Wouldn’t that be great? Then all you’d have to do to get your dog to stop chasing the cat, for example, is to just let him know how pleased you’d be if he wouldn’t. It’s not that simple. Still, we’ve all heard the idea that dogs have an inborn need to please their masters; that when a dog knows you’re his pack leader he’ll respect you and obey your commands in order to please you.
Given careful thought we have to realize that this simply isn’t true. A dog obeys for one of two reasons; either to avoid a negative experience (like being punished or corrected), or to attain a positive feeling state or to be given a reward (like a liver treat, a ball to chase, or being praised or petted). Either way, he’s focused on his experience, not yours.
It’s easy to mistake a dog’s reasons for responding to either punishment or reward. A dog may take on an appeasement manner when anticipating a negative experience. This is misconstrued by some people as guilt or as a desire to please when in fact, it’s a fear of punishment, pure and simple. With food rewards, it’s easier to see that the dog doesn’t care about pleasing you, per se; he just wants you to feed him. Either way, a dog’s only concern is pleasing himself. He has no interest in pleasing you.
In reality, a dog doesn’t have the mental capability to know what anyone else might need to be happy. This would require several levels of thinking that don’t exist in the dog’s mind, among them the abilities for self-reflection, projection, and hypothetical thinking. Even if dogs did have such mental capacities, I don’t think they would waste their time trying to please us—they’re too practical for that. To a dog humans are too weird, too unpredictable. Something that pleases us one minute might displease us the next. No dog is going to waste time worrying about how to make us feel good. He’ll just respond to us in a positive way when we do. In fact, dogs thrive on positive emotions. They have what some might call an innate, genetic need to connect emotionally with other members of their pack. It’s an important aspect of their prey drive because it’s what enables them to read the emotions of their companions while chasing and ambushing prey.
Mack, a Jack Russell terrier I trained, used to go nuts whenever the phone rang, barking and running around, basically driving his owner, Erin, crazy. Her strategy was to correct him, shouting, “No, Quiet!” over and over until he finally stopped. Stopped, that is, until the next time the phone rang.
To me, the fact that Mack showed so much energy when the phone rang was a good thing. My goal was to use it to create an almost Pavlovian response; the ringing phone would be a signal for Mack to find a toy, take it to his crate, and chew on it happily while Erin took her call.
So I told Erin that every time the phone rang, instead of yelling, “No!” or “Quiet!”, she should get up from wherever she was, and praise him very enthusiastically, then grab one of his toys, tease him with it, and run away, encouraging him to chase her. Once his energy was fully focused on the toy, and not the phone, she could give him the toy, play a little tug-of-war, let him win, and then tell him to take it to his crate. Then, I told her, she could sit down and take her call.
Of course she thought I was nuts. “Do you know how much energy that would take?”
I reminded her that she’d been expending a lot more energy saying, “No!” without getting any results, and promised her that if she followed my instructions to the letter, Mack would stop barking at the phone in a matter of two weeks.
“But I shouldn’t praise him for barking, should I? I mean, isn’t that only going to reinforce his bad behavior?”
“No, we’re not using praise to reward Mack for barking but to make him feel emotionally connected to you. That way you’ll be able to change his emotional state from resistance into a willingness to obey. You can’t very well create that kind of emotional state by yelling at him, can you?”
It’s true. Every time Erin yelled “No!” and corrected him she put herself in conflict with his feelings and desires, forcing him to either keep barking at her until she was in tune with what he was feeling or to give up. And Jack Russells are bred to never give up. By praising him she would remove the conflict and open the emotional flow between them. Then and only then could Mack feel that they shared a common purpose and begin to look to her for a signal as to what to do next.
She reluctantly did as I suggested, thinking I was completely insane the whole time. And guess what? She didn’t need to do the exercise for two weeks. Within just three days, whenever the phone rang Mack would either bark once or twice until told to get a toy, or he would do the behavior on his own.
So, if it’s true that dogs want to please us, Mack should have stopped barking when his owner let him know she was not pleased, right? But in reality, telling him ‘No!’ made little or no difference to him. In fact, if anything, it made him bark louder. And if it’s true that dogs obey out of a desire to please then when she began praising him for barking, supposedly letting him know that it pleased her, this should have reinforced the behavior. But it had the opposite effect. It was part of what eventually got him to stop the barking entirely.
Admittedly, it’s difficult not to be taken in by the idea that dogs want to please us, especially when we watch the intense way border collies, for instance, listen to their masters while herding sheep, or the way agility dogs continually look to their handlers for guidance and positive reinforcement as they race through the course. These dogs really do seem to want to please.
But what’s really going on inside the dog’s head? Remember, these dogs are putting their most intensely satisfying instincts to use while engaged in a group activity. The intensity of the dog’s attention and focus on his handler is due to the fact that the handler has given the dog an opportunity to connect to him through the prey drive. The handler has thus become magnetic to the dog’s primal need for working in harmony with a group purpose. Whether that purpose is using his hunting drive to herd sheep on a mountainside, or using it to jump over obstacles at an agility trial, the dog is charged up by the experience and continually looks to his handler simply because the handler is both the gateway to, and a partner in, this joyous experience.
If dogs don’t have a desire to please us, does this mean that they’re unwilling pupils who have to be bribed, threatened, and forced to obey? Just the opposite. Due to the way the pack instinct evolved to enable canines to hunt large prey by working as a unit—dogs love to follow orders. They have a natural inclination—in fact, some might call it an absolute genetic need—to work in harmony.
Once you understand that your dog has no desire to please you, and that his hunting instinct is the single most important aspect of his nature, particularly when it comes to training, you’ll find that he actually pleases you more and more, even though that isn’t his intent. His intent is to be in tune with you through his prey drive. When this happens, problem behaviors often disappear on their own.
I got the following e-mail (which has been edited for length) from one of my readers . (Besides being a dog trainer—one of, if not the best trainers in New York—I write a series of dog-related mysteries for Avon, featuring ex-cop turned dog trainer, Jack Field.). This is what she wrote:
Thank you SO MUCH for your books! The dog training methods you talk about at first sounded absolutely crazy to me. I paid close attention to what Jack was saying because I have been dealing with this alpha thing since I brought Charley (a miniature poodle) home from a puppy store raid at the age of 5 months almost four years ago.
Charley has been labeled as having Classic Alpha Tendencies. While he can be the most loveable dog on earth, he can morph into Hound of the Baskervilles at a moment’s notice, complete with pierce-the-skin biting. What I have always noticed about Charley is that he avoids eye contact at all costs. This became really obvious a few months ago when I adopted Sarge (age 7), also a miniature poodle. Sarge is an eye-contact-type dog, always ready and willing to “go,” very coachable. Anyway, I was instructed in “How to Become Alpha” with Charley by my vet and various individuals active in dogs and rescue, and have been faithfully following all but one of those techniques for what seems like forever, with no appreciable difference in Charley’s behavior.
And then along come your books and my epiphany. Last night I read a little further into A Nose for Murder and all of a sudden play-training didn’t seem quite so crazy. Because it was late, and the dogs were asleep on my bed, I did nothing but think. (I don't have the heart to kick a dog off my bed, which is the one Alpha rule I never followed!)
Then this morning when I took the poodles out for their long walk, I played in the snow with them, batting their faces and paws and chasing them around as you had described in your book. It was so much fun! The dogs had a blast, although if any neighbors heard me out there they might have wanted to dial 911. When we came inside, and I was making their breakfasts, the strangest thing happened: CHARLEY MADE MORE EYE CONTACT WITH ME AFTER THAT ONE PLAYFUL SESSION THAN HE HAS IN THE FOUR YEARS SINCE I BROUGHT HIM HOME!
I’m at work now, and all I can think of is going home and playing with the dogs! I can't wait to see what happens. There was some kind of sizzle in the air this morning, a chemistry that I have never felt and I hated to leave.
This woman discovered the magic of energizing the dog’s prey drive (through play). It makes a dog attentive, ready to learn, and totally amenable to obedience. If that’s your definition of “wanting to please”, then fine. I guess dogs really do want to please after all.
Article submitted by: © Lee Charles Kelley (Biography & Additional Information)