Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Learning is Reward Enough

This is how I go when I go like this…

Intelligence is adaptability. Learning is shaped behavior. The ability to learn is the capacity to accept change of set, which is a function of adaptability.

The most remarkable skills coach I have ever had was Major Charles Valko, a former Hungarian Olympic Coach in Dressage. Every time I try to teach anything to anyone, I am grateful for his guidance. He approached training with a deep upwelling of joy that was infectious. I truly think that anyone who rode for him would have followed him through the gates of Hell with courage and confidence.

Pal, my Service Dog, had a really happy weekend. He got to practice his herding skills three times, and he did very well each time. One new complicated skill was added to his repertoire: penning the sheep after working them, and he did it perfectly the first time. It is wonderful to watch him use his gliding, wolf-like trot to move the sheep around the big pen.

His trainer, my dear friend Terri Wilson at Dixie’s Animal Training in Tulsa OK, is the best dog trainer I have ever seen. Terri does not use punishment or intimidation with her dogs, which is why she does such a great job of training sheep herding to dogs whose prey drive is not as obsessional as Border Collies’. Also, every sheep that gets herded for a living probably wishes that it lived with her – she spoils them rotten! (You can see more of her herding skills and the various dogs she has trained over the years at her website. The picture used in this blog is of her dog, Marco, who was a whiz at anything he did.)

While watching my dog work the sheep I taught my friend Claudia to weave on a small bookmark loom. The method I chose was basically “this is how I go when I go like this.” I would first show her what was needed on the loom, then I would take apart what I had just done and she would repeat the step. Her reward for the learning was the positive experience of success.

Pal’s reward for good behavior in the herding ring is to continue working the sheep.

Both of these efforts share a component of associative learning. The rewards are different, and, of course, the tasks are different, but both share a drive to learn and a positive reward. Major Valko was right – make learning a joyful task and the learner will always be eager to learn more.

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