Thursday, May 1, 2008

The man who talks to dogs

I don’t know whether David Hartwig started with a question or not - say, “Would this dog understand me if I asked him to do something in plain English?”, but that’s what happened. He discovered that the family dog, Skidboot, seemed to understand sentences just about as well as a small child, and loved demonstrating his comprehension.

Maybe the uncommon question would be “Why don’t we talk to animals just like we talk to people?”

We wouldn’t talk to them about things they didn’t care about, which would just be rude. For instance, you wouldn’t want to bore your cat by telling it all about human politics. (Yawn, stretch…) Animals mostly care about food, comfort, safety and fun. Skidboot loved to play David Hartwig’s games, to sneak up on a toy and then, on command, barely touch it with a paw, back up, sneak up, circle… any number of actions that David asked him for, and then, as a reward, he’d grab the toy and shake it for a few seconds. The whole deal for Skidboot was really about performance and teamwork.

“But a lot of dogs follow orders”, you say, “What’s different about this one?” Well, watch the video and then get back to me.

Skidboot is amazing, all right, but what may be more amazing is that David Hartwig was open-minded enough to talk to his dog like the dog was a person. The fact that we don’t do these things - don’t even think of them - is symptomatic of the kind of coral reefs of old and aquired beliefs we carry around in our brains, starting from our first learning experiences as babies. The forest is there but we don’t see it.

We need techniques for asking questions, the kind of questions that blast the mental coral reefs away so that all kinds of bright ideas swim in.