It is summertime and Rizzo’s nose is cold. How do I know that? Because he keeps sticking that cold nose under my bare arm as I try to write in my summer t-shirt and shorts. I smile and keep my focus on my writing but soon the cold nose begins insistently poking, flipping my arm upward with increasing urgency. And this is a moment of choice. How should I respond to my canine pest?
Depending on how you look at it, this is either an easy choice or a difficult one. Looking at it from an emotional perspective, it’s an easy choice. ”Quit bugging me!” would be an almost instinctive response. It might surprise my dog and give him some indication that I’m not happy with his behaviour. But it is also a difficult choice because as satisfying and potentially effective as my emotional response might be, it might be ambiguous to my dog and not as easy to understand as I would like it to be.
The positives of negatives
You see, my dog wasn’t just pestering me because he likes to upset me. My dog wanted something from me. It could even be something as simple as my attention. The moment that I turn to tell him to “Quit bugging me!”, I have given him what he was looking for. I turned my attention to him. I intended for my outburst to be something my dog would find undesirable but that decision is not up to me. My dog might find my outburst more interesting than whatever was happening before he poked me. Not as unpleasant as I thought he would find it.
Frequently we humans get caught up in the intentionality of our actions. By yelling sternly at my dog, I have intended to punish him for interrupting me. But Operant Conditioning defines “punishment” very differently. According to that branch of behavioural psychology, something is only “punishing” if the behaviour that preceded it becomes less frequent or less likely. So in order to know that yelling at my dog was actually a punishment, I will have to wait to see if he comes over to poke me again.
This is where I can tell you from experience that not everything we intend as punishment actually does its job. Our dog Vince who passed away some years ago was a great one for teaching us about that. As a puppy, whenever Vince was bored, he would come into our home office and sit behind one of our chairs as we worked and let out a piercing high pitched “YIP!” It was almost impossible not to turn around and yell at him. I would literally jump out of my chair and yell at Vince who would shrink away. My reaction was always to pet him and tell him I was sorry for yelling. I’m sure that inside he was smiling, pleased that his cunning plan to get my attention and affection had worked. I know now that my yelling was not a punishment because Vince pulled that trick on me dozens, if not hundreds of times!
Short term solutions, long term problems
My response to Vince’s noisy interruptions was always immediate and loud. I was angry and startled. It was a short term solution to his interruptions but it turned into a long term problem. You see, Vince quickly learned that his strategy worked. He had figured out a reliable way to demand and get attention. And we were in for many more years of his clever demand strategies. Vince was very creative. Once his voice deepened and we learned to ignore his bark, he moved on to nose pokes, pawing at us, trying to climb into our lap, pacing in front of the TV, and a host of other attention getting activities.
As the years passed and our understanding of dogs and behaviour grew, we caught on to his tactics more quickly and they weren’t as effective. Unfortunately Vince had a very good memory. He knew that his demanding behaviours could work and he never tired of trying new things out just to see what we would do. In retrospect, many of our responses to Vince’s behaviours actually served to reinforce (i.e., make more likely or more frequent) his attention-seeking behaviours.
That very human response to just say “stop it” in one way or another was an easy and almost unthinking response to being annoyed. We often thought that it had done the job. But Vince always came back for more. Our solutions often made his demands for attention more persistent and frequent. Over the time he lived with us, we created one of the most persistent and creative canine pests I have even known.
Needs and wants
Of course, the problem with how to respond to our dogs starts very early in our relationship with them. Our dogs do need to communicate important things to us. They let us know when strangers are approaching. The let us know when they need to be let out. They let us know that they are not feeling well. We have an obligation to pay attention to our dogs’ basic needs. But whether we get them as puppies or take them in as older dogs, we need time to get to know them and learn to read their signals. Some owners actually work with their pets to teach them how to signal their needs (e.g., we hang bells on our back door that our dogs are taught to ring if they need to go out).
Unfortunately, many times our dogs are smarter than we give them credit for and they will try to expand their signaling repertoire to get attention when they want it in addition to when the need it. We call these Demand behaviours. It can be difficult as a dog owner to know the difference between dogs needing to go out to relieve themselves and just wanting to go outside for a play. Attending to the details of your daily life and routine with your dogs can help tremendously.
Many times knowing when my dogs have eaten or when they were out last can help me distinguish between my dogs needing to relieve a biological need or just a desire for something to do. We are fortunate that dogs are creatures of habit. Deviations in usual behaviour patterns can also be a signal of a real need and not just a demand to get our attention. And sometimes we have to establish routines for things to make sure we can teach our dogs when it is and is not acceptable to ask for things.
Tactics, pay-offs, and thinking ahead
Like so much in dog training, being proactive rather than reactive can make all the difference. With our Vince, we simply reacted to his annoying behaviours and I suppose you could say that he trained us very well! Vince taught us some important lessons. All of the dogs we have raised since Vince have been much less successful with their demands. We have been very careful to provide for our dogs basic needs and we have become much more observant of them. We have also been much more proactive with our dogs to train them into regular routines and new signals at are clear and unambiguous.
We believe that our dogs need to communicate with us. More than that, our dogs really should be able to ask for the things they want and not just the things they need. The balance of when our dogs get what they want and when we get what we want is entirely up to us. We don’t leave that to chance any more as we did with Vince. I think this is how so many dog owners get to the point where they feel “out of control” in their household with their dogs. A chain of annoying demand behaviours and unthinking reactions has created an environment where there seems to be no clear way to communicate. It’s no wonder that some dogs will try anything and everything to try to get what they want.
If we don’t establish some way for our dogs to offer us some behaviour in order to get what they are asking for, we are just setting up a situation where anything and everything is worth a try. If our reactions to our dog’s attempts to communicate aren’t clear or productive, their frustration may lead them to escalate an undesirable behaviour. This, in turn, causes us to react more harshly and an atmosphere of conflict and confrontation can develop. Getting out ahead of that cycle and showing the dog that they can get what they want if only they offer us what we want can solve problems before they start.
In the end, it’s about getting things the way we want. We just want our dogs to behave in a way that we can live with. Our dogs just want the things they want. All we need to do is show them a good way to do that by offering us something that we don’t find annoying. Every home will be different and each household’s rules will be different. Think of it like a negotiation. A code of conduct, if you will. You do for me and I do for you. And isn’t that better than trying to outwit each other in a game of who-can-fool-who?
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available -
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits -
All photos – Petra Wingate 2008-2013