Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Dogs Are So Good at Training Us

Could you say "no" to this cute face?!
a puppy that I dubbed the chocolate chip puppy- he looks like a cookie!

I hear it all the time from clients, friends and family- "My dog has me trained- it happened so fast!" My favorite is when I'm being told this about a 12 week old puppy- it's not any less true, but it is exponentially more hilarious. Dogs training humans is a phenomenon that has been occurring for thousands of years, way back to the first time a dog used those puppy dog eyes for a scrap of food. Research shows that dogs and humans first started living in close quarters based on a common need- food. Initially, wolves (very likely the ancestors of modern domesticated canines- more on that later) hung around for scraps of large kills after the people took all they could use. Over time, they probably helped with the hunt and then became guardians of the home. My point is this- dogs like food and we like food. We are both a social species. And dogs are generally pretty darn cute. And they use that to their advantage at every opportunity they have. Most dogs are almost as manipulative as my Irish-Catholic grandmother (may she rest in peace).
I'll go into canine domestication in a later post (or series of posts), so save your coffee for a later date.

If you examine canine interaction, especially if you observe wolves, you will see that they give very subtle but very clear signals of communication. It's how they communicate- dogs primarily communicate through body language and use vocalizations as a secondary method. All canines communicate quickly and subtly- a small tail twitch or tongue flick can be the difference in a fight or friendly play, and most dogs are fluent in this language. You know what other language they are fluent in? Humans. That's right. Domesticated dogs have a PhD in human communication. All this time I thought undergrad Organic Chemistry was tough- at least I haven't spent most of my life trying to decode the people I live with. Dogs can see every little twitch that we make, they can tell if we had a bad day at work and need a hug (what, you've never had a dog hug? my condolences.), they know when we are mad about the horrible traffic coming home (Roxie has been know to look at one of us after a long day of work or traffic and tuck tail as she runs to her bed). Dogs can smell when a diabetic's blood sugar is too high, they can alert us before their epileptic owner is about to have a seizure- they know us better than we know ourselves.
In that case, should it be any challenge for your Yorkie to learn that when she barks and jumps long enough, you pick her up or give her a treat? All it takes is once- you give in one time and they are hooked. This is operant conditioning at its best, and a principle I remind clients of frequently-  

any behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. 

 I'm not saying this is always a bad thing, sometimes your dog learns that if she sits nicely, she gets a treat or toy- that's good for both of you! What you don't want is a dog who barks at the door because she wants to go chase a squirrel (though I think my father would pay good money to have someone else chase the squirrels away from the bird feeders...).

So, how do you keep your dog from developing these not so fun for you habits?

It's really easy.

It's something that doesn't require any special tools or fancy tricks.

You're going to be mad at me now.

Don't give in when your dog is doing something annoying. Try it out at Thanksgiving dinner (if you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, we'll just call it Thursday). When your dog sits by the table, whining, jumping up or simply sitting there with sweet puppy dog eyes and Niagara Falls leaking from her mouth (all of those except the drooling are begging by the way), I want you to do nothing. Ok, you can ask her to sit or lay down and to stay. Beyond that, don't say anything. Dogs LOVE attention, and saying "No, no, you're being a bad dog begging at the table like that!" is still attention. Once your dog gives up and breaks eye contact with you and your plate, you reward with praise. If they stay relaxed and not begging through the rest of the meal, they can have a small treat after dinner... not directly from the table! Put it in her dish, or at least make her sit or shake paws with you first, for goodness sake.

I'm not saying your dog can't have table food (please consult your veterinarian about that), I'm saying they probably shouldn't beg for your food, or bark incessantly when there is a leaf blowing around outside. If you want your dog to do these things, feel free to ignore everything I've written here- no hard feelings, I promise.


The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, PhD. Pages 20-64


  1. I think this is one of the most difficult lessons for owners to learn!

    1. It absolutely is! Once we as dog owners understand this, life becomes easier for us and our dogs!