Dogs and Plants and Behavior
In January, my grandparents removed the 50 year old fig tree from their yard. The tree carried a lot of sentimental value as I'd grown up enjoying its fruits and beauty, sharing it with friends, climbing it, and enjoying its shade. I decided to take some cuttings home from California because I couldn't handle the thought of that being the end of it. This meant taking small branches, giving them a home with lots of light, humidity, warmth, soil and water. It was winter. They were coming from California. Figs are not known to fare well in Colorado's climate, definitely not our cold. I also live in an older home with small windows and not nearly as much light as they'd need. I still wanted to give it my best shot.
After much research, I bought some root starter, dipped them all and put them into a mulch mix designed for starting tree cuttings. I purchased artificial light and big plastic sheets to hold in the moisture for them. I watered them and once I saw they were capable of sprouting leaves, I stopped watering them all together. Predictably, they died. I was so mad at my plants. I kept thinking, "They KNOW how to grow..."
No, actually, they lived in the back bathroom until April and are currently thriving by our back sliding glass door.
When I finally transplanted them, it was long overdue because the garden stores were closed (pandemic) so getting soil was a challenge. They were looking rough. I stuck with it and I'm happy to report that they are now beautiful, healthy plants. New growth has even surfaced through the soil. In Colorado. In a dark house with few sun-facing windows.
I was admiring them this morning and thinking of the parallels between plants and dogs.
I chose a plant I loved and put it into an environment it is ill-fitted for. I had to work really hard for my fig trees to thrive here. I had to constantly revise my behavior to get them through. If they'd been in their intended environment, it would have been much easier for them and for me.
Selecting dogs on environmental fit is important too. But if you just love field labs, and are fairly sedentary, you're going to have to work much harder for them to flourish. If you love working breeds, you'll need to provide them with high volumes of mentally stimulating activities and decent amounts of exercise - more than an average energy dog might require. If you opt for a cattle dog, know that they've been intentionally bred to herd by biting, and so if you've got kids in the house, you're going to have to work extra EXTRA hard to mitigate this, and likely not just in training, in management of the environment too.
My figs in Colorado are the cattle dogs of the plant world. This particular variety grows into a big tree, but here, it won't be able to survive outside, and my house just isn't big enough to accommodate a full sized tree. I'm likely going to have to bonsai it. Lots more work. I'm going to have to manage their environment closely.
Like my figs, some dogs will take a lot of extra work if the environment isn't really what they're meant for, but if you're willing to put in the time and effort, they can absolutely thrive. When their needs are met, they flourish.
But all dogs are like plants and their skills need maintenance care that happens for life. There is a misconception that once a dog is trained, that's it! They know it. Imagine me being like, "There, you've learned how to leaf, little figling. I'm no longer going to water you." and then getting pissed at it for dying as I was joking about above. This sounds funny, but it occurs with dogs when their behaviors die at an alarming level.
There are commonalities to all living organisms on this planet. We are all built to behave, we are all shaped by our reinforcement history (what works), and we all spend our behavioral energy where we can gain the most reinforcement. Behaviors that are tried and don't work go away. Behaviors that are tried and do work stick around. Learning is essentially gaining an understanding of what works and what doesn't.
Those plants of mine are subject to learn behaviors all the time. They've learned that if they turn their leaves toward the window, they optimize light intake, for instance.
I've been shaped by them. When I slack off they get wilty, I in turn perform the behavior of giving water to them, and in turn I am reinforced by their becoming lush again.
Susan J. Friedman, Ph.D. said behaviors are more accurately described as varying shades of strong. What she is describing is that no learned behavior is rigid in its form, it is forever influenced and flexible within its environment. High level, if coming when called has always yielded the best possibility of reinforcement for your dog, the behavior will be repeated time and again. If coming when called stops being reinforcing, or something out there in the world has consistently proved to be more reinforcing, they won't. Notice, it's all about what has happened in the past.
The history of reinforcement.
Here's the hard part, the Come to Jesus talk: We humans are really awful at accounting for our own failings in the responsibility department of our dog's behavior. As the keepers and doler outers of reinforcement, the blame for failed behavior is our burden to carry. Your dog might think, "If your reinforcement is shit, I quit!" So next time your dog fails to sit on cue, think to yourself, "This behavior is wilting. I need to provide it nourishment or it will die."
If you say things like, "He knows this! He's just being obstinate!" It sounds about as foolish as me getting mad at my plants for dying if I fail to care for them.
And if you've got your eye on a dog who is like a fig tree in a Colorado climate, know that it can work, but you as the tender of the garden are going to have to work extra hard to make it so.
Pictured: Behold my beloved new and old fig trees -- the latter loved so much I had my picture taken with it!