Building optimism one click at a time

Beanie and I are just home after attending a wonderful sighthound workshop organised by my friend and behaviourist Claire Martin of Chrysalis K9. Some dogs who attended were shy, some bold, some barky, some bouncy. As much as there were pervasive traits across the breed, there were just as many behaviours that were as diverse as possible. Food for thought.

Anyway, both of us had a whale of a time and I’m writing this today as Beanie is fast asleep, catching up on all the naps he missed out on yesterday.

The weekend was filled with novelty for Beanie. An unusually long drive, a new hotel room with loud corridors, a brand new outdoor workshop environment filled with new dogs, new people, caravans, lakes and toys that he had never encountered before.

So Beanie air scented anyone walking past, dragging me to the different equipment in the field to sniff and mark, gathering as much information as possible about all this novelty whilst still making sure I was always at the other end of the lead.

Now I have a shy, glass-half-empty dog. If we were to label his behaviour in environments like this, we’d reach for “lacking resilience”, “sensitive” or “fragile”. Beanie lets the world whirl around him as long as he can find a predictable little corner with me in all that chaos.

Very few people expect the dog who emerges the moment my training pouch comes out.

Every single structured activity we did at the workshop was novel in some way. Beanie ran through three hoops in a row at hoopers. He went into an agility tunnel and came out the other end in the first attempt. He stood on planks, tires, platforms, peanuts with back legs on and off and pivoting around. He tripped on a platform stepping back, looked at it, turned back to me and kept going. He learnt to freeze on a coin during scent work. He learnt a bow and it was so reliable in minutes that I could already add a cue, working amidst all those sighthounds, clickers, people, dogs and equipment. I was genuinely so blown away by how well he took to the day that it got me pondering on the drive back. Due credit here to Sarah Owings for inspiring this train of thought many months ago.

Beanie’s first tunnel

The Beanie who worked with me all day was an optimistic dog. One who has had roughly one hundred thousand moments marked and rewarded over two years and eight months of his much longer life. One who understands that if I ask him to do something, it was probably doable and he couldn’t really go wrong. Every moment of success is right around the corner for that Beanie.

Optimism is built from a matrix of successes and failures. If every action pays out in some way, that builds optimism that the next action is also likely to pay out. If actions are met with punishment, that builds pessimism that the next action might also result in punishment.

The sheer power of positive reinforcement training is what we saw when my glass-half-full Beanie ran through those hoops or stood on a wobbly board, having never done either of those things before in his life. He trusts the framework. He believes it will work out because it has in the past. As long as I keep structuring those experiences to remain achievable, I am building a juggernaut of confidence, one click at a time. The longer the history of success, the lower the fallout from a single failure.

A dog is optimistic about a human’s presence, a vet clinic, a bath, being alone, being crated, meeting another dog, going to a cafe, being outdoors or walking on the street if that context has continously brought about desirable consequences for that dog. A confidence-building exercise is really just a moment where the dog was right.

So let us not label a dog as “pessimistic” or “shuts down easily” and write him off. That dog needs a high rate of success through hundreds and thousands of moments of being correct over and over again. Every time a dog is being told that he made a mistake is chipping away at the reservoir that we spend years building up.

Then let us watch that dog come out of his shell and do something he has never done before like it was nothing new at all.