Waiting for me on the same dictionary page as the word “grief,” was a welcome definition of joy: greyhound. With eloquent simplicity, the entry explains, “Greyhounds can run very fast.” Indeed. They are certainly the fastest land animal that doesn’t live in an artificial natural habitat, surrounded by a mote to keep them from chomping on the gazelle next door, or your succulent arse.
In my experience, however, it is in greyhounds’ skill at training humans where their true genius lies. Their retiring demeanor, even diffidence, exudes a promise of relationship, should you prove Worthy, which every girl who has ever played hard to get can confirm is very powerful. Thus did they hold me enthrall, and bend my will to theirs.
Katy came into our home in the winter, snuggling into a life as indoors as possible. Her personality was passive enough that she allowed Bumper to eat her food without any protest we could discern, so we segregated their feeding locations. Katy was assigned the threshhold of the hallway, where carpeting reassuringly kept her feet from slipping as she ate. All was well, as winter turned to spring, notwithstanding firmly discouraging Bumper’s stealthy attempts to retrieve food that, by rights his, had mistakenly ended up in That Other Dog’s Bowl.
And then, one day, Katy abruptly refused to eat. Talk about leading a horse to water. Mealtime after mealtime, she stood at the threshold, staring mutely at the tempting morsels in front of her, then at us. We petted, cuddled, ignored, did everything except eat the food ourselves, and I have no independent confirmation that Craig didn’t try. Katy rejected her bowl, and its contents, in favor of hunger and as much affection as she cared to endure. We even threw Katy’s food away in front of her, a strategy guaranteed by the wonderful Dr. Patricia McConnell, to scare any dog straight. A less food motivated animal there never was. Katy went to bed with everything she wanted: an empty tummy and unlimited affection.
Morning came, and we began again. With the windows open to let in a spring breeze, the Chef prepared a delightful repast of yogurt and kibble, greedily gobbled by a Certain Yellow Dog. Katy sniffed hers, and looked away, standing so tensely still that she quivered. Argh. As I stood in the doorway, I caught a slight flicker in Katy’s gaze, from my face, to a spot over my shoulder. Following her glance, I saw it. The ceiling fan. In the wintertime, it had been Dead. Now in the spring, it was Alive and Scary, looming over her food like a predatory bird with countless wings of death.
Immediately, I switched it off. The blades slowed to a stop. Katy continued looking up, making sure the Threat was Gone. At last, she lowered her head to her bowl. Gently, so very delicately, came the first nibble. Nothing Bad Happened. More food, more enthusiastically. Soon, it was all gone, and finally time for the real reward: snuggles in the hallway.
Katy was clear. That Thing was a Threat. And until it was vanquished, there would be no reward for either of us. She demonstrated beautifully the hardest behavioral reinforcement approach to master, negative reinforcement. Usually confused with punishment, which is the delivery of a painful consequence for a behavior, negative reinforcement is a sort of reverse psychology, where removing a negative stressor becomes the reward. Like undoing the top button of your pants, after Thanksgiving dinner. Ahhhh…..
Accomplishing this complex feat of behavioral shaping with what amounted to batting her eyelashes, Katy revealed how keenly she was observing me, waiting patiently for me to listen to her obvious communication. People are So Thick. From her, I learned that my dogs, watching constantly for signs that Good Things were about to happen for Dogs, missed nothing they wanted to see. A new world of minimalist communication opened up to me. Standing in front of Bumper, as he lay on the couch, I would silently catch his eye. Raising my eyebrow, and tilting my head bestirred him to stretch luxuriantly, and disembark his throne. Time for walkies. It was enough, and all that we needed to say to each other. I’ll open the door. You do the rest.