Dogs, the ultimate interaction designers

What my dog taught me about interaction design in the first 4 weeks of our relationship during Germany’s Covid lockdown.

Getting a dog is a certain commitment, getting a rescue dog is whole other level of commitment.

First things first: Dogs are for life, not only for the pandemic. That said, during Germany’s many months of lockdown, I adopted a 3.5-year-old podenco mix dog from a shelter in Spain. I’ve always wanted a dog. WFH situation meant our household of 2 humans, 2 cats would have time to spend on helping our new life companion adjust to us and living in Berlin. We are definitely a work-in-progress and we are definitely in love!

So here is a post in 5 parts: Alfa’s story, our 3 major learnings and a to-be-continued conclusion.

My girl Alfa, who is happiest in the forest

Alfa’s backstory.

Alfa was a young/small scared dog when she was brought to the shelter in Valencia. It took the shelter volunteers some weeks to even coax her out of her crate, and she reportedly airsnapped at people out of fear. It was two years before she was ready for adoption and we came along.

The foster family did an amazing job with my dog: Alfa is curious, cheeky, loving, playful, shy, smart, and sweet.

While we will never know the full story, judging by the way she responds to loud sounds and sudden movements by running away, how she doesn’t let just anyone touch her and how sensitive she is to body language, we assume that Alfa had been mistreated.

My dog is wonderful and is just being herself — it’s me and my husband that needed training.

We are a work-in-progress. We’re on our 5th week together now. They say to apply the 3–3–3 Rule to rescue dogs, keeping in mind that every dog is different, that your dog should see their humans are leaders (as opposed to alphas) who will advocate and care for them, and not to put too much expectations on your dog.

So onwards to our learnings! We managed to distill the patterns into a series of maps and conceptual “user” flows, hence my romanticised dogs-are-ultimately-consummate-interaction-designers.

My friend Michael imparts his wisdom on dog training :)

Learning #1: consistency is key and as humans we are terribly inconsistent.

So there’s a couple of dimensions of consistency here, both apply to the UI/user interface. One is consistent command-giving, the other is consistent treat- or reinforcement-delivery. We’re better at the former, rather than the latter, for whatever reason; perhaps lack of hand-eye coordination.

Consistency in command giving AKA ease cognitive load. Who doesn’t love a consistent interface? In the same vein that most users don’t want to re-learn a new checkout process every time they’re completing a check-out of an online transaction, dogs also don’t want to learn different commands for the same thing. Or the same command word for different things.

For example, using “Here” and “Come” to mean “come to me”. In the diagram below, we use “Here” as a recall where the intended outcome is to have Alfa return to us, used in situations where I need to put a leash on her. We use “Come” for a “follow me/come with us/let’s go” outcome.

Learning #1: it’s easier to stay consistent with commands rather than treat delivery.

Consistency in treat or reinforcement delivery. Timing is everything. When your dog does the behaviour, you click the clicker while delivering the treat to their mouth. I’m watching all the positive reinforcement videos and shaking my head at how retarded my husband and I are when it comes to delivering the treats. I start to wish for more arms.

I wonder if I start to smell like kangaroo or Leberwürst.

Alfa responds best to treats. She also loves toys and cuddles as rewards. We managed to map out her rewards to contexts, so that we can continue to train under challenging situations, with many distractions, or worse, stressors.

The people manager in me wonders about the value of rewards for humans too; if we’ve been under great stress and working so hard, is it any wonder that people expect great rewards and compensation. Just a thought.

More Michael wisdom :)

Learning #2: pattern creation and recognition.

Despite our failures at being consistent at treat and reinforcement delivery, I did notice Alfa’s behaviour patterns. So I started to analyse our own behaviours to understand what we were consistently doing that causes certain responses in Alfa.

Alfa perks up when she hears me brush my teeth in the morning: to her, this means we’re going out for a walk soon! Alfa comes rushing in to the kitchen when she hears a paper bag crackling: this means she gets a nice bone or tendon, which she’ll take to her daybed to chew on.

A Google search later, I was presented with concepts of operant and respondent techniques for changing dog behaviour. This blog post at Dogsmith explains it well. It forms the basis of positive reinforcement training for dogs that I unknowingly was applying into our relationship.

I mapped them out below, and I use it as a guide for myself and Alfa.

Behaviour Modification Research: O’Heare, J. (2008), Miltenberger (2004).
Relaxed, attentive Alfa :)

Learning #3: non-verbal communication and interaction modals.

As humans, we rely on verbal communication so much that it limits, dare I say impairs, our own “sender and transmitter” communication modals. My dog is so receptive to my voice (pitch, tone and words), my body language (how I move my hands, my head, the rest of my body), my facial expressions and my smells.

I had to quickly learn to relax while walking Alfa, because, while she correctly interprets tension on the leash as stress or anxiety of her humans, her response of barking and lunging at whatever object she deems to be the cause of my stress is counterproductive and adds more to my stress.

So I use more of my body when I communicate with my dog. We skip, hop and dance to express joy or positivity (which is most of the day).

Mapping Alfa’s barks

I don’t always get it right. An example of this was when I didn’t interpret Alfa’s body language correctly at the dog park. She was stressed and unhappy. So she escaped. Thankfully, nothing horrible happened; we found her 30 minutes later in the parking lot of a nearby fire station where the firefighters lured her in to keep her safe, expecting her owner to come in shortly after they spotted her wandering around with a visible GPS tracker.

The look on her face when I finally showed up was one of indignant “What took you so long?” — the sass coming from this dog ❤

We’re five weeks in. We’re a work-in-progress. I hope to have many more years with my girl Alfa, the fuzzy one with soulful eyes. More patterns, more maps, more forest and many more miles to go together ❤




Interested in EVERYTHING esp complex systems: healthcare, logistics, food.

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Yasmina Haryono Kortenoeven

Yasmina Haryono Kortenoeven

Interested in EVERYTHING esp complex systems: healthcare, logistics, food.

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