Sparky’s Human: How a dog conditioned my son | Navy Wise

Before I tell you how our dog Sparky trained my son, Ford, I need to tell you that Sparky has a doorbell he rings when he wants to go into the backyard.

I’ve taught every dog I’ve ever lived with to “ring the bells,” and although it sounds really fancy, this dog trick is actually quite simple. It allows the dog a different way — besides scratching or barking — to signal that he needs to go outside. And it’s not hard to teach, either.

The very first time I take any new dog outside to use the bathroom, I gently bump his nose on a set of sleigh bells hanging from the back door. Then I do it again every single time he goes out — nose, bells, outside. There are no treats involved, but eventually the dog learns that ringing the bells means many things, all of varying importance to him: doors opening, fresh air, squirrels, birds, barbecue smells, and, yes, wasting time, too.

This is, of course, based on the widely known principle of classical conditioning that is commonly referred to as just “Pavlov’s Dog.” In the early 1900s, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, noted that dogs instinctively salivate when they are presented with food. No one taught them to salivate, they just did it. In other words, a watering mouth is an unconditioned response.

By accident, however, Pavlov began to realize that the dogs in his lab also salivated when they saw lab assistants — the same ones who fed them — come into the room. Salivating at humans wasn’t instinctual, so it must have been learned. The dogs were conditioned to associate the assistants with food.

The same goes for our dog, Sparky. Chasing birds is instinctual for him; ringing some sleigh bells to get outside to chase those birds is not. And if the sleigh bells should ring on their own (say, from a gust of wind moving the door), woe is the person who stands between the door and Sparky tearing across the wood floors and sliding into kitchen cabinets in order to get there.

However, lest someone thinks dogs are simple animals to be conditioned in this way, now let me tell you about my very smart 16-year-old son, Ford, and how Sparky has completely conditioned him.

Ford was 10 years old when we got Sparky and trained him to use the bells. Even back then, Ford was the earliest riser in our house and in charge of Sparky from 5 a.m. until a less ungodly hour when the rest of us got up. So, from the time Sparky was a puppy, Ford has been there when he needed him the most: for the very first trip outside after a night spent holding it. That was obviously a big motivator for Sparky to quickly learn the bell system and this 10-year-old placed in charge of him. I will never in a million years, however, understand what was the instinctual motivator that made the reverse happen: my son Ford has been fully and seamlessly conditioned by Sparky.

Here’s what’s supposed to happen: Sparky feels a sudden urge to use the bathroom, rings the bells and waits patiently for someone to come open the door.

Here’s what actually happens: Sparky is bored, so he rings the bells, and Ford, no matter what he’s doing, will go to the back door and open it. Ford will even do this in his sleep.

How very clever of Sparky.

Here is a recent text conversation I had with Ford while I was at work:

Me: Dad put fertilizer on the grass, so don’t let Sparky outside until 2.

Ford (at 1:45 p.m.): Sparky is outside staring at me through the glass. Should I let him in? And do I need to wash his paws?

Me: FORD! I told you not to let him out until 2!

Ford: I can’t say for sure that I did.

Me: Are you the only one home?

Ford: Yes.

Me: ????

Ford: I have no memory of letting him out. But he must have rung the bells.

Me: Before I left today, I told you not to let him out until 2:00. What else do I have to do? I locked the door to help you remember. I put a post-it note on the glass as a reminder. I even put last night’s pizza boxes on the floor to block you.

Ford: And I moved all those things when he rang the bells. Only I don’t remember doing it.

Me: …

Ford: But he’s staring at me now, sooooo … Should I let him in?

I like to think that when Sparky gets together with other dogs at the park, he tells them about what he’s done. Maybe the dog world refers to it as “Sparky’s human.” Is Sparky telling those dogs his secret, too? I mean, what’s the motivator? Is he slipping Ford twenties? Chocolate chip cookies?

Sparky, please, tell me your ways, so I can get dear, sweet, capable, smart Ford to make his bed each morning, too.

— Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and a syndicated columnist. Contact her at

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