Home' Teacher : July 2010 Contents 74 TEACHER JUNE/JULY 2010
The beggars, Poyarkov says, are excel-
lent psychologists and know how to recog-
nise a soft-touch passerby. 'The dog will
come to a little old lady,' he told Sternthal,
'start smiling and wagging his tail, and sure
enough, he'll get food.'
Wild dogs have even learned to cross
Moscow's now busy streets with pedestri-
ans. Being colour blind, they wait for the
walking-man signal at traffic lights. They've
also learned how to ambush people eating
fastfood -- they really like shawarma -- by
sneaking up behind and barking at them.
According to Andrei Neuronov, an
author and specialist in animal behaviour
and psychology, though, there's another,
if tiny, specialist sub-group of 500 super-
learners, called metro dogs, that now live in
the Moskovskiy metropoliten stations and
have learned to negotiate their way under-
An even smaller sub-sub-group of about
20 fast learners now actually commutes
using the metro. How on earth, or more to
the point under it, have these 20 elite wild
dogs learned how to ride the metro?
'They figure out where they are by smell,
by recognising the name of the station from
the recorded announcer's voice and by time
intervals,' Neuronov told Sternthal, but also
ride only a few stops.
Typically, they take a seat, but sit on the
floor if the carriage is crowded, which is
why they usually go for the less crowded
first or last carriage.
They also know how to avoid the station
officials at the metro's electronic turnstiles.
Who taught these dogs? Well, they did,
and whether they have a ticket or not,
Muscovites kinda like them, and post pho -
tos at w ww.metrodog.ru T
This month's Last Word was writte n by
Steve Holden, Editor of Te acher , and
last year's highly commended winner
in the Best Columnist category of the
Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards for
the Last Word, following advice from
Max, Jake, Buddy, Rocky, Buste r, Duke,
Maggie, Molly, Lady, Sadie and Missy.
Go past your local park on a Saturday and
you'll see any number of dogs and their
owners being rewarded, punished and
otherwise conditioned by some dog trainer
-- more likely, these days, to be know n as
a dog behavioural therapist. Dog training,
you see, is big business and draws heavily
on psychological research.
Most of the stuff we know about the way
we learn or change our behaviour goes back
to that research in psychology, a lot of it on
dogs or rats, but even on humans. Remem-
ber Ivan Pavlov and his salivating dogs?
What we know about learning -- reinforce-
ment and punishment, classical conditioning
and extinction, which sounds ominous but is
really just the extinction of a response when
a stimulus is removed -- all goes back to the
psychological research of Pavlov and co.
Psychology just tries to explain how we
learn or why we change our behaviour. So
far as dogs are concerned, though, all the
stuff on reinforcement and punishment,
and conditioning is about training: finding
ways to increase desirable behaviours and
decrease undesirable ones, training dogs to
heel, sit, roll over and -- in the best of all
possible worlds -- quit biting people.
The truth is, though, dogs don't just
learn because some salivating Pavlov type
wants to get them to do something. They
also learn because they're good learners.
A handful of Moscow's wild dogs are
showing how, and they may be the smart-
est learners of all. As Moscow-based writer
Susanne Sternthal explains in the Financial
Times, the 30,000 or so wild dogs in
Moscow have been thriving because they've
learned how to maximise the resources and
opportunities available in the city's newly
As Andrei Poyarkov, a biologist specialis-
ing in wolves, explains, Moscow's wild dogs
in the Soviet era typically found a niche as
foragers or hunters but more commonly in
post-Soviet Russia, they're also occupying
more human-friendly niches as guard dogs
WE ALL KNOW DOGS ARE CLEVER,
BUT YOU CAN'T TEACH AN OLD
DOG NEW TRICKS, RIGHT? WELL,
ACTUALLY, WRONG, SORTA.
STEVE HOLDEN EXPLAINS.
The last word
Live and learn
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