Sorting Things Out

October 23, 2009 at 4:46 am 5 comments

My foster dog Charlie has seen astonishingly little in the year or so of he’s been on this earth.  Nearly every thing I introduce him to is, quite literally, startlingly novel to him.  So a big part of my job in rehabilitating Charlie involves exposing him to new things in ways that help him sort them out properly.

The concept of similarity is fundamental to all perception, learning, and judgment. Similarity increases when a group of things have a lot of features in common and it decreases when there are a lot of differences between them.  The ability to use the concept of same versus different to sort things into mental categories allows animals to store perceptual and conceptual information in a way that makes them more efficient at interpreting situations in an adaptive way.


What kinds of things does Charlie (or any dog, for that matter) need to be able to sort out?  Well here are just a few of the not-so-natural-to-dogs categories he needs to be able to understand:

  • Things that can be chewed and played with vs. things that absolutely must not be put into one’s mouth
  • Places it is acceptable to pee and poop vs. places it is not
  • Things that can be jumped up on vs. things that one should not jump on
  • Animals you can chase and kill vs. animals you can not
  • People you can bite  {^}  vs. those you must not  {i.e. the set comprising all of mankind}

This is not always a simple thing. Dogs don’t just perceive the world differently than we do, they also process perceptual information in different ways than we do.

Even though they share our homes and lives, our dogs live in a completely different world than we do. 

And in Charlie’s case, he’s experienced so little of the world that in many cases he appears to perceive of each new thing that you or I would tend to think of as part of a categorical set as a completely unique thing.  I suspect this is a big part of his current problem with strangers.  Charlie’s met so few people that he may see each new human he meets as a completely novel creature.  In other words, Charlie may not yet have generalized that all upright-walking, clothes-wearing, language-using, creepy-eye-contact-making, two-leggers are – generally speaking – the same kind of creature that I am.  Once I help him successfully makes this connection, I believe his snarkiness will (at least for the most part) go away.

How does a dog complete the mental gymnastics necessary to categorize his world?  It’s impossible to know but hints about what is going on inside those lovely, furry heads may be available from looking at pre-lingual human infants.  In Links Between Object Categorization and Naming  Sandra Waxman discusses how her research indicates human infants categorize.  Waxman states she believes that expectations play an important part in learning to categorize and that she believes it is best if a young creature’s expectations aren’t rigid.  Waxman says that in an ideal situation, expectations should start out being extremely fluid and that they should only become more fixed with time and experience.  

I found this point interesting as it I think i might help explain the basis of resilience  Rigid expectations have a way of disappointing you, especially when they’re not based on a broad set of experiences.  So, an animal (or human) that has a less fluid expectation system would tend to be more prone to being disappointed and shutting down and therefore be less resilient.  For example I suspect that my girl Zip is be a dog who was born with a more rigid than average expectation-generating mechanism.  Even after years of training and coaching she still shuts down more easily than any other dog I’ve lived with – including Charlie.  She’s also very stubborn and prefers rigid, predictable situations.  Zip has a vivid picture etched into her mind of  The Way Things Should Be and it is incredibly hard for her to change that picture.  And therein lies problem.  For them to function efficiently, our mental categories need to maintain some degree of fluidity and mutability.  They can’t be rigidly fixed.

Naturally resilient or not, how can you help your dog figure out which things he should sort together into one of the little boxes in his head (i.e. which are similar) versus those that go into different bins (i.e. which are not similar)? 

This is a great place to use contrast.

Contrast is a valuable, and IMO, too often under-utilized tool in dog training.  Using contrast involves giving your dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out.  One example of this would be using a large, elevated, textured, brightly colored target when beginning to teach a dog to go out to a target on command.  Providing a lot of contrast between the target and the floor or ground it sits on makes it easier for the dog to tell the difference between target and ‘not target’.  Another example would be encouraging a dog who is afraid of halls and dark doorways to go through wide gates and french doors.  The contrast between “scary dark hole into nowhere” versus an “easy to see through open space” that the dog may not initially categorize as a “door” can provide a valuable first step in teaching him that any opening you ask him to go through is safe.

The importance of using controlled training exercises that take advantage of contrast is explained (albeit rather obtusely) in Chapter 4, Studies of Similarity by Tversky and Gati in Cognition and Categorization:

The relative weight assigned to the common and the distinctive features may differ in the two judgments because of a change in focus. In the assessment of similarity between stimuli, the subject may attend more to their common features, whereas in the assessment of differences between stimuli, the subject may attend more to their distinctive features. Stated differently, the instruction to consider similarity may lead the subject to focus primarily on the features that contribute to the similarity of the stimuli, whereas the instruction to consider difference may lead the subject to focus primarily on the features that contribute to the differences between the stimuli . Consequently, the relative weight of the common features is expected to be greater in the assessment of similarity than in the assessment of difference.

So, when we when select the right parameters, contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference.  It can also help show him which features to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  These are vital factors in most problem solving exercises.

Using contrast well requires a bit of creativity and an open mind.  A feature that you see as providing obvious contrast may be completely insignificant to your dog.  So if your dog doesn’t respond immediately in a positive way to the contrast you’ve created – end the exercise and start over contrasting a different element.  Your job is to find out what part(s) of the problem are relevant to your dog and help him to use them to sort things out properly.    

Contrast is an enormously valuable tool – but it can be difficult to use well.  As trainers we run into problems with these kinds of exercises because categorization is a cultural thing.  And while dogs are a part of our culture, they understand and participate in it in very different ways than we do.

One area where problems arise is in the realm of perception.  Smell is vastly more important  to dogs than it is to us – vision, which most of us humans rely very heavily on, is of far less importance to them.  Further complicating matters, dogs process perceptual information differently than we do.  Things that are imperceptible to you may be glaringly obvious to your dog and vice-versa.

Another problem area lies in the fact that we tend to forget how important context is to dogs.  An otherwise unremarkable feature of an object may take on strong predictive value, and therefore be more important, in a specific context.  In another context the same feature may be completely inconspicuous to the dog.

We humans also have a strong tendency to over-think and over-complicate things.  Dogs, for the most part, simply take things as they are.  Dogs aren’t by nature introspective creatures.  Reacting after minimal cognitive processing is their natural mode of operation.  So don’t obsess about why Sparky freaked out when a bird flew overhead — just help him use contrast to sort “bird overhead” into the “not something to worry about” bin inside his head.

Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs, rescue. Tags: .

Time to Eat the Dog Tricky

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. H. Houlahan  |  October 23, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    When you add it all up, despite the severe limits on Charlie’s experience with the world at large — he had experienced six locations in his life before I loaded him into my car to bring to you (a shit heap where he was born, two vet hospitals, the Moore Lane facility in Billings, and two different barns of the Metra) — he actually had met a lot of people. Scores, at least, actually more like hundreds. Different volunteers and employees at the different locations. All the volunteers would come for puppy time as a break from a hard day of working with the fearful, feral adults.

    And yet he still sincerely believed I had become a completely different person when I took off my hat — while he watched me do it, no less. I have to wonder if, in the matter of experience with people, Charlie didn’t have too many different individuals coming and going through his life, with no one person (and no canine mother) providing a reliable reference point. Attachment is the solid ground from which socialization can launch. Same/different may have no meaning if everything is always “different” while your synapses are being pruned and trained.

    His cohort of pups was eventually assigned to handlers, but not during their primary socialization period — not until much later.

    When I took him out for his first rest break on the drive east, I pulled to the way back of a quiet truck stop, where there was no traffic or anything that could startle him, a small field bordered by brush. Within ten seconds of taking him out of the car, a freight train roared out of the darkness about fifty feet away.

    This did not bother Charlie one bit.

    But don’t put on a jacket, for the love of doG!

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  October 23, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Well then – all that hat, trenchcoat, poncho and umbrella toting in the early days was worth the effort. After about day four I made an effort to look different every time I went out to see him. It took about a week, but he went from being stressed out about it to seeing it as a joke. (“Ha, ha funny human – you can’t fool me, I recognized you in that weird get up.”)

    He gets better with new people all the time, and is absolutely fine with all of us here. And he’s settled in at what appears to be the bottom of the dog heap. No one takes any crap from him and the other dogs will, when he just starts to act like a jerk, gang up to give him a smack-down.

    He is stlil largely unreactive to sounds. Chainsaws, lawn mowers, low-flying aircraft, the shop-vac, a log splitter, tractor-trailers, thunder, gunfire, fire works – are only vaguely interesting to him. Moving the furniture when he’s out of the room or letting a new person in – *that’s* the scary stuff.

  • 3. Donald McCaig  |  October 24, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Interesting discussion. “Familiarity”for mammals is a lebenswelt with stable and unstable elements. For dogs elements include humidity, barometric pressure , scent information, familiar or unfamiliar human movement (try walking a young dog through chinatown) and the complex, powerful information of work and training.

    Yesterday I took my sheepdog trial candidate into the dog food stores to teach him to lie down and stay quietly – someday – at airport ticket counters. Dogs can tolerate and even enjoy some differences in their lebenswelt and, if differences strike their genetics, they can change utterly. See: sheepdogs “seeing” sheep for the first time, urban hounds turned loose in a forest. For humans, see: road to Damascus.

    Dogs, like us, need the familiar so they can get about their lives economically. What “the familiar” is can vary as wildly as the life experience of a “navy brat” and “an Amish child”. Or a “show dog” and a “field trial pointer”.

    Influenced by behaviorism, we think of experience as an amalgam of “simples” and our solutions to dog problems tend to be “fix one thing”. But changing what counts as “familiar” is immersion in a different lebenswelt.

    Donald McCaig

  • 4. SmartDogs  |  October 24, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    ‘Same’ and ‘Different’ are two, absolutely vital sides of the same coin. You can’t understand one without the other. And like a lot of other important stuff they don’t represent exclusionary black/white opposites; they’re the endpoints on a continuum.

    All ‘sameness’ has a little ‘difference’ in it and vice-versa.

    Lebenswelt – Donald, that is the word I needed! The importance of individual subjective perception; idea of same versus different; the fluid and dynamic nature of the ‘world as lived.

    Maybe I need to go back and try to read Husserl again…

  • 5. Jill  |  October 26, 2009 at 2:33 am

    A dear friend — she is a holistic veterinarian and a dog trainer — has had thousands of dogs pass through her capable and sensitive hands. Her specialty practice focuses almost solely on working dogs: agility and obedience dogs, working stock dogs, coursing dogs, hunting/field dogs, police k9s and so on. Frequently she is consulted by clients in search of their next OTCh, MACH or FCH. Always, she puts her emphasis on flexibility. Flexibility of mind corresponds with flexibility of body (since dogs don’t read Descartes, nor are they trapped in the binaries of Western logos, and so these interactions are seamless for them), and resliance is both mental and physical.

    Seems simple enough, and I suspect it is for the dogs. Just not for us.

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