Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Rex, Pavlov and Automobiles

It’s now nine weeks since my surgery and I have built up to walking four miles a day. I do this in two walks; one in the morning after breakfast and one in the afternoon after my nap. The first walk is down the lane to the end and back. The second walk is down the lane to the old railway bridge and back, finishing up with a loop of the laneway. The laneway has a fairly steep hill. At first I was just glad to get to the top. Recently I have begun to stride out on the hill and have found that I still arrive at the top without getting out of breath. I’m delighted, for this is something that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve, pre-op.

Both of these walks are done with Rex. Sometimes we are also joined by T. I’m still trying to stop Rex chasing cars. I read online that this is a distorted hunting behaviour and as such is instinctive. No wonder it is proving so difficult to stop. When he is in car chasing mode he seems to take no notice of anything else. One of the online suggestions was that distraction by a loud noise could interrupt his chasing behaviour. I found an old whistle I had bought in a junk shop. It was a referee’s whistle with a pea inside it, called the Acme Thunderer. It was loud and shrill.

I waited till Rex was about to start his chase of a car and then gave him a blast on the whistle. He stopped in his tracks and looked very confused. I called him over. He seemed disorientated. I called him again. He came and I gave him a treat. Delighted with this success, I tried the whistle again later in the walk when another car came. Rex stopped in his tracks again. When I got home I told T what had happened. We were both delighted to have found a solution to the car chasing problem.

The next day I set out confidently on the walk with the whistle on a cord around my neck. After a while a car came. I gave Rex a blast on the whistle. He completely ignored it and raced away after the car. Confused, I wondered if I had blown the whistle at the wrong moment. Later in the walk another car came by. I blew the whistle again as loud as I could. Rex again completely ignored it, bounding away after the car and biting at its wheels.

I pondered the problem. I think it demonstrates that Rex is a quick learner. The first day of the whistle he was startled by the sound and that interrupted his chasing. On the second day he had learnt the sound and the whistle wasn’t a problem for him anymore, so he continued with his instinctive behaviour. I pondered further, remembering the story about Pavlov and how he had conditioned dogs by ringing a bell when they were being fed. Afterwards they would salivate at the sound of the bell, without any food being present.

Actually, when I looked it up I found that Pavlov had in fact never done this experiment. It is an apocryphal story that appears to have originated from a bad translation of one of his research papers written in Russian. He was a vivisectionist who used dogs in his medical experiments, many of which were pretty gruesome. What he actually reported was that the dogs salivated at the sight of his assistants white coats, because these were the people that fed them. He never used bells with the dogs.

Anyway, I decided I would try and teach Rex to associate the whistle with food. Each time I gave him something to eat I blew the whistle. At first he seemed a bit confused by this, but then he just wolfed the food down as normal. What I’m hoping to do next week is to start blowing the same whistle when Rex is about to chase a car. Hopefully his desire for food might override his desire to chase. I’ll have a pocketful of treats ready. I think it’s worth a try.

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