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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Observe: the dog. It is T-minus fifteen and counting. (Dinnertime.) She moves closer to the launching pad, i.e., refrigerator. She plasters herself in a down to the kitchen rug, and if she were any more flat she would be made out of cotton rag. She has put her chin down, too. And stares, quietly intent (the only time this particular dog ever is quiet; did I mention she's a screamer?).

I think she believes--and what, really, is a dog's "belief system"? interesting question, though I think it's essentially the same as ours, without the incense and robes--that putting her head on the ground and piercing me with her eyes actually makes the food come into existence.

This is the legacy of, get this, one five-minute training episode that occurred two years ago. It was at ClickerExpo in Cleveland, and we were sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt, which with its carefully anonymous furnishings (analogous to the politician's speech in election year) you couldn't tell from any other of a thousand Hyatts, or Radissons, or the rapidly proliferating spawn of a half-dozen other chains.

Ou sont les Quality Courts d'antan?

The only thing to differentiate this hotel was the fact that nearly everybody walking through it was attached by leash to a dog. This is a splendid thing, by the way. A couple hundred hounds taking elevators, waiting for room service, peeing on the bushes outside--ah, life as it should be. To have a dog here marked you as an insider, and it made me cozy in exactly the same way as riding a motorcycle into the arms of a rally did: you could instantly see who was inside the cordon and who was not. (Helmet, yes; no helmet, no.) We are a species--very much like the dog--to whom belonging is so needed it marks us in every way, inside and out: a primitive song sung by our cells, and evident in the way we are absolutely driven to pair, and to form our packs.

This night in Cleveland, I was blissful in the sense of belonging. I was one of this little multitude who believed that you did not need to coerce or intimidate your dog, bruise his trachea while pretending it wasn't happening, shock or yell or deride or "show who's boss." (Who is boss?) We were suffused with the sense that it really was possible to change the world, with only a clicker and a bag full of dog treats.

It is an ethical decision, and a practical one. The obviously happy dogs all around us were proof of both. (And, see, if it can yield happy, smart dogs, why not happy, smart children? And happy, smart citizens? Oh, B.F. Skinner, you gave us the means, but our imaginations have failed us.) Many of these dogs were "difficult"--abused, unsocialized, shy, fear biters. Their people had been driven, through love, to find a way to work with them that worked, because otherwise they would be dead. The way was positive reinforcement.

So that night we sat in faux petit-point-embroidered wing chairs in the Hyatt lobby. Nelly looked perky--her specialty--and said, Well, what the heck are we doing here, anyway? And Jolanta, gripped with training fever (for it can be a sort of intoxicant, reinforcing the trainer as it reinforces the learner), started free-shaping with Nelly.

I really wasn't one of them, the brilliant trainers here: my timing was terrible, for one thing. Jolanta's is great, and as they say, timing is everything. The clicks were coming rapid-fire, and Nelly's attempts to get them even faster were rapid-fire, too. (She's a quick dog.) When Jolanta started to see a little pattern--Nelly was trying to figure out if the act of dipping her chin to the floor is what was making those beef tidbits fall from the sky--she withheld clicks for any other movements but those toward this. And in a minute, Nelly was putting her head down on the marble, reliably, again and again. Eureka. This is what they want, she thought. And she was right.

Now, every night, as I am a typical slow human, and taking so, so long to get the dinner bowl ready, Nelly figures she needs to do something to get that food already. Well, it worked before. Down goes her head. I am still not as quick as Jolanta. But eventually dinner materializes. And Nelly, in her infinite wisdom, knows she had something to do with it.