I like to read. I like to write. And I like to drink coffee. One day last week, I decided it would be nice to combine these interests. I grabbed a notebook, it’s pen–I hate when a notebook looks like a patchwork of ink so I use one pen per notebook–a couple books, and I drove to a nearby coffee shop. I ordered a tall, non-fat with whip vanilla latte, and I found a small table next to a window.
I started to write…or at least tried to.
Every time the espresso machine whistled, every time a new person walked through the door, every time the guy next to me shuffled his feet, I was distracted. Refusing to fail, I forced myself to stare at my notebook, but the page remained blank. Aggravated, I left.
I went back inside. I felt a few “weren’t you just here?” looks as I reclaimed my window seat. This time, instead of trying to do something, I absorbed my surroundings. I will often encourage a dog who is distracted to look around as long as necessary, assuming they can do so calmly.
I watched people enter and exit through the glass door, and I watched the barista steam milk. Pretty soon I was bored; my mind wandered. I realized the entire time I had been doing something – sipping coffee. This wasn’t surprising. Dogs can mindlessly eat treats while still being interested in something else, unless they are afraid or overwhelmed. Fearful dogs usually don’t take food, or, if they do, it’s in a pretty hectic fashion.
When a dog starts to get bored, I will ask for work. So, I asked myself to start reading. I chose reading, because it requires less effort than writing. It is important to do this for our dogs, as well; don’t pressure your dog for too much when the environment is already a source of stress.
I decided to reward each paragraph read with a sip of coffee. This didn’t work. I found myself thinking about the coffee rather than losing myself in the story. I enjoy reading, but I didn’t like doing it to earn something else.
Sometimes I see people reward dogs for something they want their animal to intrinsically value. Let’s take tugging for example. (Performance people often want to develop tugging as a reinforcer.) Food is sometimes used to reinforce tugging behavior in dogs who have minimal interest in the activity. These dogs are probably doing it for the food, rather than simply enjoying the game.
I decided to remove the coffee from the situation entirely. I put down the book and gulped the last few ounces. With cash and credit card still in the car, I didn’t have access to more. I started to read.
For the first few minutes, people entering the shop were still too interesting. This time, I allowed myself to briefly look. I’m not sure at what point my brain decided that reading was more interesting than looking up at the door, but it did. The book had my attention. I didn’t even hear what was going on around me.
I finished a chapter, and closed the book. I left the coffee shop feeling accomplished and with a new appreciation for the dog’s perspective.
Next time I will try writing. I’ll let you know how it goes.