)
A moment later, she figured out she could take the cardboard off my arm entirely and show me just how stupid I was being about this. Repeatedly.
Now, seriously, this isn’t too hard. I mean, I’ve seen Debi Davis’ dog retrieve his own hind leg, for crying out loud. All I want is for a dog to hold my arm for a moment! So I pulled out Shakespeare, The Old Man.*
Shakespeare was oddly uncomfortable on the table, even panting as I asked for the odd new behavior, so we moved to the floor and tried again. I did get him to take my hand in his mouth, but not my arm, and he continued to demonstrate a lot of displacement behavior and very slow resets between reps. This is not how my dog works normally. (Compare the video included at the end of this clip, showing a typical shaping session with Shakespeare.)
We never got beyond the quick light nip at my fingers, and he remained agitated and stressed the entire time.
Interestingly, both Laev and Shakespeare tried to paw at my arm when I asked them to take it in their mouths, as if they knew they were supposed to interact with it but were reluctant to use their mouths. (Neither dog has been taught to “shake.”) I should also mention that while I don’t really know about Shakespeare, I have never done specific bite inhibition training with Laev, only making sure that in our games of tug she was more likely to hit the toy than me. She’s not been punished for missing the toy. It wasn’t that they had no idea of what I wanted, as they took a variety of other objects, but they just would NOT put my arm in their mouths.
I gave up. The scene wasn’t that important, and while it’s something I could probably shape if I had enough time and inclination, it’s clearly uncomfortable for my dogs, violating some taboo. It would take a lot of work to successively shape taking an arm in the mouth, or to stuff a shirt sleeve and then gradually work my arm into it.
So no, apparently it’s not true that bitework makes a dog more comfortable with grabbing a human. Even when I want them to! Ken Ramirez described a training game session with humans in which the game progressed for an hour and a half without achieving the goal behavior; it turned out that the training subject never considered the target behavior even as a behavioral option, due to upbringing — it wasn’t even on her menu of possibilities as someone a rational person would do. What other dog taboos do we encounter while training?
* Roy Rogers, in his biography, reported that a movie scene required him to ride Trigger Jr. into a cloud of steam from a locomotive as he pursued a train. They did the shot again and again, but even the well-trained Trigger Jr., raised and trained for films, was reluctant to gallop into a cloud of obscuring steam. Finally the director called, “Bring out the old man!” and Trigger, though retired, came out and nailed the scene on the first take.