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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca degli Espinosa

Why when I got a dog I thought I should give back my PhD in behaviour analysis.

How a puppy is challenging everything I thought I knew about behaviour change

As a child I wanted to be a vet. I had a passion for dogs and had taught myself to recognise most breeds from a dog encyclopaedia my father gave me as a Christmas present. On Saturdays after school I would volunteer at the local pet shop, one of those that had puppies in the shop window (this was the 80s in Italy). My parents had always had a dog. Gigi, a black poodle, died when I was six and I begged my parents to get another dog. For a few years they didn’t. Both my parents were in showbusiness and one day, when I was nine, my mum took me to a set of a film called “Momo” where they had poodles whose fur had been dyed pink for the production. I would ask to go every day to play with the pink poodles. At the end of filming, the producer sent us a little 8-week cotton furry ball, a toy poodle, who my mother called Ali and my father called Prince, because that was exactly how he was treated.

Adolescence arrived and I became more interested in spending time with human peers rather than four-legged ones. I sold Ali to my sister for 11,000 Italian lira (about $8 USD) one afternoon I realised I had no pocket money to go out to the cinema with my friends. My sister was 8 and had been saving her pocket money for years, she was, by my 13-year old standards, rich. I tried to buy him back from her the following week, but she had cunningly made me sign a contract and my father insisted that Ali was now hers. That was the last time I had a dog of my own, until Darwin arrived, 32 years after I gave up Ali’s ownership to my sister.

Darwin was a lockdown puppy. The descent of the pandemic on the world offered the opportunity to completely alter life as I knew it. Suddenly, I was forced to stay in one place for longer than 3 weeks, something I had not done in 20 years. Life assumed a slower pace. For someone used to be constantly on the move, this was initially very challenging, but it eventually led to the discovery of new reinforcers right at my doorstep. I realised I could find joy and fulfilment in a simpler and more settled life, and that it needn’t end once the pandemic passed. Giving up monthly globe-trotting also meant I could finally welcome a dog into my home. Originally, I did not want a puppy. I certainly did not want a male puppy, Prince Ali was a professional leg humper and marker. I wanted a fully finished well-behaved female Labrador. In the end, I fell in love with an 8-week old working Labrador male puppy. We called him Darwin because Burrhus didn’t sound as cute.

Armed with a PhD in behaviour analysis and 25 years of shaping from simple to complex verbal behaviour in humans as well as treating challenging behaviour I presumptuously believed I had all the skills, the time and theoretical knowledge to produce the best trained and well-behaved dog ever. Very soon I realised that all I had of the three was time, turning principles into application with a nonverbal species turned out to be much harder than I imagined. As I looked into Darwin’s sweet brown puppy eyes, I felt like I did in my very first ABA tutoring session in 1996, lost. I had no idea what the priorities should be, how to break down objectives and how to practically implement them. It looked so easy when I watched endless dog training videos, yet Darwin would often walk away from teaching sessions sniffing the ground, while I fumbled in my treat bag, only to drop all the food on the floor.

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