No matter how many studies we do or how much we analyze our animals, the reality is we don’t really know what they are thinking. Although studies and observation have helped us recognize body language that seems to represent emotions and communications, if we are honest with ourselves, we still don’t know what is going through our animal’s minds. Just like I don’t “know” what other people are thinking when we see them on the street. Of course, if we see someone sobbing, we will assume the person is sad or if we see another person laughing, we will assume that that person is happy, but do we really know what they are thinking if we don’t ask? We have all heard the expression, “when we assume, we make an ass of u and me” so why do we assume with animals?
Now I realize that I will never be able to ask my animals what they are thinking, instead I will give them the benefit of the doubt. This really becomes an important concept when we are teaching our animals. With traditional training, the trainer assumes that the animal needs to be controlled, dominated and that if the animal doesn’t respond as the trainers wants, he or she is being “dominant” or they are trying to be “alpha”. When we use traditional training, we focus on what we need to “correct” and often forget that we have never actually taught the animal the behavior we expect. With traditional training we rarely give “the benefit of the doubt” but assume the animals is resisting us on purpose. Have you ever been in a situation where you did not understand something or were confused, but the person that was teaching you made you feel like you were stupid or they accused you of being stubborn? If you are struggling to learn something new, do you learn faster if you are punished or does the learning just get more stressful?
With positive, force free training we take the approach that we need to teach the skill before we expect it to happen on cue. We understand that every animal will have things they excel at and they will have things that challenge them. If we are patient and give our animals the benefit of the doubt when they are struggling to learn a behavior, we will improve our bond and trust with that animal. With time and patience, they will learn the skill but we also must understand if they have limitations. When we encourage the learner, rather than punish for the mistake, the learning process is less stressful and is more fun for both the learner and the trainer.
We may not know exactly when our animals are thinking but I believe if we give them the benefit of the doubt and are patient, then I can hope that the learning experience is enjoyable.