Domestic dogs are one of very few species of animal that can be trained to obey human commands. Even cats, another massively popular choice of pet, if told to “sit” or “fetch” would probably be distinctly unimpressed. They certainly wouldn’t oblige your request, let’s put it that way—not even with all the treat-oriented bribery in the world. Dogs have an innate ability to be trained and respond to verbal instructions that so few animals possess. In fact, the only other species that springs to mind for me is the dolphin, which seems to so enjoy performing for a human trainer and receive rewards for its efforts. So, where does this desire to please come from and how can you train your dog to respond to your commands, assuming they don’t already?
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs love to please their owners. They love attention of all kinds, which is why some dogs can have tendencies towards misbehavior as well as obedience. When your dog responds to your commands and gets a treat, you’re thrilled, they’re thrilled that you’re thrilled. It’s a virtuous circle of happiness that you can share with your pet and a very healthy, fun way of training your dog—providing you don’t go overboard on the treats, of course! Your vet might not be very impressed if your pooch begins to fill out too much. However, there are many specialists in dog behavior that believe obedience is purely an exchange between you and your dog; that they only obey your commands to receive a gift—normally a yummy treat, in this case. Whether this is true or not is mostly a matter of opinion and will probably vary massively between breeds and indeed individual dogs. Let’s not forget that many dogs take a leaf out of their feline frenemies’ book and wouldn’t dream of entertaining a request from their owners, whether there’s a gift involved or not. What all of this means is that your dog isn’t necessarily Mastermind material, nor does it mean that they’re even being particularly obedient. It just means that they are extremely malleable to behavioral reinforcement—that your response to their behavior reinforces that behavior. It’s more a case that you’re developing habits with your dog. Whether those habits are good or bad completely depends on the behavior that you’re rewarding, meaning it’s just as easy to develop negative habits through behavioral reinforcement. Just watch a dog show—many dog owners who choose to show their dogs will carry a little handful of treats around with them, rewarding their best behavior periodically throughout the show. Is it any wonder they do as they’re told? Obedience isn’t necessarily a mark of intelligence in and of itself, but in its own way, it certainly shows that our dogs are no fools and know exactly where their bread is buttered.
Encouraging the Behavior
Other Solutions and Considerations
Intelligence level also comes into the equation. Some breeds of dog are more naturally-inclined towards obedience training, whereas others may struggle to pick things up. As with all things dog-related, patience and persistence are key—positive reinforcement and keeping a lid on your frustrations when things don’t go to plan. Your dog feeds off the energy in the room. If you’re visibly annoyed or your tone of voice exhibits frustration, your dog will pick up on that and may associate training time with an angry owner. This in itself may be enough to dissuade them from responding to commands for fear of doing the wrong thing and upsetting the owner they so want to please—and get treats from!
So, as much as we would love to believe that our dogs exist only to make us happy, obedience is mostly a matter of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. If they could access their treats without our intervention, you have to wonder, would our dogs be far more cat-like in their demeanor? That’s a subject for another day, I think. Just have fun with dog training and you will both reap the rewards—edible or otherwise!