Learning to open a door

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learning to open a door

A dog learning to open a door

On the 8th of June I watched Tyson Seburn’s video of his dog learning to open a door to get a toy.

A number of things struck me.

1) at first the dog, Lou, tries to squeeze through the gap but it’s not wide enough
2) however the door does open just a tiny bit more
3) at 0:31 the dog puts its forepaw on the outside of the door but doesn’t really pull the door towards itself. However, the door moves a little
4) then the man watching and encouraging the dog (?Tyson) moves the toy closer to the gap – 1:12
5) this stimulates the dog to greater activity and it puts its head through the gap, grabs the ball and retreats into the other room – 1:22
6) the man continues to call the dog which finally pushes its whole body through the gap – 1:42

How I interpret the dog story

Lou seems to be a young dog – possibly trying to get through a door left ajar for the first time. If it has had experience of other “gaps” they will not have moved in response to its trying to push through. Doors on well-oiled hinges are different – which we know from experience but a young dog doesn’t.

Lou works on the principle of “trial and error”: alternately patting the the wall and the door with its forepaws, jumping up at the wall near the door (in the inside room), pushing its nose under the door and maybe other things we can’t see from our side of the door.

By moving the toy closer the man both makes the dog more eager to get the toy and makes the task a little easier. Lou puts more energy into trying to get the toy than before and moves the door enough to get its head and shoulders through the gap.

Having got the toy, the dog loses interest in it – it drops it inside the room and returns to the door to try to get its whole self through. It does this quickly and easily – I would say, demonstrating a transfer from the first learning experience.

A cat learning to open a door

I was reminded of a similar experience observing my cat, Timide, about 4 years ago. She had learnt to open doors that were already ajar by pushing them when she was very young, but only learnt to open them by pulling when she was about 8. At the time of this incident she was about 10.

The cat had followed me into a room, and then immediately wanted to leave it again. The door was ajar but not sufficiently for her to squeeze through. Like the door in the video, it needed to be pulled towards the animal to open. She’d never pulled open this particular door before. This is what the cat did:

1) she stood on her hind legs and pushed with her paws against the handle side of the door – closing it even more
2) she did the same on the hinge side of the door which of course didn’t move at all
3) she returned to the handle side and tried several times to push the door open
4) she explored with her paws the gap under the door. The dog did too and they both seemed to realise quickly that it was far too narrow for them to squeeze under and abandoned the attempt
5) she tried again several times with me telling her all the time “This is a pull door not a push door” – perfectly useless as she couldn’t understand, of course
6) then she stopped trying to open the door, lay on her back on the floor, wriggling about and trying to catch her tail. I said “Silly cat! That’s not going to help you get out of the room.” But I was wrong.
7) After playing for about a minute, she jumped up and with no hesitation went to the door and pulled it open.

How I interpret the cat story

While she was fixated on the easier and more familiar way of opening doors, her mind was not free to evoke the other solutions she’d lived in the past.
When she took time off to play, she “unstuck” her mind from “pushing door” images and allowed “pulling door” images to become present.
This is something that happens to humans too – and having become aware of it, we can use it as a technique.

I also decided to film my cat opening the door. It’s one she has had little, if any practice in opening since she learnt to do so 4 years ago. On Friday it was clear the skill was not fully automatic – she didn’t show unhesitating mastery,

So today, Tuesday, I let her have another go:

To what would you attribute her progress?

A human example

Last week some friends visited my garden and asked the name of a flower that had seeded itself there. The local people call it “drop of blood” (goute de sang). I tried hard, but I couldn’t remember the official name. Yesterday, as I was watering the garden I looked at the flowers and the word “lychnis” just floated into my mind. I looked it up on DuckDuckGo and discovered its exact name is “lychnis coronaria”:


Relevance to language learning

What’s all this got to do with learning centredness in an EFL classroom? For me, a lot. When I see that a student doesn’t understand something because they are “pushing” when they need to be “pulling” (or vice versa), and even though they may feel quite desperate to find a solution, I make them put their attention on something quite different for a while. If possible, we come back to the problem the next day and lo and behold, by magic 😉 they find the solution. Some students can be quite frustrated at first until they see that temporarily “letting go” of a problem is a way of solving it. Others come to class already knowing. In French there’s a saying “La nuit porte conseil” – it’s more explicit than the English “Sleep on it!”

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7 thoughts on “Learning to open a door

  • Robert Jeannard

    Thank you, Glenys, for this article which illustrates what you often said about Gatttegno’s approach: it’s giving attention to the smallest learnings.

  • Stan Bogdanov

    Typical Pavlovian-Skinnerian model. The encouragement is present but the incentive is missing, though, to reward and reinforce desired behavour. However, I like how you extend it to human learning!
    But there’s some more to the Behaviourist view, which you mention, and which extends to Cognitivism.Humans being thinking animals, need to step back (your wording ‘letting go’) from their cognitive processes to reflect on experience (reflection-in-action is more difficult than reflection-post-action) and we’re often unaware of this reflection; we need to allow for time so the brain could work on a solution ‘in the background’. When ready, a ‘solution’ (due to the cognitive dissonance, hence the student’s frustration) pops up and we become aware of a ‘hypothesis’ our brain offers. Then we can check if our hypothesis works in a subsequent relevant situation …

    • Glenys Hanson

      Hi Stan,

      I’ve been slow to answer because I wasn’t sure what you meant. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood you.

      I’m not very knowledgeable about the Pavlovian-Skinnerian model and am probably simplifying their work to describe it as the “stimulus response” understanding of learning. That to me, is not how I interpreted the animals’ behaviour. Sure there were stimuli (the toy for the dog, the desire to leave the the room for the cat) and they gained the rewards of getting the toy/exiting the room. What is significant to me is the fact that each animal explored the problem as best they could before “stepping back” and allowing a different hypothesis to emerge in their minds. I feel “reflection” is not the right word because I have no personal experience of reflection on something without being aware of of my reflection and it’s contents.

      On the other had, I have many examples of “stepping back” leading to finding new solutions. In my garden, in the case of an ailing plant which has no parasites or signs disease, close up I often don’t see what I need to do. If I literally step back a few paces I can see that the problem is the plant’s context in the garden – maybe overshadowed by a tree or too close to other plants. In other words, I widen my range of vision and discover options that are invisible close-up.

      In the videos see both the dog and the cat moving away from the door and then coming back.

      As a teacher, I felt my job was to get students to step back mentally from a problem and allow themselves the freedom to perceive other options. It’s true they didn’t always find solutions without some help but I didn’t apply the “carrot and stick” approach. These days I would have to offer gifts far more expensive that carrots and beating students is far too tiring. Just a little nudge to encourage them to look in the right direction is much more economical. Even stepping back, I might not have noticed the tree but if a more experienced gardener simply pointed at it I’m pretty sure I’d get the message. I wouldn’t need a lecture on the needs of plants for sun and water either.

      There is, of course, far more to be said about how animals and humans learn.


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