A Lesson in Testing From a Few Stray Dogs


I recently took a trip to Nicaragua, where dogs roam the streets as a matter of course, and sitting outside at a restaurant is an exercise in self control as you try your hardest not to give part of your dinner to every stray that comes begging (for the record, if you are planning on feeding the stray dogs, do it subtly, the restaurant owners aren’t generally happy when you do).

Over the course of a few evenings, I started to notice something interesting. It wasn’t uncommon to see the same dog approach our table a number of times over the course of a meal. But what struck me was that each time they approached they would do so in a slightly different way.

These dogs were testing us, seeing what technique would get them better results. Did they get more food when they whimpered, or lay down at our feet, were we more sympathetic to an apparently happy wagging dog or to one who had it’s head down and tail between it’s legs? We were being played.

When I came home I started looking at my own dogs, one a young puppy still figuring things out, in the same way, and realized that the older dog thinks he has me completely optimized. He knew exactly how to behave to maximize his chance of treats.

The little one though was far more interesting. While he would only get rewarded for the correct behavior, he didn’t always display it straight off, instead he would try something different each time, jumping up, lying down, ignoring me. He was trying to see if anything he did resulted in more treats than the one he knew he would get by sitting obediently. I was being played again.

It would seem though, that testing for better results is hardwired in, when you stop and think about it, we all do it every day, when we’re on the phone trying to negotiate with a call centre, we may run through the gamut of techniques, from playing nice, to feigning more knowledge through to anger and giving up. This is testing to improve our result, so why do so many find it so difficult to do when it comes to our online presence?

The answer, as I observed with my older dog, lies in “just enough.” He knows that if he does what he needs to to get one treat he gets something, it’s too much effort to constantly try new things in the hope that he might get a little more, he is fundamentally content to get what he’s getting.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got – Mark Twain

The crux of it is if you’re getting ‘enough’ sales, the risk of losing sales through testing becomes too much. The older dog is unwilling to try something new, for fear that he won’t get a treat at all, where the younger isn’t completely sure of the treat in the first place, and so is far more willing to try anything he can think of to increase his chance of getting treats or improve his haul.

So what are you, an old dog too jaded to figure out a new trick, or a young pup willing to gamble one treat in the hope of getting more?

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