Do you ever feel like your dog is training you rather than the other way around? Maybe teaching you to let her have some ice cream by looking at you with adoring eyes? Or letting you know that pawing at you means she wants to be petted and not giving up until you follow through? Or somehow ending up sleeping on the bed every night even though you swore that you’d never let a dog do that?
Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil feels it all the time. The veterinarian, who works at our Animal Behavior Clinic, relates that “my 16-year-old rat terrier cross Dobby jumps up on the bench in the kitchen every night where I eat dinner. She trains me to allow it by gazing at me lovingly and licking my nose. That’s my reward. It’s classic operant conditioning — positively reinforcing my engagement in the behavior she desires by giving me something to motivate me.” That is, dogs train us in the very way we’re taught to train them — by rewarding us for behavior that they’re trying to shape in us.
“Dogs are very good trainers,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. We think of training as uni-directional, but it’s not.”
Why are people so trainable?
Dogs’ ability to manipulate our behavior, our responses, goes back to the fact that they are very adaptable social animals. In fact, Dr. Borns-Weil posits, some scholars of canine origins believe that the grey wolf, ancestor of the modern dog, chose to be with humans and participated in its own domestication. But “regardless of who selected whom originally, we’ve been selecting them for attentiveness to human behavior for probably 10,000 years.” That in turn, breeds the very social characteristics in them for manipulating us, Dr. Borns-Weil says.
“It has been an amazing evolutionary success for them,” the doctor says. “Yes, their freedom is curtailed, and we even neuter a huge number of them. But dogs dominate the world in terms of their sheer numbers. They get us to feed them — and now clothe them. And shelter them and raise their puppies. Wolves, on the other hand, avoid interacting with humans, and they have not fared well.”
Exactly how it all happens is speculative to a certain degree, but the thinking is that because dogs have an extended socialization window compared to wild animals, they have more time early in life for their fear of us to be decreased, and that extra time allows them to experiment and become adjusted to different people in different situations. They learn to speak human, as it were.
Most experts believe that a dog’s socialization window goes through the fourteenth week of life (see the story about bringing home a new puppy on page 6). That gives them a considerable opportunity, relatively speaking, to learn to understand human behavior. In wild animals like wolves, the socialization window may be as short as three weeks. In cats it’s seven weeks, Dr. Borns-Weil says. Once the window closes, “the genes for fear are turned on and the animal’s ability to habituate to new experiences drops significantly.”
That time difference is what makes dogs so able to attend to us, she continues, to take instruction from us and to look to us for instruction. But by learning us, they’re also learning what motivates us. And they’re going to use those skills, Dr. Borns-Weil says — “to get food, resources, attention, play time, the best place in the bed, more walks — whatever it is they want. And they’re very good at it because unlike us, they’re very, very persistent.”
We give up easily with the training. After a few minutes we’re done. They keep at it, which is why it’s so hard to get the dog away from the table when, say, she wants you to cut her a piece of your steak. She has the patience, the staying power, to wait for you to comply.
Dogs know better than we do, too, that training doesn’t just happen during training times. It’s a 24/7 thing. “We’re inadvertently telling our dogs how to train us all the time,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “‘Oh, she likes when I lick her, or when I blink my eyes sweetly. Okay, I’ll try that to get the steak.’ Or, ‘every time I nudge her with my nose to pet me, she does. I’m glad she got that trick down.'”
“It’s subtle,” the doctor continues. “It’s not like they’re consciously strategizing. They’re just doing what they learn gets us to give in. We train them to train us” in a very organic way.
“Dogs are also really good at honing in on our weak points,” she says. “Just like we know a delectable morsel of chicken or beef will be more likely to get a dog to engage in a behavior she mightn’t otherwise (like come back to you), she knows that if she curls up in that delightful way she has or jumps on the chair on which she’s not allowed but then looks up at you from under adorable eyelids, you’ll melt and follow through on the trick she’s teaching you, which is to not kick her off.
A dog will even be able to take advantage of the patterns she observes in your lifestyle. She may not want you to leave for work in the morning, so she’ll stay out in the yard longer than she would if it were the weekend and you were hanging around the house all day, anyway. She’s training you not to go.
If you want to tip the training scales back in your direction
Let’s say there’s something your dog gets you to do — or allow — because she’s so irresistibly charming (or annoying), but it’s reached a point that you’d really prefer not to let it keep happening. Maybe it’s insisting on playing fetch every night while you’re trying to watch your favorite TV show or begging for meat at the dinner table. How do you get her to back off?
“If you don’t want to be trained, you have to take back the training,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “You have to actively ignore” her signal for you to comply. It’s called “negative punishment” in behaviorist-speak. The term “sounds extra harsh and cruel because of the two words,” the doctor says. “But it just means withholding reward. The “negative” means something is not happening. (It’s positive punishment you want to avoid for the entire length of your dog’s life. The “positive” in this case means something is happening in the way of punishment — like hitting. Positive punishment is extremely psychologically damaging to a dog and ruins any chance of a healthy bond between the two of you.)
So when the dog begs, pay her no attention. Act like she’s not in the room. There are two aspects of this that can prove extremely difficult for loving dog owners:
1. You can’t allow the behavior sometimes. Dogs do not understand “sometimes.” It has to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
2. The behavior is very likely to get worse before it gets better — for days and possibly longer. Why?
It’s because the behavior will take time to be extinguished. Think of ringing a doorbell when you just know the person is home. At first you ring only once every 30 seconds. But when that doesn’t get the person to open the door, you ramp it up to every 15 seconds, and then finally several times in a row. Only after that intensifying effort will you finally give up and walk away.
It’s the same with dogs. If it has worked before, surely it will work again, they believe. So they’re going to try harder and harder (because you’ve obviously gotten stupider and stupider) to get you to complete the trick. “‘I probably didn’t bark loud enough for long enough,'” the dog reasons, according to Dr. Borns-Weil. “‘Did you HEARRR me?'” Your pet will realize only after she has put in her most frantic, concerted effort that it’s just not going to work.
This is the reason you can’t allow the behavior here and there. The dog will think, “Ah ha! Sometimes my person gets it. It’s worth seeing if they will jump through the hoop today.”
“An intermittent reward will really hinder the extinction of the behavior in which the dog tries to get you to do a trick,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “Let’s say you decide, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m simply not going to take her out until she stops barking.’ After 15 minutes, she stops. ‘Okay, good dog. Let’s go out.’ The next day you do it again, and then the next day. But the day after that, you have to be somewhere, and the dog has to go out. So you think to yourself, ‘Oh, I’ll just let her out with the barking this one time.’ But then you’re back to zero.” She knows your breed “gets it” at least sometimes.
“You have to understand that you’re always training — you’re never clocked out,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. Your dog is picking up signals on how to train you all the time, so you really need to remember that you’re always on the job, so to speak, and decide what you’re comfortable giving in on.
Making re-training easier
People who might have a hard time training their dog out of a behavior because they feel bad about it — or because their dog is so persistent — can use what is known as a bridging stimulus. All it entails is giving the dog a clear signal that ignoring the unwanted behavior is about to begin.
“With Dobby, I use a duck call,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “It’s not a frightening sound. It’s a neutral one, but she has learned that it means I will now start actively ignoring her. As soon as I make the sound, I pick up a magazine and put it in front of my face and ignore her. It makes the behavior I want to extinguish subside faster.”
Dogs actually prefer learning a consistent rule, Dr. Borns-Weil says. Like toddlers, they try their hand at having control, but without having firm structure in their everyday lives they end up confused and unhappy. “What do you want from me?” they wonder, feeling somewhat unhinged and anxious by the notion of “sometimes.”
Within the training, dogs can get context
While it has to be all or nothing with dogs when it comes to a certain behavior, they are able to learn that certain behaviors, while not acceptable in some contexts, are acceptable in others. For instance, Dr. Borns-Weil’s dog understands that she’s not going to get any food from the kitchen table — ever. But at the picnic table in the backyard, she does. “We don’t have a fence in the yard, and I don’t want Dobby to wander off,” she says, “so intermittently I reward her for staying close by giving her a piece of food. It’s not too different from us learning behavior in context: you wear your bathing suit to the swimming pool, but you’d never wear your bikini to work.”
Dogs don’t have a language center in their brains, she points out, so we can’t explain to them why something is allowed in certain situations and not others. “But through repetition and consistency, they get the message. Without that, they’re at a loss as to your intentions and what you expect from them.”
For all of that, Dr. Borns-Weil enjoys what she calls “the mutual training” that goes on between people and their dogs. “To me, that’s what’s fun about living with dogs,” she says. “I love to see their cleverness even when they are naughty. When they are not ‘good dogs’ in the traditional sense, I appreciate the fact that they are good at being dogs. Your role involves needing to be clear in your mind about where you want to draw the line.”