What my greyhounds have taught me about Adaptive Action

Paul and the DogsWe have three retired racing greyhounds. Fionn is now the senior dog in the pack, having survived three years with our first grey, Zoe, and now enjoying some respect as the top dog. Zoe ruled with an iron paw, keeping Fionn from the food and comfy furniture even when she herself wasn’t interested. We were sure she did differential equations in her head while she waited for us to do her bidding. 

Rana joined us after Zoe succumbed to bone cancer. Rana’s an easy-going girl with an operatic voice and a talent for dramatic vocalization. The newest addition to the pack is Doughall. He’s young, smart, patient and quiet. He’d make a great spy.

Adaptive Action is the only way to describe the interaction of these three personalities. And their Adaptive Actions change, depending on who’s in the pack at the moment. When we first got Fionn, he adapted his actions to deal with Zoe, then the top dog. From his fuzzy perspective, his Adaptive Action went like this:


     She’s never going to let me near the food bowl. 

So What?

     I’m going to get really hungry!

Now What?

     Being hungry is better than being attacked, so I’ll just wait until she goes to sleep, and then I’ll eat.

When Zoe died, Fionn was an only dog. So the Adaptive Action changed:


     No one will stop me from eating.

So what?

     I can eat whenever I want.

Now what?

     I’m not hungry right now, but maybe I’ll have a snack later.

Then we got Rana. She didn’t stop Fionn from eating, but she would often finish off all the food before he noticed he was hungry enough to eat! Again, his Adaptive Action changed:


     The food’s gone again. It was here just a minute ago.

So what?

     I’m hungry!

(Here’s where it gets interesting. You might think his Adaptive Action would be to keep Rana away from the food as Zoe had done with him--after all he is the top dog now. Or, that he would learn to eat more often, to get his share. But here’s what actually happened:)

Now what?

     I’ll go bother the two-leggeds for more food. I know if I look really cute they’ll have pity on me.

This is part of what fascinates me about Adaptive Action. You might think you know what a dog, or a person, or any semi-autonomous agent, will do in response to the So What? but emergent behaviour is what makes all of this so interesting.

Now skip forward to February 2013. We have three dogs. And adding only one more dog has introduced all kinds of complexity in the pack’s Adaptive Action. Fionn is still the top dog. But Rana and Doughall share the position of Dog #2. That means their Adaptive Actions are unpredictable, as far as we can tell. 

Sometimes Rana will wait for him to eat, and sometimes Doughall will wait for her. Sometimes she will growl at him if he’s angling for the good spot on the sofa, and sometimes he will snarl at her to back off.

One reason the outcomes are unpredictable for us, the two-leggeds, is we don’t know all the subtleties of the 3-dog set of simple rules. We can see that it’s different than the 2-dog set, but there are subtleties that are lost to us because we aren’t fluent in their exchanges.

Of course, Rana and Doughall still get the lion’s share of the food, because Fionn has settled into his successful Adaptive Action of simply asking us for his share whenever he’s hungry. This raises another interesting point about the Adaptive Action of the pack of 3:  Sometimes the container expands to a pack of 5! 

And when the boundaries of the container of 3 change to include 2 humans, the dogs’ Adaptive Action changes according to the simple rule, “Be irresistable to two-leggeds.” The consequent  Now What?  almost always includes, “be charming and wag your tail a lot.” 

And it works every time.

Contact Vickie at www.simplerulesandtools.com

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