Our dogs don’t always do what we ask of them. Sometimes it can seem that they even enjoy being bad. But is this really the case? The science of behaviour, both canine and human, tell a very different story. Chances are your dog isn’t taking any joy in misbehaving after all!
A few years ago, when I started competing in dog agility with my girl Tiramisu, I spent more than a few frustrating days with her. All I wanted from her was to just wait at the start line until I was ready to begin running the course. Sometimes that involved me moving 10 or more feet away from her, something I had practiced and rewarded her for hundreds of times for at home. And I could only look heavenward in exasperation as she streaked past me in a blur of black before I gave her a cue. False start again.
To say I was angry would be an understatement. Not only did that false start cost me my entry fee for that run, it happened in front of my friends and fellow competitors. It was embarrassing to say the least. It seems that these “behaviour breakdowns” always happen at the most inconvenient times and usually in potentially embarrassing places. It’s almost like my dog set me up.
Reasoning The Unreasonable
It seems that humans always have an answer for why our dog didn’t do what we asked of them. It’s almost always something to do with the dog. Go to any park and you will likely find someone calling a dog that is clearly paying them no attention. “Oh she is just being a brat today!” the owner might say. Apparently this dog is “in a mood” or “getting them back” for some recent injustice.
And we can be quite specific in our analysis of why our dog is not giving us what we ask for – “She is just getting me back for not taking her to the park yesterday!”, “She’s still mad that I took her sister to the store with me”, or “The little brat just likes to get my goat!”
Whether it comes down to revenge or retribution for recent poor treatment or even just being generally disagreeable with us, it seems we can always find a reason why our dogs don’t do what we ask. Remarkably, we usually think we’re being quite objective in our assessment of our dog. If we were dealing with another human, we might well be correct. But this is a dog. Is it reasonable to believe they think about things the way we do?
A Dog’s Eye View
Looking into my dog’s eyes, it’s very tempting to believe that I always understand what goes on inside her head. The truth of it is that my dog does things for her own reasons. As much as I want my carefully reasoned explanations to be true, it’s likely that they are not correct. Science tells me that the chances of my dog following the same high level logic that I do to reach her conclusions is nearly impossible.
Most people can agree that our dogs don’t have our intellectual capabilities. When it comes to emotions, many people think our dogs feel as we do and for the same reasons. And this is where I think we need to question if this is true or not. Yes, we share emotions with our dogs like fear and joy, anger and happiness, frustration and contentment. To a great extent those emotional responses are learned and depend on our environments and our history. Our dogs, with their unique senses and canine instincts, experience the world very differently than we do.
If we believe what the science is telling us about dogs, their motivations and thought processes may be far less complex than we think they are. Clearly they are not human. A lot of their thought processes come down to basics like food, water, and safety. Along with that come expectations – what things must I do or not do to make sure that those basics continue without interruption. When everything goes as expected, things are fine on both sides of the relationship. But when they don’t go as expected, things can get strained.
Expectations come from consistently experiencing things in the same way. Consistency is a powerful thing. In her book “The Other End of the Leash”, author and animal behaviourist Patricia McConnell tells a story about a man who once pulled out a gun and shot a Coke machine after putting his money in and not getting his can of Coke. It’s expectation – he put in his money and didn’t what he expected. The result was frustration.
A less extreme example might be the dog who always rushes into the room to get a pat on the head and a cookie. Any delay in the usual routine can create confusion and anxiety. One strategy, when things don’t go as expected, is to try something different; they can act more adorable or nudge their owner a bit more to get what they want. If the new routine works, then that becomes an effective tool and the default behaviour.
If nothing works, then the dog might become frustrated enough to bark at their owner. Without an opposable thumb or a gun, it may be the only means the dog has to express that frustration! But do we understand it? Are we even aware that we have created a predictable “routine” for our dog? We may have created an expectation in our dogs without realizing it.
What’s important is that my dog got those expectations from somewhere. Patterns of behaviour and response inevitably develop between people and their dogs. Our dogs develop their expections of things whether we’re paying attention to them or not. Lack of attention to some of these details can lead to those emotional misunderstandings. I may have no idea why my dog is barking. And so I make something up, incorrect as it might be, to explain it. “Heavens, you are pushy today!” Not exactly fair is it when I’m the one who has strayed from the original routine.
Think Like A Behaviourist
People can and do spend hours speculating about what our dogs might or might not be thinking or feeling about particular situations. It might be an interesting discussion but without direct input from the dogs, anything we might come up with will still be pure conjecture. We could spend our time trying to work out why our dog does what she does or we can work out how we can get the behaviour we wanted more reliably. A behavoiurist would recommend we focus on the what we can do to modify the behaviour instead of focusing on why it didn’t go as we expected.
The “laws of behaviour” as determined by science say that dogs perform behaviours because the consequences of their actions are reinforcing. They find some reward in doing the things they do. The first question we should be asking is whether or not we believe that deliberately NOT performing a behaviour as trained is, by itself, rewarding to the dog. This seems incredibly unlikely to me. Since the good things in my dog’s life come through me, getting me angry can’t lead to anything good. My dog is smart enough to know that making me mad is a bad thing.
Dogs Do What Is Rewarding
Is there another way that not responding properly could be rewarding? I can think of two, actuallyactually (see my articles on “Why Your Dog Isn’t Responding” – 3 parts). The first is that there are just other things going on in our dog’s world and whatever we are asking just isn’t a priority right now. Sometimes it’s just like asking a teenager to take out the garbage while they are watching TV. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. The thing they are doing is just more rewarding than you right now.
The other alternative is less comfortable to talk about. Operant conditioning tells us that successfully avoiding something unpleasant is rewarding for our dogs too. This isn’t as scary as it sounds. Our dogs can find things unpleasant if they are different, unexpected, or strange. Add to that any experiences where things have gone wrong and they have been punished, and you set the stage for different responses. Our dogs watch us carefully and they know when we’re behaving differently. They know when we’re frustrated, nervous, or upset. Sometimes they are just avoiding a possible bad reaction from us.
Fix The Human First
So the next time you think your dog is “just blowing you off”, consider that they might have their own reasons for not snapping to it when you ask for something. Maybe all of those “human” explanations are too complicated and maybe it’s really you or your behaviour that is throwing your dog off their game. Instead of reaching for the easy answers without any real evidence, perhaps we need to take a closer look at ourselves and the environment to see if there is something we can change or do differently the next time.
It’s a pretty safe bet that our dogs don’t find being disobedient rewarding in itself. If we can get rid of the mixed messages and look at ourselves before blaming our dog, we might find it easier to get more consistent behaviour from them. Dogs do what works. It’s up to us to make sure they know what behaviours work and to remind them frequently by rewarding them. We need to be mindful of our own behaviour and what our dogs make of it. When looking at our “disobedient” dogs, maybe we need to fix the human side of the relationship first.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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