How Politics Is Like Dog Training

I’ve been thinking about dog training a bit this morning, following the first major break of doggy protocol in the house for quite a long time as, this morning, Simon, Official Dog of the Damn Lefties, worked his way up onto the kitchen table and ate a half-tray of home-baked brownies.  The combination of frustration at having lost about a dozen servings of pure deliciousness, along with a little fear about the health repercussions, as I know that chocolate, and particularly dark chocolate and cocoa powder, as were in the brownies, contain lots of thiobromine, a chemical that is rather destructive to dog’s metabolism, left me in a foul mood.

Fortunately, I have assuaged both of these negative thought patterns fairly well.  Firstly, I talked to the vet, who assured me that 6 oz of dark chocolate and 1 tbsp of cocoa powder, while not good for a dog of Simon’s size, are also about 1/4 of the dose of thiobromine that would be considered sufficient to lead to more drastic action, like forced vomiting or a stomach pump, and that he should be fine.  Secondly, and more importantly, while I was quite tempted to do the typical dog negative-reinforcement thing (and, indeed, when I woke up and saw the empty tray and picked it up, Simon cowered to the floor, expecting some kind of punishment – my anger must have been palpable), I realized that this was, at heart, my own fault.

I am, fundamentally, a positive reinforcement type.  I don’t believe in negative reinforcement – that is, punishing someone for wrongdoing.  Instead, I believe in encouraging them with kind words and rewards when they do well.  This has worked very well for me in dog training – positive reinforcement led to near perfect housebreaking of Simon within days of his arrival at my house, and has led to our having a full and rewarding relationship about 98% of the time.

A large part of positive reinforcement is removing the opportunities for bad behavior.  If you let a puppy outside often, then they are given many opportunities not to soil the house, giving many chances for positive reinforcement while reducing the chances for accidents to happen.  Similarly, if you don’t leave a tray of brownies at the corner of the kitchen table, you reduce the opportunity for temptation to lead your dog astray – and so, while I would love to be able to just leave food lying around the house, confident that Simon will only eat his kibble from his bowl when I tell him to, I know that this will never happen, and so what happened this morning was as much my fault as his, if not more so.

So, I had him perform a few tricks for me, and gave him a biscuit instead, and resigned myself to doing better next time.

So, how the hell is this like politics?  Well, in my last two posts, I have defended and even applauded the Bush administration for its close cooperation with the Obama transition team in helping them set up a new government.  Maybe I am just putting the same lessons in play, trying to give positive reinforcement when a group, even a group I disagree with so often, actually gets something right.

I’m not entirely sure if the same set of training routines can be used nearly as effectively with a Presidential administration as with a dog, but I think some of the same concepts could apply.  For instance, it would be really great if we, as an American people, or maybe our Congressional representatives acting on our behalf, could agree to limit the temptations that a Presidential administration suffers by taking some of the brownies off the corner of the table and putting them a bit further out of reach.

This is the fundamental purpose of Constitutional Separation of Powers – to allow each branch the chance to rein in the temptations of the others.  Simon is not evil or malicious for eating the brownies – he is simply acting according to his natural behavior patterns.  The Bush administration is also not evil for grabbing as much power as they can get their hands on – it is simply the way of people in positions of authority to act this way.  It was the Congress’, and, barring that, the judiciary’s responsibility to serve as a check on that grab for the brownies.

However, they failed, which led to all manner of overreach and outright theft of all sorts of brownies – warmaking abilities, data mining and warrantless wiretaps, the treatment of prisoners.  And, once enough bad behaviors have taken place, you have no choice – in the absence of positive behaviors to reinforce, you have no option but to use negative reinforcement, the kind my esteemed coblogger is so much better at than I am.

I don’t know where to take this metaphor from here, but one thing I sincerely hope is that the new Congress still does its duties with regards to oversight of the Executive Branch.  While I hope that the Obama administration will be full of nothing but angels, acting out of nothing more than the goodness of their own hearts, it’s foolish to plan on that being the case.  And I hope that Congressional Democrats will not assume it to be so, just because they happen to be from the same party.  I want to see change take place, the type President-Elect Obama has been talking about, but I also want to see it done right.

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