Why Dogs Are Obedient

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Introduction

Your dog, Maxie, is your pride and joy. You took her to a basic training class and were surprised at how obedient she was when you dangled food in front of her and told her to sit. Now, you are obsessed with other simple commands like roll over, stay, come, etc. She learns so quickly, and if you are luring her with food or using a clicker, Maxie seems to hang on to your every word. She also seems to actually trust you. And this gets you wondering? Why is Maxie so obedient? Why was she so easy to train? Why does she trust you so much?

The Root of the Behavior

The answers to the questions above are pretty straightforward: dogs and humans have had a relationship for over ten thousand years! It goes all the way back to cavemen feeding wolf cubs and bringing the pups into their dens for companionship. Those cavemen used to not only shelter, but they would feed and nurture those early cubs. From there, humans continued to domesticate dogs by using them for hunting, carrying sleds, herding sheep, and again, being loyal friends. The more humans domesticated dogs, the more dogs became reliant on humans. Maxie trusts you because there have been thousands of years of bonding and trusting between dogs and their human caretakers. Dogs have also been receiving positive reinforcement for years. Dogs protected people, transported them, helped them with work, and when a dog displayed a positive behavior, it was only natural for humans to praise it. Throughout the years, this is what humans did, and still do. When dogs aid humans, whether with a job, specific need, or even just affection, we usually shower them with something positive: food, a belly scratch, you get the idea. 

Psychologists Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi performed an interesting study at the Wolf Science Center in Game Park Ernstbrunn, Austria that shows how domesticated dogs have grown to be submissive. In the study, the psychologists raised wolves so they were accustomed to humans. They then paired up an alpha wolf with a low-ranking wolf and offered them both one bowl of food. Researchers found that the wolves were actually quite cordial to one another and shared the bowl of chow together. On the opposite end, when the same test was offered to the domesticated dogs, the alpha dog nudged the lower-ranked dog and took out the food on his own. The lower-ranked dog also submitted with little/if any signs of a struggle. The study shows that domesticated dogs are more submissive and obedient to alpha dogs. In relation to pet dogs in the home, it could be argued that most owners have become the “alpha dog” or as we call ourselves, masters. Charles Darwin believed that this domestication of dogs resulted in less fear of humans and a willingness to obey them. This could be another reason why your sweet Maxie sits so willingly when you offer her a biscuit.

Encouraging the Behavior

Obedience should certainly be encouraged and proper training will also enhance a dog’s obedience skills. There are many training methods out there, and these training methods have evolved from punishing dogs and only teaching simple commands, to utilizing the power of positive reinforcement and teaching dogs more complex demands. 

One of the most famous studies involving dogs and positive reinforcement was in 1902 with Ian Pavlov, who measured the amounts of dog saliva in response to food. Eventually, the dog began salivating at just the sight of the lab assistant who was responsible for giving the dog food and was supposed to be a neutral variable. Pavlov drew the conclusion that the dog had learned to associate the lab assistant with the food. Pavlov also conducted an experiment by ringing a bell every time the dogs were fed. Eventually, he just rang the bell without giving any food, but the dogs still salivated. Pavlov concluded that the dog learned to associate the bell with food, another learned behavior. Pavlov was ahead of his time because when it comes to dog training, it wasn’t until the 1980’s until there was a shift away from negative reinforcement training (punishing a dog by hitting, taking away something etc.) to training based on a positive reward system (clicker training, providing treats/attention for good behaviors, etc.).  

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior also endorses training methods that implement positive reinforcement rather than techniques that rely on negative reinforcement. The organization is a firm believer in a reward system opposed to punishment. It feels that positive reinforcement solidifies a trusting and loyal relationship between a dog and owner opposed to fear and aggression, which can be results of a negative reinforcement training program.

Other Solutions and Considerations

The word “obedience” has a positive connotation and encouraging obedience in your dog is essential to living side-by-side as comrades. The proper obedience training can prevent dogs from being put into shelters and sometimes euthanized. Obedience also develops and strengthens the trusting and loyal bond between dogs and their owners. This is proven in a study done by researcher M. Fukasawa in the book, Applied Animal Science, dogs responded to the commands when a human gave them, but declined when a tape recorder gave them. The study shows that dogs actually prefer to listen to their owners. 

However, the right kind of training is critical to the well-being of your beloved Maxie. Studies show that positive reinforcement training is the best way to enhance your dog’s obedience while aversion training increases cortisone levels. For example, aversion training methods, such as shock collars, tend to make dogs associate their owners with pain and increase anxiety. These reactions could lead to chronic stress, which impacts health.

Conclusion

Although the domestication of dogs has led to making your pooch, Maxie, obedient in nature, when obedience is encouraged positively, it benefits both Maxie’s state-of-mind and yours. It is true that Maxie has been conditioned to rely on you for her survival, which does lead to an inability for her to take care of herself in the wild, but the truth is, Maxie listens, she is a pleasure to be around, and you are not letting her out into the wild anytime soon. In fact, it’s a pet peeve of yours when owners get rid of dogs because of “lack of obedience.” Almost all dogs have obedience instilled into their nature, they just need some positive reinforcement to make the domesticated life with pets a pawesome living arrangement for everyone.