Growing up in Austria, I learned to drive on the right side of the road, and that’s where I’ve been driving for 14 years. In Thailand, people drive on the left side. Everything in the car is reversed: driver’s seat on the right, passenger seat on the left. Gearshift on the left, windshield wipers on the left, blinkers on the right. Since I’m used to driving a lot, and I’ve driven in Mexico’s crazy traffic, I didn’t think Thailand would be a big deal – I’d just rent a car and drive on the left; everything else would be just as I was used to-ish.
On my first two days of driving, I ran over the same maliciously high, razor-edged concrete curb twice. Both times, I flattened my car’s left front tire and bent the rim. Both times, there was a painfully loud noise – Skkkkreeeekkkkkkkkkkk-kkk! – pretty punishing for me to hear! Today, on my fifth day of driving, I’ll still occasionally turn on the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers. It took me three days to stop accidentally opening the passenger door when I wanted to get into the driver’s seat. This is hard, guys!
I remember learning to drive in my Dad’s Suzuki. I believe I learned fast and did well. Now this could be because I was misremembering, or because I was younger and my brain was making new neural connections much faster than now, 14 years later. Or it could be that learning something new for the first time is significantly easier than changing the meaning of a well-established cue. I bet it’s the latter.
The original driving-related cue I learned 14 years ago and have practiced on an almost daily basis is:
CAR –> get in on the right side.
The functional reward for driving on the right side of the road, using the gearshift to my right, the blinkers to my left and the windshield wipers on my right has been the fact that I got from A to B.
So driving on the right side, operating the gearshift and windshield wipers with my right and the blinker with my left hand have been reinforced thousands of times. These behaviors have been well generalized, too: they have been generalized to different contexts (country, city, highway, sunshine, rain, snow, day, night …), different locations (Europe, North & Central America), and different cars (big and small, stick shift and automatic). They have been proofed against various distractions such as someone in the passenger seat talking to me, dogs in the car, being on speaker phone, eating, listening to the news, music, audiobooks, and podcasts while driving. Through practice and thousands of functional reinforcers, the behaviors of driving on the right, changing gears with the left, operating the blinker with the left and the windshield wipers with the right have been deeply ingrained in my brain. They are on autopilot; unless I consciously pay attention, this is what my body will default to when there’s a stirring wheel in front of me.
Doing everything in reverse requires significant effort and concentration. Not only do I have to execute a new behavior, I also need to fight the strong neural connection of the old behavior. Imagine my brain looks like this. Pink is the old neural high-speed connection. It’s been well maintained, and there’s a bright street lamp every few meters. The green scribbles are the jungle of uncharted brain territory. Yellow is the new neural pathway I’m trying to cut through the jungle with a butter knife. It’s bearly visible because this is one of the first times I’m walking there, and it’s dark in the jungle and I only have a flash light.
Let’s compare my driving experience to my process of learning the Thai alphabet (ตัวอักษรไทย). I have no prior learning experience with these letters. I’ve made flashcards and gone through them in various locations while I was waiting for an appointment or during other kinds of empty time. Now when I stop my car at a red light, I look around and recognize the letters. Not all of them, and not all the time – but I’m getting there. Anytime I recognize a ก or a ษ or something else, I get a little dopamine hit. It makes me happy, keeps me motivated. I’m surprised how easy it seems to remember the letters. Compared to the task of learning to drive on the left side of the street, I’d say I’m doing really well with the alphabet. So I assume I’m not simply too old to learn new things. The fact that I don’t have any prior learning experiences with the alphabet is serving me well. I’m writing my new language skills on a blank slate in my brain rather than in between the lines of older memories. Learning something new is easier than editing something that’s already stored in your brain, it seems.
Are you still reading? Good, because here comes the dog training angle you’ve been waiting for. It’s a lot easier to teach an entirely new cue than to change one the dog is already executing in an unwanted way.
Imagine you have taught your dog a rock-back sit. It was one of the first behaviors you’ve taught her when she was a puppy, and you’ve asked for it on an almost daily basis for the first two years of her life. Now that she’s two, you’ve discovered dog sports, and now you want a beautiful tuck sit, dogdammit! Can’t be so hard, can it? Well – it depends. Let’s assume you shaped your tuck behavior, you’re getting it consistently, and now you’re ready to put it on cue. You say “Sit,” the same thing you’ve been saying for years. For years, this cue has been followed by your dog rocking back into a sit, which you have paid for with a cookie. What’s your dog likely to do? If she knew the rock-back sit well, it’s likely that her body will just execute it as soon as you say “Sit”. The reinforcement history of the rock-back sit is much stronger than the reinforcement history of the new tuck sit. Now that your dog is thinking rock-back thoughts, she might stop offering tuck sits altogether and do her usual rock-back sits for the rest of the session, wagging her tail, looking at you expectantly, “Where’s my cookie?”
How do you avoid this? Choose an entirely new cue for the tuck sit! The movement involved in the tuck sit and in the rock-back sit are different. Different muscles are involved. It’s really two different behaviors, even though the end result is the same: a dog who sits. So rather than messing with your rock-back “Sit” cue, put your new tuck sit on an entirely new cue (how about “Tuck”?), and never give the cue for the rock-back sit again!
Let’s go back to driving in Thailand for a moment. I promise, we’ll get right back to another dog training lesson. Remember how I said I liked looking at the Thai letters when stopping at a traffic light and challenging myself to say the corresponding sound? Well, there’s even more to see. There are colorful pick-up trucks with people standing in the back. There are little street food restaurants on every corner where; the dishes are so spicey that the cooks are wearing face masks to protect their skin when bending over their outdoors stoves. Stands with fresh fruit, fried bananas, and Gai Bing for sale. There’s little shops with colorfully eclectic displays crowding the sidewalks: pots and pans and plastic buckets, cleaning utensils (all the dog training equipment I could build from these!), key chains, china, toys and scissors, pillow cases … There’s the people walking – I love watching people going about their lives in new places. And the dogs in the street, mostly lazily trotting or lying on the sidewalk, muzzle shoved under a bushy tail. It’s too hot to move or make mischief. There’s the strangely beautiful details I notice: a trash can that has fallen over, with paper, empty bottles, and instant rice containers spilling out into the street. The old woman sitting in the shade of her house, folding laundry. A little girl in a surprisingly white skirt running barefoot into a side street.
Long story short: there are distractions everywhere. Eve-ry-where! It’s hard to concentrate on driving when I’d rather turn my head to see if the brown dog is going to find something interesting among the trash. I’m trying to learn a new behavior in a new environment with lots of distractions present. Do you see where I’m getting at? No wonder I drove over the same malicious curb twice, slicing the same left front tire twice. I didn’t set myself up for success. It’s like asking a dog who has only trained indoors his entire life to learn a new behavior in the middle of a busy park he has never been to, complete with squirrel-filled trees, hot dog vendors, street musicians, and children playing soccer.
Is your dog any more likely to succeed in this environment than I am likely to successfully drive through Sam Phran? Nope, he isn’t. Getting mad at him really misses the point, too: your dog probably did the best he could, tried hard to pay attention to your wishes – but the distractions were too difficult, and the behavior you asked for was too hard.
How can you avoid the Sam Phran effect and set your dog up for success? First of all, train the new behavior in a known, distraction-free environment. Next, train outdoors – without any distractions present. Gradually increase the distractions: add a food distraction. Remove the food distraction, and add a toy distraction. Remove the toy distraction, and train somewhere you can hear and see children running in the far distance. Gradually decrease the distance. Go to a place without children playing, but with squirrel-filled trees at a distance. Gradually decrease the distance. Increase the distance again, but combine two of the distractions you have been working on separately. Once this goes well, add a thrid one, then a fourth one. Remove one or two of the distractions, but decrease the distance to the remaining ones, and so on. Learning to perform under distractions is hard work – for most dogs, it doesn’t just magically happen. Make a plan before you head out, and do a reality check in your head: is this easier than asking Chrissi to drive on the left side of the road in Sam Phran? If it is significantly easier, go for it. If it isn’t, change your plan, and set your dog up for success. Beware the Sam Phran effect!