Three ring circus. Grand Central Station. Fort Chaos. All synonyms for "my house." Three high-energy boys with assorted friends carrying skateboards and tossing balls and leaping off the living room couch, plus one high-energy Border collie (and another highly tolerant collie of ebbing energy) make the place buzz.
I've long since found a meditative zone within the frenzy. It's all just white noise while I write or cook or talk on the phone. Perhaps I've just been worn to a nub and there is nothing left to rattle, but I can focus in the midst of chaos. (I'd like to offer you the metaphor of a ringmaster here. Honestly, however, a waitress at a busy diner is closer to the mark. An air traffic controller simply sitting back and watching the planes land—or not—is right on the button.)
The question is can a young Border collie learn to focus in the midst of chaos? Can Phoebe learn anything during a clicker training session in course of which someone repeatedly asks me what's for dinner, and another person passes through the room with several friends who want to pet the dog, and a third person begs to try the clicker?
The extraordinary fact is that she can. Phoebe and I have just accomplished a new trick that's been on my wish list for a while: circle me tail-first. It isn't an easy trick to learn or teach, but we managed it whenever I found five minutes to bring out the clicker and treats. The breakthrough, Phoebe's "aha!" moment, came one day while Nathaniel, my five-year-old, joined us for the training session to tell me all about turtles. (He's been interested in reptiles and amphibians lately, and we've all heard a lot about frogs. A lot. Now turtles will have their turn.) As I gave him my ears and Phoebe my eyes, she made a full backward circle three times in a row! Time to name the behavior. The cue? "Turtle".
I feel certain that traditional training or even lure-and-reward training would fail in these conditions. The dog must be thinking, and thinking hard, to tune out any and all distractions. The dog must be more motivated to earn the reward than to join in any surrounding activity. To be sure, Phoebe's willing temperament is the right one for this environment. Excitement is innately stimulating rather than stressful for her. However, focusing in spite of excitement is a skill she is learning through clicker training.
I have observed, however, that Phoebe has another skill, one that I suspect comes from neither temperament nor clicker training, but directly from the fact that she is trained in an erratic environment. She generalizes her trained behaviors astonishingly well. A trick trained in my living room, the Turtle for example, can be cued and performed within days on the sidelines of a soccer game or anywhere else. She does not seem to need re-training from step 1 in every new setting in order to achieve reliability. She has learned to focus in the midst of distractions, whether they are noisy children or sidewalks and trees. (I make no promises, however, when squirrels are in the vicinity.)
I have no higher ambition for Phoebe than to be a solid family dog (who knows a few tricks and can herd a few sheep). Yet, if I were training her for something more universally impressive—search and rescue or championship-level agility—I would still desensitize her to environmental stimuli and establish stimulus control in the most effective way possible: right here in Fort Chaos.
Learning About Dogs - ©2003 Learning About Dogs/reprinted here with permission.