Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Name the Task: A Dog Trainer's Take on Immigration Reform

So last post I wrote about how you get what you reward, not necessarily what you think you are rewarding. This brings me to what I believe is the most important step in changing/fixing anything. You have to figure out what it is that you want to change. It's just really awfully hard to teach something if you don't know what it is that you're trying to teach.

Say I have a cat who hangs out on the kitchen counters while I'm trying to cook. (This would be Finn McCool the Warrior Cat, who likes to snag broccoli out of the steamer, and tries to climb into pans. He's cute, but a pain in the butt.) I say to myself (and anyone within a two block radius) "The damn cat is in always in my food!" There. I've named a problem. The damn cat is always in my food. Now I can figure out how to solve the problem. I might toss the cat the into the gaping maw of the dog every time he got in my way (punishment), lock the cat in another room while I'm cooking (management) or teach the cat to sit on a chair while I'm cooking (training incompatible behavior). Pretty simple.

But most things in life are a little more complicated. All right, a lot more complicated. Take for instance The Immigration Problem. This is something that a whole lot of people are up in arms about these days. Depending on your perspective, the state of Arizona is currently either a courageous leader in tackling this crushing problem, or a brutal regime bent on racial profiling and civil rights violations. But here's the thing. What exactly is The Immigration Problem? Well, I guess we're probably talking about illegal immigrants, not legal ones. But still, what is the actual problem we're trying to solve? Is the problem that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from US citizens? Is the problem that illegal immigrants are using social services without paying taxes? Is the problem that dangerous drug lords and other criminals are getting in?

All of those possibilities are things that can be examined -- information can be gathered as to whether these are actual problems, or whether they are only perceptions of problems that don't really exist. And if they are, in fact, real problems, then the different problems would have different solutions. For instance, if the problem is that illegal immigrants are taking jobs that citizens want, it might make sense to crack down on employers who hire people who are here illegally. That solution, however, won't help at all with the problem of people using social services without paying taxes. (If, in fact, that is a problem that really exists.) You have to gather data to figure out the real problem(s) before you can do anything about finding solutions. Maybe it turns out that illegal immigrants, for the most part, are taking jobs that US citizens don't even want, and the solution is not to punish employers, but to give them a way to legally hire the workers they need.

The reality is that the world is full of incredibly complex problems. But the only way to start to solve them is to figure out what the problems really are. There is no such thing as The Immigration Problem. At least there's no possible way to solve The Immigration Problem. The Immigration Problem could be anything from "I was hit by an uninsured, unlicensed and undocumented driver" to "I'm terrified that my wife is going to be deported." The solution to "I'm uncomfortable being around people who speak a language I don't understand" is not the same as the solution to "If you're going to live in this country you should pay taxes." You can't solve a problem without clearly identifying a) what the problem is and b) whether your perception of the problem is born out by the facts.

Maybe the damn cat isn't always in my food. Maybe he's only in my food around the time that he expects to be fed, and I could easily get the cat out of the pan by feeding him his dinner before I make dinner for people. Maybe it's actually useful to have the cat in the kitchen cleaning up bits of things that I drop (which is, in reality, the dogs' job), and the problem is not that the damn cat is eating my food, but that the cat is getting on the stove, and I need to teach the cat to stay off the stove. The more I know about the problem, the better the chance I have of coming up with a solution.

You get what you reward, not what you think you're rewarding. You can only solve actual and particular problems, not generalized perceptions of problems.


  1. Lynn, love your new blog. Just today I was walking my dog and for some reason thought of an article I had read years ago about the person who runs a huge dog training center in Northern Virginia for the very many law enforcement agencies that need trained dogs. He reportedly had a sign in his office that said, "Stupidity runs down the leash." Somehow that feels relevant. Roberta Finkelstein

  2. Thanks, Roberta! It turns out that training dogs is far easier than training people to train dogs. But I love thinking about how what we know about dog training applies to the rest of life.

    Invite a friend!