I absolutely adore our sweet, little shih-tzu, Zoey. She is the perfect little dog for our family. Unfortunately, her cute looks and wonderful personality came with a huge side of below-average intelligence. In her case, it’s actually an endearing quality, so we are more than willing to overlook it.
She is very well potty trained; and, all on her own, she decided that scratching on our sliding glass door was a great way to let us know if we didn’t realize that she needed to go out. That was perhaps her most clever thought, ever. That worked well for all of us for a long time. Unfortunately, we recently installed some laminate flooring. For those of you with pets and laminate, you know that you hear every little footstep they take. (I am hoping we will become habituated to that, but that is another topic/chapter.) The real problem is that the pitter-patter of her little claws sounds just like what her scratching on the window always sounded like. We realized that we would no longer know that she was scratching on the glass unless we saw her do it.
So, we humans decided that we would come up with a clever idea of our own – we’d train her to use a bell. We had heard of several others having success with this kind of thing. How hard could it be? To our human brains, it made perfect sense that we place the bell right by the metal door we walk through to take her out. It started well enough. Zoey is not bright, but she can mimic a genius when food is involved. We introduced the command, “Bell” and she would zealously ring it for a piece of Pup-Peroni. Great! Step 2 was getting her to ring the bell simply with the command. She’d do it, but less enthusiastically for sure. Every time she rang the bell, we praised her and took her outside. That’s where our successes ended. After months of trying, we knew we had hit a roadblock. Zoey would ring the bell on command, but never made the connection that it would take her to her potty yard. She certainly didn’t understand it well enough to ring the bell on her own.
Our textbook shed light on why this is probably true. I thought it was because it was too late to teach her something new like that, but, in reality, it is because she is not finding a belongingness or relevance relationship in our conditioning trials. A shih-tzu “in the wild” is not going to ring a bell to defecate. A bell and her natural behavior from her evolutionary history do not have a relatable correlation. On the other hand, her own idea to scratch on the glass makes perfect sense to her and now it makes more sense to me too. She simply wants to get to the yard full of green grass that she sees through the glass so she can do her business. The bell by the metal (opaque) door does not belong to the idea of getting to her bathroom.
Obviously, many dogs are able to make this connection with proper conditioning. The limited faculties of our pooch are keeping her from overriding what her biological coding is telling her is not a sensible/relatable behavior. Plan B is to now move the bell to the glass door and see if we can do a better job of bridging the gap between the irrelevant bell and door, and the natural instinct that belongs with the behavior of going potty by placing the bell where she sees her yard/toilet. Wish us luck.