Dogs are wonderfully honest creatures. I don’t say that from any moral perspective. I think they are just so bad at disguising their intentions that even their attempts to manipulate us are almost comically transparent. Whether it’s buzzing around you because they want a walk, giving you that meaningful and intense stare around dinner time, or the urgent pee-pee dance that says they want outside, our dogs are pretty up front about what they want from us. And I think we should extend them the same courtesy.
It seems to me that many dog owners are looking for a way to get their dogs to do what they want. Many times those issues are resolved with training. But occasionally it can involve bribery, threats, and even outright lies to trick them into doing what we want them to do. While that approach can be expedient in the moment, in the long run it may be detrimental to your relationship with your dog. You see, our dogs have memories. And on top of that, their job in life seems to be watching us intently to make sense out of our every move and every word at least as concerns them. Are they capable of understanding when we bend the truth or even try to fool them?
We lie to our dogs in all kinds of ways. But mostly we do it for convenience. We’re in a hurry or company is over or we are in a potentially embarrassing situation. We just need the dog to do what we ask and we need it now. Maybe we haven’t done the training or we didn’t anticipate that our dogs might find something better to do at the moment we asked them to come over to us. So we resort to that most human of tactics, we lie. The hand goes in the pocket and we cheerfully call “Cookies!” and when the dog happily trots over for a treat, we instead clip on their leash and take them away from their fun.
There are lots of ways to lie to dogs and we might think we’re getting away with something when our tricks work. But are we really?
Threats and Intimidation
It’s not uncommon for me to see some dog owner in a disagreement with their dog at the local dog park. Their dog may be sniffing a little too long or they may want the ball in their dog’s mouth. “Drop it right now!” is said in that stern tone that implies “or else” and that the consequences will be unpleasant. Dogs are not fools, they respond to threats and intimidation. At least they will at first. Our implied threats may get our dogs to do what we want in the short term but over time they can become less effective if not occasionally backed up with actions to make the threats credible.
I guess the analogy would be to that mom who counts down for her children when they are misbehaving. “I’m going to count to five…1-2-3-4-5″ and then what? I’m sure we’ve all seen that moment when the child decides to test the waters and see what comes after 5. If the mom was just using intimidation as a trick, a “white lie” to suggest that “something bad” is going to happen if the child doesn’t comply, then the effectiveness of that tactic is going to suffer if the child ever tests it and finds that what comes after the count of 5 isn’t all that bad. If you’re going to issue a threat with your dog, you’d better be prepared to follow through on it or they will remember it and will push a little further next time.
There is another problem with using intimidation. What message does it send to the dog? In those cases where you make your threat but don’t or can’t follow through (e.g., your dog is 15 feet away), your dog can learn that you are inconsistent. Sometimes you follow through and sometimes you don’t. You are unreliable. In those cases where you do follow through with punishment consistently, your dog learns exactly what you are willing and capable of inflicting on them. And if your timing isn’t right, your dog may not know what brought on the punishment. “Oh he knows what he did wrong!”, the dog owner might say. But the dog can only guess based on the timing of the punishment. Three seconds too late and you punished sitting down and not clawing at the carpet.
Over time, an entire minefield of problems can crop up around the inconsistent use of threats and punishments with our dogs. And our desire to just get our dogs to “behave” by using trickery backfires and creates strange new behaviours as the dog tries to avoid what might or might not be a punishment coming from us.
Lying with food
If you take your index and middle finger and press them to your thumb and offer that to most dogs, they will come over to get what they think is a treat in your hand. Some will even lick or put their mouth around your hand; that’s how certain they are that you have food. And that’s a very useful thing! All we have to do to get a dog to come to us or get into a car or crate is extend that empty but enticing hand where we want the dog and off they go to check it out. We get what we want and they get nothing.
This “food offering” trick works so well that we have given it a name. Some people call it “Luring”, the process of leading the dog through a wanted behaviour with the extended food-hand in hopes that the dog learns to do the behaviour without the lure. The best practitioners of Lure training actually do have food and they reward the dog frequently for good performance. But the practice of Luring can lead to another kind of food lie.
Many times handlers will be so excited when their dog does the desired behaviour that they think “just one more” and ask the dog for another behaviour before rewarding. And that might work so well that they ask for more and more and more behaviours before giving their dog the reward. What does the dog make of this? If the deal was one behaviour – one reward, the dog can feel cheated. And you can create whatever kind of deal you want to make around rewards with your dogs. But when you change the rules too quickly without helping them understand the change, that can look like something of a betrayal. Just another form of lie.
Who do you believe?
I think it’s very important for our dogs to be able to trust the things we say and do. Again, this is not just a moral argument about the virtues of honesty. Our dogs have a vested interested in behaving in a way that gets them the things they want out of their relationship with us. If our dogs can’t be sure from one moment to the next whether a particular behaviour will receive a reward or punishment, it can affect their confidence and their sense of security.
Our consistency in living and working with our dogs has a direct bearing on their sense of well being. An uncertain dog is a fearful dog. And any dog trainer will tell you that a fearful dog is trouble just waiting to happen. It is in our best interest to develop a strong bond of trust with our dog and there is no better way to do that than to give up all the tricks we might use to get them to do things.
The training philosophy in our house is “train it or manage it.” In both cases, there are no lies involved. If I haven’t trained something sufficiently and need to use food or other rewards to entice my dog, she’s going to get the reward for cooperating. If I’m out somewhere without rewards, well, I guess I’ll just have to tough it out or not set myself up for a problem. For us the cost of tricking our dogs, lying to them, is much higher than the momentary inconvenience of not getting what we want when we want it.
As the years have passed, the bond of trust we share with our dogs is something we have come to value a great deal. Not just for the personal satisfaction of it but for the great working relationship it has produced. And for all of the problems we did not have because, well, we never created them with mistrust or inconsistent guardianship.
So let sleeping dogs lie. Just don’t lie to them. It’s just easier that way. Trust me.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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“Dogs: As They Are”
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