The Phoebe Experiment

“Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment.”

(B.F. Skinner)


The theory


Before I got my poodle puppy, I did my research. By the time she moved in, I knew she was exactly the breed I wanted, I had gotten to know a puppy from the breeder’s previous litter and observed her behavior in various situations, and I knew exactly how I was going to raise this puppy: with the greatest possible freedom.


I defined freedom the following way: I hardly ever instructed my puppy to do anything (or taught her behaviors I could then have instructed). I mainly reinforced her offering stuff I liked, and ignored all the rest. So, yes, I clicked a lot – the first months she spent with me, I fed her most of her meals not out of a food bowl, but in the course of reinforcing random stuff I liked in the course of the day. I especially reinforced calm behaviors (after all, raising a laid-back dog was one of my main goals). But I taught her hardly any “manners” that she didn’t offer herself.


I did, however, teacher her a couple fun tricks (she was a Poodle, after all, and loved tricks!). I captured fun things and put them on cue, like clapping her teeth. I shaped a couple things, like turning on and off a light switch. I lured the usual simple tricks: twists and leg weaves and standing on her hind legs.


But I only taught her only two things that I thought were important in real life: walking on a loose leash, and a super reliable recall.


Of course, I also did all the stuff good pet parents do with their puppies – after all, I wanted her to feel as comfortable in the world as possible. Therefore, I socialized, socialized, socialized! her at an early age: I taught adult German classes at the time, and Phoebe got to come to work with me, meet and interact with all my students. And as I was explaining verb conjugations with one hand, I reinforced her for relaxing on her green blanket with the other. I made sure she had lots of positive experiences with other dogs: I took her to puppy playgroup, and I made sure she regularly got to meet up with adult dog friends. I desensitized her to a muzzle so I could take her on subway rides quite early in life. I was fond of the Control Unleashed Puppy program and played parallel games with cyclists and horseback riders and joggers in order to safely get her through her “chase-everything-that-moves phase” without ever being aversive or even letting her hit the end of the leash – I made a point of either staying under threshold at all times, or letting her run off leash and do whatever she wanted. So if it was safe for her, she was off leash, no matter whether we were in the city or anywhere else. If it wasn’t safe for her to run off leash and if she would have gone over threshold on leash, I simply avoided the situation. I even avoided situations in which she might have pulled.


I believed that if I gave her all the freedom in the world and reinforced what I liked, I’d get lots of what I like, and nothing else. My blanket plan is a good example.



The blanket example vs. jumping on people


I had this green blanket, and I reinforced Phoebe whenever she lay down on it. When she moved off, reinforcement stopped. As a small puppy, of course she would stay on the blanket, probably because the blanket was familiar and the world was big and scary. This fact reinforced me for the approach I had taken. As she grew a little bigger and more confident, she would wander off to investigate her surroundings. When she got more and more interested in playing with the people in my class, for example, and would get excited and try and jump up on them, I would not prevent her from jumping, but I would instruct the people to ignore her. I would tell them: please don’t pet the puppy. She’ll get excited and jump on you, and I don’t want that.


So when they did not interact with her, she mostly didn’t jump on them, and I felt like I had sidestepped a potential “problem” before it arised. However! Of course, sometimes someone would reinforce her with attention for jumping up. It’s hard for people to follow your instructions if your instructions are Don’t-s rather than Do-s, just like for dogs. I might have faired better if I had given them a clicker and let them c/t her for four feed on the floor or nice sits, as I tend to instruct clients when their excited puppy or adult dog meets human friends.


Tugging through busy places


If we had to walk across busy streets or subway stations such as Praterstern and Phoebe might have pulled on her leash, I avoided that problem by means of having a tug session all the way. I was leading her on her tug toy – as a puppy, my key chain did the trick – rather than on her leash. Well, this way, I also got to practice “drop” and reinforce it with her getting to tug again right away. This also meant she didn’t have to interact with her environment in any way that might have caused her to do something I would have needed to stop: she didn’t get to try and jump on strangers, for example, or steal a homeless person’s sandwich because she was busy tugging, and she didn’t even hit the end of her leash.


Meeting everyone and everything at anytime


When she did meet strangers off leash, or on-leash when I wasn’t tugging her past them, I let her go up and sniff them. I am aware that this was not particularly considerate of me, since not everyone likes being sniffed by a puppy, but at the time, this was exactly what I wanted her to be able to do: I wanted her to investigate whatever she wanted, even if it meant scaring strangers from behind with the touch of a cold muzzle. Basically, I let her meet everyone and everything she tried to meet. (Everyone despite unfamiliar dogs, of course. I wasn’t that irresponsible – I would tug her past them or distract her in order to avoid frustrating her desire to meet them.)


She had a lot of dog friends, and when her dog friends were over or we went on walks together, I never asked her to stop playing unless she got tired and “chose” to stop by herself. I felt like this was “her time,” and it should be entirely her “choice” what to do with it. Yes, I would practice her recalls and immediately send her back to play to cash in on the Premack principle, because recalls are very important to me. I wanted a dog I could take pretty much anywhere off leash, and that’s only possible with a perfect recall. And her recall really is great. But otherwise, no: I never asked her to brace herself and settle down for a minute before resuming play. She got to play as long as she “chose” to.




When I walked in after leaving her alone at home for a while (which I also, of course, taught gently and from the beginning, starting with leaving her alone for a few seconds and gradully increasing the time), she would happily meet me at the door. I quickly reinforced “all four on the floor”, and this worked very well: she usually doesn’t jump up on me unless I’ve been gone for a really long time. However, when friends walked in – friends who are her friends, too -, I never prevented her from jumping up. I asked people to not reinforce her for jumping, but did not actively teach her an alternative behavior – I assumed that eventually, she would outgrow her jump-phase and “choose” to keep all four on the floor, because this I reinforced whenever it happened. However, jumping was probably satisfying in itself. And it had no negative consequences; with some people who loved her, it even earned her laughter and attention despite the fact that I had asked people to not reinforce her. As a result, she still likes to jump on people.


If we had dog guests, she got to play with them, too, for as long as she wanted. I’d get anything that might break out of the way and let them have the run of the house, never requiring them to settle down. Of course, I would provide the guest dogs with safe spots to retire to if they wanted to have their peace from the crazy little puppy, but I never stopped her as long as they were game, too.


Fanta, my Greyhound, is a different story. He doesn’t usually play, but he’s also not the kind of dog who would tell Phoebe off but rather quietly suffer through it. So in order to protect him from her play attacks without ever telling her off or restraining her, I chose a different approach: toys are stronger reinforcers for her than other dogs are. For this reason, she’d always get a tennis ball before she got bored enough to tease Fanta. She got to just carry it around, or I would play fetch with her while he remained undisturbed. Rather than frustrating her by means of asking her to not bother Fanta, I manipulated the situation so that she would rather play with her ball anyways. This, by the way, has payed off: she won’t bother Fanta these days, even if there are no toys around.


The run of the house


When Phoebe moved in, I had a housemate. He wasn’t much of a dog person, but he resigned himself to the fate of living with a dog nerd and let me puppy-proof our apartment. I just put everything Phoebe wasn’t allowed to eat, play with or chew on (all of my roommate’s belongings) out of reach, decorated the place with chewtoys and covered my roomate’s furniture with blankets so he would be okay with her scrambling about on it.


If she wanted to put her front paws up on the kitchen sink, well, so be it. I reinforced her for keeping all four on the floor while I was cooking, but if she “chose” to look up and sniff what was boiling on the stove instead, so be it – I didn’t prevent this. Phoebe has done very well in that respect. She never destroyed anything, and she “chose” to only chew on her chewtoys and teddy bears. I used the back hotplate to cook stuff, so even if she put her paws on the worktop, she wouldn’t reach the the pots. Her curiosity was satisfied, but there was no edible reinforcer she could reach. In my place, she doesn’t put her paws up there anymore, she already knows what’s up there. However, at friends’ places, part of her investigation of the kitchen will usually be a look at what’s on the worktop. I have never given her a reason to not check out what’s up there.


Anyways, naturally, as a puppy, Phoebe soon got to like my housemate. She wanted to play with him when he got home from work. She wanted to tug on his pants! She wanted to jump up on him! His approach would have been to reprimand her. I watched him (not her!) like a hawk and instructed him to not reprimand or even stop her. If she pulled on his sleeve, he had to wait it out. (I myself had stopped wearing long sleeves and long pants for the time she was in her sleeve-pulling-phase. Luckily, it was summer.) Now have you ever had a puppy dangling from your sleeve? Waiting it out can take quite some time. She’ll not get bored easily, since just pulling and mock-growling and chewing on clothes seems like quite a fun game. So while I told myself that I wasn’t reinforcing but just ignoring, in fact she probably found the action itself extremely reinforcing. It didn’t matter whether the poor guy just stood there motionless – it was still a game of tug.


Anyways, when my roommate started to complain as Phoebe got stronger, I would distract her as he walked into the room by means of playing with her myself, or instruct him to use an actual tug-toy to interact with her. He usually wasn’t interested in playing with her, so for the most part, it was me who distracted her. Again: I avoided frustrating her, but didn’t actively teach her a concrete alternative acceptable way to interact with my roommate.


Puppy mouthing


When it came to myself, I didn’t even use negative punishment for her mouthing moments. I would make a high-pitched noise when she bit me too hard, but I wouldn’t use time-outs. (Mind you: I instruct other puppy parents to use time-outs when teaching bite inhibition all the time, unless the yelping sound itself does the trick. I tell them to step over baby gates or briefly walk out the door or tether her somewhere and walk out of their puppy’s leash radius if she bites too hard. But when it came to my own puppy, I wanted to completely avoid negative punishment.) Phoebe has learned to be rather gentle with her teeth (maybe because of playing with other dogs more than because of playing with me), but she will still use her teeth today when she gets excited.


In any situation, I managed the environment and instructed the people around my puppy, but I didn’t instruct or manage my puppy. I merely distracted her if environmental management wasn’t possible.



“Choose,” don’t tell


I didn’t want to “tell” her to lie down, I wanted her to choose to lie down. I offered her her blanket and gave her the “choice” to lie down on it – or not. As a small puppy, she would, but as she grew a little older, she would wander off and collect her reinforcers elsewhere. And as long as it was safe for my puppy to do so, I was perfectly fine with this. If we were at a restaurant or a friend’s place, I wouldn’t tell her to lie down under the table but leave it up to her what she wanted to do. If she chose to lie down, she would get a Kong or a steady rain of treats. If she didn’t, she would miss out on that food reinforcer.


According to my theory, she should have chosen to lie down anytime as soon as I sat down myself/put her blanket on the floor. In reality, she didn’t. Well, she did in certain places: at home, and in the German classroom. She knew these places well and they were probably rather boring environments for her. But new places? Nope. One of the reasons for this is probably that Phoebe is not highly food-motivated. She likes a tasty treat, and she enjoys a good Kong, but for the most part, she finds toys, the company of other dogs, or just exploring the world more reinforcing than food – even if the treats are her favorites and even if she hasn’t eaten that day.


So I soon had a dog who would wander around, sniff stuff, bark at stuff, and jump on people rather than relax when I settled down somewhere. She would always keep a certain radius around me and check in regularly (and get reinforced for it), but then take off again to do her own thing.


I guess it’s a little like Super Mario and his coins: her world was filled with reinforcers, and she’d spend her time running around collecting all of them. The blanket was on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. The rest of the environment was on intermittend schedules. Intermittent schedules make behaviors strong and resistant to extinction.



The bigger she got, the fewer places I could just let her wander around. You’d think people don’t mind a curly white dog, but believe me, they do. I still was reluctant to “telling” Phoebe what to do. For this reason, while I had, of course, taught her sits and downs and stuff, I did not have a “stay” cue. “Staying somewhere” was something I didn’t want to “force” my dog to do! It’s not that I didn’t want her to stay somewhere. I very much wanted that. But I wanted her to stay only if she “chose” to do so. And I expected her to eventually always choose to down/stay & relax as a default behavior by her own “free will.”



This idea contains two fallacies:


  1. Dogs don’t generalize easily, and a dog who knows what “sit” means in the living room doesn’t necessarily mean what “sit” means in the yard. I was very aware of that fact, but for some reason, I still expected Phoebe to generalize an immediate assumption of a relaxed body position anywhere we went, from restaurants to subway stations to seminar environments to hotel rooms to friends’ houses to park benches to book stores.


  1. I assumed Phoebe had a “free will” that would eventually always lead her to make the “choice” I wanted her to make. However, after giving it some thought, I actually do agree with James O’Heare that there is no such thing as “free will,” at least not in the traditional sense of the word.


“There is no free-willed inner agent considering the stimulation and then deciding on behavior. Behavior is simply the body’s reaction to that stimulation. No other behavior is possible. With the organism as it is structured at that time, the behavior that was evoked or elicited was the only thing that could have happened.” (5647; footnote 4) (1)



However, back when Phoebe was a puppy, I believed that it would be easy for me to design her environment in such a way that she would always make the choice I wanted her to make. I believed that I could set her up for success exclusively by means of the greatest possible freedom and R+ing what I liked alone. What I failed to account for:


Real-life puppies don’t grow up in a laboratory! (An observation I owe to Nicole Maria Pfaller.) This is especially true for puppies (and other young animals) who have the amount of freedom that I let Phoebe grow up with. Freedom, in my philosophy, meant: the greatest possible absence of instructions.


In a laboratory, it’s easy to get pretty much any behavior by means of reinforcing what you like: in a laboratory, you simply strip the environment of competing reinforcers, and the “choice” you want the animal to make is in fact the only possible bodily reaction to the stimulation you present.


Now in real life – especially in real life with the greatest possible freedom – there is an abundance of comepting reinforcers for all kinds of potential behaviors. In fact, the more you increase the freedom, the more competing reinforcers and the more potential behaviors you get.


James O’Heare neatly points this out in the context of distance-increasing and distance-decreasing behaviors in dogs. He argues that real life situations hardly ever hold only one single A-B-C contingency.


“In the real world, there are multiple concurrent and often competing contingencies operating on individuals vying for control over behavior. They might include reinforcers available for different behaviors and even punishers competing with reinforcers.” (2015) (1)



When O’Heare says contingencies, what he means are Behavior-Consequence realtionships – what we often probrematically refer to as “choices”.


The mistake I made in the Phoebe experiment was to only focus on one contingency: the contingency between the behavior I wanted to see, and the consequence (R+) I provided for it. However, since I always maximized her freedom at the same time, in fact there always were lots of contingencies operating at the same time.


Let’s look at the green blanket example again:


I had originally shaped Phoebe to lie down on the green blanket (along the lines of Leslie McDevitt’s mat games) as soon as I put it on the floor in my apartment. Then I started taking the blanket to places and reinforced her with high-value treats if she lied down on it, and continued reinforcing her for staying on it.


In my living room, one strong contingency stood out: A (blanket on floor) – B (lie down on blanket) – C (treats).


In the German classroom, we had at least two contingencies: A1 (blanket on floor) – B1 (lie down on blanket) – C1 (treats).

A2 (students walk in) – B2 (greet students) – C2 (attention from students).


I allowed Phoebe to freely fluctuate between these two, so that’s what she did: When a new person walked in, she would get up and greet them, since their attention was a stronger reinforcer than my treats for staying on the blanket. Once she had greeted that person, she would return to the blanket to collect treats again. By means of instructing the students to not pet her in order to lower the possibility for jumping up on them, the blanket regained strength as a reinforcer.


The reason there were no more than two contingencies is that the German classroom I taught in was a rather bland environment – apart from tables, chairs and whiteboards, there was little in it.


However, in my parents’ kitchen, the situation was different. Here, we had more competing contingencies:


A1 (blanket) – B1 (lie down) – C1 (treats)

A2 (countertop with food boiling on it) – B2 (put front paws on countertop) – C2 (see/smell more than from the floor + attention from my mother!)

A3 (wastepaper basket) – B3 (empty wastepaper basket) – C3 (play with paper balls)

A4 (open dishwater door) – B4 (stick nose in dishwasher) – C4 (get to lick dishes + attention from my father!)


My parents’ kitchen is a comparatively small room with no more than 3 familiar people – and I’ve already identified three contingencies competing with the blanket contingency I had in mind. Just think how many contingencies there would be at public places like restaurants, parks etc.!


Which one would be the strongest contingency in my parents’ kitchen? It depends on the dog and what she finds most reinforcing. For Phoebe, who has (1) a reinforcement history for investigating everything she wants, and for whom toys (such as paper balls) are a stronger reinforcer than food, the most likely behavior is to empty out the wastepaper basket. She’d engage in this until she got bored, and only then would she settle down on her blanket (or next to it, since sometimes she preferred lying on the floor, and perhaps she wasn’t that hungry anyways). And when the dishwasher opened after lunch, she’d get up to investigate that.


I observed her behavioral “choices,” but I held on to my belief that she would eventually get to a point in her development where she would always immediately make the “choice” I wanted her to make. Her exploratory behavor didn’t worry me at all. She was a puppy, and I wanted her to explore. I assumed she would eventually outgrow her curiosity and choose the blanket contingency without engaging in other behaviors. I assumed because she was allowed to do anything, she’d eventually become very laid-back because she already knew everything and didn’t need to get excited about it anymore.


Of course, she didn’t outgrow her curiosity (also, now that I think of it, it would be horrible if she had outgrown her curiosity! Curiosity is fantastic!). In any new environment I took her, there were and continue to be lots of new coningencies competing with the blanket and competing for her attention. She’s still a young dog, but I think (and hope) she’ll stay creative and curious for many more years to come.


Clear communication


Phoebe is a dog who enjoys working with me. She likes to do stuff, she is active, and she likes to interact with people. I believe that clear communication is reinforcing in itself, and I might have actually cashed in on this very fact big time by means of teaching and using more “manners” cues with a dog like her. However, I very much disliked “manners” cues, so I didn’t teach them, she didn’t learn them, and consequently, she didn’t show them. The same holds true for most other things in her life: I didn’t make it clear to her that, for example, staying at a certain spot, patiently waiting for something, was worth the effort and would get her a desired consequence.


When Phoebe didn’t “choose” to lie down anywhere “of her own free will,” I still didn’t abandon the belief that she eventually would. And I was still so reluctant to cuing what I wanted to be a “chosen” behavior that I decided to manage rather than teach things like “stay”: I either wouldn’t take her to certain places, or I would take her and constantly interact with her so she didn’t get the idea to “misbehave” (by the standards of humans other than me) instead.

No opportunity to fail


I didn’t ever want her to make mistakes, because I didn’t want to tell her “no”. So I defined “mistakes” accordingly: I never considered anything she did a “problem”. By definiton, in my eyes, everything she did was always right. And I avoided conflicts. For example, when she got excited as a puppy and wanted to play – we would play. I did not want communication to be a one-way street. I didn’t want to be the only one who could start a game. I took this idea so far that any time she asked me to play, we would play. Since I didn’t want her to jump up on me, I usually observed her very well. If she woke up and got that “let’s do something fun” look on her face, I’d initiate the game myself, or take her out for a game of fetch before she had to ask. I assumed that this way, I had nicely sidestepped the problem: I didn’t want to always answer to her “I want to play!” demands, because I was afraid that eventually, I would have to frustrate her because I didn’t have time! So she didn’t even have to ask; I started the game before she got to nag me about it.


This made me an astute observer of Phoebe’s body language, but it didn’t teach her to cope with frustration (not getting what she wanted right away) at all.


Contrasts in my appraches to clients’ dogs


I’ve never suggested my clients follow my “no rules” philosophy. I would never have asked to other people to raise their dogs in a “laissez faire” manner; in fact, I’d probably have been alarmed if they had told me that was what they were doing. As for clients, I’d teach them to use R+, and to be consistent and clear. I’d let them work on impulse control stuff. I’d encourage them to let their dogs try and fail sometimes – for example, if they pulled, they didn’t get to move forward. So they learned by trial and error that pulling doesn’t work.


I even told them that if their dog didn’t figure out how to behave in a difficult situation and was about to get frustrated, it was their job to help the dog – i.e. to let her know what to do, e.g. promt or cue a behavior. In order to be able to cue a behavior, I told them, they’d have to teach it first. And I let them practice their sit/stays and down/stays and all the other basic manners in all kinds of situations for exactly that reason. I explained to them that this takes quite some responsibility off of the dog – responsibility that dogs are not prepared to bear, such as guessing the socially acceptable behavior in a room full of strangers.



I had a bit of a Doublethink there: On the one hand, I wholeheartedly believed that the explanation I gave to my clients was valid and important, and that for this reason, many dogs find cues empowering: with their actions, they can make you click, and your cue, the Antecedent, made perfectly clear what they had to do in order to earn that click. That’s even the position I will fiercly argue in a discussion with Anne Lill Kvam and her followers.


On the other hand, I was convinced my laissez faire approach would work: I thought it was an advanced approach, “advanced” in the sense that Ken Ramirez means when he refers to punishment as an “advanced method”: you have to know what you are doing and be a bit of a geek when you want to apply it well. I had thought my approach through. What I didn’t factor in, however, were all the competing reinforcers that you automatically get in the real world when you maximize freedom.


The results of my experiment


Now that Phoebe is 1.5 years old and I’m analyzing my experiment, I have to admit that it didn’t work the way I expected. Phoebe doesn’t think the way I expected her to think. No matter how long I keep not telling her what to do, she won’t necessarily choose to do what I want, either – she’ll just be a happy dog who does whatever is most reinforcing to her at that moment.


I wonder if this approach would have worked for a dog breed with a slightly “lazier” reputation. Maybe I’ll try it out sometime. It certainly didn’t work the way I expected it to work for this particular Standard Poodle.


In any case, there are five main results from my freedom approach. Other dogs might have reacted differently, but for Phoebe, I assume that these facts are at least partly due to the way I raised her:


  1. We have very good relationship.


  1. She is a very creative dog. She’ll try anything – she’s not afraid that I’ll ever tell her “no”. This makes her a clown, and a fast learner.


  1. Her impulse control and tolerance for frustration are pretty non-existent. This means she can’t cope very well if, for example, she doesn’t get a clicker trick right right away, or if I ask her to be patient (something I only recently started asking of her).


  1. At 1.5 years, she doesn’t know many basic cues my Dachshund learned in his first month with me – simply because I chose not to teach them to her. As for her, I’m only starting to teach these behaviors now, since I realize they might come in handy after all.


  1. She does not have calm default behaviors, but “explosive” default behaviors. (Which is interesting, since calm default behaviors are precisely what I expected to get out of my approach.)


I still want my dogs to have the greatest possible freedom. However, for the next puppy I raise, I will go about it differently. I will take an approach that doesn’t have the greatest possible freedom as its starting point, but as its end point. Actually, I’ll pretty much do what I already tell other people to do when they ask me a puppy question.


Parallels to reactivity


I’m interested in reacitivity, and I like approaching the issue with the help of Leslie McDevitt’s LAT game. During Anne Lill Kvam’s dog trainer course, I did a project where I taught a number of reactive dogs (and their people) the LAT game and then observed if and how their behavior changed. It was a successful project; all dogs showed more confidency in the vicinity of their triggers and were able to shift their focus away from the triggers and to their pet parents.


I taught it in several steps:


  1. Introduction to the LAT game (below threshold).
  2. We gently work closer and closer to the trigger – since it gets counterconditiond in the course of LAT, we can play closer and closer and still stay under threshold. Eventually, we’ll walk off or have the trigger disappear – so here’s your functional reward, too. (And yes, I am aware that this belongs to one of the quadrants some people are appalled by.)
  3. We put LAT on cue.
  4. As the dog has gotten empowered by the OC component of LAT and counterconditioned by its CC component, eventually, the trigger ceases to be a trigger. Now the dog does not need to keep “Looking At” it, but is ready to do something else and keep her focus on her mum or dad. Mum or dad can now cue alternative behaviors, thereby keeping the dog in her “thinking state of mind”.
  5. Once the dog is able to focus on his human even in difficult environments without worrying about turing her back on a former trigger, we slowly start to decrease the structure and increase the freedom. The goal is to eventually not need a big amount of human guidance anymore and still be able to pass former triggers in a relaxed manner.


Phoebe is not a “reactive” dog in the sense this word is commonly used, but she certainly is highly excitable by many situations. I am pretty sure this is not due to a lack of socialization during puppyhood; I did my homework there. This is mere specualtion, but I’d venture that in some situations, Phoebe is overwhelmed by all the contingencies competing for her behavior: greet the person walking towards us (C: social attention). Greet the dog over there (C: social attention). Sniff that tree to her left (C: sniffing is intrinsically reinforcing [?]; information). Ask mum to finally get that tennis ball out of her pocket (C: play). When one of her human friends joins us for a walk, her excitement rises even more: jump up (C: attention!). Take her glove (C: play) etc. For a long time, I always immediately got her her tennis ball or another toy before someone else joined us. This was usually most reinforcing, so she would not bother the other person – but again, it didn’t teach her to calmly greet them in the absence of toys, either. In fact, it may even have built the excitement of the toy into the social situation of meeting friends.


I now believe that structured interaction is helpful for “ordinary” dogs as well, not just for reactive ones. I’ve tried it out ever since I started teaching heel and stay behaviors: giving her a clear job such as a down stay keeps her calmer and more focused than the overwhelming opportunity to do whatever she wants. My tentative theory: rather than not knowing what to focus on, she can shift her attention to one thing (me) or one behavior.


A sociologist friend of mine sent me an article on decision fatigue a while ago. The idea is that having to make lots of choices (even though the choices might be tiny ones) is quite exhausting. If we spend an entire day making decsions, in the end of our day, our capability to make the decision that is most useful for us diminishes. In the end of the day, we tend to go for immediate reinforcements rather than plan ahead – we have considerably less impulse control, and it is easier for a sleeky salesperson to talk us into buying things we don’t need.


I wonder if having too many competing contingencies can be hard for dogs, too: what if constantly being able to do anything and cash in on any of the countless available reinforcers makes a dog prone to choose the most immediate reinforcer, too? What if it lowers their impuls control just like ours? (I have no idea if this is actually the case, but I’d love it if someone did a study on it.)


In any case, while I used to think: the more choices, the more empowerment, I now wonder if this is true in all cases. Maybe it depends on the situation whether more or less choices are most empowering. When I say more choices, I mean less human guidance in the sense of cues, and when I say less choices, I mean more human guidence in the sense of cues.


Change, and be ready to change again!


Maybe one reason my freedom puppy experiment did not work the way I wanted is that puppies have to learn to deal with an abundance of “choices” (an abundance of competing contingencies), just as reactive dogs need to learn to deal with their triggers. Maybe immediately exposing a puppy to a mount of competing contingencies without any guidance will put her over threshold, just like a trigger might do for a reactive dog.


So if I were to raise a puppy right now (and my approach might change again, of course), I would start out with more guidance, and slowly lower the degree of guidance, rather than just starting out with no guidance at all.


I’m glad that I was so convinced of my freedom philosophy that I stuck with it and really tested it out though. However, my next puppy will grow up with a little more guidance, and she will also be allowed to do more learning by means of trial and error.

The Phoebe experiment has particularly sensitized me to the topic of frustration tolerance. I suspect that for a big part, Phoebe’s low frustration tolerance (If she wants something, she wants it NOW, or she’ll explode, i.e. jump and clap her teeth and run around and throw behaviors at me) is due to the fact that I tried to keep her puppyhood frustration-free. She could freely access her reinforcers (other than c/t) anytime – and she’d usually get what she wanted. Writing this down and writing that I had to admit it didn’t work that way still makes me sad: I wish, I really wish the perfect dogs (and people) were the ones who grew up without structure, without guidance, in complete “freedom”. I used to think that if I’d ever raise a child, I’d like to raise her that very same way. And like Phoebe, I’d expect it (the fact that I call my hypothetical child “it” rather than “her” or “him” tells me it’s a good thing I don’t have one!) to always make the perfect choices. I’d define perfect choices by means of her actions, and she wouldn’t be able to ever fail, either. And as with Phoebe, I’d hold on to the idea that I was successful in raising “the perfect person” for as long as I could. (But what if my “perfect person” turned out to become relentless and selfish rather than gentle and self-reflective? My therapist says we have to have suffered in order to become reflective people. Not necessarily in big ways, no. But we need to have experienced some kind of deprivation.) I have to admit that Phoebe, after all, is not a calm, relaxed dog (my “perfect dog”). She is a four-legged stick of dynamite, and she has A LOT to learn now that I didn’t teach her as a puppy.


The saving grace, philosophy-of-life-wise


I still like the idea of the greatest possible freedom. I’m a romanticist this way. I like stuff like Libertatia, and if I could do anything I wanted, at 29 years, I’d still rather be a pirate than anything else. My approach to teaching mirrors my philosophy of life, and I assume that to be true for anyone who works with animals (human and non-human). No matter whether I teach students or my own dogs: I want to give them the greatest possible freedom.


Another reason this didn’t work this way for Phoebe is that she is a dog in a world designed by and for humans. It’s not realistic to expect her to make the “choices” that I wish for without helping her to do so. There is only so much sense that a human world can possibly make to a dog.


When it comes to teaching advanced German or English liteature to adult learners, my approach has been similar, and more successful: I treat my students the same way I treat my dogs. They don’t “have to” pay attention or do homeworks or be on time. In fact, they don’t “have to” do anything. Each group gets to make their own rules (they get to choose if they want to have a test, and what kind of test they want. They get to choose if they want grades, written feedback, both, or none). They get to choose what we focus on and what we talk about. I’m always ready to offer suggestions, but I make sure they know it is their course, not mine, and I want to give them the exact course they would like to participate in. For some groups, this means teaching in bars rather than classrooms. For others, it means playing games rather than focusing on grammar. For others yet, it means focusing mainly on grammar. And then there are the ones who want to discuss gay rights, euthanasia, the death penalty or the ethics of keeping animals in zoos. There are the ones who want to make their own Kaiserschmarren, and I’ll have them buy eggs and meal and invite them over to my place, and we’ll cook. And I love all of them.


The longer teach German and English literature, the more freedom have I given my adult learners. And I have observed something interesting: the more freedom I give them, the more homeworks I tend to get, the more motivation and self-initiative there is. I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback, and there was only one student who ever told me that he felt overwhelmed by the chance to choose his own projects all the time – that this was the first time any teacher had ever asked him to make so many “choices”, and he would have preferred more structure. (This was at a metafiction proseminar I taught at the English department a few years ago.)


So in this respect, I was successful with my “freedom” approach. But with all these groups, of course, my students already had “chosen” the B (study) – C (knowledge) contingency over other contingencies: the groups of people I was working with consisted of people who found studying English metafictions or German grammar more reinforcing than going to the cinema or walking their dogs instead. AND they were humans in a world designed for and by their fellow humans.


If you look at a pirate utopia like Libertatia, there is a similar contingency: Libertatia only consists of pirates who find living in Libertatia more reinforcing than any other contingency. AND: they had Articles. That is to say, while they resented capitalism and slavery and upheld liberty instead, they lived by their Articles – their own ethical code, or, if you want, their own “rules”. So there was some guidance.


And I guess if Captain Mission can have Articles, Phoebe can have sit/stays. If I look at it this way, I can make my peace with it. And I can be okay with raising my next puppy a little differently – a little more like what I tell my clients. With a focus on impulse control and building the skills to wait for a reinforcer – and, yes, with the occasional P- such as a time-out, if necessary.


(1) O’Heare, James: Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: a Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professional. 2nd edition. Ottowa: BehaveTech Publishing 2014.

Also, if you like pirates, you should definitely check out:
Johnson, Captain Charles: A General History of the Pyrates. 1724, and now online here.

Burroughs, William S.: Cities of the Red Night. London: Penguin 2001.

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