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Perspective

Rex Smith: Dog training sense in view of the debate

This week a dog trainer visited our home — at an appropriate social distance, of course — to explain to the humans hereabouts how we might discourage our affable hound, Roscoe, from barking at passing runners, bicyclists and garbage trucks. His noisy friendliness, we have noticed, is off-putting to some folks.

We were instructed in techniques that a psychologist would call operant conditioning: reward the good behavior, deploy disincentives for the bad. It will take practice, but he is a willing pooch, so we’re confident he will emerge from his adolescence as a better-behaved beast.

Yet we might fantasize about a mute button. After all, haven’t we just witnessed its effectiveness in curbing adolescent behavior, albeit in a species somewhat higher on the phylogenetic scale than a dog?

In the hours after this week’s last presidential debate — there were supposed to be three, remember, but Donald Trump backed out of the planned second one — a lot of commentators remarked upon the different, more disciplined president who had appeared. The mute button in the hand of a debate commission staffer got part of the credit, because it limited the kind of interruption that Trump used as his central strategy in the first debate, turning it into a disaster scene. Slate counted 128 Trump interruptions in the first debate; he toned it down to just 34 in the rematch (with 17 for a johnny-come-lately student of the genre, Joe Biden, not counting a few “come on” interjections, and one “oh god!”).

Although maybe we’re giving the mute button too much credit. Perhaps the universal condemnation of the chaos the president created in the first debate led him to a rare instance of self-correction, or of listening to his aides: Polls show he is losing...

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