I was sitting on the floor when my girl Tiramisu wandered over to me. At 11 years old, she is more affectionate than she was as a puppy. I smiled and reached out to give her a fuss and a pet. She likes her neck and ruff rubbed. As she stood there smiling and staring off into the distance, a thought occurred to me – Does she stay for my attentions because she enjoys this or because she thinks she is expected to stay until I am finished with her?
That may sound like an odd question. It’s a simple fact that all of us have requirements for our dogs. There are places where “Stay” is not an option and we will even use leashes to make sure that we get compliance. It can be a simple matter of safety. But from our dog’s perspective, I can see how it might seem like “Because I said so!” At least that the way things seemed to me when I was a child and I was told to do things I didn’t understand.
I briefly considered our relationship with dogs. They have every reason to try to keep us happy. Their basic life necessities come from us so it’s in their interest to keep us on good terms so food and water and more stays on schedule. Then there is the training. We require them to behave in certain ways at certain times and choosing not to comply can upset the humans.
Does my dog come for my affection because she enjoys my company or because she knows that doing things that I approve of will make sure that the food and cookies and fun keep coming her way? It’s an interesting question and I think the answer will lie somewhere between those two extremes to a different degree in each dog/human relationship. Most interesting to me is that it is a question that 15 years ago I would never have thought to ask. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to me.
Does it matter what our dogs want? To me it does. Since moving to more science based, progressive training, we give our dogs more options. If they come for attention, there is no restraint; hugs are loose and any movement by the dog is allowed in case they are asking for more space. Nail trimming is no longer a process where paws are held tightly until the task is done. And we are careful to make sure that there is always room for our dogs to back away or move around if they feel too crowded. It matters to me that my dogs have every opportunity to tell me what they do or don’t want.
That’s a recent phenomenon for me. Recent in that my change in attitude has given me a different perspective over the past 10 or so years. Training as we used to for 15 or more years, dogs were just supposed to comply. It wasn’t really something we thought about. They are supposed to do what we ask because, well, we asked. It’s why we used to call them commands. And everything, including tolerating our need to put our hands on them, was to be done without question. It simply wasn’t a choice.
Then Tira leaned over and kissed my nose. She gave me her little “Elvis” half-smile and wandered off to lie down a few feet away. I smiled. That’s what she wanted. She had come to see me because she wanted the connection. You see, one of the benefits of using reward based training and behavioural science is that I give my dog choices. Sure, I stack the odds in favor of the thing I want having the better pay-off. But in the end, my dog is always free to say “No thanks.”
There is something deeply satisfying about my relationship with my dogs these days. I think it comes from the fact that I know that they are willing partners and not just cooperating for fear of reprimand or losing access to something important. We have our moments, of course, where we disagree over some choices and we deal with those as they come. But those disagreements are few and far between because we have learned to make the preferred choices more rewarding.
It’s good to know that my dogs choose to do what they do because it’s what they want and not out of concern that I might get upset. More than that, I’m glad that learning to work with my dogs in this new way has led me to ask questions like this. I see so much more in my dogs now than I ever did before. An unexpected gift from a new way of working with dogs.