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Karen's Letters

The Ethology of Clicker Training

I used to think of myself as standing perpetually on a bridge, with a foot in each camp. I used to expend a lot of time trying to talk psychologists into understanding or at least coming to watch what we were learning about the animals with their science. No luck. No luck in the other direction, either: the behavioral biologists were not much interested in training or reinforcement.

Animals and Grief

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, we were all moved by the TV scenes of lost or abandoned dogs hanging around their flooded homes, some fearfully evading capture, others swimming desperately after the rescue boats. They had lost their familiar lives. They surely missed their familiar people. And what if there had been more than one animal in a house? Do animals miss other animals? Do animals grieve for each other?

A Dog with a Catch

Teaching a dog to catch is a matter of what trainer Margi English calls eye-fang coordination. Some are better at it than others, but most of them can learn—if they want to. Take my poodle Misha. Misha can catch things, but he has to know what it is, first. Hold out a treat, say "catch" and Misha goes "Ew, but what is it? What if you throw me something disgusting?" Never in his whole life have I thrown him something disgusting, but he worries anyway. If I just toss the treat he ducks, and the treat hits him in the face. He will catch…provided he first has a chance to smell and inspect what I'm holding, which kind of spoils that desirable appearance of joyous spontaneity.

Minneapolis and Oprah

The best way to get results is to get the producer of the show who might like the idea, to think it good enough to put on the air and fight for it during meetings on what the content of future shows should be. Check out the credits at the end of the show. Send a letter to the person named the executive producer or creative producer (not the supervising producer or associate producer, as the latter two usually are in charge of handling costs of the various shows rather than selecting content).

Bad Bob

"He's surprised, did you see that?" I said, laughing, to the watching people. It's easy to startle a horse; but this was not alarm: this was just pure amazement. That expression told me two things: first, he thoroughly understood the game we were playing. Second, in his past experience, things usually just went on and on getting worse, not better. What I wanted to do was to pat Bad Bob (which at present he would probably hate) or throw my arms around his neck, or give him a month's supply of alfalfa pellets. What I did was smile, and pay him his treat. Poor thing. Maybe Festina Lente will turn out to be a better place for you.