Positive Reinforcement (and cheese) to the Rescue

I was driving home yesterday when I spied a dog running loose along the busy road at the entrance of my neighborhood. Her black muzzle and smooth fawn colored coat created a perfect camouflage amongst the roadside autumn leaves.  In my rear view mirror I saw a line of cars approaching.

I immediately pulled over, jumped out of my truck, knelt down while patting my leg and in my most soothing voice said “Would you like like to get out of the road?” She sported a bright blue harness with a handful of tags jingling from her collar so I knew she was not a stray. She barked at me but didn’t appear aggressive. She carefully kept her distance.

She had been running back and forth along a fence line enticing the two dogs inside to run with her. No doubt she was saying something like “Nah, nah, nah, nah, I’m free and you’re not!”

The commotion of all the barking drew two women out of the bushes, but they carefully kept their distance just like the dog did. I asked “Is this your dog?”  They said “Yes, but if we get any closer she’ll run away.”

I must have looked dumbfounded, so she continued. “Peaches is so smart that she knows if we catch her she’ll get yelled at or locked in the backyard.”

I stood speechless. My mind raced, ready to launch into all the reasons not to reprimand your dog for returning after a jaunt. Sensing the awkward silence, the owner continued.  “We love Peaches but we just can’t catch her. She just loves to run.”

So there I was, standing in the middle of the road knowing there is zero chance that Peaches will come close enough for a collar grab and cars were coming. In Peaches’ cute little head the appearance of the dreaded two leggeds meant her fun was about to end.

I asked, “Does she like to go for car rides?” I figured I could invite her into my truck and drive her to their house.

“She used to, but then she learned that a car ride brought her home.”

“Oh,” I said.  Then I remembered I had a few left over slices of Swiss cheese in a plastic pouch from lunch on the road.

I quickly grabbed the cheese and made certain to scrunch the plastic loudly in the process. I looked down. Peaches expression was one of interest.  I said, “Peaches, do you like cheese?” Then I added, “Good girl” and tossed her a tiny piece.

Soon she was out of the road and eating cheese out of my hand, but refused to be drawn in close enough for a collar grab. Her owners shouted and pointed, “If you can catch her we live right here.”

After about ten repetitions of the “Follow me cheese toss game” Peaches had safely accompanied me across the street and into their backyard.

Once Peaches was home with the gate closed, her expression was relaxed, tail wagging and seemed happy to let me pet her. I was very relieved that the owners didn’t yell at her. They sincerely cared about their dog and must have thanked me ten times for bringing her home. But what ensued still has my mind whirling.

They kept telling me all the things that they have tried to train their dog. “We’ve tried everything and she’s just too smart.” Then the owner said she wanted to order an $80 collar that advertised it could teach your dog to stay in its yard in just ten minutes. I referred her to Emily Larlham’s free progressive reinforcement training site chock full of amazing solution oriented videos. She repeated, “We tried everything, nothing works.”

If I could think faster on my feet I could have replied, “Have you tried Swiss cheese?” Or “Did you see what I just did? Peaches followed me. Peaches did not run away. I brought Peaches back home. Would you agree that what I did worked?”  But instead, I stood dumbfounded, (theme of the day) patiently listening to all the things they’ve tried that didn’t work.

What just happened? Peaches quickly and easily did as I asked but they still insisted nothing worked? I just gave a clear demonstration that something did work. Couldn’t they see that?

When I’d appear at events with my horses to paint, I’d frequently hear, “Horses will do anything for food!” It was as if the use of food completely invalidated the fact that my horses were performing some seriously complex behaviors that, by the way, would have been impossible to achieve through aversive techniques.

As always, when I point the finger at confusing human behavior, I find three pointing back at me. I began to ask myself how many areas in my life do I say, “I’ve tried everything, and nothing works”? Just as Peaches’ owners were completely blind to something that clearly succeeded (and made Peaches really happy), how many places in my life is the solution crystal clear and I just don’t see it because of some deeply ingrained bias or insecurity?

If only my solutions were as easy as a slimy, sweaty, chunk of dashboard-baked Swiss cheese.

But, maybe they are.

Oh, the irony.



4 thoughts on “Positive Reinforcement (and cheese) to the Rescue

  1. Same old… people spend really short time on training their animals, and give up soo easily. About running away; once I was driving a car with my sister and our three dogs, one of which is a ‘runaway yorkie’ (her dog :P) and we stopped by the road to let them have a break in a nice wood. Only the yorkie was on the leash but somehow the leash unhooked, and he turned back and dashed straight to the road… (he seems to enjoy running in the wrong direction). We had two seconds to think what to do before he gets hit by a car, and I decided that we start running away from him, into the wood, with my two dogs, calling the yorkie’s name. Fortunately he stopped and started chasing us, so we managed to take him to a safer distance.

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